Great Britain

'I was shattered' – Paul Weller, Booker T and more on the day the Beatles split

On 9 April 1970, a press release about a 27-year-old solo artist was sent to the media. Taking the form of a Q&A, most of it explained what his debut album, McCartney, was about (“home, family, love”). Then, dropped in almost as an afterthought, came this: “Are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles?” “No.” “Do you foresee a time when Lennon-McCartney becomes an active songwriting partnership again?” “No.”

Paul McCartney never actually said in person that the Beatles had split, but these responses told journalists all they needed to know. “Paul quits the Beatles,” announced the front of the Daily Mirror the next day, as the story ricocheted around the world. Here, exactly 50 years on, we talk to Beatles fans and insiders about the day the band’s era-defining story finally came to an end.

Paul Weller: ‘They were my entire universe’

Then: 11, schoolboy, Maybury School, Woking. Now: 61, musician

My mum had a part-time job in the local newsagents and I can remember seeing a headline: “Paul – I Quit” on that fateful day. I couldn’t make sense of it. I was shattered. The Beatles were my entire universe.

I now see it as inevitable and also necessary, because in hindsight they couldn’t have gone on into the 70s. It wouldn’t have felt right. Bowie took their place, I think. But I also wonder what would have happened if they had continued. Would there have been 50 years of OK or shit records to lessen their meaning and impact? Would they still remain as important as they are now and will always be?

The Beatles will always be my guides. They were my four prophets from the north. They came to show us there’s another way to live – and to rejoice in what we have.
Paul Weller’s 15th solo album, On Sunset, is released 12 June on Polydor.

Annie Nightingale: ‘They weren’t pop stars any more’

Then: 30, journalist and Radio 1 DJ. Now: 80, Radio 1 DJ

I witnessed the unravelling close at hand. I was a friend of the band’s label Apple, one of the few allowed into the hallowed halls. I’d been a journalist and a TV presenter, so I’d known the band well. They’d also helped me get my first Radio 1 job that February. But it felt that everyone was papering over the cracks.

Apple had been this utopian dream. The band wanted to share the fruits of their successes by looking after other groups, but they’d been so vulnerable and lost since [their manager] Brian Epstein died. They weren’t really pop stars any more by 1970, either. They were artists. But they were still extensions of who they’d been at the beginning – young people who told you you absolutely didn’t have to be like your parents, for the first time.

I remember it being a really sad day, and being really worried that the hard-won ground they’d built would be lost. We really didn’t want the establishment coming back.
Annie Nightingale’s memoir, Hi Hey Hello, is published on 3 September by Hachette.

Bonnie Greer: ‘I moved to the UK because of them’

Then: 21, history undergraduate. Now: 71, writer, broadcaster, Trustee Emerita of the British Museum, OBE

I was just 21 when Paul McCartney announced that he was releasing a solo album, and oh, by the way, the Beatles were breaking up. They had been a part of my life ever since they came on the Ed Sullivan Show, six years earlier. I can still see the curtain parting after that rather stiff old guy announced them, and there they were. I listened on my transistor to a black radio show, Herb Kent the Cool Gent, which was usually just Motown and soul. One day, the opening chords of Paperback Writer came on, and everything changed for me.

I had been a black girl growing up on the south side of Chicago, in the civil rights movement, the black students movement, Bobby Kennedy, all of it, but then there were the Beatles. They gave me agency. I moved to the UK because of them. Weird that it took four boys from Liverpool to do that. Through all their permutations, the Beatles were like Oz or Alice in Wonderland, a passageway to another world. When they broke up, I knew that we were entering another era. And we did.

Freda Kelly: ‘The fans didn’t want it to end’

Then: 25, Beatles official fan club secretary. Now: 75, part-time legal secretary

There was still a lot going on in the fan club in early 1970. I had my daughter by then. My husband did shift work, so I’d drop her off at a creche, get to the office and answer lots of letters. Fans would ask if they were splitting all the time. I’d try to avoid answering.

The breakup had been on the cards for a while. I wasn’t surprised. People grow up – other priorities came along, like wives and kids. I kept the fan club going for another two years, sending old records and press handout photos. I closed it down when I was pregnant again in 1972, then took time off to bring up my kids. I went back to college and became a secretary at a solicitors. The fans didn’t want it to go. But I never looked back.

Alan Johnson: ‘They healed America after JFK’s assassination’

Then: 26, postman. Now: 76, former home secretary, author of In My Life: A Music Memoir

I was a father of three, living on a council estate in Slough. Listening to Abbey Road the previous summer, it was obvious it was coming. That side two medley, finishing with The End – it’s all there. I still can’t listen to that without tears in my eyes.

It’s hard to impress just how much of an effect they had on wider society. They healed America after JFK’s assassination. Kids in Russia thought of different lives after hearing their music. They set off a huge wave of creativity that was bearing so much fruit by 1970: I was enjoying Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and one of Apple’s own, Badfinger.

They had tempered each other as a band, Paul tempering John’s cynicism, John tempering Paul’s tendency to whimsy. By 1970, as a fan, you knew they wanted to be themselves, and the Plastic Ono Band’s album in 1969 had made that clear. Still, you thought they might get back together. Until Lennon died, we still thought they might.

Mike Vickers: ‘They’d done everything by that point’

Then: 30, orchestral arranger, Moog operator on Abbey Road. Now: 80, author of A Week in the Life: Working With the Beatles on All You Need Is Love

I genuinely wasn’t aware of things getting dodgy. The previous summer, they’d been doing the vocals for Because when I walked into the studio, and it sounded sensational. You couldn’t imagine this was a band about to break up.

I’d also done the arrangements for the TV performance of All You Need Is Love in 1967, and knew about Paul from my friend Peter Asher [brother of Jane, McCartney’s then girlfriend]. Peter said Paul was one of those people who knew exactly what had to happen next when making music. He was right. He was beyond brilliant in the studio, and a great leader, although I can imagine how that might have caused stress.

Given they’d done everything else at that point, I bet they decided breaking up was the next thing to do. Think about what most artists do in a lifetime. They did it and more on their albums in seven years.

Booker T Jones: ‘I spent all my quarters playing them on the jukebox’

Then: 26, leader of Booker T and the MGs. Now: 76, author of My Life, Note by Note

We released McLemore Avenue, our tribute to Abbey Road, the same month the Beatles split. Abbey Road had made me want to do more than R&B and work with people like Leon Russell, Quincy Jones and Bill Withers.

You could hear that the Beatles were desperately trying to be four individuals by then. I’d loved them since I’d first heard them as a college freshman, pouring all my quarters into the jukebox to play I Want to Hold Your Hand. They’d also been so generous to us on the 1968 Stax tour of the UK. They even sent us a limo! When it was over, it was sad, but it was time. We were fortunate they made the sacrifice to be together with each other for so long.

Richard Williams: ‘It didn’t matter – there was tons to listen to’

Then: 23, Melody Maker news editor. Now: 73, music and sports journalist

Sounds magazine had just started up and we’d lost lots of staff, so I’d suddenly become number two at the Melody Maker. I’d also become their Beatles person. John and I had always got on quite well, but he was on the brink of moving to LA. We all knew they were breaking up. To anyone in the business, the Mirror story didn’t really seem like news, just confirmation.

It didn’t matter that the Beatles weren’t around much by then. The Stones weren’t either. It was a very dynamic time musically. There was still tons to listen to: heavier stuff like Led Zeppelin, country-rock like the Flying Burrito Brothers, great singer-songwriters, the early stirrings of glam.

The last word on the Beatles didn’t come until John sent us a letter in November 1971, which properly put the limping dog out of its misery [in response to an interview Paul had done in the paper that month, discussing the Beatles’ financial woes]. Them using our postbag to communicate with each other was thrilling, but it felt pretty final.

No one thought there’d be a reunion tour. Then again, rock’n’roll wasn’t old enough then to have reunion tours.

Lillian Adams: ‘We’d go to John’s house on the bus’

Then: 21, Beatles fan since 1961. Now: 71, retired finance editor

I was amazed when I heard they’d broken up. You’d read how they didn’t like Yoko, they didn’t like Linda, how Paul wanted the Beatles to be looked after by his girlfriend’s dad and brother, which surely didn’t sound like a good idea to anybody other than him. But I thought they’d get through it. They’d been the Beatles since they were kids. How could they be anything else?

I’d seen them lots in my early teens, living not far from Liverpool. On Saturdays and school holidays, my friends and I would go to John’s house on the bus as we had nothing else to do. We only saw him once. You got such little access to pop culture back then. You’d get your Beatles monthly magazine, Top of the Pops once a week on the TV – but that was it. The idea of seeing your favourite group any minute of any day was unbelievable.

I discovered so much music from the Beatles. I wouldn’t have liked the blues without them – I was more into John Mayall, Eric Clapton and Cream by 1970. But I still bought every Beatles album and I loved Abbey Road. I couldn’t believe they wouldn’t be there any more.

Don Letts: ‘It wasn’t a bad thing – the first solo records were great’

Then: 14, schoolboy, Tennison’s School, London. Now: 64, film director and BBC Radio 6 Music DJ

My older brother Desmond worked in Carnaby Street and he’d bring Beatles records home. By the late 60s I had all the Beatles bootlegs with the three pigs on the label, and was a young Apple scruff, hanging around outside. I eventually had the second biggest collection of Beatles memorabilia in the UK, before punk came and saved me. To me, the Beatles laid the blueprint of all the possibilities in pop.

If you followed the emotional arc of their records, you could tell things were going wrong. I remember thinking it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those first solo records were great: John’s raw emotions laid out with the Plastic Ono Band; George’s godly piece of work, All Things Must Pass; Paul consistently making great stuff.

I also got more into Trojan reggae and American soul after they split; the duality of my existence as a black British person meant that, as one side of that equation was faltering, I’d go into the other. But even now, the Beatles’ music has an impact on people’s lives. It will live on for ever.

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