Maybe—if management had kept out of their wallets and got inside their minds
You Never Give Me Your Money:
The Beatles After the Breakup
By Peter Doggett
Harper; 390 pp, $24.99
Of all the breakups across human history, the end of the Beatles has to be one of the most wasteful. Imagine what the Fab Four could have raked in over the years if they had behaved more like their rivals, the Rolling Stones, and not let their personal indulgences and adolescent resentments drive them apart. At the peak of their mutual disgust, the Beatles were world-famous multimillionaires in their late 20s, barely grown-ups in age and not at all in temperament. Their differences were surely heartfelt, but were they irreconcilable? Enlightened management might have kept them together.
As Peter Doggett demonstrates in his exhaustive, absorbing You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup, John Lennon and Paul McCartney fought over nothing and everything, like hurt lovers determined to inflict their pain on one another. George Harrison and Ringo Starr were, for the most part, bystanders to this blood feud, and would have been only too happy to be a part of a solution, if any of the Beatles handlers had ever thought to offer one.
Doggett throws ample light on the two dominant schools of thought about what caused Lennon and McCartney's personal enmity. The leading one, of course, is the Evil Yoko Ono Theory, which holds that Ono, threatened by Lennon's relationship with McCartney, did all she could to undermine the band, notoriously turning up for the recording of The White Album, sitting on top of an amplifier like it was no big deal. For this, Ono has been vilified by Beatles fans. But Doggett provides the context of utter craziness that helps us see her as more rational than nutso. A rock band is, after all, the best mechanism ever invented for mate acquisition, or, to use the slang, getting chicks. Once long-term mates are on the scene, they don't much care for this dynamic and seek to intervene. Both Ono and Linda Eastman, McCartney's girlfriend, then wife, were strong women who fought to stay close to the men they loved. Their actions, while not always laudable, are at least understandable.
Theory No. 2, heralded last year in a Rolling Stone magazine cover story, blames the greed and dirty dealing of New York entertainment lawyer Allen Klein, who represented the Rolling Stones and eagerly filled the void left by the 1967 death of the Beatles' longtime manager, Brian Epstein. Klein promulgated an alliance of Lennon, Ringo, and George Harrison against McCartney, who preferred that Linda's family—her father was a lawyer who had represented Jack Lawrence, songwriter of Frank Sinatra's All or Nothing At All and Bobby Darin's Beyond the Sea—handle his affairs. In Doggett's account, Klein is a scoundrel, though ultimately an accessory to the band's demise rather than the trigger man.
Rolling Stone was right to see the problem as primarily one of adult supervision, or lack thereof. Like many celebrities, the Beatles were surrounded by two complementary species of sycophants —dope-addled hangers-on and money-sucking enablers. None understood the severity of psychological warfare that was going on in their midst. The creative rivalry that fueled the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership had come unhinged, as both men struggled to assert their independence. But they couldn't stop themselves from acting like children. Lennon's conduct, in particular, was so petty and embarrassing it's amazing he's remembered as a peace-loving martyr. He was the most resolutely opposed to reconciliation, so much so that McCartney felt obliged to do the same. "I can't just let John control the situation," he said, "and dump us as if we're the jilted girlfriends."
The actual grown-ups around the Beatles provided little guidance. George Martin, their beloved producer, was no more than a "kindly musical chaperon [sic]." Insofar as they did anything useful, Klein and Neil Aspinall (a former roadie who rose to be the custodian of Apple, the Beatles' holding company) focused on making deals, as if the personal conflicts were beside the point.
At times, You Never Give Me Your Money reads less like a book than a series of anecdotes about the Beatles' schemes to annoy each other. Which is another way of saying it's a lot of fun. What Doggett fails to do, though, is offer a singular diagnosis for what ailed the Beatles—or how they could have been saved. There's at least one fairly obvious strategy that went unplayed: hire a shrink. Lennon might well have been receptive to it. Described by Doggett as a "compulsive enthusiast," he was deeply devoted to Arthur Janov, progenitor of "primal scream" therapy. But he pursued it separately from McCartney and the band and, if anything, it fed his disaffection with them. What the Beatles needed was a neutral third party to help them understand that the band itself could be the psychological ballast in their lives.
Years later, such an intervention with a hugely popular rock band actually worked. In 2003, with Metallica on the verge of splitting up, the group's management hired a specialist to get the band members to open up about their feelings and figure out how to relate to each other as grown-ups. As depicted in the documentary Some Kind of Monster, the coach, Phil Towle, appeared to be a buffoon who did not actually have the psychological training he claimed, and the band united against him when they realized Towle had come to see himself as part of the band—a fifth Beatle, as it were. Still, the mere presence of an outside authority figure stripped the Metallica members of their celebrity delusions long enough to reacquaint them with the value of the group's identity. The band remains extraordinarily profitable, selling $53.4 million of concert tickets last year, the 10th highest among all bands, according to Pollstar.
Of course, money alone was too weak an incentive to keep the Beatles together. Although they disgraced themselves fighting over it, they always had plenty. Up until Lennon's murder in 1980, the Beatles were routinely offered giant sums to reunite, including a $30 million offer for a single album from David Geffen in 1974, which sounds like a ton of money even today.
Had they been less financially secure, the Beatles might have had no choice but to soldier on. That was the Stones' secret. As British music journalist Nick Kent describes in his recent memoir, Apathy for the Devil, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards couldn't afford their own Lennon-McCartney-style psychodrama. Around the same time the Beatles imploded, Jagger, writes Kent, "discovered that most of the money the Stones had made in the Sixties had been pocketed by manager Allen Klein along with all the rights to their recorded back catalogue." Jagger, who had dropped out of the London School of Economics when the Stones took off, had two choices before him: turn to drugs like Richards, or refamiliarize himself with numbers and guide the Stones into the black. "The guy chose to survive and thrive," writes Kent.
That line of thinking puts the onus of the Beatles' disintegration on McCartney. If only he'd agreed to let Klein control the band, they might have been driven into bankruptcy! Even Lennon had no interest in being poor. As it was, nobody involved in managing the band was smart enough, or brave enough, to force two immature, solipsistic young men on whom the entire enterprise depended into joint therapy. If that had been done, one of the worst managerial blunders in the history of the entertainment industry might have been averted.
Sampling the Band's Enduring Value
• Amount an anonymous American collector paid for John Lennon's handwritten lyrics to the 1967 hit A Day in the Life, at a Sotheby's auction last month: $1.2m
• Amount grossed, according to Billboard, during the first five days of sales for The Beatles in Mono, a limited-edition box set released in September 2009: $562m
• Amount paid by Michael Jackson in 1985 for the publishing rights to a 4,000-song catalog including more than 200 of the Beatles' songs (Love Me Do and Please Please Me notably excluded): $47.5m