As the 1960s came to an end, so did the band who helped define the decade. The break-up of The Beatles had been coming for some time, and it finally became public knowledge in April 1970 when Paul McCartney announced his departure (John Lennon had informed the others of his intention to leave several months earlier, but was urged to keep the decision a secret for the time being).
John famously said, “The dream is over.” I can imagine that’s exactly what The Beatles’ demise felt like to so many people; waking up from a wonderful dream. Of course, when you think about it, it wasn’t really a demise at all — their music and legacy would live on — but at the time, for many, it must have felt like the world was ending.
As the ’70s went by, hopes that The Beatles would get back together never waned. But for the first few years at least, getting back together was the last thing on their minds. John seemed relieved that the whole thing was over and was far more interested in his new life with Yoko Ono. Together they made music and campaigned for peace. Paul took the break-up badly and went through a period of depression, but with the help of new wife Linda, he too gained the confidence to go it alone. Although he still relished the feeling of playing as part of a band, with Wings there was no question that he was the leader — and his reluctance to perform any Beatles songs live showed that he was trying his best to leave the past behind.
George Harrison really embraced his newfound freedom. He had been more uncomfortable than anyone with the intensity of Beatlemania, and had also begun to feel restricted as a songwriter. Despite contributing some of his best ever compositions to the later Beatles albums, Lennon and McCartney continued to dominate, leaving George with a wealth of unused material. It’s no surprise, therefore, that his early solo career was prolific.
Ringo Starr combined a solo career of his own with acting roles in a number of films, as well as playing on albums by his former bandmates. John later remarked of Ringo’s versatility:
“Ringo’s talent would have come out one way or the other… whatever that spark is in Ringo, we all know it but can’t put our finger on it. There’s something in him that is projectable and he would have surfaced as an individual.”
Ringo was in the unique position of maintaining close relationships with each of his fellow Beatles in the years that followed. Things were more complicated between the other three. John was upset at supposedly being ‘left out’ of George’s book, I, Me, Mine. George harboured some resentment towards Paul for his bossy attitude in the studio. But the biggest rift took place between John and Paul.
In 1971 they found themselves engaged in a public feud in the pages of Melody Maker, as well as in the lyrics of their songs. John’s scathing ‘How Do You Sleep?’ appeared on his Imagine album and was written in response to songs on Paul’s album, Ram, which he interpreted as being about him. A few years later, things had calmed down sufficiently for the two to speak on the phone and even occasionally spend time in each other’s company. No matter what arguments they might have had, there was still a bond there.
Each Beatle had solo success in the ’70s. John’s Imagine and Walls and Bridges were both number one albums, while John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band was also critically acclaimed. Paul enjoyed sell-out stadium tours with Wings, and the widely praised Band on the Run was also a hit album. George’s epic All Things Must Pass is still considered by many to be the best Beatle solo album of all. Ringo had a string of hit singles and highly successful albums like Ringo and Goodnight Vienna.
But although their individual achievements were embraced by the record-buying public, the question of a Beatles reunion never went away. They each played on one another’s albums at various points, but there never came a time when all four performed together again. John and Paul, who had at one time looked the least likely to patch things up, jammed together in 1974 in Los Angeles, during John’s ‘Lost Weekend’ period when he was temporarily separated from Yoko. And there was almost an opportunity for the two of them to make a public appearance in 1976, when Lorne Michaels made The Beatles an offer of $3,000 to reunite live on NBC’s Saturday Night.
Little did Michaels know that John and Paul were together in New York on this particular night, watching the show, and almost considered taking him up on his offer. John said:
“Paul and I were together watching that show. He was visiting us at our place in the Dakota. We were watching it and almost went down to the studio, just as a gag. We nearly got into a cab, but we were actually too tired.”
Can you imagine the worldwide reaction to John Lennon and Paul McCartney just casually turning up at the NBC studios to appear together live on TV in 1976? If only!
In the decades that followed, The Beatles would be remembered and celebrated in numerous ways. Sadly, this would all happen without John. As the 1970s ended, nobody could have known that it was both the first and last post-Beatles decade when all four of them were alive.