1971 was a year to savour, musically. There were so many great albums and bands, but one band that had run their course were The Beatles. Whilst the fab four had gone their separate ways, they were all still making fab music.
We welcome Mof from Portable Radio (who recently released their debut LP – our review here) back to At The Barrier as he discusses The Beatles in 1971 in one thousand, nine hundred and seventy one words (not including the preamble!)
Music fans can speak loftily about the greatest artform humans ever conjured up, looking at cultural impact, expression, commentary and all that good stuff – but let’s be honest with ourselves – half the time we’re in it for the drama.
Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ is a fine LP, but it was made great by the seething tension of the love affairs between the members of the group. In 1971, the freshly split Beatles were a million miles away from the gang of imps giving cheek in interviews, instead emerging battered and bruised from the tumultuous ‘Let It Be’ sessions.
They were atop of the cultural world and still young. They’d had enough. They needed a break from Beatlemania and each other, being in each other’s pockets since they were teenagers playing in beer halls. While Ringo, George and John had all left the group, it was Paul who made it legal. Honestly, it could have been any member in any order, but the ‘60s ended with the Beatles and the ‘70s kicked off without them.
However, such was the prolific output of the band – in 7 years they released 12 albums, 1 EP, 4 movies, a load of fanclub Christmas flexis, and a rake of game-changing singles that weren’t included on the LPs – it wasn’t likely that the Fabs were just going to go on holiday and put their feet up.
1970 had already seen some solo Beatle action and a number of songs tested out while the band were still together, appearing on solo records – Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’, McCartney’s ‘McCartney I’, and John and Yoko’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’ showed that there was still a lot of unfinished business from the boys. Ringo put some tunes out too and, experimental pieces and soundtracks aside, the releases still felt very much glued to the legacy of The Beatles.
It was 1971 where things really took off, and the divorce started to get messy.
In one week, the UK Top 40 featured Lennon’s Power To The People, McCartney’s Another Day, George’s My Sweet Lord, and Ringo’s brilliant It Don’t Come Easy. If there was any doubt that they still had it, this was a thumb in the eye of the critics. While these solo records were certainly a product of freedoms not previously afforded to the group as a unit, when able to indulge themselves more, they do allow for a daydream of what Beatle LP could’ve been if you compile all the best songs from each of the 1970 and 1971 LPs into one solid gold package.
While we wait for Peter Jackson’s new Beatle documentary, which shines a sunnier light on the band’s final throes, we know that all wasn’t well in the group. Frustrated, impatient and plain getting on each other’s nerves, they needed a clean break. Sure, they could have gone on hiatus and reconvened at a later date, but the Beatles were in unchartered territory. Cumulatively they thought ‘fuck this,’ and cemented their place in pop’s annals by basically being a band that never made a bad album. Inadvertently, a smart move.
After being harangued and goaded by Lennon and Harrison, including an incident which saw Lennon scaling the gate at Paul’s home and lobbing a brick through the window with Harrison in the getaway car outside, and a whole load of tedious and fractious legal headaches, McCartney is readying Ram.
McCartney’s Ram era is a fertile one – an album that is the sound of a man pottering around in the shed with a stack of musical instruments. For the average musician, it’d be an interesting listen – but there’s a genius involved, and the result is the best of the Beatle solo albums. On the sly, McCartney records a companion piece called ‘Thrillington’ – a light orchestra version of Ram, which Paul would keep schtum about until the ‘90s, which promptly saw the price of the original pressings of the record go from junk to priceless artefact.
The album is vintage McCartney, scoring his first US number one, and bursting with ideas and hooks. However, in the song Too Many People, we hear the line: “too many people preaching practices”, and that’s when the drama goes public.
In a Playboy interview, McCartney confessed there was a mild jab at Lennon: “I was looking at my second solo album, Ram, the other day and I remember there was one tiny little reference to John in the whole thing. He’d been doing a lot of preaching, and it got up my nose a little bit. In one song, I wrote, “Too many people preaching practices”, I think is the line. I mean, that was a little dig at John and Yoko. There wasn’t anything else on it that was about them. Oh, there was “You took your lucky break and broke it in two”.”
In Macca’s mind, if the Beatles had been about personal freedoms, then Lennon’s proselytising had got on his nerves a bit. Either way, Lennon heard it loud and clear, and what is effectively a nuclear reply to a mild jibe, in typical raw emotion, Lennon retaliates on the Imagine LP.
Of course, Lennon’s most famous solo LP contains the cloying titular track (“imagine no possessions” coming from a man who had a temperature-controlled room to keep his fur coats just so, is a bit rich), but it’s elsewhere that the good stuff lies.
Crippled Inside certainly feels like a dig at McCartney, but it’s How Do You Sleep? that is unequivocally a flurry of abuse aimed at his former bandmate, and cruelly, John recruited Harrison to play lead guitar on it, meaning that George too, tacitly endorsed the song.
Containing the lyrics “those freaks were right when they said you were dead”, calling back to the ‘Paul Is Dead’ conspiracy theory, followed up with the savage “the only thing you done was yesterday, and since you’ve gone you’re just another day”, with the one-two punch wordplay on Yesterday/being a has-been, and referencing McCartney’s latest solo single.
Then, in an ultimate move of scathing dismissal: “the sound you make is muzak to my ears.” In an outtake, which didn’t end up on the LP, Lennon sang “how do you sleep, you cunt?”
To make the whole thing more unpleasant, Ringo is at the session. So too is Klaus Voormann on bass – friend of the group since Hamburg, and the man who provided the artwork for Revolver.
Felix Dennis – publisher of Oz Magazine – recalls Starr’s discomfort about the whole thing: “They were writing the song as they performed it. And as these lyrics emerged, I remember Ringo getting more and more upset by this. He was really not very happy about this, and at one point I have a clear memory of his saying, “That’s enough, John.’”
George, Yoko, Lennon and controversial Beatle manager Allen Klein all contributed to the lyrics, laughing and giggling at Paul McCartney’s expense, many of them deeply personal and offensive, which didn’t make the final cut. It seems Ringo stood firm and chided them for being so brutal to their brother. Dennis continued: “…Ringo and other musicians there would remonstrate with him and say, ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, John, that’s a bit much, you know!’ Sometimes he would agree… if [Lennon] had someone he could confide in, other than Yoko, I think they would have persuaded him to leave it in the vaults for posterity. It was a bit of a shame he ever let it out.”
Lennon would later say: “it’s not about Paul – it’s about me – I’m really attacking myself.” While Lennon is obviously a raw nerve-ending (that’s one of the reasons we like him), it’s disingenuous on John’s part to pass it off as simply someone pressing the self-destruct button thanks to huge bouts of self-loathing. Join the queue, John. And so much for giving peace a chance.
In the Imagine artwork, we see Lennon holding a pig’s ears aping McCartney holding the sheep on the ‘Ram’ cover. McCartney, vexed but ever polite, said he’d heard the album and liked it, and considered it less political than previous Lennon outings. Again, Lennon returned serve with a bazooka: “So you think Imagine’ain’t political? It’s Working Class Hero with sugar on it for conservatives like yourself!” before likening McCartney to Mary Whitehouse.
Obviously, there’s a good chunk of political and social commentary in ‘Imagine’, but you can imagine McCartney had more interest in Jealous Guy – the vulnerable, growing Lennon – the man trying to atone for his tempestuous, often troubled past. These moments are those that continue to stand up, compared to the immediacy and bile of Lennon’s other work.
Naturally, as music fans and gossip vultures, we lap this stuff up. Harrison and Starr would sit down and write Don’t Come Easy together (Harrison ghost-writing) and McCartney forming Wings, to release the underrated and delightfully hobbled together Wild Life LP.
Again, the back-and-forth continues. McCartney wanted something rawer and more immediate with his new group, and Wild Life was recorded in eight days. This was a band set to go on the road, making it up as they went along, freed from the insanity of life in the Beatle goldfish bowl.
Closing the LP, we find Dear Friend – and who might that be about?
“Dear friend- what’s the time? Is this really the border line? Does it really mean so much to you? Are you afraid, or is it true? Dear friend – throw the wine – I’m in love with a friend of mine; really, truly, young and newlywed – are you afraid or are you blue?”
In the coming years, of course, McCartney would become something of a political mover and shaker himself (Give Ireland Back To The Irish, basically contributing to the popularity of worldwide vegetarianism with Linda, anti-war and corruption and so on), while Lennon would eventually ease off the throttle and re-emerge as a home bird, in love with his wife, deeply sentimental about family, speaking candidly about the toxic masculinity that plagued his early years and promoting a new softer manliness, that would have had greater chance to flourish had he not been cruelly taken away from us.
And all the while, in the middle of all this, George Harrison hosts the first Concert For Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden, effectively inventing the charity concert; 1971 was not a quiet year in Beatleville.
1971 kicks off with the official dissolution of The Beatles in court, is followed by diss tracks toward two brothers-in-arms, four charted records at the same time, the creation of Wings, the birth of children, art exhibitions, and ends with something of a confession – Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War Is Over).
On the face of it, a track about willing warfare to end, but also, the war over the soul of The Beatles was coming to an end. The jabs and jibes were beginning to dry up and distance and financial space from the biggest group in the world would allow for something of a reconciliation. It wouldn’t be immediate, but 1971 saw arguably the most difficult year in Beatle history pave the way for some healing.
Life as a Beatle would never run smoothly, but 1971 was at least the apex for the band’s troubles, and once that was out of the way, those four boys from Liverpool could start to consider a life post-Fab Four.
When Lennon sings “let’s stop all the fight”, it was the beginning of the end for The Beatles being at each other’s throats, and while our need for gossip had to be turned elsewhere, at least on a human level, we take solace in the fact that, before Lennon was murdered in New York City, the four boys who counted themselves as the members of the greatest pop group who ever lived, had come home to each other.
Huge thanks to Mof for writing this brilliant piece for At The Barrier. You can read his previous piece about the brilliance of Paul McCartney here.
Mof’s band, Portable Radio, released their debut LP on 12th March.