They fashioned their look in a similarly simple style. The gaudy showbiz flash of the Pepper era joined the Epstein-dictated sartorial conservatism of their touring years on the cultural scrap heap. In their black waistcoats, white shirts, black hats, snake-hipped, low-slung, tapered and tailored flares, they looked more like a gang than like a marching band. Cuban-heeled, ankle-hugging Chelsea boots, mix-and-match moustaches and meticulously mussed hair suggested the brooding frontier cool of the American West, riverboat gamblers with issues. It was an enduring stylistic template for the likes of the Black Crowes, The Raconteurs and the Temperance Movement. The ’68 Beatles – a one-stop shop for 21st-century stylists – were rock-band-cool incarnate.
Looking back on the White Album, Lennon and McCartney were more than satisfied. “I always preferred it to all the other albums, including Pepper,” John said in ’71, “I thought the music was better. The Pepper myth is bigger, but the music on the White Album is far superior.”
“I think it was a very good album,” Paul agreed, but with reservations. “It stood up, but it wasn’t a pleasant one to make. Then again, sometimes those things work for your art.”
While it is indeed the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl, and great rock’n’roll is more often than not born of friction, antipathy and discord, any relationship based in negativity, even that of rock’s biggest band, cannot be sustained indefinitely.
Marginalised, underappreciated and made to feel redundant he may have been, but Ringo had already found that any decision to break-up The Beatles was way beyond his pay grade. George Harrison too: the guitarist ‘left’ the band for five days in January 1969, and was persuaded back only on condition that McCartney abandoned all plans for the band to return to the road.
In the end, though, there was no saving The Beatles. However much McCartney wanted the band to carry on, it was abundantly clear that Lennon, keen to investigate fresh artistic vistas with Yoko, had completely lost interest in continuing to work within the constraints of a four-piece rock band.
Lennon quit in September ’69, and McCartney, after months in denial, finally turned off the life support machine in April ’70.
The Beatles were a leviathan, a cultural colossus whose influence on their musical contemporaries was wholly unprecedented and remains unsurpassed. They were the first four-piece guitar band to smoulder moodily in leather jackets and shades; the first to grow their hair, to fly their freak flag, to tune in, turn on and flaunt it in the tabloids; the first to India; the first to soundtrack a Revolution; and the first to fall out over the first – and still the very best – Yoko.
With the White Album, The Beatles delivered all the necessary components for what we now know as classic rock, but the disharmony that facilitated its birth proved fatal. As John Lennon himself acknowledged: “The break-up of The Beatles can be heard on that album.”
Ultimately, having planted the seeds of sonic revolution in the fertile soil of the late 1960s, The Beatles’ work was done. With the spiritual progeny of their final incarnation on the rise, the artistically drained former Fabs were suddenly rendered old and in the way, an immovable reminder of a lost innocence, too ubiquitous to ignore, too enormous to eclipse.
For the green shoots of rock to thrive, The Beatles had to die.
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #202