“Breaking up is like knocking over a Coke machine,” Jerry Seinfeld once observed. “You can’t do it in one push. You’ve got to rock it back and forth a few times, and then it goes over.”
I was reminded of Seinfeld’s law when watching Get Back, Peter Jackson’s gruelling documentary about the making of the Beatles’ Let it Be album. Breaking up a band is indeed hard to do. But a well-executed demise can be vital to a band’s long-term reputation. Many a supergroup has ruined a perfectly good break-up by reforming when its members are about 90, or when the lone survivor from the original lineup is an aged bassist whose lawyers had the acumen to secure the naming rights.
The Beatles are the definition of a successful band break-up.
Thankfully, the Beatles never tainted their legacy with comeback albums or reunion tours. They broke up, and that was that. Fifty years after it happened, their break-up remains a classic of the genre: the break-up that all other break-ups must measure themselves against. After gathering for a photoshoot in August 1969, the four Beatles were never together in the same room again. There were times in the 1970s when two of them got together, or even three. But never all four. And when John Lennon was murdered in 1980, the prospects of a reunion were nixed for good.
The Beatles in the recording studio during the making of their 1970 album Let It Be.Credit:Apple
Jackson’s Get Back is compiled from footage shot in January 1969, by which time it was clear the Beatles’ days were numbered. “The Beatles have been in [the] doldrums for at least a year,” says George Harrison in an early scene. “… Maybe we should get a divorce.”
“Who’d have the children?” Lennon quips. But Harrison wasn’t joking. A few days later, he quit the band. He came back after a week, but the Coke machine was wobbling. Starr had given it an ominous push the year before when he briefly walked out of the White Album sessions. Lennon would give it a terminal shove in August 1969, when he privately told the band he was done. And McCartney administered the coup de grâce in 1970, publicly announcing that the Beatles were defunct.
We tend to think it’s a shame or even a tragedy that the Beatles broke up. Watching Jackson’s documentary, you might find yourself yelling advice at the screen. Take a holiday, guys. The world will wait for you. Come back after a year and see if you can still stand each other. If you can’t, you can always take the Eagles option. Mount a multi-national tour where you turn up to the stadiums in separate limos, never speaking to each other even while on stage.
But we’d love the Beatles far less if they’d faded away instead of burning out. One of the secrets of their greatness is that they never overstayed their welcome. Anticipating the teachings of Kenny Rogers, they always knew when to fold ’em. Most of their best songs ran for barely two minutes. Their average live show was done and dusted in half an hour.
Their career was like that too: concise, finite, crammed with variety and invention. After seven years of intense collaboration, they walked away when everyone still wanted more. Everyone except the Beatles themselves, that is. “I don’t want to spend six months making an album I have two tracks on,” Lennon told a reporter in December 1969. “And neither do Paul or George probably.”
John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr in The Beatles: Get Back.Credit:Apple
That was the rub. By 1969, the Beatles were too talented individually to want to sit around being each other’s sidemen. It was Harrison’s emergence as a serious songwriter that really tore things. A band in which the author of “Something” ranked as the third-string songwriter wasn’t destined to survive for long. It’s a miracle it formed in the first place.
And it’s a miracle it stayed together long enough to end things on a fitting note. Just a month after the Let it Be sessions petered out, the Beatles began work on Abbey Road – an exemplary farewell album, which actually climaxed with a song called The End. Not many bands get to write their epitaph, but the Beatles did. “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
In the 1970s, the Beatles were repeatedly offered millions of dollars to reform. They repeatedly said no. Harrison got so sick of being asked that he wryly floated the idea of a pay-per-view satellite event at which the Beatles would sit down and have a cup of tea together, charging people $20 a pop to watch. “We could make a fortune,” he said.
All art is a quest for perfection. No artist ever quite gets there, but some get closer than others. And in popular music, no career has ever come closer to perfection than the Beatles did. They didn’t just fly higher than any other band in history. They stuck the landing, which might be the hardest trick of all.
The Beatles: Get Back is on Disney+.
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