And in the End – The Last Days of the Beatles
August 1969 and the most famous people on Earth walk across a zebra crossing in North London for a photo-shoot for the cover of their new album; their last studio album. The image has become iconic and, as one who’s stared at it many times, it’s certainly intriguing. Those last days of summer in an exclusive residential area and there are the Fab Four striding out from the famous Abbey Road studios. Except it’s not “The Fabs”, as Harrison called them, anymore. It’s four individuals who are locked in a financial fight to the finish, two of whom would rather be anywhere than where they are, and who all are trying to give one more album to the world as their legacy. Oh, and to make some money, which, incredible as it may seem, was becoming an increasing issue. It’s the last image many will hold of The Beatles together, but it’s also a final façade of solidarity, covering a turbulent ending to a remarkable career.
Ken McNab’s brilliantly forensic account takes the reader on a month-by-month tour through the final year of The Beatles. January pretty much sets the tone with the divisive Get Back project that McCartney fervently hoped would save the band and set them back on the track as the live-preforming rock ‘n’ roll act he still believed they could and should be. Unfortunately, Lennon and Harrison in particular had little enthusiasm for it, the former believing the rest of the band were being reduced o the status of McCartney’s backing band and the latter just basically wanting out to pursue the solo career he believed would hand him his due recognition as a songwriter. The subsequent Let It Be movie painted a stark picture of a band in terminal decline and, based on what McNab tells us of the sessions from a freezing Twickenham studio, whoever is in charge of the re-remake of unseen material will still have their work cut out to present a more positive light.
However, these sessions did give us the famous ‘rooftop concert’ and here is where McNab excels, with intricate details of the half-baked idea that became reality. The practical issues of making the roof safe and technologically sound for a live performance, the crazy idea for a helicopter to film it that could have resulted in the death of everyone on the roof from the backdraft. Then there are the words of Ken Wharfe, a young police officer who, contrary to myth and the hopes of Starr, makes clear that the police were never going to break up the concert and arrest the band for public order offences. They were enjoying it as much as anyone else. Beneath the surface though, Harrison is all too painfully aware that the five songs chosen for performance are all Lennon-McCartney ones and he will merely be providing backing vocals; this is one seriously disillusioned Beatle.
It’s a miracle that the concert happened at all as, just a few days earlier, Lennon and McCartney had almost come to blows over the issues that hang like a cloud over the final year of the group. Disputes over who should manage their affairs, Paul favoured his future in-laws the Eastmans while the rest of the band favoured New York bruiser Alan Klein, had led to explosive revelations that McCartney had secretly purchased more shares in northern Songs behind Lennon’s back. The financial battles, especially the loss of Northern Songs to Lew Grade’s ATV group, are a grim backdrop and McNab does well to inform while keeping the narrative moving swiftly on.
If the individual Beatles were to keep a scrapbook of their activities during 1969, there’s little doubt who’s would have been the most rammed. While George wanted out, and had done for some time, and Ringo, the consummate drummer who “just wanted to play with the boys”, was well aware of the coming demise, the workaholic McCartney was unable to accept the idea that The Beatles were finished and hoped to re-engage his partner and, incredibly, go back on the road. Lennon however, had mentally “left the building” and had now hitched his wagon to a new creative partner in the shape of girlfriend, then Gibraltar-sanctioned wife, Yoko Ono.
The ‘hyperactivist’ Lennons were certainly not short of media exposure with ‘bed-ins’ in Amsterdam and later Montreal, the chaotic recording of Give Peace a Chance and the return of Lennon’s MBE in protest at British involvement in Biafra and Cold Turkey slipping down the charts. Lennon’s impulsive decision, after taking a late-night call from a Canadian promoter (which he tried to wriggle out of the next morning and send flowers instead) to appear at a festival in Toronto with a “cobbled together” band that included Eric Clapton and Alan White on drums surely hastened his departure from the biggest band in history. When he announced his desire to leave, a stunned McCartney headed to his Mull estate while Klein, seeing his Golden Goose about to fly away, begged Lennon to keep it secret to maximise sales of the planned Get Back (Let it Be) sessions . Financial realties meant this made perfect sense to the whole band until McCartney managed to cause further ill-will by revealing in an interview that the band were no more and making it look like he, not as had happened Lennon, had decided to split.
This is all well-worn stuff, but Ken McNab has a lightness of touch in his narrative. It is possible to remain above the maelstrom and follow the demise of not just a phenomenon, but also a group of ordinary individuals, catapulted from a thriving local scene in Liverpool to a level of fame that no one could have predicted. McNab’s tale balances events with brilliant insight into the everyday like the Lennon’s period in a Highlands hospital after their car crash or the realities of recording Give Peace a Chance in a hotel room. The two figures on the Abbey Road cover, contractors engaged in the studio, explain how they were determined not to miss the show and therefore became immortalised and the other Beatles worries about the impact the break-up will have on Ringo.
This is an absorbing, fast-paced yet scrupulously researched account of the end of an era that will never be seen again.