The Beatles, (left to right), Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison
It was 50 years ago tomorrow, Sergeant Pepper told the band to stop playing. And with the final C-major from their last song, prophetically titled The End, still ringing in the air, the four greatest popular musicians Britain has ever produced packed up their instruments and walked away. They’d been together since John Lennon was 17 and Paul McCartney 15 – 12 long years of furious creativity, forged in the dank cellar of The Cavern and the grubby dives of Hamburg, and ending up on top of the world. In that time they’d recorded a staggering 213 songs. But for The Beatles, August 18, 1969, was the day the music died.
To the outside world there was no warning, no hint of the earthquake to come. The sun-splashed month had started with a photoshoot resulting in the most iconic picture in the history of pop music.
It ended in an uneasy truce between the four warring members, each desperately looking for a way out of their magic circle.
The album was Abbey Road. Its last track finished with the words “And in the end… the love you take/Is equal to the love you make.”
In the weeks leading up to those final poetic words being recorded, though, there had been precious little love. The most famous band in the world had been tearing itself apart.
The music they were laying down in the studio remained as powerful, fresh and innovative as when they’d burst on the pop scene seven years earlier, but now there was nothing more to come. “It never occurred to me that we were working on the last Beatles album,” recalled Geoff Emerick, the sound engineer who’d been in the studio for the first ever Beatles session and now supervised this epitaph to their awesome career.
“We’d got used to the difficulties. Often the best way for them to make a record was for each member to work on his own.”
Emerick, and his boss George Martin – the so-called Fifth Beatle – believed the problems could be overcome with a break away from each other. Unknowing, they foresaw better days ahead.
Ringo congratulates Emerick on his Grammy for Sgt Pepper in 1968
Whatever other issues drove The Beatles apart – and there were many – the foursome’s extraordinary blood-brotherhood that was cemented in the long years on the road, was finally broken that summer by the arrival of another. That she was a woman didn’t help. But it was not Yoko Ono’s gender that did it. It was her intrusive presence. One day during recording, the studio doors burst open and deliverymen from Harrods wheeled in a huge bed. “Jaws dropping, we watched as it was brought in and carefully positioned by the stairs,” recalled Emerick. “More men appeared with sheets and pillows and sombrely made up the bed. Then Yoko climbed in.
“In my career in recording studios I thought I’d seen it all, but this took the biscuit. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that Paul, Ringo and George were as gobsmacked as I was. For the next month Yoko lived in that bed. Her wardrobe consisted of a series of flimsy nightgowns, accessorised with a regal tiara.”
After each take, the cuckoo-in-the-nest offered her opinion into a microphone, solicitously provided by Lennon, infuriating the other members of the Fab Four who felt that after all these years they knew how to make a hit record.
She constantly referred to the band as “Beatles”, further aggravating them. “Actually it’s The Beatles, luv,” corrected Paul on one occasion, “But she persistently ignored him,” recalled Emerick.
Recording of Abbey Road took place in July and August 1969, with some preliminary work laid down earlier in the year. As ever, each Beatle – Ringo included – brought their compositions to the studio to be evaluated, included, or discarded.
It didn’t guarantee joint approval of every track. John, during the early sessions in a perpetual sulk, refused to participate in the making of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, dismissing it as “just more of Paul’s granny music”.
Paul, in return, refused to give John his song Oh! Darling, even though he’d planned to, acknowledging Lennon would sing it better.
Ever the peacemaker, even Ringo did not escape the crossfire. John turned on him during a break in recording Polythene Pam, announcing: “That sounded like Dave Clark.” Starr was mortified.
When it came to his turn, recording Come Together, John sang the lead and backing vocals, refusing to allow Paul and George to join in. “Paul looked hurt, then angry. For a moment I thought there was going to be an explosion.
Instead, he shrugged his shoulders and walked out of the studio – one of the few times he ever left a session early,” recalled Emerick.
Then low-profile George finally lost his temper with Yoko when he spied her stealing one of the digestive biscuits he’d hidden on top of his Leslie cabinet. “THAT B***H!” he shouted in fury.
John with Yoko in 1969 at the time of the Vietnam war
Observed Emerick: “By this stage, whenever the four of them were together it was like a tinderbox and anything could set them off – even something as dumb as a digestive biscuit!”
When John and Yoko were absent the mood lightened, the other band members laughing and enjoying doing the overdubs on Octopus’s Garden, Ringo’s sole vocal contribution to the album. And slowly this complex, finely-woven, obituary came together.
Abbey Road was The Beatles’ 11th studio album and is often viewed as the group’s most creatively diverse.
Some critics rate it as one of the greatest albums of all time, with George emerging finally from the shadows as a powerful songwriter with his contributions Something and Here Comes The Sun.
Countless hours were spent perfecting The Beatles sound. For Lennon’s Because, George Martin created complex nine-part harmonies which the musicians rehearsed “20 or 30 times”, according to Emerick, to ensure they were note-perfect.
Of the 47 minutes of needle-time,16 minutes of the group’s final legacy were devoted to a medley – a series of song-scraps welded together by the band’s genius – beginning with Paul’s You Never Give Me Your Money, prompted by his dispute with new manager Allen Klein.
It finished with, appropriately, their song called The End, presaging something the four men could not yet know – that they would never play together again.
Paul recording A Day In The Life
Into Studio 2 they went, and for one brief moment they were a foursome again. Yoko was left behind in the control room while John, Paul and George strapped on their guitars and launched into a crackling exchange of riffs which some fans believe exemplifies the powerful brotherhood of The Beatles. Paul led, George followed, then came John – then round they went again.
“For the hour or so that it took to record those solos, all the bad blood, all the fighting, all the crap that had gone down between the three former friends was gone,” recalled Emerick.
“John, Paul and George looked like they had gone back in time, like they were kids again, playing together for the sheer enjoyment of it.”
Though Abbey Road was released within weeks, it took another seven months before The Beatles would announce to the world that they had parted. They’d had one last summer together.
But the days of Beatlemania were over, for ever.