Who Really Killed the Beatles?

We heard the news today, 46 years ago, that the Beatles were no more.  But who was the real killer in the magical mystery tour of the Fab Four’s finale?

As with the end of any long-term relationship, pinning down a specific date for when the Beatles (shown above, frolicking in 1964) — the most influential group in the history of popular music — ended isn’t easy.  But if we must point to specific date, a good candidate is April 10, 1970—the day that Paul McCartney announced he was leaving the group.  It took five more years to iron out the legal issues, but that date was at least the beginning of the beginning of the end.  But wasn’t it Yoko’s fault?  Didn’t she push John Lennon to leave?  Who really “killed” the Beatles?


  • Video: January 30, 1969: British rock group the Beatles perform their last live public concert on the rooftop of the Apple Organization building for director Michael Lindsey-Hogg’s film documentary, Let It Be, on Savile Row, London, England. Drummer Ringo Starr sits behind his kit. Singer/songwriters Paul McCartney and John Lennon perform at their microphones, and guitarist George Harrison stands behind them. Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono sits at right. The Beatles Rooftop Concert 1969 London (HD) from lordcris on Vimeo.
  • The carefree days of the early and mid-1960s felt like a century before they began work on the album Let It Be in 1969.  In retrospect, the film documentary produced to record the making of the album now allows us to see the break up happening right before our eyes.  Tensions clearly fill the room with every shot.  Prisoners of their own mammoth fame, the Beatles longed for the simpler days (hence the song, “Get Back”) and tried to recreate them in gestures such as the famous “rooftop concert” (video shown above), but nothing could bring them back together.  Growing older, as well as spiritually and artistically, meant growing irrevocably apart.  But who, among these Fab Four suspects, really “killed” the Beatles?

  • Image: London - 8th July: Ringo Starr from The Beatles attends a press screening for the film Yellow Submarine along with a Blue Meanie at the Bowater House Cinema in Knightsbridge, London on 8th July 1968. (Photo by Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns)
  • Who was the first Beatle to try to quit?  The most unlikely one, of course—Ringo Starr (the meanie shown above with a Blue Meanie from the film Yellow Submarine).  On August 22, 1968, Ringo, feeling alienated from the group during recording sessions for The White Album, told his bandmates he was leaving.  “It wasn't just me; the whole thing was going down,” Ringo explained later.  “I had definitely left, I couldn't take it anymore. There was no magic and the relationships were terrible.” Starr escaped to the Mediterranean for two weeks of vacation, during which he wrote the song “Octopus’s Garden.”  McCartney filled in on drums during Starr’s absence.  When the other members of the group telegrammed Starr, “You're the best rock'n'roll drummer in the world. Come on home, we love you,” he returned.  The renewed partnership after that near-death experience for the Beatles sustained them, at least for a year.

  • Image: Copenhagen, Denmark - December 01: George Harrison performs on stage with Delaney and Bonnie in Copenhagen, Denmark in December 1969. He is playing “Lucy,” a Gibson Les Paul guitar given to him by Eric Clapton. (Photo by Jan Persson/Redferns)
  • Who was the second Beatle to quit?  George Harrison (shown above) on January 10, 1969, got up at lunch during the Let It Be recording sessions and said “See you 'round the clubs.”  Rather than telegram their love, as they did with Ringo, the remaining Beatles got angry.  Lennon immediately suggested replacing George with Eric Clapton, who was “just as good and not such a headache” (as well as a close friend of the Beatles—particularly Harrison, whose then-wife Patty Boyd would later inspire Clapton to write “Layla” and later marry him).  After a series of meetings, Harrison returned five days later but under a host of conditions, including no more live shows (although he did agree to the aforementioned “rooftop concert”). 

  • Image: 5th January 1970: Paul and Linda McCartney (1941-1998) on their lonely farm near the fishing town of Campbeltown, the day after McCartney started High Court proceedings to seal the final break-up of the Beatles. Mirror Syndication International (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images).
  • Two suspects left.  It couldn’t be Paul, could it?  The “cute one”?  On April 10, 1970, McCartney held a press conference to announce he was leaving the group.  The day before, April 9th, McCartney released a statement to the British press promoting his first solo album, the eponymous McCartney.  Citing “Home, Family, Love” as the theme of the album and reason for going solo on the album (as well as posing for domestic images such as the farm-filled shot with wife Linda shown above), the press release said nothing about leaving the Beatles permanently.  The April 10th announcement dropped like a bomb on the other Beatles.  Soon McCartney would pit his attorney and father-in-law Lee Eastman against Allen Klein, the other three Beatles’ business manager, for royalties and creative control of the Beatles’ legacy.  Contemporary papers charged McCartney as the “killer” of the Beatles and, even worse, using the controversy surrounding the breakup to promote his new solo work.  Unlike Starr and Harrison, McCartney would never return to the full Beatles’ lineup.  Only in 1995, 25 years after the breakup and 15 years after Lennon’s assassination, did Paul work again with both George and Ringo and a virtual, pre-recorded John on the single “Free as a Bird.”

  • Image: London-11th February: English musician and member of The Beatles John Lennon (1940-1980) posed backstage with Yoko Ono on BBC TV's Top Of The Pops in London on 11th February 1970. (Photo by Ron Howard/Redferns)
  • So, why are John and Yoko (mostly Yoko) charged with “killing” the Beatles today? “It's a simple fact that [Paul] can't have his own way, so he's causing chaos,” Lennon remarked a month after McCartney’s bombshell. “I put out four albums last year, and I didn’t say a f***ing word about quitting.”  The standard arguments blaming Yoko Ono claim that her relationship with Lennon pulled him away from the group, that Lennon’s insistence that she be involved creatively in the Beatles (as seen throughout the Let It Be documentary) alienated the others (particularly Harrison, who already felt like a third wheel after Lennon and McCartney), and that the success of Lennon and Ono’s new group, the Plastic Ono Band, made Lennon want to move on.  Lennon later claimed he “quit” the Beatles in September 1969, but signed a huge, new royalty deal that same month with his co-Beatles, so he couldn’t have totally checked out.

  • Image: Beatle John Lennon (1940-1980) and his wife of a week Yoko Ono in their bed in the Presidential Suite of the Hilton Hotel, Amsterdam, 25th March 1969. The couple are staging a “bed-in for peace” and intend to stay in bed for seven days 'as a protest against war and violence in the world'. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
  • The group kept Lennon’s leaving a secret from the press, as they had with Starr’s momentary escape.  (Harrison’s was already captured on film.)  Perhaps they didn’t take him seriously.  Perhaps they didn’t think it would ever really end.  Sadly, over the years, McCartney’s role in the breakup’s been erased and a mythology has grown around Yoko Ono’s involvement.  As a politically outspoken, Asian, woman avant-garde artist, Yoko Ono was an easy target for misogynists, conservatives irritated by her anti-war protests (shown above), and others reluctant to blame any of the actual Beatles for the final breakup.  Maybe McCartney announced his decision as a preemptive strike knowing that Lennon was already leaving?  Maybe McCartney would have stayed if not for John and Yoko?  Who “killed” the Beatles?  Maybe it was all of them.

  • [Image at top of post: Photo of Beatles; L-R: Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon—posed, group shot—jumping on wall, Used on the “Twist & Shout” EP cover (Photo by Fiona Adams/Redferns).]
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    • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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    The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

    But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

    What's dead may never die, it seems

    The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

    BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

    The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

    As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

    The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

    "This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

    An ethical gray matter

    Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

    The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

    Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

    Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

    "This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

    One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

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    "There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

    It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

    Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

    The dilemma is unprecedented.

    Setting new boundaries

    Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

    She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.