Continuing our week-long celebrations commemorating John Lennon's 75th birthday, here Yoko Ono recalls their relationship
Lennon was conducting two careers, one with The Beatles and the other with Yoko. He was thrilled and excited by her unconventional approach to music, art, film and protest, and he promoted her work endlessly. She was, he said, “the ultimate trip”.
In November 1968, The Beatles released the White Album, and only a week later, John and Yoko’s long-delayed Two Virgins emerged. At the same time, “Hey Jude” – Paul’s song of reassurance to Julian Lennon over his parents’ split – was selling millions.
In the new year, the Yellow Submarine soundtrack entered the shops, and the Fab Four performed for the last time on the roof at Apple on January 30. John and Yoko carried on with Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions, released in May 1969 by Zapple – Apple’s new experimental label – and, two months later, with the Plastic Ono Band’s first single, “Give Peace A Chance”.
In August, The Beatles were recording their final album, Abbey Road (although it would be released before Let It Be). At the beginning of 1969, at Paul’s instigation, they had been filmed rehearsing in Twickenham Film Studios and the Abbey Road basement, and the so-called “Get Back” sessions resulted in the Let It Be album and movie. In an atmosphere of apathy, misery and ill-temper, with George storming out and John and Yoko in what seemed like a heroin-spun cocoon that completed their withdrawal from the other Beatles, the group disintegrated in glorious Technicolor.
Lennon, however, was exhilarated by the minimalist, arty films he’d been making with Yoko – 1968’s Smile, Two Virgins and the controversial Rape, where a randomly chosen female was stalked by a cameraman. They would produce a string of equally infamous morsels, including Self Portrait, with Lennon’s private member attempting an erection, Up Your Legs Forever, showing more than 300 pairs of legs, and Fly, in which a fly explored a woman’s naked body. However, 1972’s Imagine was a glossy, mainstream production mostly set in Tittenhurst Park.
John: “I decided that I could no longer artistically get anything out of The Beatles. And here was somebody [Yoko] that could turn me on to a million things.”
Lennon missed playing live, and now he realised he could do that with Yoko, too. In December 1968 they performed at The Rolling Stones’ legendary Rock’n’Roll Circus as The Dirty Macs with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards (on bass) and Jimi Hendrix’s drummer Mitch Mitchell.
Flying out to Toronto the following year for the September 13 “Rock’n’Roll Revival” concert, Lennon told manager Allen Klein on the plane that he had decided to quit The Beatles. He also informed Eric Clapton and Klaus Voorman who, along with drummer Alan White, comprised the latest, makeshift incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band. “Full of junk” and throwing up from that and nerves, Lennon followed on with an amazing performance that featured Yoko in a bag for the majority of the set, emerging only for her own spectacular finale.
Lennon: “The buzz was incredible!”
A week later, at a meeting in London, he told Paul, George and Ringo he was leaving, and agreed to keep it secret for the time being. Their next releases – Abbey Road in September and the “Let It Be” single in March 1970 – went ahead without any fuss.
For John and Yoko, it was business as usual. In November, a couple of weeks after the release of the Wedding Album, John returned his MBE to Buckingham Palace.
They launched their “War Is Over (If You Want It)” poster campaign in December, and in January were again outraging public decency when the police raided an exhibition of John’s “Bag One” lithographs (depicting his honeymoon with Yoko) at a London gallery. The eight confiscated prints were later deemed by a court not to be obscene. Later that month, the Lennons wrote and recorded “Instant Karma” in a day, their first collaboration with producer Phil Spector.
They had issued a statement on New Year’s Eve to declare 1970 “Year 1 AP (After Peace)”: “We believe that the last decade was the end of the old machine crumbling to pieces. And we think we can get it together, with your help. We have great hopes for the new year.”
However, there were no great hopes for The Beatles. Paul’s determination to keep them together felt to the others stifling, dictatorial, with John complaining he treated them like “sidemen” during the “Get Back” sessions. Realising this, McCartney tried to hold his tongue, but both John and George could already see a future away from the band. It looked very attractive.
The Beatles’ finances had been in chaos. They had lost the ownership of many of their songs, and Apple was losing money hand over fist. John, George and Ringo successfully fought for the appointment of American businessman Allen Klein to sort things out – against McCartney’s father-in-law Lee Eastman and his son John. It had been getting nasty.
It would get nastier still in April 1970 when, a month before the release of Let It Be, Paul announced his solo album, McCartney, with the news that he was leaving The Beatles – to the fury of Lennon, who had observed his vow of silence. It would take years in court to disentangle their affairs, McCartney successfully suing the other three to extricate himself from their partnership, which resulted in their assets being frozen.
Beatles fans, naturally, blamed Yoko for the split, and John called them “idiots”. But his loyalty to Yoko, and commitment to their life together, certainly contributed.
Lennon: “I can’t impose far-out films or far-out music on George and Paul if they don’t want to do it. Vice versa. Paul can’t impose on me whatever he likes, especially if there’s no common goal.”
He also explained: “From the day I met her [Yoko], she demanded equal time, equal space, equal rights – I think that’s what kills people like Presley. The king is always killed by his courtiers, not by his enemies. The king is over-fed, over-indulged, anything to keep him tied to his throne – and what Yoko did for me was to liberate me from that situation. And that’s how The Beatles ended. Not because Yoko split The Beatles, but because she showed me what it was to be Elvis Beatle…”
Ringo later commented: “Yoko’s taken a lot of shit, her and Linda, but the Beatles’ break-up wasn’t their fault. It was just that suddenly we were all 30 and married and changed.”
Paul claimed he felt inhibited by Yoko, but was also “jealous” and afraid for the Lennon-McCartney partnership.
John: “I presumed I would just be able to carry on and just bring Yoko into our life, but it seemed that I either had to be married to them or Yoko. I chose Yoko, you know? And I was right.”
He added: “There is no reason on earth why I should be without her. There is nothing more important than our relationship, nothing. And we dig being together all the time. . . I’m not going to sacrifice love, real love, for any fuckin’ whore or any friend, or any business, because in the end you’re alone at night.”