Music lovers have never really stopped wondering why something so beautiful and time-eclipsing as the Beatles had to end.
It was Paul McCartney, of all people, who broke the news. He had been mourning the group’s disbandment since September 1969, when he and his bandmates conducted a pair of meetings to ponder their future after the completion of the Abbey Road album.
In the first confab, which was held on Sept. 8 at Apple headquarters on London’s Savile Row, the group arrived at an impasse as the three lead songwriters – McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison – failed in their attempt to carve up the real estate of their next album to their mutual satisfaction.
Less than two weeks later, Lennon announced to the others and their notorious business manager Allen Klein that he wanted a “divorce.” “What do you mean?” a stunned McCartney asked. “The group’s over,” Lennon replied. “I’m leaving.” At this point, McCartney recalled, “Everyone blanched except John, who colored a little, and said, ‘It’s rather exciting. It’s like I remember telling Cynthia I wanted a divorce.’” For his part, Klein quickly intervened, admonishing everyone to maintain absolute secrecy about the group’s immediate plans, especially since he was in the midst of negotiating a lucrative new deal with Capitol Records.
As it turned out, not everyone believed in Lennon’s resolve. Harrison, for one, attributed his behavior to an instance of inspired grandstanding. “Everybody had tried to leave,” the group at some point or another, Harrison reasoned, “so it was nothing new.” For his part, Harrison had attempted to leave the band back in January, only to be coaxed back soon thereafter.
In the ensuing months, Lennon played it cool, openly speculating to the media about future Beatles projects. Not long after the Sept. 20 meeting he informed Melody Maker’s Richard Williams that “the trouble is we’ve got too much material. Now that George is writing a lot, we could put out a double album every month, but they’re so difficult to produce. After Get Back [the album that would become Let It Be] is released in January, we’ll probably go back into the studio and record another one. It’s just a shame that we can’t get more albums out faster.”
Perhaps Lennon’s remarks revealed him to be playing along with Klein’s veil of secrecy. Or maybe Harrison was right, and Lennon had been showboating all along. But as the months wore on, and 1969 turned into 1970, the necessity of making any kind of announcement seemed increasingly pointless.
Behind the scenes – and likely unbeknownst to the other Beatles – McCartney had been experiencing a painful odyssey. At first, he languished in a state of denial about the band’s fate, hoping against hope that they might yet succeed in righting their foundering ship. With his wife Linda’s help, he finally managed to wrest himself from an at-times drunken stupor and get back to music-making. By April, McCartney had completed his debut solo album – complete with the standout “Maybe I’m Amazed” – and it was time to introduce his new LP to the marketplace.
And that’s when it happened. As McCartney later recalled, “I had talked to Peter Brown from Apple and asked him what we were going to do about press on the album. I said, ‘I really don’t feel like doing it, to tell you the truth,’ but he told me that we needed to have something. He said, ‘I’ll give you some questions and you just write out your answers. We’ll put it out as a press release.’ Well, of course, the way it came out looked like it was specially engineered by me.”
On April 10, 1970, Brown and McCartney’s question-and-answer pantomime made the news. Journalists around the world singled out two questions in particular that appeared to seal the band’s fate:
“Q: Are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles?
A: No …
Q: Do you foresee a time when Lennon-McCartney becomes an active songwriting partnership again?
Not missing the opportunity for landing a scoop, the Daily Mirror – the very same British daily that had trumpeted the onset of “Beatlemania!” back in October 1963 – took full advantage of McCartney’s admission with the April 10 headline, “Paul Is Quitting the Beatles.”
According to Lennon, McCartney called him that afternoon after the news had gone viral. “I’m doing what you and Yoko [Ono] were doing,” McCartney told him. “That makes two of us who have accepted it mentally,” Lennon replied.
And so ended the greatest pop band in the history of recorded music. But in effecting his exit from the Beatles, McCartney succeeded in igniting near-constant speculation about the group’s potential reunion across the ’70s. It took Lennon’s senseless murder in December 1980 to finally quell the voices calling for their reformation.
As for the Beatles, Apple publicist Derek Taylor distributed a press release on the matter of the band’s future in April 1970, writing, “Spring is here and Leeds play Chelsea tomorrow, and Ringo [Starr] and John and George and Paul are alive and well and full of hope. The world is still spinning and so are we and so are you. When the spinning stops – that’ll be the time to worry. Not before. Until then, the Beatles are alive and well and the Beat goes on, the Beat goes on.”
In his own sardonic way, Lennon attempted to provide closure for legions of heartbroken fans, remarking that the disbandment was “just natural, it’s not a great disaster. People keep talking about it like it’s the end of the earth. It’s only a rock group that split up, it’s nothing important. You know, you have all the old records there if you want to reminisce.”
Lennon was right, of course. The Beatles’ timeless music still resonates with optimism and warmth across the decades. It’s as if they never really left us in the first place.
Kenneth Womack, PhD, serves as dean and professor of English at Monmouth University. His latest book, Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles, was published in October 2019 for the album’s 50th anniversary, and his forthcoming book, John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life, will be published in October 2020. You can learn more about his work at kennethwomack.com.