Ken McNab on The Last Days of The Beatles

by Corey O'Flanagan

From the moon landing to the Stonewall riots, to Woodstock and Altamont, 1969 gave the world incredible highs and pivotal lows. Through it all, the most famous band in the world, The Beatles, struggled to keep it together while also putting together some of their most treasured music.

In his book And in the End: The Last Days of The Beatles, author Ken McNab details this historic year for the Fab Four on a month-by-month account. It opens in chilly London with the infamous rooftop concert, takes us through the painstaking recording of the songs that would form the albums Let It Be and Abbey Road, and gives us an inside look at the chaotic business side of the band.

In this episode of the Songfact Podcast, he posits on what broke up The Beatles and explains how Abbey Road could have been very different if George Harrison got the space on the album he deserved.


Doing the research

I became a rock and roll detective combined with an archaeologist in order to write this book. Starting with the question of, Does the world need another book about The Beatles? With The Beatles being such an influential and scholarly band, I decided to approach the book as a month-by-month narrative of 1969, presenting it almost as a diary form.

Not only is the music amazing, the story of the band itself is amazing, so the book goes through that year, peeling back the layers and really diving down into the weeds and separating fact from fiction. Clarifying with stories and accounts of those who were around them and in their key circles at the time.


Early in 1969

The book opens in London and the infamous rooftop concert on Saville Road.

The boys were assembled to begin recording what would become Let It Be, which at the time was called Get Back. After months and months of grueling work recording The White Album, by this time, the boys were just drained from all angles. Personally and professionally exhausted. All of course except for Paul McCartney, who is a bit of a workaholic. With that dreadful lethargy looming around the band, they set out to work under "Sergeant Major McCartney" and got recording.


Songwriting

Lennon and McCartney had such an amazing talent infusing two separate songs into one, as we have seen throughout their time as songwriting partners. At this point, in 1969, there were a lot of differences, not just musically, but personally. It got to the point where at one time during the Abbey Road sessions, Lennon wanted all of his songs on one side of the album and all of McCartney's on the other. Luckily, common sense did prevail and they put together the album we know and love today.

Paul McCartney always had material, he has to be one of the most prolific songwriters and musicians of all time. It's no secret, however, that in 1969 Lennon had a heroin problem, and I believe that both his behavior and creativity suffered because of it. I would describe Lennon during this period as a volcano trapped in ice. You were never sure which John Lennon you were going to get.

Let's take a track like "Come Together." Lyrically, it's not The Beatles' best work, but it's up there with their most popular songs. The same with the song "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." I think there are only about 13 words in it. Does that mean he is lyrically bankrupt at this point, or has he said exactly what he wants to say in 13 words? There are always two sides to look at this kind of thing.

Don't get me wrong, I love John Lennon. He is the beating heart of The Beatles and a phenomenal lyricist. It's just that in 1969 I believe there was something different going on for him.

George Harrison's contributions

1969 was an extremely fertile period in George Harrison's career. He was a dark horse, especially on The White Album. He wrote "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," which I think gets better with age. George was always treated by Lennon and McCartney as an economy-class Beatle. They were the hit factory and he wrote one or two songs on an album. But by the time 1969 came around he had some 30 songs in his bottom drawer, and his contributions to Abbey Road were absolutely outstanding. Some argue that "Here Comes The Sun" and "Something" were some of the band's best songs, both of those being from George.

George was coming into his own as a musician and he also had the respect of other musicians such as Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. He had great morale at this time, he was exploring a lot of Indian mysticism and I believe he had options as a musician. I have a theory regarding him and Abbey Road: I do believe that if Lennon and McCartney could have just subdued their egos a little and put in one or two more of George's songs, it could have quite possibly been one of the greatest records ever made.

Take "All Things Must Pass," for example. It shows George's sense of fulfillment at the time, but perhaps the lyrics from that song and also "Where Did I Lose Your Friendship" just hit too close to home for Lennon and McCartney. Coming from 2020 and having hindsight is so interesting because if you do go into Spotify and look up the most popular Beatles' song, it's not "Hey Jude" or "Let It Be," it's actually George Harrison's "Here Comes The Sun."

George had gone to New York and spent some time with Bob Dylan and The Band and embraced this collaborative approach to making music. Within two days of him returning to London to begin working on Let It Be, he said he was back in the "winter of discontent." Within 10 days of being back in that situation, he had walked away from The Beatles. He and McCartney infamously argued over a guitar part on the film Let It Be, and everyone thinks it's because of he and Paul arguing that he walked out. This isn't true, it was actually because of an argument he had with John Lennon.

I think it was very much after growing up together, they had all just grown in different ways, such is life. They started out as boys and they grew into different men.

Ken at Penny Lane in Liverpool

The breakup

One of the most famous questions of Rock and Roll is, who split up The Beatles? And whilst I try not to appoint blame, after doing all of the research it's difficult not to reach a conclusion.

Of course Yoko Ono is one of the easiest to point the finger at. She came into the picture around this time. She was eccentric and of course, a woman. But I don't think it had anything to do with Yoko, but rather Allen Klein.

He was famously quoted to say that he was going to "get The Beatles," and in the end he certainly did. After the death of Brian Epstein, the boys were a little lost in terms of business. They had set up their own company, Apple, but the company began to lose so much money that by 1969 there was a really serious concern that they were going to go bankrupt. They needed someone to come in and manage their business.

Klein had earned his clients a lot of money over in America, Sam Cooke being one example, and he used that as his sales fuel. He was an abrasive figure, very blue collar. He, like Lennon, was an orphan, and I think Lennon was easily won over by his aggressive sales pitch. Because John was the de facto leader of the band, George and Ringo followed his stead. McCartney, however, had always disliked Allen Klein and didn't trust him.

If I absolutely have to play the blame game, I envision Allen Klein as the "Demon King" that swooped in on The Beatles' story and pitched Lennon and McCartney into two opposing corners. Not only did he do that, he didn't even come through on his grandeur promises, which just added even more strain on the situation. Under his management they lost control of their own song publishing catalogue and they lost the opportunity to buy NEMS Enterprises. This was another company attached to Brian Epstein and it was an opportunity for them to make a lot of money. Klein is 100% guilty of making false promises to the boys.


John and Yoko

1969 is the year John Lennon and Yoko Ono became some of the biggest celebrities in the world, due to their political involvement. John became the Pied Piper of peace for youth culture.

John and Yoko were the first of their kind, the first celebrities to use their platform for a position of protest. They were seen as the image of peace. Over in Europe they were seen as more eccentric, but in America they were taken more seriously and seen more as a threat, which of course led to visa issues through Nixon and ultimately Lennon's death.

Think of the youth singing "Give Peace A Chance" outside of the White House. This was such a powerful moment for America. Instead of seeing the youth running around naked, they see this really genuine, serious advocate for peace. John Lennon was a huge part of political activism in this era. It was a vital part of his career.

I still find it just amazing that he had the time to do all of these things on top of producing two albums.


In the end

As I began to look under all the stones and see the patterns of all of the boys, I could slowly start to see them drift apart very gradually. Although the vast majority of the time they all played together, it wasn't all the time. For example, you can see many George Harrison tracks where John Lennon didn't play. Once you have this all down in front of you, you can really begin to see and understand the relationships between them.

Doing this research now, it has very much been a race against time in trying to speak to everyone who was around them at the time and get first-hand accounts and recollections. This really helped humanize the band, which can be so difficult for such iconic figures.

No matter what was going on in terms of disagreements and discord, these boys were brothers. They loved each other. They had a most complicated history, but they were four sides of the same square. If you took one of them away, you took all of them away. They were four guys, four friends who loved each other. They were a family.

September 23, 2020

Here's where you can get a copy of And In The End: The Last Days of The Beatles

Subscribe to the Songfacts podcast, part of the Pantheon Network

Further reading:
Fact or Fiction: George Harrison
How The Beatles Crafted Killer Choruses
George Harrison on "My Sweet Lord" and Leaving the Catholic Church

More Songfacts Podcast

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