There can be no surer sign that the 60s were well and truly over than the breakup of The Beatles; if they had been able to continue for even another year, then the 60s would have ended then. But they broke up and continued to break up all through the late 60s, like so many booster rockets that fall away, energy burning up at a terrific rate to get the main thing, the music, launched. The falling apart happened after Brian Epstein’s death and simply accelerated after that, until April 1970, when Paul – who had been carrying the band on his back and yet secretly recording his own album – left, releasing McCartney soon after.
Cue the misery of a million fans, who maybe weren’t ready for such an abrupt ending, even if they could see it coming. (In Apollo 13 one of the astronaut’s daughters has a screaming fit and won’t leave her room when she hears the news; this must have happened in every town in the world.) Post-Sgt. Pepper, the group splintered and effaced themselves and tried to invent indie by simply producing themselves and ended up getting George Martin back after that didn’t really work. Perhaps had he lived they would have rebelled against Epstein too, but as he was gone they had no rudder going into starting and running the Apple corporation, including fashion and publishing, not to mention their rather pointless pouring of money into a new studio when Abbey Road was their natural home. (The Rolling Stones, being the vagabonds they were, had a mobile studio and this worked out much better for them, in that they could rent it to other bands while they were living their complex lives.)
But if the fans were led to believe – by who I’m not sure – that Yoko Ono was to blame for the breakup, this is because they couldn’t or wouldn’t perceive what was actually happening; the group was breaking itself up, and had been together only in name by this time for months. McCartney had kept the ragtag bunch going long after everyone else had lost enthusiasm, making them record “Maxwell's Silver Hammer” pretty much against their wills (McCartney was convinced it could be a big hit, Lennon hated it) and patronizing, without meaning to, Harrison and Starr. McCartney wrote this song while working on The Beatles, inspired by a consoling dream he’d had after another day of bickering in the studio. His late mother, Mary, appeared to him, telling him that things would work themselves out.
It is a simple song, gospel in that is it warm and comforting, the whole song structured towards resolution, as opposed to a call-and-response gospel of reaffirmation of the spirit. It is a song of calmness and hope (“there will be an answer”) of a specific kind as opposed to a mystical experience which leads to an epiphany. It is an optimistic song, as McCartney wants the peace he has found to spread around the world; a bit of 60s idealism that he knows is still there, even when the sun isn’t shining. The world is full of broken-hearted people, he knows; he wants to share his wisdom with them, and while this might (again) seem a little patronizing*, it is a song of a man who needs whispered wisdom himself, and is eager to spread the word, gospel-style.
This was a time when songs of solace and recognition of “times of trouble” were needed, and this song has become a kind of audio “Keep Calm And Carry On” poster of sorts, being sung and covered, without much evidence of the simple and personal nature of the song. It is meant to be sung by one person, not a choir, and yet it was the penultimate song sung at the London Live Aid concert. More bafflingly, it was recorded in 1987 for Ferry Aid, raising funds for those affected by car ferry The Herald of Free Enterprise’s capsizing due to negligence, flooding with water almost as soon as everyone was on board. Nearly 200 died, many others suffered, and yet the response was…to let it be? Let what be? UK tabloid The Sun had given away cheap tickets for the crossing and after the disaster it put together the benefit single…and tried to get McCartney’s direct involvement, but he would not relent, no doubt thinking giving them permission to sample this song was more than enough [correction: he did appear in the video]. That The Sun was all for profit-maximising, negligence-encouraging capitalism, and then sponsored a single that had everyone singing badly and then congratulating themselves at the end is so far away from the original, I wonder if McCartney would have let them cover it, had he known how (besides Kate Bush) everyone yelled the song instead of singing it as a lullaby**. Because that is what it is.
Yes, the comfort here is a direct one, one from one generation to the next, from one who has gone to one still here; the open intimacy of the song is embarrassing to some, I think, who would prefer Harrison’s spiritual insights or Lennon’s political slant. But this was the last single released while they were still (only just) together. (“The Long And Winding Road” was their last US single, a song that deserved much better than the too-sweet icing that Phil Spector used to cover up the fact that it was a demo with comically bad bass-playing by John Lennon***.)
And that, as they say, is that. The 60s were over, whether the fans liked it or not (and hopes remained high in the 70s that they would reform, especially since Lennon, Harrison and Starr regularly appeared on each other’s records). But anyone who saw Let It Be the movie knew things were too strained for there to be another single, never mind a concert or full-blown comeback. The Beatles were like the Nova Police of pop/rock – “We do our work and go” – and from that there is no return, however much it is yearned for, however much people want it or even need it****. The Fab Four went their separate ways, and fans had the music already; Harrison, Lennon, McCartney and Starr were plunging individually into the 70s now, leaving the public with songs that were about hope and consolation, as if to say, here here, it’s not that bad. Things will be all right. Let it be.
(It would be wrong to end main story of The Beatles without noting that the b-side of "Let It Be" is the divinely silly "You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)" - the kind of silly thing they would do in studio and then finish later, with shifts in mood and tempo, funny and giddy [Brian Jones and Neil Innes each drop in at times, Jones for the saxophone bit at the end], a piece of multicolored 1967 joy that happily balances out the sober and wiser a-side.)
*That Lennon didn’t much like this one either – he thought it was a Catholic song, which it wasn’t – was yet another straw on McCartney’s back.
**”Ferry Cross The Mersey,” recorded as a consolation and commemoration of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, one where many Liverpool fans suffered and were then slandered by The Sun, gives McCartney room to vent his anger, an anger that had no doubt had been there since Ferry Aid.
***That Lennon had been so against any studio overdubs and then turned around and brought in Spector to cover his own meagre playing was the very last straw for McCartney, who promptly left the band as soon as he heard it, citing it in court as one of the reasons for the breakup.
****This was just announced today, and of course there was Beatlemania in the 70s/80s for anyone who wanted it (I wanted to see it when I was all of eleven, but no luck).