Tuesday, June 17, 2008

And in the End

Now that I've finished Bob Spitz's sandbag-like group biography The Beatles, I'd like to share with you my interpretation of the top five reasons the Beatles broke up when they did. Note that this is my assessment of the situation, not Spitz's.

5. Magical Mystery Tour. This was Paul's baby, from start to finish, with the other boys literally just along for the ride. It was also the band's first failure since their arrival on the international stage. (I haven't seen the film, which is apparently appalling, but the record is fairly weak.) It signalled a couple of depressing developments: The band would never again really enjoy being in the studio, and Paul would increasingly dominate the Beatles, forcing his ideas and images on the rest of the group, to their ever-growing resentment.

4. Brian Epstein's death. By the time Epstein died, in 1967, he really had very little left to do, since the Beatles had stopped touring and the recording contracts had all been signed. And truth be told, he doesn't seem to have been that great of a manager. But with Epstein out of the picture, the Beatles tried to run their own business affairs, setting up disastrous money sinkholes like Apple Films and the Apple Boutique. A horrendous time was guaranteed for all, with bad feelings and infighting all around, and the door was left wide open for Allen Klein to come barging through. Whatever Epstein's faults, the Beatles trusted him, and he worked sincerely on their behalf, and he likely would have saved them from some of their own excesses.

3. Beatlemania. The final touring years were absolutely miserable for the band, hiding out in hotel rooms and running through crowds so they could dive into limos and not being able to hear themselves play. The shame of it is, they clearly loved playing live music, but the situation had just become untenable. If they had still been able to perform on stage, playing together as a cohesive band, I believe that would have gone a long way toward keeping them happy and unified, much more than the stifling studio environment did.

Surely, the rooftop gig was one of the most joyous occasions of the Beatles' final years. John and George were the two members most adamant about not going out on tour - and they were the first to go back to live gigs when the band was breaking up, John with the Plastic Ono Band and George with Delaney and Bonnie. And they both had a great time doing so.

2. Yoko. I want to be fair to her, since she's been treated so rudely by so many people, but if the Spitz portrait of her is at all accurate (and he seems to be very evenhanded), she was an entirely toxic presence, not just glued to John's side but constantly talking about how he was a genius but the Beatles were garbage, and offering her own opinions on everything from music to finance. The other Beatles hated her, and justifiably so. I know Lennon must be faulted here for letting her into the inner sanctum, but at some point, a grownup would have said, "You know what? I don't know anything about music, and these guys are your friends and business partners, so I'll just go shopping or snort heroin or something while you cut 'Come Together.'" (It was while he was with Yoko that John got into heroin, which is never a good idea, and contributed to the overall bad feelings.)

If there's a book out there that treats Yoko's role more charitably, I'd be happy to read it. By the way, I've heard it said that she had no idea who the Beatles were before John entered that fateful art gallery, but that's ridiculous. And once they did meet, Yoko spent several months doing things like hanging out in front of the Apple offices, or coming into John's house to ask if she could call herself a cab, before John ever showed much interest in her. She also began referring to John as her husband while he was still married to Cynthia.

1. Paul's death in a car accident in November 1966. This surely was the blow from which the Beatles could never recover. 28 IF, indeed.

15 comments:

Pike said...

I'd worry less about being fair to Yoko. But that's just me.

Gavin said...

I had a similar reaction when I read the book, Tom. I love Ono's art, like some of her music, and think that in general, she's an interesting person who has taken a lot of misogynist/racist shit. Spitz didn't change my mind about any of that, but he did make me understand the antipathy the rest of the Beatles had for her. It sounds like in the context of the Beatles, she was a hugely negative presence.

I will add that I didn't realize the extent to which Lennon could be such a miserable bastard. I suspect that he was passive-aggressively using Ono to punish the band (and ultimately, crowbar himself out of there).

T. Nawrocki said...

True story: I once was at a party attended by both Yoko Ono and pike.

Gavin, I agree, Lennon has to be held ultimately responsible for what happened. But you know, women can sometimes hold a great deal of power over otherwise strong men. I remember reading about Joe Namath, who was a hugely successful ladies' man until he finally got married in the early 1980s - and his wife just took over his life, literally forbidding him from even seeing his old friends. Joe Namath!

Joe said...

5. Magical Mystery Tour can be said to be fairly weak only by the standards of their own albums, right? The theme song is iffy, and "Fool on the Hill" sappy (though not bad). But otherwise: "Penny Lane,” "Strawberry Fields Forever,” "Hello Goodbye,” "I Am the Walrus." And "All You Need Is Love"! Plus the killer instrumental "Flying," which invents synthetic psychedelic funk three years before Beck is even born.
4. Brian Epstein was a totally shit manager, right? Gave away their image to the lunch-box guys for a handful of not-magic beans. His genius, I thought, was making them pretty – getting them out of their rough-trade leather jackets – so, packaging, not managing, and good for him. I see no reason to think he could have saved them from anything. But maybe I'm wrong here.
3. Note that George ended up hating touring as a solo act pretty quickly, by 1974.
2. Yoko. Might have been a dick. Might have been a genius. But who can blame her for putting her pimp hand down on John Lennon? If she was a dude rolling up on a married, I dunno, Bridget Bardo, everyone would have been like, What a player. Did she have anything to with his heroin habit? Like his pent-up fury at the boys he loved/hated, wasn't that his own trip? Didn't he get her hooked on junk?
1. Paul. Whatever.

Pike said...

I can vouch for that (the party thing, not so much the Namath thing). I had a short conversation with her and was sorely tempted to say, "I hope no one sees me talking to you because I'll lose my best friends."

Pike said...

You'll recall that Tony Hendra was at that same party as well -- and, if he'd been just a little drunker, might have regaled Yoko with his old National Lampoon parody of John Lennon, "Genius is Pain."

T. Nawrocki said...

Joe, note that "Penny Lane," "Strawberry Fields" and "All You Need Is Love," although included on the Magical Mystery Tour disc, really had nothing to do with the Magical Mystery Tour project. The first two were cut even before Sgt. Pepper.

And Epstein may have been a bad manager, but at least he was A manager, one the Beatles trusted. The problem was that, without him, they tried to manage themselves, and that was ten times worse.

Was Bridget Bardo [sic] in a band? I think the proper analogy would be if, like, Valerie Harper's husband totally took over the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and hounded Rhoda out of the picture... I don't think people would look too favorably on that.

Joe said...

Dude, the point is that "Penny Lane," "Strawberry Fields" and "All You Need Is Love" are on that album. Unless you're a lot older than me (and you're not) that's where you heard them. I don't care if they're not part of "the project," and I'm not sure why you do. You, like the rest of us, have never seen "the project." But you have heard that album. It was pretty close to last on my list when I was first listening to them in high school (first on the list: "Hey Jude," for which we can thank Alan Klein; second, "The Beatles Second Album"; it was a strange list, and last was on it was "Sgt. Pepper" so I'm not making any great claims for the list, but I was just 17, if you know what I mean, except I was really 14). But the album has aged well. So has Let It Be, a cut out when I was first making up my list, so I thought it was lame on principle because the marketplace had said so.

BTW, I didn't [sic] your misspelling of Brian Epstein. And I was never a copy editor. Or fact checker. One or both of which you were. Maybe you should post your resume so we can figure that out. Until then, sic you too.

The point being that Bridget Bardot was a cultural figure of universal desirability. So was John Lennon. Double standard stands. A man rolling up on her would be admired. A woman rolling up on John Lennon is a groupie, a bitch, a stalker or whatever.

Mary Tyler Moore Show better w/out Rhoda anyway.

Rob said...

I think that happened on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, actually, when Phyliis started the Plastic Lars Band and Sue Ann Nivens did her three-volume solo album, “What’s All This Fuss About Famine?” After Ted and Georgette did that nude cover for “Two Baxters,” forget it --the dream is over.

“Shout” is still my favorite Beatle bio, despite all the puerile Paul-baiting, which is also a major problem with the Spitz book. I wasn’t big on the Spitz book, and I thought the Yoko-baiting was puerile as well. “Shout” makes a convincing case that the Beatles were finished when Epstein died, and Yoko was the only thing that kept John writing songs. You think the White Album would be better without “Julia”? I think not.

A Hard Ted's Knight said...

I buried Chuckles.

T. Nawrocki said...

I don't think I'm being clear, Joe. It's not the resultant album that made Magical Mystery Tour such an enervating downer; it was the experience of making the film and recording the songs for the film.
I think if you asked Ringo today about his memories of Magical Mystery Tour, he would talk for an awfully long time before he mentioned "Penny Lane."

I'm not "down" enough to fully understand what "rolling up" entails, but I have no problem with Yoko rolling up on anyone or anything she wants. The problem arises when she then prevents him from doing his job. I could have "rolled up" on Beyonce - not bragging, but the offer was there - but I certainly wouldn't have insisted on having a say in everything she ever recorded.

Joe said...

Got it. And my point is the album itself is only fairly weak by their own standards. As opposed to, say, the album the Stones released at the same time (their second of '67, like the Beatles), "Their Satanic Majesties Request," which isn't as bad as people say, but sure isn't as good "Between the Buttons" or "Flowers." (Right, sorry -- it was their third album of '67, at least for U.S. buyers.)

As for not being "down" enough to fully understand what "rolling up" entails . . . AITR TLK2UL8R.

Pike said...

What the hell code are you people talking in now?

T. Nawrocki said...

111101-1101-1110100-1111000 11101000-111001.

Pike said...

How dare you say that! YOU go 101010-0001-110101 11101-11101!