For Beatles fans, 1970 was a particularly heavy year — one in which we watched one of our most beloved bands fall apart, and witnessed the rebirth of each Beatle as a solo artist. The chronology itself is crazy. A slew of Beatles-related albums were released in the space of that single year, starting with Ringo Starr’s solo debut, Sentimental Journey, in March. Then came Paul McCartney’s self-titled debut LP in April, along with a press release making it more or less clear that the Beatles were finished.
Ringo was quickly back in the fray with a country record, Beaucoups of Blues, released in September and drawing on the talents of some of Nashville’s greatest guitarists and other session players. More guitar grandeur came in November when George Harrison’s epic triple album, All Things Must Pass, came out; and the year closed with John Lennon’s stunning solo debut album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, a stark swansong to the Sixties that also charted a bold course forward into Lennon’s solo career. For more about these albums — and several others — check out “Man We Was Busy” on page 59.
As the Beatles faced the challenges and excitement of new solo careers, Harrison, Lennon and McCartney would each build on the groundbreaking guitar legacy they had forged together over the course of the Beatles’ career. So many of their most revolutionary rock guitar innovations were collectively wrought. “I Feel Fine” from 1964 became the first rock record to feature the creative deployment of guitar feedback, when the A string on McCartney’s legendary 1963 Hofner 500/1 violin bass triggered a transductive loop between Lennon’s Gibson J-150 E electro-acoustic guitar and his Vox amp.
The gloriously multitracked guitar harmonies on 1966’s “And Your Bird Can Sing” from Revolver were a collective effort between Paul and George. And to create the pioneering backwards guitar solo on “I’m Only Sleeping” from the same album, Harrison spent hours with engineers Geoff Emerick and Phil McDonald. Then George and Paul worked extensively with the engineers on the harmonized backwards outro.
Feedback and backwards tape tracks — not to mention a whole revolutionary take on the role of the electric guitar in rock music — would become integral to the work of Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck and many other greats. But it all originated with the Beatles. And while 1970 was the year it all came tumbling down and spilling out in every direction, the demise of the Beatles and the emergence of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr as solo artists was a process that unfolded over a period of several years. The 1967 death of the Beatles’ longtime manager Brian Epstein set the wheels in motion. But, while management issues are what would finally split up the Beatles, it was also, ultimately, a simple matter of four highly gifted young men growing up and growing apart from one another.
LET IT BE
Bad Vibes Beset the Beatles
THE BEATLES HAD little love for Let It Be. John Lennon called it “the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever.” The disc stuck in Paul McCartney’s craw for decades, to the point where, in 2003, he put out his own “revenge” remix and digital remastering of the album, Let it Be… Naked. George Harrison spent years blocking the DVD release of the Let It Be movie. (As we speak, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson is working on a documentary based on unused footage from the recording of Let It Be; it’s expected to be released this year in time for the original film’s 50th anniversary.)
It had all begun in McCartney’s desperation to keep the Beatles together as the whole thing fell apart around him. He floated the idea of a concert film that would capture what was generally hoped would be the Beatles’ first live performance since retiring from touring in 1966 to concentrate on their recording. The idea was doomed from the start. The sessions got underway just three months after the Beatles wrapped up 1968’s The Beatles, AKA the White Album. Lennon, McCartney and Harrison pretty much put all their best songs into that massive double-disc project. So they didn’t have a lot of new material to record.
“The only thing we haven’t got for every song is… the song,” McCartney mused at one point. Paul is really the only one who came in prepared with a few A-list songs ready to commit to tape. These would become the Beatles’ final hits, “Let It Be,” “Get Back" and “The Long and Winding Road.” Lennon’s mind and heart were elsewhere — with the new love of his life, Yoko Ono, and the cutting-edge work they were doing with music, film and performance art. His songwriting contributions to the Let It Be sessions tend to be more fragmented and free-associative. “Dig It,” for example. Is it really a song? It’s well-named, as the group was clearly digging around for pretty much anything to put on the record. The last-minute addition of “Across the Universe” (originally recorded in ’68), ups the album’s quotient of great Lennon songs, although John hated that recording as well.
Harrison’s head was elsewhere too. He was off gigging with Eric Clapton and hanging out with Bob Dylan. His own tepid 12-bar contribution to Let It Be, “For You Blue,” isn’t one of his best efforts either. And Ringo had his eye on a movie career.
Making the White Album had been tense enough for them. Ringo had stormed out of Abbey Road Studios during those lengthy sessions, only to return a few weeks later. George became the next Beatle to walk, during Let It Be rehearsals at Twickenham Film Studios in January 1969. His angry departure was captured on film by director Michael LindsayHogg. Harrison only returned on the condition that the live concert part of McCartney’s original plan would be scrapped. But things only got more tense once the Beatles adjourned to their new recording studio in the basement of Apple HQ in London’s Savile Row. They had commissioned one Alexis Mardas — AKA “Magic Alex” — to design and build the studio. He sold them on a bunch of new technologies that only existed in his imagination. An invisible force field around Ringo’s drums was to control microphone leakage onto any of 72 tracks, back when 16-track was only just arriving on Planet Earth.
Needless to say, little of it worked. A hasty request was sent to EMI’s Abbey Road studio for supplementary equipment. Faced with challenges like these, it would have been nice to have George Martin around. But after years of pushing the musical envelope together, Lennon had told the Beatles’ longtime producer that this time he wanted none of Martin’s usual “production nonsense.”
It was a perfect recipe for disaster. Much credit for getting some solid tracks down to tape is due to the soon-to-be-legendary Glynn Johns — hired strictly as a balance engineer for this project — and Alan Parsons, who would go on to engineer Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and garner considerable radio airplay with his own Alan Parsons Project.
Cameras captured some of the last live-in-the-studio guitar interplays between Harrison, Lennon and McCartney. Lennon played the country-flavoured leads on “Get Back” on his ’65 Epiphone Casino, while Harrison played rhythm on a rosewood body Telecaster he’d recently received from Fender. The same guitar through a Leslie 147 cabinet gifted to George by Eric Clapton was used for one of the two lyrical solos on “Let It Be.” He later cut another solo with his “Lucy” Gibson Les Paul, another gift from Clapton, through the same Leslie. The Les Paul solo is heard on the 45 rpm single mix of “Let it Be,” produced by George Martin. The Telecaster solo is heard on the album version, mixed by Phil Spector.
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