This piece by Rob Sheffield (whose most recent book is Dreaming The Beatles) just came out in Rolling Stone. Sheffield uses the lens of the new Peter Jackson documentary due out next August and put together from the same sessions that yielded Let It Be to consider, again, just why the Beatles came apart as and when they did. There’s nothing especially new in Sheffield’s analysis, but he deserves credit for making some good points trenchantly.
Sheffield summarizes the situation thus:
“In the end, it’s really a story about four friends trying to hold on to one another in dark and confusing times — searching for a way to shine on till tomorrow. Like everybody else, John, Paul, George, and Ringo witnessed the end of the Beatles with shock and disbelief, no idea how to apply the brakes.”
This perspective largely accords with Mikal Gilmore’s 2009 assessment in the same magazine, and Gilmore’s article remains the best in-depth consideration of the psychology and maneuvering that went on after Brian Epstein’s death.
Where Sheffield shines is his discussion of the music. Take this, for instance:
“‘Get Back’ began as a political statement, ‘Commonwealth Song,’ defending Pakistani immigrants, a hot topic in England after racist politician Enoch Powell’s anti-immigration crusade. (Paul had already addressed the controversy with ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,’ an ode to West Indian-immigrant family life — the White Album’s most explicitly political song.)”
Yep, the oft-derided “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is actually making a timely point about immigration, rather as a song celebrating a Mexican migrant family’s home life in America would today.
Unsurprisingly and accurately, Allen Klein emerges as the most unlikeable and destructive person involved in the breakup. But Sheffield also reminds us that Lennon’s and McCartney’s decisions to include their wives as artistic partners, heavily criticized as it was, in fact constituted a decisive break with rock-star orthodoxy:
” . . . their new wives were independent adults, artists with their own careers, women who’d already married and divorced and had kids. There weren’t many rock stars of their generation with such a prophetic idea of male-female partnerships. But they were looking to explore new models of monogamy, outside the nouveau-hippie patriarchy. When Mick Jagger sniffed at Yoko and Linda — Paul was fond of quoting Mick — ‘I wouldn’t have my old lady in the band,’ it was exactly the mentality John and Paul were looking to escape.”
Ultimately, the more I read about the breakup, the more it is revealed as the Goldilocks scenario in reverse: if everything hadn’t gone so exactly wrong at precisely the worst time, the final split wouldn’t have happened. But why do we (at least some of us) still care, 50 years on? Short answer: the music, of course.
Or, as Peter Jackson puts it in the quote that Sheffield ends the article with: “They’re only the icons they are because the music was so majestically good. I’m not a musicologist, that’s not where I come from. But all I would say is, no matter if it’s two tracks or four tracks or eight tracks, there’s a joy in the songs that they sang. In decades and decades to come, it will never be dulled. It will never be suppressed. That joy, that infectious joy, is part of the human psyche now.”