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No one was saved

It was 40 years ago today that the Beatles' 'utopia' officially fell apart

Issue: "O Jerusalem," April 10, 2010

Exactly 40 years before this issue's official publication date, April 10, London's Daily Mirror fired around the world its April 10, 1970, headline: "Paul leaves the Beatles." Media frenzy followed, corroborating the news: "Beatle Paul McCartney confirmed today that he has broken with the Beatles." Thus ended the most influential rock band of all time, and with it their utopia.

As early as 1966, the Fab Four began serving up an "all-you-need-is-love" utopia. "In the beginning, I misunderstood," John Lennon sang on Rubber Soul, "but now I've got it, the 'word' is good; it's the word, love." Hmmmm. The utopia accelerated with the success of the 1967 album Sergeant Pepper and the summer of "love" that followed in its spell. Fueled by drugs, seemingly endless injections of cash, and a gauzy belief in the inherent goodness of man, the Beatles became as cartoonish as their garish counterparts in the movie Yellow Submarine.

Lennon bought a deserted island off the coast of Ireland for a psychedelic retreat. He never visited. McCartney boasted on the Tonight Show that Apple, the Beatles' recently launched enterprise, had a vision of underwriting needy artists with few questions asked: The Beatles are "in the happy position of not ­needing any more money, so if you come to me and say, 'I've had such and such a dream,' I'll say to you: 'Go and do it.'" Checks were written, lots of them. Within a year, Apple was nearly bankrupt.

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Meanwhile, two Apple boutiques opened and soon closed, unable to turn a profit. Rather than put everything on sale, the Beatles staged a "good happening," a giveaway of over £10,000 of merchandise. A semi-riot ensued, a "vulgar" scene in which, Ringo later lamented, "people were coming with wheelbarrows." Yoko Ono, John's avant garde replacement for his soon-to-be ex-wife, arrived beforehand and greedily "filled vast garbage bags full of clothes." One wonders what happened to the goodness of the human heart.

Utopias are only as lasting as their foundations, and in this case the foundation was sand from the start. Sin, like a beach ball beneath ocean waves, bobbled up constantly. "With our love we could save the world," George sang, but without any recognition of sin, the four couldn't save anyone. Nor could they save their music. "The togetherness was gone," John acknowledged, "round about Sergeant Pepper it was wearing off."

Wear off it did. The 1968 recording sessions for the White Album featured infighting, jealousy, and kindergarten selfishness. John insisted on bringing Yoko into the recording studio, previously a Beatles-only sanctum, and placed her squarely within the creative process itself. She "just moved in," George complained, a fact that pushed Ringo out of his usual peacemaker role: "We were trying to be cool and not mention it, but inside we were all feeling it and talking in corners."

White Album sessions often saw the Beatles in different places pursuing their own sounds and interests. Paul recorded "Blackbird" with John and Yoko down the hall mixing tapes for "Revolution No. 9" and George and Ringo across the Atlantic Ocean. The double-sided album was less a result of the Beatles working together (they couldn't!) than of the Beatles in parallel play. The synergy was gone, and the reviewers knew it; The New York Times dismissed it as "profound mediocrity."

A year later, before recording for Abbey Road began, John decided, "I'm breaking the group up." Paul resisted with a combination of heavy hand and cajoling vision. But his insistence on keeping the Beatles alive lacked any utopia, particularly when he himself felt threatened and cornered. His behavior had only a veneer of camaraderie. "Something," considered "the best song on the album" by Time, surprised Paul for its beauty, given that it was written by George. It "came out of left field," Paul commented, at once praising and belittling his fellow Beatle.

By the time Paul released his press statement in April 1970, the Beatles as a group were already finished. Given that the announcement came while the single "Let It Be" was topping the charts, some would say that the Beatles went out with a bang. But the truth is, they went out with a whimper. Their utopian vision and its blindness to sin and the need for redemption slowly undid them. In the end, to quote "Eleanor Rigby," "no one was saved." Not even the Beatles.

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