This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ first album, Please, Please Me, which was released in England in 1963. It was the start of an amazing but all-too-brief run. Seven years later, the quartet’s final studio album, Let It Be, was released in May 1970, a month after the band had announced that it was breaking up.
But what if they hadn’t broken up? What if John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr had reacted to Paul McCartney’s resignation by hiring a new bassist? What if they had kept going with a new line-up for years of new Beatles albums and tours?
This is not what happened. This is what might have happened.
When he got the news that Paul McCartney had issued a press release that he was quitting The Beatles, Ringo Starr was not surprised but he was shocked. It was like knowing for a long time that a long-sick family member was going to die and still being staggered by the news that he had in fact died.
It wasn’t as if Paul were the first Beatle to threaten to quit the band. George Harrison had quit during the making of Let It Be, and Ringo himself had left the band for two weeks during the same sessions. John Lennon had told the others that he was leaving at the end of those sessions. But that had all been handled within the family, and the group had stayed together to make Abbey Road. But here was a public announcement, and it would be hard to put this genie back into the bottle. Moreover, Paul had been the one holding the quartet together for the past two years with his often annoying but usually effective cajoling and pep talks. If he had given up, what hope was there?
It was April, 1970, and it took Ringo half a dozen tries to get John, his best friend in the band, on the phone. “John,” the drummer said, “can we get together at a pub for a pint?”
John hemmed and hawed in a way that made it clear that his new girl friend Yoko Ono was in the room with him. “Well, I don’t know, Ringo,” he replied, “me and Yoko got a lot on our plate this week.”
“C’mon, mate, you owe me this much,” Ringo insisted, and John succumbed, mumbling the address of an undistinguished tavern not far from the Apple headquarters.
He was dismayed when John showed up, half an hour late, with Yoko in tow, but Ringo suppressed his irritation and vowed to himself to see it through. John was wearing a chocolate brown suit to go with his bushy beard, silver-rimmed round glasses and middle-parted brown hair; Yoko’s thick mane of black hair seemed to flow into her black sweater and black slacks. Ringo, his dark sideburns creeping toward his slanting mustache, drained half his pint before launching into his prepared speech.
“It’s fine for you, Paul and George,” he said. “You’re all songwriters and you can make solo albums. But I’m a drummer; if I’m going to make music, I need a band, and I’m never going to find a better band than this one. If Paul wants to quit the group, godspeed to him. Let’s hire Klaus and keep going.” The Beatles had known Berlin’s Klaus Voorman since their Hamburg days, and Klaus had not only designed the Revolver cover but had also played bass on Manfred Mann’s “The Mighty Quinn” and the Plastic Ono Band’s “Instant Karma.” “We won’t be the first band to replace the bass player, and we won’t be the last. It’ll be easier without Paul harping about playing this way or that way.”
Yoko didn’t say anything, but she stared meaningfully at John when he glanced in her direction. “I don’t know, Ringo,” he said. “Yoko and I have a bunch of projects we’re working on. I don’t have time to be a Beatle anymore. Besides I’m tired of being a Beatle. I want a chance to just be John for a while.”
Ringo had been anticipating this objection. “I’m not asking you to be a Beatle full-time; I’m just asking you to be a Beatle half of the time. You can work on your solo projects half the year—and your projects with Yoko, of course,” he quickly interjected. “George can work on his Indian and spiritual stuff.” He laughed and added, “And I, I can work on my tan.”
“I don’t know,” John said. “It feels like going backward.” The waiter brought another tray of tall pint glasses, and with typical British discretion pretended not to notice who his customers were.
“I know you wanna do the electronic music like Two Virgins and the political songs like ‘Give Peace a Chance,’” Ringo countered, “but I know there’s a part of you that still loves Elvis and Jerry Lee, the Coasters and the Drifters, that still wants to play rock’n’roll. The Beatles could be your rock’n’roll project alongside your other projects.” John, obviously unconvinced, stared off at the nearby dartboard.
Ringo was desperate. He could foresee a bleak future as an ex-Beatle: either playing recording sessions for bands that weren’t nearly as good as his former group or holed up in his suburban mansion watching TV and drinking too much. Now was the time to play his trump card. “If you let the Paul break up The Beatles,” he said, “you’re conceding the point that he’s so important that The Beatles can’t go on without him. You’re agreeing with him that the rest of us can’t be The Beatles if he’s not there.”
John’s head snapped around. This dart had found its bull’s eye. “Fuck Paul,” John snarled. “We don’t need him. We can be The Beatles without his little ditties.” He didn’t notice that Yoko’s shoulders slumped at this turnabout, and Ringo wasn’t about to call attention to her reaction.
“Look, we’ll hire Klaus and go into the studio in May to make a new album,” Ringo added quickly. “Then you can take the summer off to work on your own projects, and we’ll get back together in October to play some shows when the record comes out.”
John groaned. “Like Shea Stadium, you mean?” he said. “No way.”
“No,” Ringo said, “we’ll play big theaters with good sound systems. We’ll actually be able to hear ourselves this time. I thought you enjoyed playing in Toronto last year.”
“Yeah, I did,” John answered. “Look, we’ve got to go. Go ahead and contact George and Klaus, and if they’re on board, I’ll come to a meeting to talk about it at least.”
That was all Ringo needed to hear, and after John left, he called George from the red phone booth outside the pub, ignoring the pedestrians waving at him from the sidewalk. He was soon invited to George’s Friar Park country estate, and drove out there two days later. As Ringo drove through the gate of striped red-and-white stone toward the turret-topped castle, he was once again reminded of a British Disneyland. George’s hair was shaggier than ever, and he wore an Indian-print cotton shirt over blue jeans as he showed Ringo to an armchair in the parlor. George’s wife Patti brought out two cups and a pot of Darjeeling tea on a silver tray, set them on an antique table and slipped away.
“I talked to John on Tuesday,” Ringo said, “and he’s open to the idea of keeping The Beatles together with Klaus on bass if you are.”
“C’mon, Ringo,” George replied, “The Beatles are dead. Let them rest in peace. I’ve got all these songs saved up that John and Paul would never put on a Beatles album, and now I’m going to put them on a solo album.”
“But don’t you see?” Ringo continued. “With Paul gone, you’ll be able to get more of your songs on the album. And you’re not going to find a better rhythm section than me and Klaus.” George got up from his chair and paced the carpet for a while. Ringo held his breath.
“I don’t know,” George said at last. “Paul got on my nerves, but John has said some really nasty things about my songs. I don’t want to go through that again.”
“It’ll be different this time,” Ringo said; “I’ll stand up for you.” He had a sudden flash of inspiration. “In fact, I’ll decide which songs we record. I’m not a songwriter, so I’ll be an impartial judge.”
“But you never really shared my interest in meditation and Indian music,” said George doubtfully.
“Look, mate, that stuff was never my cup of tea, but I really love your stuff like ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ As I told John, The Beatles would only be a half-time band. The other half of the year, you could work on your own projects. You could record your rock’n’roll songs with The Beatles and your other songs with whomever you want. Even a half-time Beatles could pay for everything else you want to do.”
“I don’t care about the material world and all its encumbrances,” George said coolly.
“Well, a little cottage like this can’t be cheap to keep up.”
George stared at him icily for a moment, then broke into laughter. “Bless you, Ringo, you’re still the same bounder I knew in Liverpool. You’re the only one of us that’s halfway sane. Okay, I’ll get together with you, John and Klaus for a rehearsal, and we’ll see how it goes.”