The dissolution of The Beatles had been a turbulent affair for all involved. Although Let It Be (1970) was the final Beatles album to be released, it had been largely recorded prior to Abbey Road (1969). The idea for Let It Be, originally titled Get Back, had come from Paul McCartney, who made the suggestion of recording an album of new material, rehearsing it and performing it before a live audience on a one hour television special called Beatles at Work. Producer George Martin has said that the project was “not at all a happy recording experience. It was a time when relations between the Beatles were at their lowest ebb”.
John Lennon described the sessions as “hell … the most miserable on Earth” and George Harrison similarly stated that they were “the low of all-time”. Harrison had been so irritated by fighting between Lennon and McCartney that he walked out for five days. On his return to the fold, he threatened to leave the band unless they “abandon[ed] all talk of live performance” and instead focused on finishing a new album. He also demanded that they cease work at Twickenham Studios and relocate to the newly finished Apple Studio. His band mates agreed and the idea came about to salvage the material shot for the TV production for use in a feature film.
So advanced were the tensions within the band that Harrison invited American virtuoso keyboardist Billy Preston to participate in the final nine days of the recording sessions. Preston received a label credit on the Get Back single, released on the 11th April 1969. Other than Tony Sheridan in 1962, Preston was the only artist outside of the four Beatles to receive this honour.
Preston was known as a top session musician in the 1960’s, having already worked alongside Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. He would go on to achieve fame as an artist in his own right, releasing the album That’s the Way God Planned It on The Beatles’ Apple Records in 1969 and scoring a UK number 11 hit with the title track of the album.
At the end of the rehearsal sessions, the band could not agree on a location to film a concert. They rejected several ideas, including a boat at sea, a lunatic asylum, the Tunisian desert and the Colosseum before finally deciding on filming what would become their final live performance on the rooftop of the Apple Cops building at 3 Saville Row, London, on the 30th January 1969.
By the time it came to assembling an album, The Beatles were in such disarray that engineer Glyn Johns, whom has been described as the project’s uncredited producer, was given free rein as the band had virtually washed their hands of the entire project.
The band was put under further strain by the arrival of financial adviser, Allen Klein. The need for a financial adviser had been evident since the death of original manager Brian Epstein on the 27th August 1967. Klein had previously managed the Rolling Stones and Sam Cooke. Arguments between the band members erupted once again due to McCartney wanting John Eastman, brother of Linda Eastman whom McCartney had married on the 12th March 1969, to manage the band. In order to appease McCartney, both Klein and Eastman were appointed but further conflict ensued and financial opportunities were lost. On the 8th May 1969, Klein was named sole manager of the band.
Following the miserable experience that was the Get Back sessions and such was the ill feeling in The Beatles camp, Martin was surprised when McCartney asked him to produce another album. The recording sessions for what would become Abbey Road started on the 2nd July 1969 and were equally fraught. Lennon rejected Martin’s proposed format of a “continuously moving piece of music”, instead wanting his and McCartney’s songs to occupy separate sides of the album. The finished format of standard individually composed songs on the first side of the album and the second side largely consisting of a medley was McCartney’s suggested compromise.
On the 4th July 1969, Lennon became the first Beatle to release a solo single, Give Peace A Chance, credited to the Plastic Ono Band.
The completion and mixing of the Lennon penned song I Want You (She’s So Heavy) on the 20th August 1969 marked the last time that all four Beatles were together in the same studio.
Lennon announced his departure from The Beatles to the rest of the band on the 20th September 1969 but agreed not to make a public announcement in order to avoid denting the sales of the forthcoming Abbey Road album, due to be released six days later. The album sold 4 million copies within three months and remained at the premier position in the UK charts for a total of seventeen weeks. Harrison’s composition Something was released as a single, notable for being the only Harrison song to appear as a Beatles A-side.
Abbey Road was met with mixed reviews, although the medley was generally acclaimed. Whilst Martin describes Abbey Road as his personal favourite Beatles album, Lennon felt it was competent but lacking life.
On the 3rd of January 1970, the final song, Harrison’s I Me Mine, was recorded for the Get Back album. Lennon, who was in Denmark at the time, declined to participate.
Klein was unhappy with the work that Johns had done on the project, and following the change of the album’s name to Let It Be, the session tapes were given to Phil Spector, who had recently produced Lennon’s solo single Instant Karma!
On receiving the tapes, Spector edited, spliced and overdubbed several of the recordings which had been intended to have the ‘live’ sound. McCartney was horrified with the results and particularly criticised the orchestration work carried out on The Long and Winding Road, which included a fourteen voice choir and a 36 piece instrumental ensemble. When his demands that the alterations to the song be reverted were ignored, McCartney announced his departure from the band on the 10th April 1970, just a week before the release of his debut solo album, Paul McCartney.
The Let It Be album was released on the 8th May 1970 with the version of The Long and Winding Road which McCartney hated so much being released as the lead single in the United States, but not in Britain. The Let It Be documentary film followed later that month and went on to win the 1970 Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. Meanwhile, legal disputes between the Beatles continued long after the band’s break up and the dissolution was not made formal until the 29th December 1974.
As for the Let It Be album, Spector’s production work remained a bone of contention for McCartney for many years, until 2003 when he was the driving force behind Let It Be … Naked: A presentation of the album in the form that he felt it should have been released in, complete with The Long and Winding Road without the production treatments which had finally forced him to quit the band.
Whilst the Beatles fought out their differences in the courts, McCartney and Lennon were also busy fighting each other on their subsequent solo releases. On his second solo album, Ram (1971), McCartney and wife Linda made a barely concealed attack against Lennon on the opening track, Too Many People. The song starts with the words “Piss off, cake”, a slur which McCartney would eventually admit was aimed at Lennon in an interview with Mojo Magazine in 2001:
“Piss off, cake. Like, a piece of cake becomes piss of cake, and it’s nothing, it’s so harmless really, just little digs. But the first line is about “too many people preaching practices”. I felt John and Yoko were telling everyone what to do. And I felt we didn’t need to be told what to do. The whole tenor of the Beatles thing had been, like, each to his own. Freedom. Suddenly, it was “You should do this”. It was just a bit the wagging finger, and I was pissed off with it. So that one got to be a thing about them”.
The insults directed at Lennon on Ram did not go unnoticed by McCartney’s former songwriting partner and his wife, Yoko Ono. They, and the record buying public, also noted lines such as “You took your lucky break and broke it in two”. In an interview with Playboy in 1980, Lennon said of the damning lyrical content of Ram:
“There were all the bits at the beginning of Ram like “Too many people going underground”. Well that was us, Yoko Ono and me. And “You took your lucky break”, that was considering we had a lucky break to be with him”.
Additionally, Ram also featured the equally bitter song 3 Legs, in which McCartney uses the idea of a dog with three legs (“My dog, he got three legs, But he can’t run”) as a metaphor for the other three members of The Beatles, suggesting that they would never amount to anything without him. The song also contains lyrics such as “Well, when I thought, well, I thought, When I thought you was my friend … But you let me down, ho, Put my heart around the bend” and “My dog he got three legs, your dog he got none”.
Already angry at the attacks delivered towards him on Too Many People, 3 Legs only served to exacerbate Lennon’s rage. Also, on viewing the artwork for the Ram album, he noted the significance of the picture of two stag beetles mounting each other. It would seem that McCartney was throwing down the gauntlet and Lennon was all too pleased to oblige.
In a game of one-upmanship which had started with McCartney pipping him to the post by being the first Beatle to publicly quit the sinking ship, Lennon penned a retort to his former band mate. The resulting song, How Do You Sleep? was featured on Lennon’s second solo album Imagine (1971). Particularly citing the insults directed at him on Too Many People as ammunition, Lennon pulled no punches in his assassination of his former bandmate.
How Do You Sleep? starts with the sound of an orchestra warming up in reference to The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and in particular its title track, the concept of which was introduced to the band by MacCartney.
Following this, we find the first incendiary lines, “So Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise, You better see right through that mother’s eyes”. The use of the word “mother”, a shortened version of the swearword ‘motherfucker’ is a rather direct retort to the “Piss off, cake” utterance in McCartney’s Too Many people. This opening is also a further attempt on Lennon’s part to disassociate himself from The Beatles in order for him to be seen as an individual and solo artist. This idea of severing all ties with his Beatles past was first seen on his song God from previous album John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band (1970) …
… which featured lines such as “Don’t believe in Beatles , I just believe in me …” and “I once was the walrus [in reference to The Beatles’ I Am The Walrus (1967)], but now I’m John”.
Following this, the line “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead” refers to the Paul is dead hoax, a conspiracy started by American college students in 1969. The conspiracy suggested that McCartney has died following a car crash in 1967 and had been replaced by a doppelganger. The students published articles claiming that clues to McCartney’s death could be found amongst the lyrics and artwork of the Beatles’ recordings. This clue-hunting proved infectious and within a few weeks it had become an international phenomenon. Clues were said to include a message saying “Turn me on, dead man” when Revolution 9, from The Beatles (1968) is played backwards …
… and the utterance of “I buried Paul” at the end of Strawberry Fields forever (1967), words which Lennon stated were actually “Cranberry sauce”.
In addition to the hundreds upon hundreds of suggested allusions to McCartney’s death, the cover photo of the Abbey Road album was said to symbolise a funeral procession, with Lennon, dressed in white, symbolising a clergyman or heavenly figure; Ringo Starr, dressed in black, symbolising either an undertaker or mourner; George Harrison, dressed in denim jeans and shirt, symbolising the gravedigger and finally, McCartney, shoeless and out of step with the other Beatles, symbolising the corpse. In November 1969, McCartney gave an interview with Life Magazine in order to dispel the rumours. In this line, Lennon is saying that McCartney is dead to him.
Following this, the line “The one mistake you made was in your head” is a retort to McCartney’s lines in Too Many People, “That was your first mistake” and “That was your last mistake”. Following this, we find the song’s title sung as the refrain. “How do you sleep?” is sung a total of eight times throughout the song, just in case McCartney didn’t get the point the first time.
The line “You live with straights who tell you you was king” are a gilded attack on the egotism that McCartney had displayed on Too Many People and 3 Legs, suggesting that he associates himself with sycophants who feed his ego. “Jump when your momma tell you anything” displays McCartney as a ‘Mummy’s boy’. This line can be seen as slightly hypocritical on Lennon’s part as whilst McCartney also lost his mother at a young age, the loss of Lennon’s mother, Julia, in a traffic accident in 1958 when Lennon was 17, was a major source of insecurity and fed many of his lyrics. Obvious examples include Julia (The Beatles, 1968) …
… and Mother (John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band, 1970).
This line is also a jab at McCartney’s title track of the Let It Be album which proved to be the band’s downfall, in which McCartney sings, “And in my hour of darkness, Mother Mary comes to me”.
Lennon further rubbishes McCartney’s back catalogue on the line “The only thing you done was yesterday, And since you’ve gone you’re just another day”. The first song to be poked fun at in this double-pronged attack is Yesterday (Help!, 1965) …
… and the second is McCartney’s solo single, Another Day, released earlier in 1971.
The song’s outro begins with the lines, “A pretty face may last a year or two, But pretty soon they’ll see what you can do”. This lyric refers to the way in which McCartney was often seen as the “pretty face” of The Beatles and suggests that McCartney is all front and no substance. The following lines, “The sound you make is muzak to my ears, You must have learned something in all those years” are an equally debasing line which further states Lennon’s low opinion of McCartney’s increasingly sentimental songs, first expressed towards the end of The Beatles when he described McCartney’s lyrics as “granny music shit”. The song that attracted such scorn from Lennon was Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (The Beatles, 1968). The outro of How Do You Sleep? could be read as entirely referring to Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, with the words “A pretty face” also referring to a mistake that McCartney made whilst singing the song. In the last verse, the line “Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face” was supposed to be “Molly stays at home and does her pretty face”. Desmond. Apparently, this mistake was kept in the song because the other Beatles, even Lennon, liked it.
To add further insult, Lennon even enlisted George Harrison to play slide guitar on the song and in the 1971 film Imagine, with Harrison playing alongside him, Lennon sings, “How do you sleep, ya cunt” before asking the engineer to stop recording. Additionally, whilst Lennon is credited with writing the song alone, multiple reports suggest that Yoko Ono and Allen Klein, now Lennon’s manager, also contributed lyrics. Ringo Starr visited the studio during the recording of the song and was reportedly upset enough to say, “That’s enough, John”. However, for Lennon, this wasn’t enough. Also note how the following song on Imagine is entitled How as if to emphasise the point of How Do You Sleep? still further. And last but not least, the inside sleeve of the Imagine album features a picture of Lennon holding the ears of a pig, parodying the cover of McCartney’s Ram.
On the release of the Imagine album, Rolling Stone magazine described How Do You Sleep? as “horrifying and indefensible”. In an attempt to defend himself, by the mid 1970’s, Lennon often said that he had in fact written the song about himself. However, in his interview with Playboy in 1980, he said:
“I used my resentment against Paul … to create a song … not a terrible vicious horrible vendetta … I used my resentment and withdrawing from Paul and The Beatles, and the relationship with Paul, to write How Do You Sleep? I don’t really go round with those thoughts in my head all the time”.
In his interview with Mojo Magazine in 2001, McCartney said of How Do You Sleep?:
“The answer to John was well – I was sleeping very well at the time. Before John died, I got back a good relationship with him. That was very special. The arguments we had didn’t matter. We were able to just take the piss about all those songs; they weren’t that harsh. In fact, I have been thanked by Yoko and everyone else for saving the Beatles from Allen Klein. Everything comes round in the end”.