What If The Beatles Hadn't Broken Up?
An Alternate History of the The Fab Four
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After that dinner, the four Beatles went their separate ways and never assembled as a quartet for the next seven months. Allen Klein came to them with countless offers, tempting bids involving large sums of money and huge audiences, but Ringo turned them all down, keeping his promise to John and George that they could have half the year to work on their other projects. “Allen,” he told the manager, “we have to decide if we’re in this for the short run or the long haul. If you push John and George too much, the whole thing will fall apart again. I’m in it for the long haul.”
On November 27, George released his first-ever solo album, All Things Must Pass. It was only a single disc, despite rumors that it might be a double album. Phil Spector was still listed as co-producer with George, even though the American had been fired in July. After that banishment, George had woven sitars, tablas and synthesizers into Spector’s signature Wall of Sound production to create an eerie sense that the album had been recorded both in Calcutta and on the moon. It was a much more experimental album than Framed, but the underlying tunes boasted pop hooks not unlike Paul’s. Side one was “My Sweet Lord,” “Wah-Wah,” “What Is Life,” “Run of the Mill” and “Let It Roll.” Side two was “Awaiting on You All,” “All Things Must Pass,” “Art of Dying” and “Hear Me Lord.” “My Sweet Lord” was a number-one single for two weeks, and the album was number-one for three. George declined offers to tour behind the album, preferring to take a vacation in the Himalayan foothills.
On April 13, 1971, John released his new solo album, Mother, the title a reference not only to the woman who abandoned him as a child but also to his nickname for Yoko. Just as George had, John went out of his way to make a solo album that contrasted sharply with The Beatles’ Framed. He did this not with George’s monumentalism and exoticism but with a stark austerity. He banished electric guitars and drum kits from the sessions, relying instead on piano, acoustic guitar, cello, upright bass, tympani, muted trumpet and Yoko’s wordless vocalizing. The result was the sonic equivalent of the Primal Scream therapy the couple had been experiencing: an emotional catharsis that didn’t pull any punches. Side one was “Mother,” “I Found Out,” “Crippled Inside,” “Isolation,” “Remember” and “Look at Me.” Side two was “God,” “My Mummy’s Dead,” “How Do You Sleep,” “It’s So Hard,” “I Don’t Want To Be a Soldier,” “Gimme Some Truth” and “How.” Most of the critics on both sides of the Atlantic hailed its stripped-down, chamber-rock sound and the scathing, torrential lyrics, hailing the album as better than anything The Beatles or any of the ex-Beatles had done since Revolver. The public was less impressed; the album barely made it to number-eight, and neither of its singles broached the top-10.
John and Yoko did a number of TV shows to promote the album, but there was no formal tour. Instead, John showed up at Abbey Road in May for his annual recording session with Ringo, George and Klaus. Having placated their experimental tendencies with their solo albums, John and George were eager to share their more pop material with a rock’n’roll band, and the sessions, with Emerick producing again, went more smoothly this time. There was still an obvious tension between John and George, but they communicated through Ringo, who had become the de facto bandleader and settled all questions with swift decisions from the drum chair. He even relaxed his own rule about contributing his own songs to the sessions; he asked John to sing the lead on “Back Off, Boogaloo” and George to sing the lead on “It Don’t Come Easy.” George was the one interested in Eastern religion, but it was Ringo who pulled off the Buddhist trick of becoming the leader by rejecting ambition. By always ceding the spotlight to John and George, by always refusing to get drawn into bickering about details, Ringo became the neutral arbiter of all disputes and wound up running the show.
The new Beatles album, Imagine, was released on September 14, 1971. Side one was “Imagine,” “Jealous Guy,” “Behind That Locked Door,” “Go Ahead and Laugh,” “I Dig Love” and “Deep Blue.” Side two was “Back Off, Boogaloo,” “Oh, My Love,” “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Maple Tree,” “Early 1970” and “Power to the People.” The title track, a gorgeous anthem from John, buoyed by multi-tracked harmonies from John and George and sparkling guitar fills from George, became the biggest selling Beatles single of all time, topping the American charts for 10 weeks, longer than even “Hey Jude.” The subsequent singles, “Back Off, Boogaloo” and “I Dig Love” rose to number-two and number-eleven respectively.
While the recording of that album was proceeding, reports of mass deaths in Bangladesh due to a November cyclone and an ongoing war for independence grew in the Western press. George’s musical mentor Ravi Shankar asked the Beatle to help raise money for the victims. In June there was an announcement that “George Harrison, Ravi Shankar and Special Guests” would perform two shows at Madison Square Garden on August 1 to raise money for the hungry, homeless and displaced in Bangladesh. Reporters repeatedly asked, but no one in George’s camp would say who those “special guests” were, which led to a frenzy of speculation and a quick sell-out of all tickets. Even as the lights went up on New York City’s basketball arena, very few knew who would appear.
Ravi played much the same set he’d played on The Beatles tour the previous fall, and after intermission George appeared backed only by Rick Danko on bass and Levon Helm on drums. George sang “My Sweet Lord” with the trio. Then Klaus entered and took the bass from Rick, who picked up a fiddle, and George sang “What Is Life.” Then Ringo sat down at the second drum set next to Levon’s and sang “Early 1970,” before George sang “If I Needed Someone.” Then Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson walked out to play guitar, piano and organ respectively; Levon sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and George sang “Beware of Darkness.” Then John Lennon took the stage to sing “Instant Karma,” “Jealous Guy” and “Power to the People” before joining the other guitarists behind George on “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” When George announced, “We have one more guest to bring out,” cries of “Paul! Paul!” went up throughout the hall. Instead Bob Dylan shuffled out to sing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” on acoustic guitar and harmonica with the all-star band behind him. Bob then switched to electric guitar and sang duets with Levon on “The Weight,” with George on “I’d Have You Anytime,” with John on “Imagine” and with John and George both on “Like a Rolling Stone.”
In the fall, The Beatles did another tour of the same venues in the same cities they had done the year before. In January, 1972, both the documentary film and the three-LP album of the Concert for Bangladesh were released and raised even more money for the victims of war and weather. When The Beatles reassembled for their annual May recording session, however, they found that two group albums and two solo albums in the previous two years had emptied the well. The band spent three days messing about with the sloganeering political songs that John had been writing in New York and with the unfinished scraps that George brought in before Ringo told the others, “We don’t have the songs, mates, not for a Beatles album. Let’s shut down the shop for a year and come back with some new tunes next May. I’ll see you in September for the next tour.”
But in August came the dispiriting news that Klaus was quitting the band. Two and a half years of being attacked by journalists and fans for not being Paul had taken a toll on him. “I feel like I’m in a no man’s land,” he told Ringo over the phone in a choking voice. “I’m a Beatle, but I’m not really a Beatle. I can’t take it anymore.” George wanted to replace Klaus with Jack Bruce from Cream, and John was keen on the idea. But Jack was more interested in playing jazz with Tony Williams and Carla Bley than in being a Beatle. George, John and Ringo were so astonished that anyone would have the nerve to turn them down that they cancelled the 1972 tour.