What If The Beatles Hadn't Broken Up?

An Alternate History of the The Fab Four

Music Features The Beatles
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The revamped Beatles line-up had their first rehearsal two weeks later in the Apple Studios on Tuesday, May 5, 1970, at 2 pm. At least Ringo and Klaus were there at 2 pm. George strolled half an hour later, and the trio warmed up on some old Everly Brothers, Buck Owens and Carl Perkins numbers. They were playing Perkins’ “Dixie Fried” when John sauntered in at 3:15. He didn’t offer any excuse; he just unpacked his guitar, plugged in and beefed up George’s hillbilly guitar and adding a low-tenor harmony. They continued without any discussion through other early-rock numbers that they all knew: The Robins’ “Framed,” The Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” and Elvis Presley’s “That’s Alright, Mama.”

But when Klaus suggested that they do a Chuck Berry song, John scowled and said, “No way. Chuck Berry’s suing me. Why don’t we try a new song I just wrote?” He showed them the chord changes to “Working Class Hero”; the three others picked it up quickly. They played it once with the static, march-like rhythm John had shown them, but the second time through George began to swing the rhythm a bit in the fashion of Merle Haggard; Ringo and Klaus followed his lead. Soon the song assumed a Beatlesque flavor that it never would have had on a John Lennon solo album.

Ringo had made a point of inviting neither George Martin nor Phil Spector, The Beatles’ only producers, to the sessions, but the band’s longtime engineer Geoff Emerick was at the board and he recorded “Working Class Hero” and George’s “Beware of Darkness,” which lost its lugubrious tempo as Ringo and Klaus sped it up. The new bassist wasn’t as melodic or as inventive as the man he replaced, but he provided a more solid rock’n’roll drive and the songs gained a streamlined momentum as a result. It was a good day, and they all agreed to meet again the next afternoon.

But on Wednesday, the old tensions broke out. When George introduced his song, “My Sweet Lord,” John rolled his eyes and moaned, “Oh, Christ, not another song about crackpot religion! I want no part of that.”

“You know,” Klaus added, “that melody reminds me of an old rock’n’roll song. I’m not sure which one, but it sure sounds familiar.”

George fumed, and John introduced his own song, “I Found Out,” which took aim at all forms of religion. George turned to Ringo and said, “I’m not going to play on a song that attacks everything I believe in.” With Paul out of the way, the simmering tensions between John and George were now breaking into the open. The new line-up seemed in danger of falling apart the same way the last one did.

John continued to strum the chords to “I Found Out” until Ringo smashed his crash cymbal. “Look,” he said, “I told you before we started that I was going to choose the songs. And I’m deciding right now that we’re not going to do any religious songs—for or against. Does anyone have a rock’n’roll song about girls?” The others were momentarily taken aback by the drummer’s new assertiveness. George offered “Apple Scruffs,” his cheeky, catchy song about the girls who were always hanging around the Abbey Road Studios hoping for a glimpse of a Beatle. John countered with a pretty ballad, “Love,” which became more enchanting when George came up with a chiming guitar part. They were back on track and two more songs were in the can.

So it went for the next few weeks. There was another bit of tension when George wanted to record “Isn’t It a Pity,” a song that John and Paul had rejected for both the Revolver and Let It Be albums. John tried to veto it again, but Ringo overruled him and the quartet got down a terrific version of the song. John and George got so caught up in the momentum of the project that they wrote two new songs, John’s “Look Out, Here Come My Friends” and George’s “Waiting for You.” Ringo sang the Robins’ 1954 song “Framed.” Billy Preston was brought in for some keyboard overdubs, while John and George layered some multi-tracked vocals. By the end of the month it was done.

On June 1, 1970, Ringo marched into the London office of Allen Klein and plopped the acetate of the new album on The Beatles’ manager’s desk. The album was called Framed; side one was “Isn’t It a Pity,” “Working Class Hero,” “Well, Well, Well,” “Beware of Darkness” and “Look Out, Here Come My Friends.” Side two was “Apple Scruffs,” “Waiting for You,” “Love,” “Hold On,” “Let It Down” and “Framed.” Klein walked around his big desk, grabbed Ringo by the shoulders and kissed him on each cheek as if welcoming him into the mafia. “Ringo,” the manager said, “I should have known that you were the true leader. I should have been talking to you all along instead of listening to John and Paul’s madness.”

“Look,” Ringo said, “the guys have agreed to do some live dates, but they have strict conditions. They don’t want to do a lot of flying around, so they will only do 20 shows, four nights in each of five cities: London, Paris, New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Yoko and Ravi Shankar will open each show, but The Beatles’ set will be just the four of us plus Billy Preston. We’ll do 90 minutes each night—all the songs from the new album plus a few older Beatles songs. Can you make that work?” “Yeah, yeah,” said Klein. “Of course, I wish we could do more, but something is a whole lot better than nothing.”

Framed was released by Apple Records on September 8, 1970. Most of the reviews lamented Paul’s absence, but the album immediately shot to the top of the charts in Europe and North America and stayed there into November. The first live shows were September 10-13 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It was a much smaller venue than the band could have filled, but John and George insisted on an indoor venue with good acoustics, and they both appreciated the humor of playing in the classical hall satirized in their song, “A Day in the Life.” Tickets were quickly the scarcest of commodities, and scalpers were getting five and six times the face value.

On opening night, John came out with Yoko for her half-hour opening set; he played guitar behind her but never said a word. George introduced Ravi for his half-hour set, but the Beatle immediately withdrew and left his musical mentor on stage with his fellow Indian musicians. At 9:30 pm the four Beatles and Billy Preston walked out on stage to a thunderous roar that made the musicians flinch and grin sheepishly. It was their first performance at a public, ticketed event since August 29, 1966, when they played San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. John had changed from the jeans and paisley shirt of Yoko’s set into a loose white suit with flaring cuffs and bell-bottom pants. The other four were in similar suits: George in yellow, Klaus in blue with white pinstripes, Billy in lime green and Ringo in red-and-green stripes.

The musicians were nonplussed for a moment when the opening ovation died away and the hall quieted; from their early shows in Liverpool and Hamburg through their whirlwind world tours, they had never played in a place where folks were quiet and actually listening. When they started playing the new album’s first single, “Working Class Hero,” they were further surprised by the crisp, clear sound coming out of the monitors. It was the first time they had ever been able to hear themselves on stage, and the sound was revelatory. They were actually pretty good as a live band. They tore through “Isn’t It a Pity” and “Beware of Darkness,” before slowing down for John’s ballad, “Love.” There was a two-part roar when part of the crowd recognized the opening chords to “Come Together” and then when everyone else recognized the lyrics. There was a similar double reaction to George’s “Somewhere” and Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden.” The Beatles came back to the stage at 10:45 for two encores: Ringo’s vocal on Leiber & Stoller’s “Framed,” and John’s vocal on Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t.” When, on the latter, John cried out, “Ah, rock on, George, for Ringo one time,” the crowd, already on their feet, went into a pandemonium of shouting and dancing.

So it went at every stop on the abbreviated tour. A few different older Beatles songs were substituted in different cities, but the set remained basically the same. At every show there were occasional calls and signs from the audience asking, “Where’s Paul?” or insisting, “We want Paul,” much to Klaus’s obvious discomfort. But the overall reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Meanwhile, the two-week stay by “Working Class Hero” at the top of the singles chart was succeeded by a four-week stay by “Isn’t It a Pity.” After the final show at San Francisco’s Cow Palace on October 11, the band and it entourage repaired to the city’s Chinatown for a celebratory dinner.

Yoko glanced skeptically at her husband as he pushed aside the residue of steamed pork buns and rose unsteadily with his fourth glass of wine in hand. He banged the glass with a spoon and said, “I’d like to make a toast. Ringo, I thought you were bloody barmy when you wanted to keep The Beatles together, but you were right and I was wrong. I had forgotten how much fucking fun it is to be in a rock’n’roll band and go out and play some shows. To Ringo!” “Here, here,” the room echoed.

George wobbled to his feet and raised his own glass. “You know,” he said, “there’s something spiritual about brothers, how they can argue and fight and want to kill each other and then come together and make some good. And it’s even better when they can do it on stage in public. Here’s to my brothers Ringo and John.”

“And here’s to Klaus,” John added with a malicious grin, “the best bass player The Beatles have ever had!”