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The Beatles Are Dead. Long Live the Beatles

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. In the post below he looks at May 1970 and the Beatles. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.

For Beatles fans, it was like watching mortality embrace a loved one. The spring of 1970 brought news of the dissolution of the Beatles and, with the release of Michael Lindsey-Hogg’s Let It Be in May, fans could see the disestablishment for themselves.

Lindsey-Hogg had established his reputation with musicians through his involvement with the British television show, Ready, Steady, Go! In 1968, Mick Jagger asked him to direct a concert staged specifically for the screen, perhaps in imitation of D. A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop, filmed in 1967 and released in 1968. Lindsey-Hogg re-imagined the concert as a circus and captured a number of compelling performances (notably by the Who), which unfortunately did not include the culminating appearance by the Rolling Stones who went on last after a very long night. Lindsey-Hogg filmed The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus in December 1968; but Jagger and the others apparently decided against releasing it, disliking their performance.

One of those involved in the performances that night had been John Lennon, who had pulled together a band consisting of Eric Clapton (guitar), Keith Richards (bass), and Mitch Mitchell (drums) to accompany himself and Yoko Ono. The Beatles and Lindsey-Hogg had worked together on film shorts to accompany the release of the recordings “Paperback Writer,” “Rain,” “Hey Jude,” and “Revolution,” so his selection to film them preparing for a concert seemed natural.

In January of 1969, Lindsey-Hogg and his crew assembled in Twickenham, where the Beatles had worked on previous films. This time, however, without manager Brian Epstein’s attention to detail, the band found themselves in cold studios arguing with each other to the point where George Harrison walked out of the sessions. McCartney could only purchase Harrison’s return by dropping the idea of a major concert at the end of the sessions. The Beatles turned to the basement of their offices in Savile Row to continue rehearsing material and the concert devolved into a brief rooftop appearance.

What Lindsey-Hogg does manage to capture is a creeping alienation and disaffection brought about by a number of factors, not the least of which was the maturation and individualization of the Beatles. They had long ceased to be the Fab Four. The world had grown darker and their vision more serrated.

The Rolling Stones for their part engaged in their own disaster film, Gimme Shelter, directed by Albert and David Maysles with Charlotte Zwerin, which begins with their 1969 Madison Square Gardens performances and ends with the tragedy of the Altamont Speedway concert. The Stones had dropped Brian Jones (who had died earlier that summer) and now toured with Mick Taylor, hoping to recapture some of the excitement of their early days. The film would see something else and fans would watch the wheels come off this cart in December of 1970.
A clichéd “loss of innocence” explanation for these films would only obscure the fundamental changes underway in Western culture. One of the cameramen in Altamont would be looking in a few years for a simpler time, perhaps long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. For the Beatles, they would have their dissolution played out on the screen, in the courts, and in the press.

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  2. Skip

    Will there ever be another band as big as the Beatles? I don’t think so. I think it was a one off freak event that is unlikely to be repeated, unfortunately.

  3. Gordon

    I would agree that there will never be another Beatles; but I suspect at some point there will be another performance phenomenon LIKE the Beatles. The phenomenon will be different, as will be the cultural environment; still, the possibility exists.

    The Beatles, their management, and their production crew perfectly exploited a unique period in time when a number of elements came into alignment: (a) the baby boom/bulge, (b) electronic recording (tape), (c) mass produced vinyl disks, (d) an expanding economy, (e) television, and (f) international jet air travel.

    We can consider a number of other factors too; however, we should probably take John Lennon’s word on this: “The Beatles were just a band that made it very, very big.” And yes, they were very, very good at what they did.

    Gordon (sitting in the British Library reading old interviews with the Beatles)

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