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The inside story of The Beatles’ turbulent break-up – and what came next | Guitar World

The inside story of The Beatles’ turbulent break-up – and what came next | Guitar World

The inside story of The Beatles’ turbulent break-up – and what came next | Guitar World
May 13
09:30 2020

For Beatles fans, 1970 was a particularly heavy year – one in which we watched one of our most beloved bands fall apart, and witnessed the rebirth of each Beatle as a solo artist.

The chronology itself is crazy. A slew of Beatles-related albums were released in the space of that single year, starting with Ringo Starr’s solo debut, Sentimental Journey, in March. Then came Paul McCartney’s self-titled debut LP in April, along with a press release making it more or less clear that the Beatles were finished.

The stage was set for the May release of the Beatles’ final album, though penultimate rerecording, Let It Be: a troubled and uneven set of tracks culled from sessions in 1969 that hadn’t gone well.

It was the soundtrack album for a film of the same title, which chronicled the tragedy of a great band falling apart, while also giving us a last look at that Beatles magic, resplendent even in dysfunction.

Ringo was quickly back in the fray with a country record, Beau-coups of Blues, released in September and drawing on the talents of some of Nashville’s greatest guitarists and other session players.

More guitar grandeur came in November when George Harrison’s epic triple album, All Things Must Pass, came out; and the year closed with John Lennon’s stunning solo debut album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, a stark swansong to the ’60s that also charted a bold course forward into Lennon’s solo career.

As the Beatles faced the challenges and excitement of new solo careers, Harrison, Lennon and McCartney would each build on the groundbreaking guitar legacy they had forged together over the course of the Beatles’ career.

So many of their most revolutionary rock guitar innovations were collectively wrought. I Feel Fine from 1964 became the first rock record to feature the creative deployment of guitar feedback, when the A string on McCartney’s legendary 1963 Hofner 500/1 violin bass triggered a trans-ductive loop between Lennon’s Gibson J-150 E electro-acoustic guitar and his Vox amp.

The gloriously multi-tracked guitar harmonies on 1966’s And Your Bird Can Sing from Revolver were a collective effort between Paul and George. And to create the pioneering backwards guitar solo on I’m Only Sleeping from the same album, Harrison spent hours with engineers Geoff Emerick and Phil McDonald. Then George and Paul worked extensively with the engineers on the harmonized backwards outro.

Feedback and backwards tape tracks – not to mention a whole revolutionary take on the role of the electric guitar in rock music – would become integral to the work of Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck and many other greats. But it all originated with the Beatles.

And while 1970 was the year it all came tumbling down and spilling out in every direction, the demise of the Beatles and the emergence of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr as solo artists was a process that unfolded over a period of several years.

The 1967 death of the Beatles’ longtime manager Brian Epstein set the wheels in motion. But, while management issues are what would finally split up the Beatles, it was also, ultimately, a simple matter of four highly gifted young men growing up and growing apart from one another.

Let It Be – bad vibes beset The Beatles

The Beatles had little love for Let It Be. John Lennon called it “the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever.” The disc stuck in Paul McCartney’s craw for decades, to the point where, in 2003, he put out his own “revenge” remix and digital remastering of the album, Let it Be… Naked.

George Harrison spent years blocking the DVD release of the Let It Be movie. (As we speak, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson is working on a documentary based on unused footage from the recording of Let It Be; it’s expected to be released this year in time for the original film’s 50th anniversary.)

It had all begun in McCartney’s desperation to keep the Beatles together as the whole thing fell apart around him. He floated the idea of a concert film that would capture what was generally hoped would be the Beatles’ first live performance since retiring from touring in 1966 to concentrate on their recording.

Let It Be was the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever

John Lennon

The idea was doomed from the start. The sessions got underway just three months after the Beatles wrapped up 1968’s The Beatles, AKA the White Album. Lennon, McCartney and Harrison pretty much put all their best songs into that massive double-disc project. So they didn’t have a lot of new material to record.

“The only thing we haven’t got for every song is… the song,” McCartney mused at one point. Paul is really the only one who came in prepared with a few A-list songs ready to commit to tape. These would become the Beatles’ final hits, Let It Be, Get Back and The Long and Winding Road. Lennon’s mind and heart were elsewhere – with the new love of his life, Yoko Ono, and the cutting-edge work they were doing with music, film and performance art.

His songwriting contributions to the Let It Be sessions tend to be more fragmented and free-associative. Dig It, for example. Is it really a song? It’s well named, as the group was clearly digging around for pretty much anything to put on the record. The last-minute addition of Across the Universe (originally recorded in ’68), ups the album’s quotient of great Lennon songs, although John hated that recording as well.

Harrison’s head was elsewhere too. He was off gigging with Eric Clapton and hanging out with Bob Dylan. His own tepid 12-bar contribution to Let It Be, For You Blue, isn’t one of his best efforts either. And Ringo had his eye on a movie career.

Making the White Album had been tense enough for them. Ringo had stormed out of Abbey Road Studios during those lengthy sessions, only to return a few weeks later. George became the next Beatle to walk, during Let It Be rehearsals at Twickenham Film Studios in January 1969. His angry departure was captured on film by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg.

Harrison only returned on the condition that the live concert part of McCartney’s original plan would be scrapped. But things only got more tense once the Beatles adjourned to their new recording studio in the basement of Apple HQ in London’s Savile Row.

Lennon had told the Beatles’ longtime producer that this time he wanted none of Martin’s usual “production nonsense”

They had commissioned one Alexis Mardas – AKA “Magic Alex” – to design and build the studio. He sold them on a bunch of new technologies that only existed in his imagination. An invisible force field around Ringo’s drums was to control microphone leakage onto any of 72 tracks, back when 16-track was only just arriving on Planet Earth.

Needless to say, little of it worked. A hasty request was sent to EMI’s Abbey Road studio for supplementary equipment. Faced with challenges like these, it would have been nice to have George Martin around. But after years of pushing the musical envelope together, Lennon had told the Beatles’ longtime producer that this time he wanted none of Martin’s usual “production nonsense.”

It was a perfect recipe for disaster. Much credit for getting some solid tracks down to tape is due to the soon-to-be-legendary Glynn Johns – hired strictly as a balance engineer for this project – and Alan Parsons, who would go on to engineer Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and garner considerable radio airplay with his own Alan Parsons Project.

The Beatles

(Image credit: Keystone Features/Getty Images)

Cameras captured some of the last live-in-the-studio guitar interplay between Harrison, Lennon and McCartney. Lennon played the country-flavored leads on Get Back on his ’65 Epiphone Casino, while Harrison played rhythm on a rosewood-body Telecaster he’d recently received from Fender. The same guitar through a Leslie 147 cabinet gifted to George by Eric Clapton was used for one of the two lyrical solos on Let It Be.

He later cut another solo with his “Lucy” Gibson Les Paul, another gift from Clapton, through the same Leslie. The Les Paul solo is heard on the 45 rpm single mix of Let it Be, produced by George Martin. The Telecaster solo is heard on the album version, mixed by Phil Spector.

Quite a lot of bad blood, animosity and litigation lay behind this tale of two producers. Maybe it was for the best that Ringo was due on the set of his next feature film, The Magic Christian, which would be released in 1969. But before the sessions wrapped, Lindsay-Hogg’s film crew were able to capture the Beatles’ final live performance on the roof of Apple HQ.

Feeling this was no way for the band to falter, George Martin was told that they were headed back into Abbey Road, with him back in charge, to record one last “proper” Beatles studio album.

The result was their glorious swansong disc, Abbey Road. Despite growing hostilities, all four Beatles made a heroic effort and created one of their greatest albums. But although there was talk of further releases, at a band meeting on September 20, 1969, Lennon announced that he wanted a “divorce” from the Beatles.

It’s a myth that there was an outstanding contractual commitment to United Artists for one more Beatles movie – the band’s Yellow Submarine cameo had solved that problem. Nevertheless, it was decided to edit together a feature film from the footage Lindsay-Hogg had shot of the difficult early ’69 sessions at Apple, and to assemble the audio tracks from those sessions into a soundtrack album.

To salvage the audio tracks, Lennon and Harrison, in concert with manager Allen Klein, enlisted legendary American record producer Phil Spector to do some emergency editing, overdubbing and remixing.

McCartney hated the whole thing. He hated the idea that Allen Klein had been involved in Spector’s hiring. Klein was the true straw that broke the collective back of the Beatles. Lennon, Harrison and Starr wanted the New York businessman to take over as the Beatles’ manager. McCartney wanted the group to sign with Eastman and Eastman, the law firm headed by the father and brother of his new bride, rock photographer Linda Eastman.

While fans could still enjoy watching their idols perform, there’s also the hopeless sense of sadness that’s felt whenever you witness people you love quarreling and being miserable

Perhaps even more than Klein, McCartney hated the lavish orchestral and choral arrangement that Spector added to “The Long and Winding Road.” George Martin and Glynn Johns backed McCartney in denouncing Spector’s work.

When the Let It Be film was first released, in May 1970, it was viewed with a certain amount of sadness by the Beatles’ original generation of fans. Beatles movies had always been joyous occasions. And while fans could still enjoy watching their idols perform, there was also the hopeless sense of sadness that’s felt whenever you witness people you love quarreling and being miserable.

For many people, there are two moments that seem like the final farewell from the Beatles. One is the Apple rooftop concert at the conclusion of the Let It Be movie – the four Beatles, plus Billy Preston, laying it down live one last time above the streets of London. The other is the guitar jam on The End, which closes Abbey Road.

The Fab Four’s three guitar men trade two-bar licks – Paul, then George, then John – three times around. The spirit of the Beatles’ early days in Liverpool and Hamburg was in the room. In different ways, some of that spirit would endure in the solo work of the four Beatles.

John Lennon – the raw essence of rock guitar

John Lennon

(Image credit: Steve Morley/Redferns)

It all starts with Lennon, of course – fronting the Quarrymen, strumming a cheap Gallotone Champion acoustic guitar, playing banjo chords in a tuning his mother had taught him. McCartney showed Lennon standard tuning, and the repertoire of the Quarrymen progressed from folksy skiffle to hard-driving rock and roll.

Lennon’s rhythm-guitar right hand would remain one of the Beatles’ most powerful links to the early days of rock music. That same primordial, outsider, wildman spirit pervades his nasty, fuzzed-out lead playing. The distance between Lennon’s solo in You Can’t Do That from 1964 and his leads on 1969’s Cold Turkey is more a matter of years and emotional intensity than of technical or stylistic evolution.

Lennon couldn’t care less about any of that. His emphasis was songwriting, and the guitar was just a support to that. So, for instance, when Lennon learned acoustic folk-picking techniques from folk pop star Donovan during the Beatles’ 1968 meditation retreat in India, it opened up a beautiful new vein in his vastly creative imagination.

This was immediately felt on White Album ballads like Julia and Dear Prudence and would remain another important element in Lennon’s solo work. Along with rock, he was fairly well plugged into folk tradition, something he shared with his fellow rock songwriting icon, Bob Dylan.

Lennon’s approach to guitar was also revolutionized by his avant garde work with Yoko Ono. Accompanying her on live performance pieces like Cambridge 1969, from John and Yoko’s Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions, he got his first taste of performing without a co-guitarist – or indeed any other instrumentalists of any kind, for that matter.

In 1970 John and Yoko underwent Primal Scream therapy with psychologist Arthur Janov. This painful probing and re-experiencing of early life traumas was beneficial for the couple. It also produced one of the most cathartic, important albums in all of rock and roll, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.

Source: The inside story of The Beatles’ turbulent break-up – and what came next | Guitar World

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Martin Nethercutt

Martin Nethercutt

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