FYI at the outset: I’m applying the same disclaimer from last time, when I started recounting the Beatles’ January 12, 1969, meeting at Ringo Starr’s house. For this series of posts, I’m going to jump between various parts of the January 13 Nagra tapes that directly address January 12, for the sake of the overall narrative. Specific quotes and certain discussion topics conspicuously absent here will soon be tied back into the story. I promise!
Twenty years after the breakup of the Beatles and in the midst of leading his own supergroup, George Harrison characterized the “Wilbury Attitude.”
From the March 1990 issue of Musician:
Somebody wrote in a paper things like, ‘Little Richard is a Wilbury. Madonna wouldn’t be a Wilbury but Cyndi Lauper would be.’ It was quite funny.
While there may have been “about 500” fifth Beatles, as George estimated in that same Musician profile, the four proper members of the Beatles were set in stone (Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe screw up this accounting, so let’s just stick with the figure of four), and the lineup had been stable for more than six and a half years by the time we reached January 1969.
John Lennon proposed expanding the group more than once over the course of that month. The Beatles’ board meeting on January 12 was one such occasion.
Most of what we know about that meeting we learned from recordings of John, Ringo and Paul McCartney — among several other key figures — captured a day later. And while some of those January 13 conversations were filmed openly at Twickenham Studios on the set, so to speak, of Let It Be, a clandestinely recorded lunchroom discussion fleshed out the story. Remember Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s spy microphone? Documenting this lunch became the device’s greatest legacy.
“The Beatles, to me, isn’t just limited to the four of us,” John said on the 13th, candidly recounting what became a contentious point discussed during the previous day’s meeting and in response to Ringo relaying that George wanted a meeting limited to the four Beatles. It’s worth noting there were multiple occasions during lunch that Ringo and Paul explicitly referred to the “four” Beatles.
“I think that I alone could be a Beatle. I think [Paul] could. I’m not sure whether [Ringo] could. … I’m just telling you what I think. I don’t think the Beatles revolve around the four people.”
Maybe it’s hindsight speaking, but of course the Beatles revolved around four people, and it had since Stu stepped out in 1961, even if their nominal leader suggested otherwise by calling a critical upgrade at drums merely a reorientation.
“It’s like [Ringo] joining instead of Pete,” John continued. “To me, it is like that.”
We don’t hear Yoko Ono’s name explicitly mentioned in the context of being a part of an expanded Beatles, a proto-Plastic Ono Band, but it’s the clear suggestion amid her omnipresence and in the wake of her taste of the fab experience 48 hours earlier.
For her part, Yoko didn’t see George’s departure as anything but temporary. His return was, in her eyes, completely in the hands of the others.
“You could get back George so easily, you know that,” Yoko said during the lunch.
“The third rung.”
That’s how Paul plainly described George’s place in the Beatles hierarchy on the lunchroom tape. (Paul conceded John was at the “front of the chute” and himself secondary. Ringo ranked himself as “the cabbage.”)
It was only a few days prior when George openly bemoaned his status within the group and the dead-end destiny of so many of his contributions: “I’ve got about 20 songs from 1948, because I knew very well at the moment I’d bring them into the studio that [splat sound], there its gone.”
This complaint on January 7 came immediately before he called for “a divorce,” which he pursued when he walked out January 10. At the January 12 board meeting, it only got worse, according to John.
“It’s a festering wound … yesterday we allowed to go even deeper,” John said early in the recording of the lunchroom discussion. “But we didn’t give him any bandages.”
Not only a reluctant medic, John wasn’t sure he wanted George to even be a Beatle anymore. Maybe the Beatles could be a four-piece after all, just with Yoko and without George.
“Do I want him back, Paul?” John said. “I’m just asking, do I want it back, whatever it is — the myth?”
That remark echoed George himself from the divorce conversation, in his response to Paul, saying the band used to be “switched on,” George had replied, “If that’s what doing it is, that’s why I don’t want to do it.”
Like George, John was searching for motivation to maintain the group’s status quo, even when the Beatles’ status quo was really a constant state of invention and reinvention, at least to the point of view of us on the outside.
During lunch on January 13, Paul and John agreed the duo would “connive,” when it came to their marginalization of George within the band and their maintenance of creative control. This, while George “could afford to be more insensitive” himself, as “some other part,” an other acting separately from the other members of the band, perhaps musically, perhaps socially.
“I do think that as grim as it all is,” Paul said, “that [George] is right. And I do think that our sole approach is exactly what he’s been saying.”
John simply said that he knows he’s treated people this way since primary school and offered the customary breakup excuse, “It’s not him, it’s just me.”
Yet while the duo acknowledged the problem of their treatment of George as a tertiary Beatle — later Paul would admit they treated him “a bit like a mongrel” — they didn’t set forth a path to solve it directly. The board meeting on the 12th, which was supposed to be a general business meeting, went so far beyond just an attempt to reconcile George’s walkout. The band’s very existence was in question. Again.
“It’s like George said. It doesn’t give me much satisfaction anymore,” John said on the 13th. “Because of the compromise we’d have to make to be together. The end result of the records now aren’t enough. … When something came out like Revolver or Pepper or whatever, there was still that element of surprise that we didn’t know where it came from. But now we know exactly where it comes from, and how we arrived at that particular noise and how it could have been much better.
“The only way to get it satisfactorily for yourself is to do it on your own. And then that’s fucking hard.”
Here John again mirrors another of George’s points from January 7, when the latter said he wanted no part of performing any of his own songs at the presumptive forthcoming concert “because they just turn out shitty. They come out like a compromise.”
Linda Eastman, who like Yoko was at the lunch on the 13th, responded by throwing some of John’s words back in his face. “But you were saying yesterday … you write good songs and it can’t be any better way. You don’t want just studio musicians. I mean, that’s how I look at it. You make good music together, whether you like it or not.”
John admitted that he liked it. Still, he was dissatisfied with the White Album. Not his own contributions, which he remained happy with, but the sum of the parts. While Ringo said he dug it “far more than Sgt. Pepper,” John struggled to reconcile how good the White Album was and what he felt it should have been.
As difficult as the situation was, Paul was the optimist. He didn’t even see George’s absence as a problem — yet.
“See, I’m just assuming he’s coming back, you know? I’ll tell you, I’m just assuming he’s coming back.
“What if he isn’t?” John asked.
“If he isn’t, then it’s a new problem.”
A “new” problem implies previously existing problems, and on January 12, 1969, the Beatles definitely had other problems.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know Yoko was right and Paul’s optimism was justified. It was easy to get George to return to the group. It took a couple painless concessions from the others, and he was back with the Beatles just a few days later — this wasn’t any protracted estrangement, just one with good retrospective drama and publicity. For context, Ringo’s resignation during the White Album sessions lasted almost twice as long.
While acknowledging the issue, why didn’t John and Paul go a step further and apply the bandages to salve George’s festering wounds? It’s unclear, as they had recognized, at least in the wake of the meeting — if not during it — their “conniving” problem.
“Our brains sort of … con him,” Paul said at lunch, calling those moments “so innocent” and “so simple.”
That kind of treatment came completely natural to John. “It might have been my game. It might have been masochistic,” he said describing his approach. “But the goal was still the same: self-preservation.”
Yet, John said he “had to fight it the last three years,” saying he overcompensated by feeling he was actually giving in to George for several years, going out of his way to work with and relinquish a territory on their records, while George was creatively on “a good ride.”
He didn’t use the word “connived,” but in later interviews George did consider the others’ actions selfish. None of this should surprise anyone who has followed the Beatles for the last half-century.
From George’s terrific 1977 interview with Crawdaddy:
There were too many limitations based upon our being together for so long. Everybody was sort of pigeonholed. It was frustrating. The problem was that John and Paul had written songs for so long it was difficult. First of all because they had such a lot of tunes and they automatically thought that theirs should be the priority, so for me I’d always have to wait through ten of their songs before they’d even listen to one of mine. … I had a little encouragement from time to time, but it was a very little. It was like they were doing me a favor. …
Paul would always help along when you’d done his ten songs, then when he got ‘round to doing one of my songs, he would help. It was silly. It was very selfish, actually.
Then there’s Yoko, who George didn’t want around the studio as a non-participant, much less as an artistic partner. He may have been insensitive to her when she entered John’s life (invoking her “bad vibes”), but he clearly felt that behavior was justified. This emerged as the red line for John. We know how the story ended, and Yoko didn’t leave John’s side while the Beatles were together. John won that part of the battle, even if she wasn’t elevated to a member of the group. (Through tragedy she ultimately became a member of the Apple board.)
There was no punch-up on January 10, 1969, that pushed George to take a break from the Beatles, it was just, largely, the simple, sweeping con he endured for years. You could almost say George had been fobbed off and he’d been fooled, he’d been robbed and ridiculed. John and Paul recognized and acknowledged as much on the lunchroom tape.
Like it or not, in the words of Linda, the Beatles made good music together. After the meeting on January 12, 1969, it was an open question if the four of them had any mutual desire and consensus to resume doing so.