By Gordon Thompson
Even in the storm’s dawning, both fans and defamers alike recognized magic in the Beatles’ ability to collaborate and to adapt in pursuit of a shared vision, and at the heart of this quest lay the desire to make great recordings. In the beginning of their career with EMI, their willingness to subvert their individual identities to a common cause (and the joy with which they did so) contributed to their success. In the end, the enterprise collapsed when the principals—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, George Martin and the community of engineers, arrangers, and session musicians who assisted them—ceased genuinely listening to each other and collaborating.
At the core of the adventure, Lennon and McCartney’s heterodyne songwriting process (a complex and very social interchange) generated the raw materials; but the band flourished through collective creativity. At every stage from inspiration and development, to the routining of a groove and the arrangement, to the capturing and mastering of the recording, and even to the spin on its release and the shape of its reception, a community of individuals defined the identity the music. Thus, every Beatles recording possesses a history in which songwriting, musicianship, production, and marketing play a role. The recordings stand as archeological artifacts, our primary evidence of the existential truth of the Beatles epic, and supplement a rich collection of interviews about the dramatis personae that contribute to the ebb and flow of the narrative.
Like many other British (and American) performers in the mid-sixties, the Beatles created material and performances as a social unit and depended on their production team to realize their ideas as recordings. When the northerners worked together on material, they mutually contributed ideas and modified them, intuitively reacting to changing musical tastes and sensing that their survival depended on their ability to function as a team. Just as their families had survived the war and postwar years through communal sharing, the Beatles generated their music in a process that featured mutual contributions to the familial good.
Perhaps ironically, the triumph of the British music and recording industries in general, and of the Beatles specifically, led to an increased Americanization that deemphasized the very collaborative processes that contributed to that success. Indeed, demise crept up on the Beatles as they simultaneously and individually began to self-produce and lose their ability to work as a team, collapsing the network that had sustained them.
In 1968, the introduction of American eight-track recording equipment into London studios meant that one or two individuals could record all of the parts asynchronously. For example, when Lennon and McCartney recorded “The Ballad of John and Yoko” in April of 1969, they joked about replacing Ringo Starr and George Harrison at their session. Eight (and soon sixteen) tracks allowed for greater control over the balance and sound of individual tracks; but it also eliminated the kinds of interpersonal inspiration that had characterized British music up to that time.
By the winter of 1970, the glory was gone and the Beatles were no longer a functional enterprise; but the outside world only guessed at the situation. Apple explained that the Beatles had taken extended breaks in the past and that the current situation was no different. But Paul McCartney had purchased a Studer four-track recording deck for his home studio and had set a course that would allow him total independence from the band that had defined and now denied him. He recorded all of the parts—the vocals, guitars, keyboards, and drums—with assistance from his wife Linda Eastman—and now possessed a DIY album, some of whose attraction lay in its very primitiveness.
He had been on the outs with the other three members of the band over the management of Apple (the others voted for Allen Klein while McCartney wanted Linda’s father Lee Eastman) and, more importantly, musically. Now he felt he could do without them. In 1968, Starr had temporarily quit the band in a pique of anger at McCartney while recording “Back in the USSR.” A few months later, George Harrison would similarly walk away from their film/recording sessions, annoyed with the bass player’s insistence on dominating the music direction. Later that year, Lennon would announce to the others his intention to leave the band. But on 10 April 1970, Don Short in the Daily Mirror scooped the rest of the London papers with access to a McCartney press release meant to promote his eponymous first album. The world learned officially of the end of the songwriting team and that the Beatles enterprise had ceased. McCartney described the situation as the “start of a new career.”
They had indelibly stamped the sixties even as the decade had transformed them from lusty teenage poseurs into adult professionals with families. They would seek the musical company of others and have their individual triumphs; but the four of them would never again meet together in the studio and be the Beatles. Many have pondered the question, “Why did the Beatles break up?” Perhaps a better question might be, “Why didn’t they break up sooner?”
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.