Forty years ago today the world received the staggering news: Paul McCartney was leaving the Beatles. Together with the release of McCartney’s self-titled solo album on that day in London, came an announcement that he had no further intention of recording with the group. A Beatles without Paul in the line up seemed unimaginable. The Beatles, it became evident to everyone, were over.
The Beatles had not only dominated the charts on both sides of the Atlantic for better part of a decade. They had been a leading force in 60s cultural revolution and had shaped an entire generation’s consciousness with their hairstyles, clothing, conduct and musical messages.
What brought about the end of such a successful musical partnership and cultural odyssey? Countless books and articles have been devoted to that subject but it boils down to infighting, bad business decisions and increasingly strained personal and artistic differences.
Subsequent accounts by group members (poignantly recounted in their own words in The Beatles Anthology) indicated that the rot has set in years before. Following the death of their manager Brian Epstein in August 1967, the four men had chosen not to appoint a new manager but to steer their own course. By that time, however, liberated from the social and musical constraints of their mop top selves and having given up the exhausting rigors of touring, they were all headed in very different directions.
John Lennon was soon to meet Yoko Ono and become immersed in the avant garde and the lure of radical politics; George Harrison was undergoing a spiritual transformation that would draw him deeply into introspection and far from the limelight; Ringo Starr was increasingly anchored to family life and had become a homebody.
It was only Paul McCartney, at the height of his powers as a musician and producer – and the only member of the group to remain unmarried – who retained the enthusiasm and drive to propel the group forward.
The tension between their competing drives and needs can be heard in the pastiche nature of 1968’s White Album, released in November, in which the group members often recorded their compositions on their own or with hired help. The January, 1969 filming of the Let It Be recording sessions was, by the group’s own admission, a disaster, at which George Harrison, incensed over McCartney’s officiousness and Lennon’s seeming indifference, actually left the group.
Still the musical chemistry between the four men remained vigorous, resulting (in their last eighteen months together) in such extraordinary pop classics as Hey Jude, Something, Here Comes the Sun, Across the Universe and Let It Be. Not to mention the second side of their final recorded LP Abbey Road, which remains one of the great masterpieces of modern popular music.
There is no telling what they might have achieved had they had remained together. Certainly all four men produced great pop tunes on their own in the years following the break up. Lennon’s Imagine (1971), McCartney’s Maybe I’m Amazed (1970), Harrison’s My Sweet Lord (1971) and Ringo Starr’s Photograph (1973) all stand as equal to almost anything in their Beatles canon. The reunion of the surviving members, in the early 90s to complete two unfinished Lennon tunes, suggests that they had not lost touch with their musical sympatico.
But now 40 years after they left the scene as a united group, we might ponder their ultimate legacy. Sunny, sparkling pop, with a hint of humor and broad optimism about life, may be one of them. The Beatles were working class lads from Liverpool who as individuals never forgot their modest origins and showed no reluctance in celebrating their childhood haunts and antics. Songs such as Penny Lane, Eleanor Rigby, Strawberry Fields Forever and Julia gave us a window into their lives and the opportunity to meet some of the characters with who had populated their youth. A deep loyalty to family and friends threaded its way through their music and imbued it with a sentimentality that was never twee nor forced, but profoundly affecting. Beatles music was buoyed by a sense of possibility and a celebration of the wonder, miracle and beauty of life – a euphoric element that can be heard in even their earliest recordings.
Yet there is another sense in which the Beatles’ influence may not have been all positive. Lennon’s All You Need Is Love, composed in time for the first satellite television broadcast in June, 1967, was a statement of the the emerging Beatles credo – that love could cure all societal ills and heal all problems. Brotherly love, free love, maternal love, sex as love, love as sex – it was all the same. Little wonder that ‘Love’ then was the title chosen for the Cirque de Soliel extravaganza which co-opted Beatles songs for a lavish production in Las Vegas. All four Beatles in their solo careers would harp on love as the world’s panacea. In fact, almost every one of Ringo Starr’s latter day albums sports a song devoted to peace and love, words now adopted as his motto.
The problem is that love doesn’t always cure all society’s ills and it is dangerous to believe that it can. The Beatles saw the Cold War, not as a conflict between good and evil, or a contest between democracy and totalitarianism, but as a misunderstanding between individual leaders (the tongue -in-cheek Back in the U.S.S.R. notwithstanding); they saw the cultural revolution which they helped ignite, with its sweeping rejection of adult moral authority and the elevation of teenage sensitivity as a value in itself, as a sign of human progress; they felt that authority always needs to be questioned and political leaders of all parties (see Harrison’s Taxman where he expressly names them), not to be trusted. They failed to accept and appreciate that their own system of government, built after centuries of bloodshed and the struggle between the people and the Crown, was the one thing that guaranteed their freedom to sing and perform largely without constraint or control.
A generation that grew up singing along to Can’t Buy Me Love and I Wanna Hold Your Hand also was deeply affected by the idea that all war is wrong and that conflict could be avoided through demonstrations of compassion and sympathy. But the Cold War was not eventually won through displays of love but determined policies that quarantined the Russian communist regime and threatened aggression when challenged. Love would certainly not have defeated Nazi Germany or a militarized Japan in the 1940s, nor will it defeat militant Islam.
Perhaps Paul McCartney finally understood this when, in 2001, in response to the 9/11 attacks – having been in New York at the time of their perpetration, he composed the song Freedom
” I’m talkin’ about freedom …….. freedom!
I will fight for the right
To live in freedom……”
McCartney is said to regret the fervor of the song and has not preformed it in public since that year. But the shock of the attacks on the World Trade Towers must have aroused in him the devastating realization that in fact the world isn’t necessarily a loving place and that there are people and societies for whom talk of love and compassion is not a sign of openness and tolerance but a demonstration of a weakness that is open to exploitation.
We can’t forget that in Soviet Russia, teenagers did not have the same luxury of buying and listening to Beatles music. The Beatles were banned there as subversive and their albums needed to be smuggled into the country, under fear of stiff penalties for violations. When McCartney eventually played Red Square in Moscow in 2003, he was told repeatedly that his group’s contraband music offered hope and inspiration to a closed society.
Perhaps McCartney didn’t include Freedom in his set list at that performance or remind his audience that Back in the U.S.S.R. was originally conceived (in 1968) as a satire on a repressive system that had banned Beatles music. But surely he must have ruminated on what eventually broke the back of the Soviet tyranny. Suffice to say it wasn’t Western expressions of peace, love and friendship. Soviet Russia collapsed because of a siren song of freedom, but not in swoon of All You Need Is Love. This freedom was conveyed through the implacable stand of the United States in meeting Soviet aggression with force and defiance. It came because the Soviets could not adequately feed their people or offer them a high quality of life. And it came most of all because Soviet citizens and their the peoples populating the Soviet satellites in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Roumania had begun to understand they were living in a prison, when a free world existed just beyond their borders.
The world may be a different place than the one in which the Beatles lived, but there are many ways in which it remains the same. A new menace to Western freedom looms – one even more insidious and potentially devastating than the threats presented in the 1960s. This time, no amount of Western music or expressions of amity will sway our enemies in Iran or within the ranks of Islamic terrorist organizations. Unfortunately, the love motif has crept back into the U.S. government’s diplomatic vocabulary, taking its form in policies of appeasement.
To remember how devastating such policies can potentially be, perhaps the Beatles own lyrics, when placed in the mouths of the freedom starved peoples of today and addressed to the U.S. and the West, might offer us a guide:
“And now my life has changed in oh so many ways
My independence seems to vanish in the haze
But every now and then I feel so insecure
I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before.”(Help! 1964)