Remembering John Lennon and Paul McCartney's Last Recording Together — Four Years “After” the Beatles’ Split

Fifty years ago, the pair put aside the pain of the band's breakup to quietly reunite in the studio — and the result is not what you'd expect.

<p>Getty Images</p>

Getty Images

Last fall the Beatles released “Now and Then,” a long-awaited digital reunion between all four Fabs was made possible through cutting edge technology. Touted as the final entry in the band’s storied cannon, it provided fans with a happy ending to a 60-year saga and the chance to hear Paul McCartney join voices with his late partner John Lennon once again. Though indeed moving, it was a reunion that didn’t occur in reality. The Beatles tragically never reconvened in the studio prior to Lennon’s murder on Dec. 8, 1980 — robbing the world of more potential Beatles albums, and McCartney of his dear friend.

Many assume that Lennon and McCartney’s recording relationship ended with the band’s breakup at the dawn of the ‘70s. But in truth, they quietly teamed up in an LA studio for a one-off impromptu session in 1974. The results were chaotic, unfinished, and (technically) unreleased, but the bootleg tapes are historic for capturing that iconic vocal blend for the very last time. It proves that despite the bitterness of the prior breakup, their bond remained intact.

The diverse and nuanced reasons for the Beatles’ split are as complex as the men themselves, requiring volumes of books — not to mention legal documents — to unravel. The partnership was dealt its mortal blow with the death of band manager Brian Epstein in August 1967. McCartney did his best to navigate the group through the ensuing upheaval, but his de facto leadership was read as overbearing by his band mates — particularly Lennon, who, since the world beating success of 1967’s groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, had largely abdicated his creative role due to his own emotional maelstrom of insecurity, boredom, and resentment. “After Brian died, we collapsed,” Lennon said in an infamous interview with Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner in December 1970. “Paul took over and supposedly led us. But what is leading us, when we went round in circles? We broke up then. That was the disintegration.”

McCartney’s perfectionism in the studio gave him a reputation as a hard task master — “He’s the workaholic!” Ringo Starr once joked, while the band’s producer George Martin chose the word “overbossy” — but beginning with sessions for the ‘White Album’ in 1968, Lennon began openly sniping at McCartney’s work. He particularly loathed the music hall influenced numbers like “Martha My Dear” and “Ob-La-Da, Ob-La-Da,” which he memorably dismissed as “Paul’s granny music s---.” The latter song nearly provoked a battle royale in the studio before Lennon stormed out — only to return again hours later, in a chemically altered state of consciousness. (The sessions for the song were so unpleasant that longtime engineer Geoff Emerick resigned rather than tolerate the bad vibes.)

For McCartney, the hostility was painful. “John and I were critical of each other's music and I felt John wasn't much interested in performing anything he hadn't written himself,” he told Life in 1971. “So I felt the split coming. And John kept saying we were musically standing still."

Lennon wasn’t particularly taken with the high concept McCartney-helmed projects that the band were obliged to go along with. The 1967 television film Magical Mystery Tour had been a costly flop that was barely salvaged by the soundtrack EP (and eventual album), and the tense sessions recorded for the Let It Be documentary captured just as many squabbles as songs. “The film was set up by Paul for Paul,” Lennon told Wenner. “That is one of the main reasons the Beatles ended. I can't speak for George, but I pretty damn well know we got fed up of being sidemen for Paul…The camera work was set up to show Paul and not anybody else. And that's how I felt about it." The lead single from the project, “Get Back,” was a McCartney composition that Lennon (supposedly) took to be a thinly veiled dig at Yoko Ono, his new romantic partner, who attended each session along with the band. “When we were in the studio recording it, every time he sang the line 'Get back to where you once belonged,' he'd look at Yoko," he claimed. 

This particular instance is likely a product of Lennon’s own paranoia, but the Beatles hardly welcomed Ono with open arms when Lennon chose to make her a permanent fixture at the band’s sessions. "It was like old army buddies splitting up on account of wedding bells,” McCartney reflected in the Beatles Anthology. “He'd fallen in love, and none of us was stupid enough to say, 'Oh, you shouldn't love her.' We could recognize that, but that didn't diminish the hurt we were feeling by being pushed aside.” 

McCartney’s rejection of Ono — real or imagined, playful or malicious — stung Lennon in a way that few things could, and he began to emotionally distance himself from his longtime partner as a self-protective measure. “[Paul] said it many times that at first he hated Yoko, and then he got to like her. But it's too late for me,” he told Wenner. “Ringo was all right, but the other two really gave it to us…I can't forgive 'em for that, really. Although I can't help still loving them either."

When McCartney married Linda Eastman in 1969, he proposed that her father Lee, a prominent New York entertainment lawyer, take over the band’s business affairs that had previously been managed by Epstein. Lennon understandably feared that McCartney’s father-in-law could never be a neutral third party, and instead favored Allen Klein, a brusque and streetwise business barracuda. His shady business reputation had earned him somewhere in the vicinity of 50 lawsuits — Epstein met him once and refused to shake his hand — but Lennon was drawn to his down-to-earth nature. Starr and Harrison followed suit, leaving an awkward three-to-one vote. McCartney never accepted Klein as his manager, taking issue with all manner of business and creative decisions made under his direction. Lennon took this as a personal affront.

On Sept. 26, 1969, with his confidence bolstered by his first major non-Beatle live performance in years at the Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival Festival, Lennon reported for duty at a Beatles business meeting and made his push for independence. When McCartney suggested the band return to their roots by going on tour, Lennon shut him down immediately. “I think you're daft,” he snarled. “I wasn't going to tell you, but I'm breaking the group up. It feels good. It feels like a divorce.” No one — not even Ono — had seen it coming. "Our jaws dropped," McCartney recalled. Klein and the other Beatles convinced Lennon to keep the news under wraps so it wouldn’t disrupt lucrative business deals in the works. McCartney hoped it was one of Lennon’s moody outbursts, but he remained resolute. When McCartney called six months later to say that he was also leaving the group and readying a solo album, Lennon was unmoved. “That makes two of us who have accepted it mentally,” he replied.

The album in question, titled simply McCartney, was released in April 1970. Press copies included a Q&A that spelled out the fact that the Beatles were finished due to “personal differences, business differences, and musical differences,” and he didn’t foresee a Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership continuing into the future. The stunt, which made global headlines on April 10, enraged Lennon, who had planned to make the big announcement himself when the time was right. "I wanted to do it and I should have done it,” he said later. “I was a fool not to do it, not to do what Paul did, which was use it to sell a record."

On Dec. 31, 1970, McCartney began legal proceedings to dissolve the Beatles partnership, stretching relations between the formerly Fab foursome to the breaking point. According to legend, at one point Lennon was chauffeured over to McCartney’s London home and tossed a brick through his front window. (Another version has Lennon breaking in and destroying a painting he had gifted him.) Both stories are likely apocryphal but the sentiments were based in reality.

That same month, an emotionally raw Lennon, fresh off months of psychologically excruciating Primal Scream therapy, sat down with Wenner to give Rolling Stone’s readers their first look at the beloved band’s dirtiest laundry. “The publication of these interviews was the first time that any of the Beatles, let alone the man who had founded the group and was their leader, finally stepped outside of that protected, beloved fairy tale and told the truth,” Wenner later wrote. “He was bursting and bitter about the sugarcoated mythology of the Beatles and Paul McCartney’s characterization of the breakup.”

McCartney’s response was, characteristically, more subtle. On his second solo disc, 1971’s Ram, he included a jab at Lennon on the opener, “Too Many People,” scoffing at the ex-bandmate’s exhortations for world peace. “The first line is: ‘too many people preaching practices,” he told MOJO in 2001. “I felt John and Yoko were telling everyone what to do. And I felt we didn't need to be told what to do. The whole tenor of the Beatles thing had been, like, to each his own. Freedom. Suddenly it was ‘You should do this.’ It was just a bit the wagging finger, and I was pissed off with it.” (The other lyrical barb, "You took your lucky break and broke it in two," is fairly self-explanatory.)

Few fans picked up on the slight, but Lennon got the reference, and perhaps invented one or two that weren’t actually there. “He’s so obscure other people didn't notice them, but I heard them,” he railed. “I thought 'Well, I’m not obscure, I just get right down to the nitty-gritty.'” He fired back on Imagine, his 1971 masterpiece best remembered for the visions of a tolerant utopia on the opening track. “How Do You Sleep” is the spiritual inverse, a diss track so venomous and overt that it borders on obscene. Even more wounding to McCartney, the slide guitar on the track was played by his fellow Beatle brother, George Harrison.

In film footage of the session, later released as part of the Imagine documentary, Lennon can be seen huddled with Harrison and Ono, gleefully giggling like conspiratorial children as they trash their former friend. “The sound you make is muzak to my ears/You must have learned something in all those years,” Lennon sings, before taking a shot at McCartney’s most famous song: “The only thing you done was ‘Yesterday’/And since you’re gone you’re just another day.” (The original words were “and you probably pinched that bitch anyway,” until Klein insisted that he remove the potentially libelous line.) Starr happened to be visiting the studio the day of the recording, and was so scandalized by the lines that he angrily urged Lennon to back off.

Several years later, when he’d cooled off slightly, Lennon attempted to defuse the song, saying that he was “using somebody as an object to create something. I wasn't really feeling that vicious at the time, but I was using my resentment towards Paul to create a song.” Even so, the lines undoubtedly hurt McCartney, though he was loathe to punch back. “When John did 'How Do You Sleep,’ I didn't want to get into a slanging match,” he told author Barry Miles in his authorized biography, All These Years from Now. “I just let him do it, because he was being fed a lot of those lines by Klein and Yoko, I had the option of going for equal time and doing all the interviews or deciding to not take up the gauntlet, and I remember consciously thinking, ‘No, I really mustn't.’ Part of it was cowardice: John was a great wit, and I didn't want to go fencing with the rapier champion of East Cheam. That was not a good idea. And I also knew that those vibes could snowball, and you start off with a perfectly innocent little contest and suddenly you find yourself doing duel to the death with the Lennon figure and it's, ‘Oh, my God, what have I carved out here?’ But it meant that I had to take s---.”

When McCartney did respond publicly, on 1971’s Wild Life, it was with an olive branch. His first Wings venture included the mournful “Dear Friend,” an open letter to Lennon that matched “How Do You Sleep” for candor. Built around a haunting solo piano figure, a grief-stricken McCartney sounds lost as he wonders if this was “really the borderline” of their friendship. Lennon kept his response to the song to himself, but the public sparring soon ceased. 

As their business and legal affairs untangled by the middle of the decade, McCartney attempted to carry on as if it were old times. “I would ring him when I went to New York and he would say, 'Yeah, what d'you want?' 'I just thought we might meet?' 'Yeah, what the f--- d'you want, man?'” he told Miles. “It was all very acrimonious and bitter. I remember one time John said, 'You're all pizza and fairy tales.' I thought, ‘What a great album title!’ I said, 'Well, if that's what I am, I'm not wholly against that description of me. I can think of worse things to say.' But another time I called him and it was 'Yeah? Yeah? Whadda ya want?' He suddenly started to sound American. I said, 'Oh, f--- off, Kojak,' and slammed the phone down; we were having those kind of times, it was bad news.”

Relations gradually thawed, and on March 28, 1974, the unthinkable occurred: Lennon and McCartney jammed together in a recording studio. Unfortunately, the results were a drugged-up shambles. Lennon was at Burbank Studios producing what would become the album Pussy Cats for his friend, Harry Nilsson. In the midst of his 18-month separation from Ono, he frequently anesthetized himself with booze and cocaine, which he generously shared with fellow players Stevie Wonder, Jesse Ed Davis and Bobby Keys. McCartney arrived into this atmosphere of debauchery, and attempted to coax a song out of this supergroup. “There were 50 other people playing, all just watching me and Paul,” Lennon later remembered. Tapes from the session reveal only semi-complete versions of Little Richard's “Lucille” and the Ben E. King slow burn “Stand By Me,” often interrupted by technical problems. Though mostly incomplete and largely unlistenable, it’s the final time Lennon and McCartney’s sweet and sour vocal blend was captured on tape. (Though never released formally, the sessions eventually surfaced on the bootleg, A Toot and a Snore in ’74.)

Lennon returned to New York City several months later, where he reunited with his other great love: Yoko Ono. Their reconciliation had been mediated by, of all people, McCartney. A lonely Ono had paid him a visit and explained her terms for rekindling their romance, which McCartney dutifully passed along to Lennon. “I said, 'Yoko was through London and she said she wouldn't mind getting back together. How about you? Would you be interested in that?'” McCartney later explained. “He said, 'Yeah.' That he still loved her and stuff. So I said, 'Here's the deal. You've got to go back to New York. You've got to go get a flat, court her, so-and-so ...' and that's just what he did. That's how they got back together again.”

Soon after the reconciliation, Lennon retired from the music industry to focus on raising their newborn son, Sean. Tensions eased enough for McCartney to occasionally drop by the couple’s new Upper West Side apartment in the ultra-luxe Dakota building when business took music him to America. “He visits me every time he's in New York, like all the other rock 'n" roll creeps,” Lennon laughed at the time. “So whenever he's in town I see him. He comes over and we just sit around and get mildly drunk and reminisce.”

On April 24, 1976, they settled in to watch the hip new comedy program, Saturday Night Live, when they found themselves in the peculiar situation of being addressed on air by the show’s producer, Lorne Michaels. Mocking the exorbitant sums of money the Beatles were being offered to reunite, Michaels held up a hilariously paltry check for just $3,000. Amazingly, the joke nearly succeeded. “John said, ‘It's only downtown, we could go now. Come on, let's just show up. Should we, should we?’ and for a second it was like, ‘Yeah, yeah!’ But we decided not to.” (Lennon admitted, “We nearly got a cab, but we were actually too tired.”)

The night was reportedly be the last time the two men, who had shared so much over the previous two decades, ever shared a room. As they parted ways, Lennon patted McCartney on the shoulder and offered a mock-maudlin farewell: “Think about me every now and then, old friend.”

They managed to stay connected over telephone for the next several years. “I realized that I couldn't always ring him up to ask about business, which was my main priority at the time,” said McCartney. “It was better to talk about cats, or baking bread, or babies. So we did that, and I had a lot in common with him because we were having our babies and I was into a similar sort of mode.” McCartney placed a call to his old partner just before Lennon’s 40th birthday on Oct. 9, 1980. “[It was] very nice. I remember he said, ‘Do they play me against you against me like they play you against me?’ Because there were always people in the background pitting us against each other. And I said, ‘Yeah, they do…’” It was the final time they spoke.

McCartney would always regret that he was never able to sit down and fully hash out all their differences before Lennon was gunned down on a chilly December night in 1980. But in an interview given hours before his death, Lennon spoke in uncharacteristically glowing terms of his one-time partner. “There’s only ever been two artists I’ve ever worked with for more than a one-night-stand, as it were,” he told RKO Radio. “That’s Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono. I think that’s a pretty damn good choice. As a talent scout, I’ve done pretty damn well.” Though effusive words rarely came easily to the man who penned “All You Need Is Love,” mutual friend Harry Nilsson once told a story that summed up Lennon’s feelings for his musical soul mate. “Someone told me … they saw John walking on the street once wearing a button saying ‘I Love Paul.’ And this girl asked him, ‘Why are you wearing a button that says “I Love Paul”?’ He said, ‘Because I love Paul.’”

For more People news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!

Read the original article on People.