The inside story of why The Beatles really broke up

24 November 2021, 20:33

One of the last known pictures taken of The Beatles all together before they broke up in 1970
One of the last known pictures of The Beatles before the band split in 1970 (L to R) George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Picture: Getty

By Giorgina Ramazzotti

The break-up of the biggest band the world had ever seen came as a shock to their millions of fans.

When Paul McCartney gave an interview in 1970 essentially saying The Beatles were over, he blindsided George Harrison and Ringo Starr - and incensed his songwriting partner, John Lennon.

See more: Unpublished letters by Linda McCartney about Paul McCartney discovered from the 1960s

The announcement came after years of in-fighting, jealousies and behind-the-scenes tensions between the Fab Four since their rise to superstardom in 1962 and would commence the beginning of the end for the world-famous band.

Read on for the inside story of the twist and turns of the group's volatile break-up ...

What caused the Beatles to break up?

It was 1966 and after years of touring the world playing to packed out audiences and screaming fans, The Beatles needed a break.

An exhausted George, John and Ringo persuaded "workaholic" Paul that they should no longer perform live and that the band should take a much needed holiday.

See more: Watch the moment Paul McCartney sang ‘Yesterday’ so tenderly even hysterical Beatles fans fell silent

For three months after the decision, the band went their separate ways but John Lennon was anxious about the time off and instead of spending time with friends and family, he made the unusual decision to go to Spain to shoot a movie.

(L to R) Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison in 1964
(L to R) Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison in 1964. Picture: Getty

Paul McCartney Recreates Iconic Abbey Road Cover

"I was always waiting for a reason to get out of The Beatles from the day I made [the film] How I Won the War in 1966," he said in an anthology released after his death in 1998. "I just didn’t have the guts to do it, you see. Because I didn’t know where to go. I remember why I made the movie. I did it because The Beatles had stopped touring and I didn’t know what to do."

“I was thinking, ‘Well, this is the end, really. There’s no more touring. That means there’s going to be a blank space in the future…’ That’s when I really started considering life without the Beatles – what would it be? And that’s when the seed was planted that I had to somehow get out of [the Beatles] without being thrown out by the others."

See more: QUIZ: How well do you know the Beatles' song lyrics?

The band reassembled to create the seminal album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, but while it was Lennon who was behind the album's most famous song 'A Day In The Life', he was battling with his own inner turmoil.

The singer was unhappy in both his work and personal life - he felt trapped and unfulfilled in his marriage to his first wife Cynthia Powell - leading him to turn inwards and experiment with the mood-changing potent drug, LSD.

George Harrison later said: “In a way, like psychiatry, acid could undo a lot – it was so powerful you could just see. But I think we didn’t really realise the extent to which John was screwed up."

The band's next piece of bad news came just weeks later. On August 27, 1966, The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, was found dead at his London home after an accidental drug overdose.

See more: Paul McCartney facts: Age, net worth, wife and children revealed

The manager's grounding and protective nature had been a guiding and balancing force for the band, leading John to predict it was another nail in the coffin for The Beatles. “I knew that we were in trouble then," he later said of Brian's death.

“I didn’t really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music, and I was scared. I thought, ‘We’ve fuckin’ had it.'”

John Lennon, it seemed, was willing to keep trying and throughout the rest of 1967 it was Paul McCartney who battled on, driving the band forward with new ideas.

The Beatles released the critically-panned musical film Magical Mystery Tour on boxing day 1967 and in February 1968 George Harrison persuaded all four to travel to Northern India in a bid to study Transcendental Meditation at an ashram near Rishikesh.

See more: The 10 greatest John Lennon songs, ranked

The retreat wasn't a success. George was irritated that Lennon and McCartney were using it as an excuse to write music and Ringo Starr and his wife left after just two weeks.

John eventually followed when he realised he wasn't finding the answer to his problems and returned to London, where he later said: "Although … I was meditating about eight hours a day ... I was writing the most miserable songs on Earth.”

It was upon his return to the UK that John made a big decision and one which has been often blamed for the breakup of The Beatles.

Yoko Ono, John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Yoko Ono, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Picture: Getty

The Beatles - Hey Jude

Lennon left wife Cynthia and started a relationship with Yoko Ono, a Japanese artist and musician he had met in November 1966, and whose relationship with John was met with derision and racist slurs.

See more: The Story of... 'Something' by The Beatles

In public, Yoko was called abusive names such as “Jap,” “Chink” and "Yellow" and at times John Lennon had to protect her from physical harm, something that caused him immense anger and frustration, but it was her invitation into the recording studio by John that started to get on the nerves up of the rest of the band.
“He wanted me to be part of the group,” Yoko later said. “He created the group, so he thought the others should accept that," adding: "I didn’t particularly want to be part of them.”

Read more: John Lennon and Yoko Ono's bizarre April Fools Day pranks

John felt inspired by his new relationship with Yoko Ono and as the band were working on The White Album in 1968, he wrote some of his arguably best songs including 'Dear Prudence,' 'Julia,' 'Happiness Is a Warm Gun' and 'Revolution'.

“I think by 1968 we were all a bit exhausted, spiritually," Paul McCartney later said.

"We’d been The Beatles, which was marvellous. We’d tried for it not to go to our heads and we were doing quite well - we weren’t getting too spaced out or big-headed - but I think generally there was a feeling of: ‘Yeah, well, it’s great to be famous, it’s great to be rich - but what’s it all for?'”

See more: Yoko Ono facts: Artist's age, children and relationship with John Lennon revealed

However, inspired by an appearance singing 'Hey Jude' on TV in September 1968, The Beatles started to hunger once more for a live audience and settled on a gig at the Camden Roundhouse, with the rehearsal sessions being shot at Twickenham Film Studios for the documentary that would become the film Let It Be.

It was January 1969 and tensions within the band were starting to boil over. George Harrison felt there were times Yoko Ono's opinions regarding band matters were considered more important than his and on January 10 George and John had a fight which reportedly came to blows.

After the argument, filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg caught the moment George 'quit' The Beatles on film and in the documentary Let It Be, Harrison can be seen packing up his guitar, saying: “I’m out of here. Put an ad in [the papers] and get a few people in. See you ’round the clubs."

See more: The Story of... 'Imagine' by John Lennon

Paul and Ringo are seen looking shocked, while John Lennon it seems is unbothered, launching into a mocking solo rendition of The Who's 'A Quick One, While He’s Away.'

Two days later, on January 12, the four Beatles met to call a truce, and while they all agreed on no more live shows or filming, the matter of Yoko and John's relationship was still causing tensions in the band.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono (left) during their 'Bed-In' in the Presidential suite of the Hilton hotel in Amsterdam, Netherlands in March 1969.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono (left) during their 'Bed-In' in the Presidential suite of the Hilton hotel in Amsterdam, Netherlands in March 1969. Picture: Getty

The Beatles - Paperback Writer

“Yoko only wants to be accepted,” Lennon said. “She wants to be one of us.” Causing Ringo to reply, “She’s not a Beatle, John, and she never will be,” But John wouldn't budge. “Yoko is part of me now. We’re John and Yoko, we’re together.”

From these insights, it's not surprising that history has come to blame Yoko Ono for The Beatles' demise, but in the years that have followed, Paul McCartney has been adamant in her defence.

See more: Busker gets cash and thumbs up from Paul McCartney in London: 'I just couldn't believe my eyes!'

“She certainly didn’t break the group up. I don’t think you can blame her for anything,” Paul said in an interview on TV channel Al Jazeera in November 2013, adding that John was already “definitely going to leave.”

“When Yoko came along, part of her attraction was her avant-garde side, her view of things,” he continued. “She showed him another way to be, which was very attractive to him. So it was time for John to leave.”

Back in 1969 and matters between The Beatles continued to escalate. After the band's reluctant last performance on the roof of Apple Records' Saville Row headquarters on January 29 - arranged last minute so there was an ending to the Let It Be documentary - it was financial issues within The Beatles that started to come to ahead.

See more: Police officer sings 'All You Need is Love' to care home residents in heartwarming video

The four band members rarely had to worry about money, they spent whatever they wanted and Apple Records picked up the bill, but after an accountant quit the label and left a note saying: "Your personal finances are in a mess," John and Paul realised it was time to replace the late Brian Epstein and find a new manager.

The decision on who to hire became the beginning of the end for the band.

Paul McCartney wanted his fiance Linda Eastman's father Lee and his brother John, New York lawyers specialising in artist representation, to manage The Beatles but George, Ringo and John didn't want to give Paul even more power over the group's decisions.

See more: When John Lennon found homeless fan at his door and invited him in: “Are you hungry?”

A tenacious New York accountant called Allen Klein had been looking for a way to manage The Beatles' success for years. The ex-business manager of the Rolling Stones had a reputation for questionable ethics - Brian Epstein had once refused to even meet with him - and wangled a meeting with John and Yoko where he charmed and flattered them, lauding their individual artistic and musical abilities.

From left to right: Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison, circa 1965.
From left to right: Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison, circa 1965. Picture: Getty

The Beatles - Revolution

John Lennon and Paul McCartney at London Airport after a trip to America to promote their new company Apple Corps, 16th May 1968.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney at London Airport after a trip to America to promote their new company Apple Corps, 16th May 1968. Picture: Getty

John was convinced and signed a letter of consent before checking with his bandmates, who were informed the day after. “I don’t give a bugger who anybody else wants,” Lennon said at the time. “But I’m having Allen Klein for me.” Paul was furious but it was to no avail: to keep the peace George and Ringo had also sided with John.

At a recording session on May 9, 1969, the three Beatles tried to get Paul to sign a three-year agreement management deal with Allen Klein. He initially refused, causing a lot of shouting among the group, and eventually gave in to the deal without actually signing the document, in what would turn out to be a brilliant move.

QUIZ: How much of a John Lennon fan are you?

By not signing, McCartney would later convince a judge that he was not under contract to remain with The Beatles and had no ties to Allen Klein.

In July 1969, The Beatles convened to record their last album, and amongst squabbles and tension, the band still managed to do what they did best; create beautiful music. 'Something' and 'Here Comes The Sun' became two prominent hits from what would become the album Abbey Road.

Read more: 8 of pop music's biggest feuds and fallouts

Despite the beauty of the album, Paul Mccartney later said it was at a time when he was grieving the end of The Beatles. In Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, McCartney said, “I’m generally quite upbeat but at certain times things get to me so much that I just can’t be upbeat anymore and that was one of the times …"

In 1970, Paul argued with the rest of the band who tried to push his solo album back to make room for the release of Let It Be. Ringo arrived at Paul's house to deliver the news and they had an uncharacteristic argument, causing Starr to be thrown out of the house. The band relented and Paul released his album, but they resented him for it.

See more: 12 of the greatest Paul McCartney songs

What followed was an album press release in which Paul announced the end of The Beatles as the world knew them.

“Are you planning a new album or single with The Beatles?" The press release asked. “No,” came his answer.

“Do you foresee a time when Lennon-McCartney becomes an active songwriting partnership again?”

“No.” Paul said.

The Beatles - Penny Lane

John Lennon was willing to keep trying and throughout the rest of 1967 it was Paul McCartney who battled on, driving the band forward with new ideas. The Beatles pictured at a party in London on May 19, 1967
John Lennon was willing to keep trying and throughout the rest of 1967 it was Paul McCartney who battled on, driving the band forward with new ideas. The Beatles pictured at a party in London on May 19, 1967. Picture: Getty

On April 10, 1970 the Daily Mirror ran the headline “Paul Quits The Beatles” and the world exploded. Fans descended on Apple Records headquarters and news stations from Australia to the U.S. covered the story.

John was furious, his pride hurt that McCartney had beaten him to the punch. “I started the band, I disbanded it. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

George Harrison refused to comment and Ringo Starr said: “This is all news to me." The reality is that the band were angry that Paul seemed to have used the break-up - that they all knew at this point was inevitable - as a way to promote his new album.

Paul later said he never meant for the wording of the press release to imply The Beatles were over and said he was "devastated" by what happened.

However it had come about, Paul still wanted out of the band and was determined Allen Klein wouldn't have any share of his music profits, but he was contractually still signed to Apple. He begged John and Allen to be let out of his contract but to no avail, so on December 31 McCartney sued to dissolve The Beatles.

His three bandmates protested but a judge ruled in Paul's favour and the separation began to be worked out. The band had grown tired of Allen Klein's antics and his contract wasn't renewed in 1973, George, John and Ringo would eventually sue him and he was also sentenced to two months in a U.S. prison for fraud relating to a different matter.

When the lawsuits with Klein were over, George wanted to reunite and reform The Beatles, but when the day came to gather to sign the deal, John Lennon didn't show up.

The Beatles were finally over, and while John and Paul once played a few songs together in a friend's recording studio in L.A. in 1974, the songwriting team never collaborated again.

See more: Ringo Starr says The Beatles were meant to record another album

Lennon later admitted he was jealous of Paul's ability to produce such a huge amount of material, an issue which may have been an underlying problem throughout the band's career: “[Paul would] already have five or six songs, so I’d think, ‘F*ck it, I can’t keep up with that.’ So I didn’t bother.

"So for a period if you didn’t invite me to be on an album personally, if [the three other Beatles] didn’t say, ‘Write some more songs ’cause we like your work,’ I wasn’t going to fight.”

The Beatles - Help!

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“John was just tired of the band’s unhealthy rivalry and wanted to go his own way," says Suzannah Galland, family friend of Lennon and Ono.

"Yoko’s source of inspiration gave him the courage to face change," adding “This is how we cherish and remember John Lennon, the great legend.”

See more: George Harrison facts: Beatles legend's wife, son and death explained

After John Lennon was shot and killed outside his New York apartment on December 8, 1980 and George Harrison died of lung cancer in 2001, the fab four became two and the Beatles were split up forever.

With Paul McCartney going on to become one the most successful singers in the world (he has a reported net worth of £1.2 billion) and Ringo Starr living a peaceful life split between the UK and the L.A. - the days of the Beatles are behind both of them.

“It was all such a long time ago,” George Harrison said a few years before his death. “Sometimes I ask myself if I was really there or whether it was all a dream."