Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Yoko Ono for Breaking Up the Beatles

Ever since April 10, 1970 -- my entire lifetime, minus 4 months -- when an outsider leads to dissension within a group, and even the group's breakup -- especially if it's a woman breaking up a group of men -- that outsider gets called "Yoko," in "honor" of Yoko Ono, John Lennon's 2nd wife, who "broke up the Beatles."

This myth has been put forward by a lot of people, mainly fans of "Cute One" Paul McCartney, who needed to believe that their favorite was the real guiding force of the group.

Well, as another British rocker of a certain age, Ozzy Osbourne, recently put it, "Sorry, folks, but it's 'John, Paul, George and Ringo.' Not 'Paul, John, George and Ringo.'"

Well, there's plenty of reasons why it is, in fact, a myth, rather than a fact.

I'd like to believe that racism, specifically antagonism toward Asians, didn't play a role in blaming Yoko. But that would be naïve, wouldn't it?

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A few years ago, ESPN had a series called The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame... , which sought to show sports villains and goats in a new light. Host Brian Kenny would first deliver the case for the prosecution: The accepted story. Yes, Walter O'Malley is to blame for the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn; Bill Buckner is to blame for the Red Sox losing the 1986 World Series; Jerry Krause broke up the Bulls' dynasty; and so on.

Then he would say, "Things aren't always what they seem," and present the case for the defense. He would give two or three "Best of the Rest" reasons that weren't quite good enough to make the Top 5, but were still worthy of consideration.

Then, after a commercial break, he would come back with Reason Number 5. After showing it, he would usually say, "Did that reason grab you? If not, here's Reason Number 4." He'd show that, then another commercial break, then show Reason Number 3. After that, he'd usually say, "Have we begun to change your mind yet? If so, here's more food for thought: Reason Number 2." After that, it would look like the conventional wisdom wasn't so wise after all.

There would be one more commercial break, then a recap of Reasons 5 through 2, and then he'd put the hammer down: Reason Number 1 would usually be so overwhelming that you'd say, "Yeah, of course." Or it would be so obvious that you'd say, "Why didn't I think of that at the time?" Kenny would conclude by saying, "There you have it: The top 5 reasons you can't blame (person, team, or phenomenon) for (the bad event in question). Maybe we changed your mind, maybe we didn't. But hopefully, we allowed you to see things in a new light." And the show would close with what the major figures in the event were doing when the show aired, from 2005 to 2007.

This was one of my favorite TV shows of all time, because it involved sports and history, and made people think. Did I always agree with the conclusions? No: If O'Malley was really such a "visionary," he would have found a way to get around his "Reason Number 1," Robert Moses, and keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn. I also didn't buy their "exoneration" of Art Modell for moving the Browns out of Cleveland. (Oddly, they never did one on Bob Irsay moving the Colts, unlike the Browns the real NFL equivalent of the Brooklyn Dodgers, out of Baltimore.)

If some other network -- probably E!, or maybe A&E -- were to have done a similar series about entertainment, the first episode would have had to have been...

The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Yoko Ono for Breaking Up the Beatles

First, some Best of the Rest:

The Death of Brian Epstein. On August 27, 1967, the Beatles' manager died of a combination of sleeping pills and alcohol. He was only 32. He had guided the group through many highs and a few lows. Had he still been alive through mid-1970, there's a good chance he would have been able to smooth lots of things over, and keep them together.

Certainly, his continued life and presence would have prevented the entrance into their professional lives of...

Allen Klein. When researching this piece, I discovered to my chagrin that he not only shares my birthday, December 18 (in his case, in 1931), but we were even born in the same County, Essex County, New Jersey (in his case, Newark). Yuck.

Previously managing Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer Sam Cooke, in 1965 he became co-manager of the Rolling Stones, and sole manager the next year. A bookkeeping wizard, he had impressed Stones lead singer Mick Jagger (who, whatever else he is, is no dummy: He's a graduate of the London School of Economics), enough for Mick to recommend Klein to Paul in early 1969 as a permanent replacement for Epstein, whose brother Clive had been managing them in the interim, leading to the band's finances being totally, as they say in England, banjaxed.

Paul had wanted the new manager to be Lee Eastman -- Linda McCartney's father. The other three, thinking Lee would give Paul's ideas too much weight and theirs too little, put the kibosh on that. Who knows what would have happened if they'd taken Lee?

Well, as Billy Joel later found out, making your brother-in-law your manager could lead to problems. Maybe giving the job to your father-in-law would be equally problematic. After the breakup, though, Lee became the manager for Paul's ventures, including Wings, and Linda's brother John Eastman took over following Lee's death, and is still Paul's manager today. And Paul, if not the richest person in the music industry, is a contender for that title. So, at the very least, Lee and John Eastman were honest men, or at least honest enough to keep Paul doing so well that he wouldn't suspect any wrongdoing on their part (or care if there was).

Shortly after Klein became the Beatles' manager, the Stones got tired of his dealings, and fired him. The price was giving him control over their early recordings, and it took about 20 years to get that control back. The Stones firing him so soon after the Beatles took him on should have been a red flag, especially to Paul, who was not only the most business-savvy of the Beatles (although, at that point, that wasn't saying much), but was also the only one to propose an alternative to the crooked Klein.

George, alone among the ex-Beatles, still trusted Klein enough to ask for his help in putting together the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, but because of Klein's machinations, it took 10 years for the money to fully reach the intended charities. And finally, in 1979, Klein went to prison for tax evasion.

It was a bit of an irony for a man with such a quick mind to fall victim to Alzheimer's disease, which eventually claimed his life in 2009. Still, this villain of the Beatles' story outlived not only Brian Epstein, but also John, George, Linda, Maureen Starkey (the first Mrs. Ringo), Mal Evans, Neil Aspinall, Derek Taylor, Billy Preston and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

(Major figures from the Beatles' story who are still alive as of New Year's 2014 include Paul, Ringo, Yoko, John's first wife Cynthia Lennon, Paul's longtime pre-Linda girlfriend Jane Asher, George's wives Pattie Boyd and Olivia Harrison, Ringo's second wife Barbara Bach, producer George Martin, original drummer Pete Best, Epstein's assistant Peter Brown, and Astrid Kirchherr, the photographer girlfriend of the ill-fated Stuart Sutcliffe and, supposedly, the designer of the "Beatle hairstyle.")

UPDATE: As of April 2016, Cynthia Lennon and George Martin have died.)

Now, on to the Top 5:

5. The Times, They Were A-Changin'. When the Beatles made their 1st recording, the single "Love Me Do" backed with "P.S. I Love You," on September 4, 1962, here were their ages: Ringo, 22; John, about to turn 22; Paul, 20; George, 19. When the announcement of the breakup was made on April 10, 1970, Ringo and John were 29, Paul about to turn 28, and George 27.

That's a big difference: They started as idealistic kids, hoping for fame and fortune; and ended as jaded adults, who saw that fame and fortune had their downsides. As another Sixties icon known for, among other things, hair, a costume, and music, Vulcan lyrette player Leonard Nimoy, put it, "You may find that having is not so fine a thing as wanting."

Between them, they went from having no marriages and no children (though John had one on the way) to having 5 marriages (John twice) and 4 children (5 if you count Linda's daughter from her first marriage, 6 if you count a child of Ringo's who was about to arrive).

They had also matured in their songwriting. Paul may still have been (and still is) willing to write "silly love songs"... and, as he said, what's wrong with that? Well, John and George thought there should be something more. And with the world seemingly going to pieces in the late Sixties and early Seventies, it began to look like silly love songs were no longer enough.

It was more than that, though: The musical climate had changed. The Beatles had let the genie out of the bottle, and it was heavier bands, many of them British, who were now setting the pace. The Stones, certainly. Also The Who. The Kinks. Led Zeppelin had recently debuted. Black Sabbath soon would. The leading American band of the 1970s would be the Eagles. Then there was Fleetwood Mac, with its distinctive mixes of nationality (British and American) and gender (with Lindsay Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie dividing the lead vocals). The leading soloists of the Seventies were Britain's Elton John, who would never have become a big star without the Beatles' influence; and America's Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder, who would have made it without the Beatles, but wouldn't have stretched their songwriting "muscle" nearly as much without them.

Billy Joel (who may be the world's biggest Beatles fan) and Bruce Springsteen, both hitting the big time in 1973, were both capable of  Paul-style sentimentality and John-style psychological-study music, and neither of their careers would have gone very far if there had never been a Beatles, but both were well beyond what the Beatles had done -- or even were doing with their solo careers. Even soul music was moving forward in the early Seventies: James Brown went more topical and heavier than before, Marvin Gaye did What's Going On, and George Clinton created his "P-Funk Empire," taking the Beatles' idea of the concept album and launching it into space -- figuratively speaking, although there were times when George wanted us to think it was literal.

Face it: "The lovable Mop Tops" were only about 5 years in the past, but it might as well have been 50 years. Although all 4 Beatles would have plenty of solo hits -- as late as 1989, Paul was in the U.S. Top 25, and as late as 2005 in the U.K.'s Top 25 -- the 1970s made the "boys" who sang, "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah" sound like relics, closer to the music of George Gershwin and Bing Crosby than that of David Bowie and Pink Floyd.

4. Ringo Starr. He was the first member to quit the band, during the White Album sessions in 1968. The other members had to talk him into coming back.

3. George Harrison. He quit, too, during the Let It Be sessions. As with Ringo, the others -- really, just John and Ringo -- had to talk him into coming back.

But it wasn't just that George had already quit once. Look at what he did from 1966 (on Revolver) through 1976 (well into his solo career). Especially by 1968, when he wrote "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," he was writing songs that would have been A-sides for just about any band on the planet that didn't have Paul McCartney deciding what the A-sides of their singles should be.

By 1969, when both Let It Be and Abbey Road were recorded, it was clear that being in the Beatles, which had made him fabulously wealthy, unbelievably famous, and quite respected by his peers, was holding him back. He began 1970 by playing on the last song the Beatles recorded together, his "I Me Mine," the last track chosen for Let It Be. He ended it by becoming the 1st ex-Beatle to have a Number 1 hit, "My Sweet Lord," from his album All Things Must Pass.

Although John had also released Plastic Ono Band, which is still highly regarded, it looked for a moment that George had taken the lead. When George hit Number 1 again in mid-1973 with "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)," it succeeded Paul's "My Love," and gave him 2 Number 1 hits on the U.S. singles charts -- at that point, as many as Paul, and thus as many as John, Paul and Ringo combined.

(John's "Imagine," though now the most-admired song ever written by any Beatle, only got to Number 3 in the U.S. And until Paul released Band On the Run at the end of 1973, it could be argued that he was having the least significant solo career of the ex-Beatles, behind even Ringo. Certainly, with John having done the One-to-One Concert and George, with Ringo's help, putting together the Concert for Bangladesh -- both shows at Madison Square Garden -- Paul was then having the least meaningful solo career.)

2. John Lennon. Since his death, John's fans have become more sanctimonious than Paul's ever were, and some would consider it blasphemy to blame him for the breakup. Well, they need to know: He does bear a great deal of the responsibility for it, much more than Yoko does.

Yoko would eventually say that John was one of those men around whom nothing got done unless there was a woman around. And Bob Dylan, a great admirer of John's (and vice versa), once said, "No man has ever done anything that a woman hasn't allowed him to do." But John was not an especially weak-willed individual. If Yoko had flat-out told him, "It's the band, or me," he could have said, "These guys loved me when nobody else did. You simply can't understand that. No one can, except them." He had a choice.

But he did make his choice. On September 20, 1969, not that the general public knew it at the time, he told Paul and Klein that he wanted to leave the group. And, unlike George and Ringo, talking him out of it was going to be pointless: As the Borg would say, resistance was futile. (Yes, 2 Star Trek references in a blog post about the Beatles. Don't look at me like that: William Shatner recorded "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.")

In Shout!, his biography of the Beatles, Philip Norman included a photo of John and Yoko, with a caption that included these words: "John Lennon has finally found a partner he needs more than he needs Paul McCartney."

Except for one thing. Maybe it wasn't futile to try to bring him back into the fold. If John Lennon wants to move on, there's probably only one man who can talk him out of it. That one man didn't. Because, as Norman neglected to point out, John wasn't the only Beatle who married his soulmate in mid-March 1969, who found a partner he needed more than he needed the other.

1. Paul McCartney. Look, Linda McCartney is dead, and unable to defend herself. Besides, even if she were still alive, and able to offer her thoughts on the subject, I wouldn't want it to look like I'm blaming her.

But this much is irrefutable and inescapable: It was Paul who announced the breakup. And Linda, and the life they were beginning to build together, was a big reason why. If either John or Paul was ready to move on, but not both, the band might have been saved, at least for a little while longer. But both were ready to do so, and from that fact, there was no turning back. Paul was the last of the Fab Four who was ready to move on; but, ready to move on, he was.

Oh, by the way: John let his wife, who couldn't sing and couldn't play an instrument, into his band? Uh, hello? Remember Linda's keyboard playing in Wings?

Then there was the record on which only 2 Beatles played: John on guitars, and Paul on bass, piano, drums and maracas. Neither George nor Ringo was available, and John wanted it recorded immediately. At one point, while Paul was on drums, John said, "Go a bit faster, Ringo." And Paul said, "Okay, George." The song was "The Ballad of John and Yoko." If Paul, who was soon to be exposed (through the film Let It Be) as a major control freak, especially in a recording studio, had a problem with John being with Yoko, do you think there's a chance in hell he would have participated in this? Not a chance. And yet, he did -- and, in return for this, John gave him shared writing credit (and the proceeds thereof), which he had no obligation to do.

But it goes beyond that: Despite years of antagonism, on and off, between Paul and Yoko, essentially, he recently exonerated her. Yes, I know, this link is to Fox News, which has as much to do with actual news as Yoko had to do with Wings, but Paul makes it pretty clear: Yoko should not be blamed:

She certainly didn’t break the group up. I don’t think you can blame her for anything.

And that's good enough for Yoko. If it's good enough for Paul, it should be good enough for his fans. As Chris Crocker would say, if he liked better music than Britney Spears, "Leave Yoko alone!”

Besides, Yoko is 80 years old now. Why pick on an old lady?

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John, of course, was killed in 1980. Cancer claimed Linda in 1998, and George in 2001.

Here's a recent photo, of Paul, Yoko, Ringo, and Ringo's wife Barbara Bach, a.k.a. Major Anya Amasova from the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me.


"We're only trying to get us some peace." At the least, it looks like they've found it with each other.

2 comments:

Unknown said...

Nice try but the photo at the top of this story says it all

EricAKATheBelgianGuy said...

I like the non-sports angle on this one. I actually did a music-themed one on my own blog, related to the Beach Boys.