The Break-Up of the Beatles — and the Fragmented Spirituality of Our Age

Fifty years ago today — on April 10, 1970 — the Beatles announced that they were breaking up. We now know that this had been brewing for at least two years, as the members of the band grew apart both creatively and personally. But just like there is a difference between a troubled marriage and a marriage where the couple has decided to get a divorce, so too it seemed that everything changed on that spring day half a century ago.

I remember well when I discovered that the Beatles were splitting up. It may not have been that exact day, but it was certainly not long after. It was the spring of my 3rd grade year — also the year of the first Earth Day, which would take place just twelve days later. One of my classmates broke the news to me. “Did you hear the Beatles are breaking up?” he asked, with a seriousness as if he were announcing the death of Santa Claus. Having loved the Beatles ever since as a 3-year-old I watched them on Ed Sullivan, this news really did feel like learning of a loved one’s passing.

If you were born after about 1980, you will have no recollection of this — but until John Lennon was murdered, there was always some speculation in the air about “would the Beatles get back together?” Impresarios like Bill Graham offered them millions of dollars to agree to just one tour — or even just one concert. It certainly didn’t seem likely — Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison all used both interviews and lyrics of some of their solo songs to implicitly (or explicitly) attack one another. Only Ringo seemed to be above the fray, managing on at least one album to get all three of his former bandmates to appear as guest stars (although not on the same track).

It would eventually come out that Paul and John had managed to some extent to salvage their friendship by the mid-70s, but only in the privacy of their homes. But then a deranged, cowardly fan shot Lennon five times in the back, and a Beatles reunion became an impossibility. Even when the three survivors would work together in the mid 1990s to produce their “Anthology” series, the story goes that they talked about re-recording “Let it Be” together, as a trio — but the absence of John was just too much to bear, and all they could manage to do was play a few oldies together.

All four ex-Beatles had respectable solo careers, but all four also released some pretty mediocre-to-awful material as solo artists (or in McCartney’s case, as a member of Wings). Considering how creative and visionary the Beatles were even on their last group effort (Abbey Road, even though it was released prior to the less magnificent but still eminently listenable Let it Be), we could argue that the Beatles were brilliant in their timing: they broke up at an optimal moment, where each could find a way to shine as a solo artist, and yet their body of work as a group was protected from the kind of decline that mars the later work of so many other bands.

To commemorate this sad, if inevitable, day, I’d like to reflect on four songs, one from each of the individual Beatles. Ringo’s song comes from Abbey Road, but the other three are all songs from their solo careers (or in McCartney’s case, from Wings). Each of these songs is instantly recognizable as a signature song of each individual Beatle — indeed, two of these were #1 hits when first released — but I also think they are songs that, taken together, speak to the kind of fragmented spiritual life that characterizes our culture over the last 50 years. When the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan’s Show in 1964, it was a moment of cultural unity, at least for white Americans. But a decade later, we were already beginning to see the fissures in our cultural identity that separated liberals from conservatives, hippies from capitalists, true believers from hardcore atheists, and activists from ostrich-in-the-sand-ists — basically, the kinds of splits that have gone on to ignite what we now call the culture wars.

Maybe I’m overstating the case a bit, but I’d like to suggest that one of the reasons why the Beatles continue to fascinate us, half a century after they went their separate ways, is precisely because the psychological differences that contributed to their split are similar to the problems that we face as an entire society. Maybe we can learn something from how each of the Beatles sees the world in their own particular way.

I should also point out that, as popular and influential as they were, the solo Beatles certainly do not offer a comprehensive commentary on our culture: they were all men, all white, to the best of my knowledge all straight, and by the time of their solo careers all quite wealthy. So there are limitations to how they represent the fragmentation of our culture. But even so, I think it’s interesting to consider how these four signature songs really do represent four radically different points of view. Check them out — and consider which of these songs do (or don’t) speak to your values and your way of relating to the world.

God love the Beatles. “And in the end, the love we take is equal to the love we make.”

John Lennon — Imagine

John Lennon’s signature song is still very much part of our cultural zeitgeist — consider the controversy when Gal Gadot gathered a group of her celebrity buddies to sing this song as a kind of pep talk for the teeming masses as we have encountered the challenge of COVID-19. The fact of the matter is, the song combines a wistful “let’s all live as one” idealism with Lennon’s notorious disdain for religion — the man who announced in 1966 that the Beatles where “more popular than Jesus” and doubled down after the predictable firestorm by insisting that Christians were “thick and ordinary” would naturally combine his political idealism with a kind of aggressive agnosticism that ultimately seems narcissistic. On his much lesser known but more revealing song “God,” he offers a litany of what he doesn’t believe in — not only does he reject the Bible and Jesus, but he has no use for Hitler, the Buddha or yoga, either. He ends by announcing “I don’t believe in Beatles” (as if the Beatles were something to be believed in!) and then reveals what anyone could have suspected: “I just believe in me, Yoko and me.”

As a young adult, John Lennon was my favorite solo Beatle, and his anger at religion (and the politics of war) was helpful for me as I had to sort out my own sense of having been betrayed by the shadow side of our culture’s institutions. But a friend recently asked me who my favorite Beatle was, and I had to say — without even thinking about it — “It used to be John, but these days it’s George.” My friend remarked, “John’s anger doesn’t really age well.” It’s sad that Lennon’s life was so absurdly, meaninglessly cut short — had he lived into his 70s, how might he have revisited his own angry youth? We’ll never know, but just spend a few minutes on Twitter and you can see what that kind of unfiltered anger has morphed into in our time. And it’s not pretty.

Paul McCartney — Silly Love Songs

I saw an interview recorded fairly recently, where a septuagenarian Paul McCartney, asked for what must have been the bejillionth time what he thought was the secret of the Beatles’ success, replied rather humbly that he thought they were just a really good, really tight little band. And that’s true enough. But there have been a lot of really good, really tight little bands over the years, but they didn’t have what the Beatles had: three genius songwriters (some people might say only John and Paul were geniuses, but I think George deserves equal billing: his output may have been much smaller, but with songs like “Something” or “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” he reached the same heights as his more renowned bandmates).

Still, the heart of the Beatles-as-songwriting-juggernaut was the partnership between Lennon and McCartney. Even though by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band they were clearly mostly writing songs as individuals — a divide that continued to sharpen until their bitter split — at their best, they continued to rely on each other if for nothing else than brilliant cross-fertilization. You see hints of what was to come in 1967, when McCartney’s unabashedly sentimental “Penny Lane” was paired with Lennon’s dreamy and nihilistic “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Later that year, Paul would chirp “It’s getting better all the time” while John would offer his dour counterpoint: “It can’t get no worse!” By 1968’s The Beatles (aka The White Album), the lines were drawn: Lennon was singing about heroin and revolution and teenaged girls lost in meditation; McCartney opted for ditties about his pet sheepdog, reggae singers, and English music halls. In other words, Lennon’s music was gritty, cynical, political, and angry; McCartney’s was sentimental, playful, upbeat and sometimes saccharine.

Each one of them could bust out of this stereotype: McCartney’s “Helter Skelter” was a gritty enough rocker to inspire the dark fantasies of Charles Manson, while Lennon’s “Goodnight” (sung by Ringo) sounds like McCartney at his sugary worst. “Blackbird” on the surface was more McCartney sweetness, but the lyrics had a political edge — his reflection on the trauma of American racism. But stereotypes often exist because they point to something that’s really happening, and anyone who listens to the 1970s albums by Lennon and McCartney can see that, for the most part, they both embodied this kind of dark/light division in their creative personas.

McCartney wasn’t technically a solo artist — for much of the 70s he and his wife Linda were members of a band called Wings — but nobody was fooled: Wings consisted of one ex-Beatle and a bunch of other musicians. In 1976 Wings had the top selling single of the year (something McCartney had done twice before, with the Beatles) with “Silly Love Songs” — a mellow confection of a funky pop song that was McCartney’s way of saying “So what?” to all his critics (including Lennon) who derided him for just writing, well, silly love songs. “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs — and what’s wrong with that?”

The man has got a point. The Beatles built their success on silly love songs (listen to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” and tell me I’m wrong). So did Michael Jackson, Hall & Oates, Taylor Swift, and a host of other top-selling musicians. So while John Lennon’s motto might have been “If you aren’t enraged, you aren’t paying attention!” Paul McCartney’s rejoinder is simply “Love makes the world go ’round.” John’s intensity, expressed in righteous anger at how politics and religion fail us, is matched by Paul’s sunny optimism, where falling in love and staying in love is really all we need to get happy and be happy.

John and George represent a yin and yang in their relationship to spirituality — George was the mystic, John the skeptic — whereas Paul (and Ringo) are content to simply be secular. “All You Need is Love” may have been John’s song, but Paul seems to have more truly embodied its message. The last survivor of the three songwriting Beatles, Macca is now a billionaire who sells out his concerts by happily delivering setlists filled to the brim with familiar hits — from both his bands. At least for him, love really has been enough.

George Harrison — My Sweet Lord

All the Beatles released solo albums in 1970; John’s bitterly angry Plastic Ono Band, Ringo’s countrified Beaucoups of Blues, and Paul’s uneven McCartney. And then there was George: the so-called “quiet Beatle” released the triple-LP All Things Must Pass which, for my money, is hands down the best solo album by any ex-Beatle. By turns psychedelic, folky, rootsy, dreamy, and straight-ahead rock and roll, the album featured some great guest musicians (Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Ringo), and proof positive that, once liberated from having to function in the shadow of Lennon-McCartney, that Harrison could more than easily stand on his own as a writer, lead singer, and “star.”

The lead single from the album, “My Sweet Lord” became a huge hit, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and cementing Harrison’s reputation as the “mystical” Beatle. Alas, the song’s melody was so similar to a 1963 hit single by the Chiffons, “He’s So Fine,” that Harrison became embroiled in a plagiarism suit that would forever tarnish the song’s reputation. The judge eventually decided that Harrison had “subconsciously” copied the earlier song.

But whatever we might think of the history of “My Sweet Lord’s” musical composition, what makes the song truly unique is its lyrics. Not only is it an unabashed hymn of spiritual devotion; it is no doubt the first (and, to date, only) international hit song that is explicitly interspiritual in nature: Harrison’s backing vocalists exchange a chant of “Alleluia” with “Hare Krishna” and various other lines of Sanskrit devotion that make the song almost a kind of pop-kirtan. It so clearly represents its moment in history: 1970 was probably about the only year in which a song that so beautifully wove together devotional language from both eastern and western spirituality could literally make it to the top of the pop charts. So while John Lennon was telling the world he didn’t believe in yoga, George Harrison offered a joyful song of ecstatic spirituality that brought different cultures together — in a mystical way.

For Lennon, “the world will live as one” only when we get rid of religion; For McCartney, unity comes not through political action but through a private experience of romantic love, whereas Harrison found oneness by uniting the great spiritual traditions of the world. Unfortunately, in the half century that has followed the release of “My Sweet Lord,” fundamentalist religion has made it increasingly difficult for members of different spiritual traditions to come together in a shared experience of devotion; although we have a thriving interspiritual movement thanks to organizations like the Parliament of World Religions and the work of visionary individuals like Wayne Teasdale, Mirabai Starr and Anthony deMello, it seems that among “average folks” far more people are comfortable adopting the skepticism of John Lennon, the secularism of Paul McCartney, or the fundamentalism that has characterized the religious right over the last forty years.

Still, for those of us who embrace the contemplative path — even if we anchor ourselves in the context of a single religious tradition — the joyful exuberance of “My Sweet Lord” is a reminder that a kind of unitive spirituality that transcends our religious differences really is possible, even if it’s hardly a mainstream reality in our day.

Ringo Starr — Octopus’s Garden

Finally we come to dear Ringo. No one accuses Ringo Starr of being a great songwriter. His greatness had to do with performance — McCartney’s praise of Ringo when inducting him in the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame centered on his virtuosity as a drummer: not flashy like many later rock drummers, but steady and reliable. Songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and “Rain” show his capacity for mastering intricate rhythms and rapid changes in time signature.

But Ringo has written or co-written a handful of songs over the years, with perhaps his most renowned composition being “Octopus’s Garden” from Abbey RoadOn the surface it’s a playful counterpoint to Lennon-McCartney’s 1966 gem “Yellow Submarine;” both songs are whimsical fantasias on what might be possible deep under the sea. But where “Yellow Submarine” is just a playful children’s song, “Octopus’s Garden” has a darker tone. “I’d like to be, under the sea, in an octopus’ garden, in the shade,” begins the song, but eventually Ringo reveals what he’s really feeling:

We would be so happy you and me
No one there to tell us what to do

The story goes that Ringo began writing the song while on vacation during a break from recording the White Album; he was unhappy with the conflicts brewing in the band and so he escaped, both physically (by going on vacation) and psychologically (by writing this song about his “little hideaway beneath the waves”).

Ringo’s song, then, is ultimately a song about escapism. And it parallels with a dark chapter in the drummer’s life: from the time of the Beatles’ breakup until the late 1980s, Starr struggled with alcoholism. Eventually he went into rehab, and like Paul McCartney he has survived — and now thrives as an elder statesman of the rock and roll world: he may not attract as big crowds as his former bandmate, but his shows have a reputation for fun, and as Ringo closes in on his 80th birthday, he can take some satisfaction not only in having been a member of the greatest rock band in history, but also in being the wealthiest drummer on the planet.

But we all know that alcoholism — and other forms of escape — don’t always have such happy endings. Nicotine shortened George Harrison’s life, and other musicians who were the Beatles’ peers were destroyed by heroin — or booze. The reality is, many of us do choose the path of escape. For some, it’s a bad detour through life, whereas for others, it leads to more ominous consequences.

Four Ways of Living

In writing this post, my purpose is not to decide which ex-Beatle is “best” or which one offers us the most helpful approach to life. I’ve already said that as a young man I appreciated Lennon’s iconoclasm, whereas in getting older I find more comfort in Harrison’s heartfelt devotion. But even McCartney’s romanticism has its place; and while I hope we can all avoid the dark side of escapism, at his best even Ringo Starr’s playful spirit is something to enjoy and celebrate.

The world needs true believers like George Harrison, dedicated skeptics like John Lennon, unabashed lovers like Paul McCartney, and lovable goofs like Ringo Starr. The Beatles were brilliant because these four immensely talented — and very different — blokes from Liverpool managed to make magic out of their very different approaches to life. Maybe they represent archetypes, and each of us need a little bit of each in our lives. We need to be careful: Lennon’s anger can lead to bitterness and nihilism; McCartney’s romanticism can be soppy and saccharine; Harrison’s devotionalism blinded him from the creative mistakes he made; and Starr’s childlike escapism opened up into the dangers of substance abuse. So if you find you favor one Beatle or another, try to cultivate the energies of the other three. I think they can be correctives to each other. The true believer needs a dash of skepticism. The iconoclast needs some optimistic love. The escapist needs both hope and the gumption to fight for what he believes in.

It’s sad that the Beatles broke up so bitterly, and it’s a shame we never found out what magic they might have co-created in their mature years. But let’s keep listening to the joyful music of their youth, and perhaps we can “reunite” the Beatles in our own hearts: by weaving together the best dimensions of each of their archetypes in our own spiritual lives.

Featured Image: The Zebra Crossing at Abbey Road. Photo by WillMcC at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0; source: commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12690593.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.