Imagine The Beatles never split up
by Edna Gundersen and Ken Barnes
hen The Beatles' long and winding road hit a dead end 30 years ago this week, fans reacted with distress, despair and disbelief, emotional tremors that still generate aftershocks today. Recent reports that the surviving Beatles plan to publish an autobiography this fall reignited reunion rumors, with the New York Post suggesting that the late John Lennon could be replaced by son Sean or reconstituted onstage via digital technology.
Face it, we'll welcome a cheesy hologram rather than let go of our fantasies of a Fab Four day in the afterlife. Despite steadfast reunion rebuffs from Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, promoters and fans continue to yearn and conspire, as they have since April 10, 1970, when the London Daily Mirror reported McCartney's departure. The news broke prematurely via a press-release "interview" to promote McCartney's solo debut. His exit was neither unilateral nor abrupt. The band began disintegrating in 1969 but soldiered on to finish Abbey Road (the last recorded album, though released before Let It Be).
The din of reconciliation chatter has dogged them ever since. Fans willing to embrace the Paul-is-dead buzz went into breakup denial and held their breath for a happier closing chapter. Even Lennon's assassination in 1980 didn't stymie hopes. Why can't they let it be? Perhaps because the reign of history's biggest pop group seemed painfully incomplete and cruelly halted. What if The Beatles had been whistling a different tune, say, "We Can Work It Out" instead of "You Won't See Me"? Edna Gundersen asked disciples and scholars to speculate on how The Beatles might have fared in the culture and marketplace, while Ken Barnes constructed an alternate-history timeline, "Meet The Beatles circa Y2K."
Get back and get real
Yoko Ono, John Lennon's widow and the woman initially blamed for the split, finds the premise unfathomable. "The Beatles were becoming very independent individuals," she says. "George was into Indian music. Ringo was interested in films. They were very intelligent, sensitive artists who probably needed a long break from each other. It's remarkable they stayed together as long as they did."
Penny Lane intersects Broadway
Larry Kirwan of Gaelic rock band Black 47 has no trouble exercising his imagination in Beatles matters. His play "Liverpool Fantasy," which he's recasting as a novel, finds The Beatles disbanding in 1962 after "Love Me Do" flops. McCartney becomes a Las Vegas crooner, Harrison enters the priesthood, Lennon is unemployed, and Starr drums for a bar band. They rehash old times 25 years after dissolving.
In a polar scenario, an unsplintered Beatles "would have kept their edge and commercial appeal," Kirwan says. "They would have started new trends and co-opted others, like disco, by amplifying and reinventing them. They would have been pretty energized by Bob Marley. Ska and reggae would have been a force in their music. I'm sure Lennon would have gotten into hip-hop.
"Since 'Miss You,' I haven't heard a decent song from the Rolling Stones, which is fascinating because (Mick) Jagger and (Keith) Richards were great songwriters. You'd think by accident they would hit on a good song. I don't see that happening to Lennon and McCartney. They were innate, strong songwriters who sparked and complemented each other. The whole was greater than the parts."
Lennon's reluctance to leave "the womb of the house" and the group's refusal to compromise for profits would limit touring but not creative options.
"They would have gravitated toward musical theater, changed it and blown it apart," Kirwan says. "It would not be the staid thing it is now. They would have staged Magical Mystery Tour or Sgt. Pepper. With Lennon's literal bent and McCartney's tunefulness and discipline, God knows what concepts they would have come up with. The Beatles' wild imagination would have come up with something far superior to Tommy. They'd co-opt theatrical styles from Beckett to Busby Berkeley and beyond. It would be spaced out but with plot and characters, for people who don't want to stand up through concerts anymore."
Slow down? Dream on
Aerosmith, the 30-year-old institution that saluted The Beatles with a raucous cover of "Come Together," understands the dynamics that shape and shatter bands. "I've seen the movie," guitarist Joe Perry jokes. "If you take the premise that they patched their differences and pressed the reset button, I think The Beatles would have kept pushing the edge, even with the old-style rock they did. Given that they were some of the most talented musicians to walk the planet in our generation, they could have persevered without fading. They'd be playing stadiums."
A decline in output and market share would not have diminished The Beatles' stature.
"They wouldn't have played Vegas like Elvis," Perry says. "Elvis settled into being a caricature, but he's still revered as The King. Look at the Stones. Without pushing the edge musically, they've made good records; a couple are great. I can't imagine The Beatles being anything less. In 200 years, when people read about pop music, The Beatles will top the list."
Bandmate Steven Tyler says an intact Beatles would have "continued on the same track, making diversified music and getting so esoteric they might have spread themselves out to oblivion. They might not have toured, certainly not for money, because the music was getting so intricate they'd need to bring a 50-piece orchestra on the road. But I could see them setting up under the Eiffel Tower for a millennium concert."
Lennon and McCartney, "crazed by their own demons and muses, would have been forced to continue creating. Whether they did so together would have depended on how much pull their wives had on them."
The band would not have lost its relevance or fan base. "Once you stick it out that long, you can almost do no wrong," Tyler says. "Every Beatles album was an epiphany that pinpointed a moment in time. People want to reminisce about their youth. If Jimi Hendrix were alive, there would be a lot of 70-year-old bald guys with walkers rocking out at his concerts."
Bands ripped apart by clashing egos often reconcile for the sake of music. That incentive eluded The Beatles. "They had done it all, so they didn't care," Tyler says. "They did more by their third album than we'll do in our whole career."
I'm really downloading
"They would have continued to innovate," says Bill Harry, author of several Fab Four tomes, including The Ultimate Beatles Encyclopedia. "They would have utilized all the new technology from the 1970s through 2000 to extend their musical creativity."
Just as Leonardo da Vinci flourished in old age, The Beatles would have continued breaking new ground, not only in music, but in videos, touring, films, fashion and even spirituality, he says.
In Harry's projection, The Beatles would embark on outside projects and collaborate with cutting-edge artists but always return to the fold. Their output as a foursome would outshine solo efforts, "with John and Paul bouncing ideas off each other's heads in a more satisfactory way than John and Yoko."
Harrison's impact would grow in the '70s, and by 2000, The Beatles would have revolutionized the Internet and heralded the millennium with a Web-only release. The contents: "Not only an amazing set of up to 50 unique new Beatles compositions, but a wonderland of photographs and artwork, incorporating John's cartoons, Paul's paintings, Ringo's photographs and George's philosophical reflections, presented in a 3-D state-of-the art fashion. They could be seen performing in the studio, on stage, in their homes, on backgrounds simulating other planets and on past landscapes such as the original Egyptian pyramids, with some tracks fully animated stories in their own right."
This boy says 'yeah, yeah, yeah'
Everclear singer Art Alexakis was 8 when his idols disbanded.
"I distinctly remember crying," he says. "My sisters cried. It wasn't a boy band thing. The Beatles had really changed the culture worldwide by taking a rock band from a novelty to a powerful force that inspired millions. I'm the youngest of five, and I was inundated by The Beatles. My mom still tells the story about when I was 3 in the shopping cart screaming, 'She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.' It was omnipresent. Every white-boy rock 'n' roll band owes something to The Beatles."
Though devastated by their split, Alexakis has difficulty imagining The Beatles post-1970.
"I like leaving that question mark," he says. "It's fascinating to think about, but it wasn't meant to be. They were moving in different directions, and Abbey Road, a beautiful, dark and monumental record, was the jumping-off place. What a way to go out.
"I'd like to think some of the pop and hard rock on the early Wings records might indicate where The Beatles would have gone. You'd also have the serious tortured-artist stuff John did, like Shaved Fish."
Had The Beatles endured and risked outliving their usefulness, their image might have lost some luster.
"There's a time for all bands to call it a day," Alexakis says. "It's that rock 'n' roll idea: Die young and leave a good-looking corpse."
Besides, The Beatles could not have topped themselves or left a bigger mark.
"Four poor kids battle their way to superstardom and become a massive thing that never existed before," he says. "Sinatra and Elvis, the biggest pop icons at the time, didn't begin to compare. And the music still translates today. My daughter, who's 8, is into Christina Aguilera, 'N Sync and Revolver, a heavy, depressing record. If Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band were released today, it would be a huge alternative record."
Fools over the hill
Had the mop-tops carried on, their mythology would have suffered, theorizes Mark Shipper, author of 1978 spoof history Paperback Writer: The Life and Times of the Beatles, which envisions a star-crossed reunion. "I love The Beatles, but I think they'd be pretty irrelevant today, just as the Stones are," he says. "They sell out stadiums, but it's baby-boomer nostalgia. To think they'd still be at the forefront of popular music 30 years on is asking too much. It's enough that they were able to stay on top from '64 to '69. That's about as long as anybody can be a factor in contemporary music. The next generation always wants its own." If The Beatles released their 75th album today, "'N Sync would dwarf it," he says. "I can't imagine The Beatles still having top-10 songs. They would be faintly ridiculous. Can you see MTV playing a video of four old rockers? In the year 2000, even their name sounds stupid."
Though the demise crushed a global following, the timing was perfect.
"Right until they broke up, they were setting the trends," Shipper says. "John and Paul might have made great music for a couple more years, but they'd have ended up in the same predicament as the Stones or the Beach Boys. A desperation would sneak in. They would have a choice: Do we watch our sales decline or do we do a disco song or grunge? They could tour, but it would be an oldies show. The Stones look a little silly at times, trying to perpetuate the idea of a rebellious rock 'n' roll band when they're basically multimillionaires."
The Beatles might have struggled to retain their populist appeal. At their peak, they dwelled in uncharted and rarified territory.
"They had reached such a height, they were removed from reality," Shipper says. "John didn't seem like he was on the same planet, he was so elevated. He didn't have his feet on the ground. He didn't even realize he needed protection. To be on the cutting edge, you have to be part of the world you live in."
Baby, you can drive my karma
Perry Farrell, founder of groundbreaking band Jane's Addiction and alt-rock festival Lollapalooza, still pines for the band that inspired his haircut, boots and musical awakening at age 7.
"I was a baby Beatle," he says. "To this day, nothing compares to the electricity they had in their music. Not many people can stand next to them. It's not like I bite their stuff, but I strive for their musical ethics, the way they approached song structure, harmony, the attack of the instrument, the symbiotic chemistry."
For Farrell, at work on summer release The Diamond Jubilee, The Beatles represent pop's highest watermark. If the band had persevered, music would benefit from not only additional Beatles masterpieces but also higher creative standards.
"With The Beatles around, people wouldn't be putting out such schlock," he says. "We'd be looking at a much better top-40 list. We have very poor musical references to draw from these days. The Beatles would still be on top today, and good music would be three-dimensional again. The top 40 varies from one to three dimensions. When someone has bottom-line success with one dimension, the next guy does the same thing. The Beatles had four dimensions and more. I don't hear that complexity of notes anymore."
Nor does he hear the L-word that liberally sprinkles The Beatles' songbook. "These days, romance has gone away from the music of youth," he laments. "How come everybody today is afraid to say 'love'?"
A Beatles reunion isn't just parlor-room banter to Farrell. It's a reachable quest.
"If they read this, I would like to point out that they could help us with beautiful music," he says. "It would be wonderful to hear them sing again. I'd be tremendously curious and excited to hear them."
He envisions a dignified return, not a cheesy exploitation of The Beatles myth.
"They're developed men on spiritual and philanthropic journeys," Farrell says. "They're not chasing after fame or trying to one-up themselves, which can be embarrassing. They're extreme gentlemen and diplomats. They ask for very little, when they could be hogging the spotlight and the airwaves and the media. They've had their fill. You can read people by the lines in their faces, and The Beatles have gentle lines."
Money can't buy me
Fans shelled out up to $2,500 a seat to see Barbra Streisand perform on New Year's Eve. What could a Beatles concert have fetched the night the odometer rolled over to 2000?
"I have a feeling The Beatles would have sat it out," surmises Pete Howard, publisher of ICE, a monthly CD newsletter. "Money can't buy the Beatles, and a Year 2000 tour would be about money. I'd be less surprised to find them in a renovated Cavern club."
Conjuring an active Beatles through the past three decades "is not that hard, because you have the Rolling Stones as a model. I'd expect The Beatles' studio output to rank higher.
"If you combine the best tracks from their solo albums, you'd get an idea of their direction. I'd assume they'd still be at the top of the heap, especially given the integrity of their organization. I don't think they'd have continued as a live act. The Stones are a touring machine who put out albums as tour vehicles. The Beatles would have been a studio band; they'd play for charity or the fun of it."
Like Madonna, The Beatles might have walked a delicate line between setting and following trends.
"There's no way The Beatles would have drifted into grunge or disco," Howard says. "They would have made fairly predictable but high-quality pop-rock and let the cutting edge go to artists like U2 and Prince. It's hard to say whether Lennon would enlist Fatboy Slim today. The quality of the music would be higher than their solo albums, because you'd have those creative forces pushing each other."
Lackluster reviews and sales slumps would not have damaged the band's standing.
"The stock of the Stones and Led Zeppelin have only gone up with time," Howard points out. "The fact that The Beatles never made music outside the '60s has held their mystique fairly high. But I don't think staying together would have hurt them. Unless they completely screwed up, the legend would be intact."
Strawberry fjords forever
Oystein Greni, 25, was born five years after The Beatles broke up. Would a hip Gen-Xer applaud the return of a band his parents revered? This Norwegian would.
He and his pop-blues trio Bigbang, huge in Norway but unsigned here, recognized the significance of playing a gig last year at Liverpool's Cavern Club, the Fab Four's springboard.
He's convinced that a long-term Beatles would have continued concocting classic ballads and uptempo tunes untainted by fads or formulas. Greni says, "In many ways, they were a band with no certain 'style,' and I can't imagine them saying, 'We should make an album that sounds like this or that.' If they hadn't broken up, would the magic still be there? I think so. All the songwriters have continued making decent stuff and occasional hits. Paul and John made some brilliant ones: 'Jealous Guy,' 'Jet,' 'Live and Let Die.' A lot of it has to do with how wonderful their voices sound together, a kind of magic you never get with trained Monkees."
Greni continues to discover in Beatles music the seeds of the contemporary sounds he was weaned on. "I don't know if I totally agree with this now, but a few years ago this popped into my head: All Bjork and the Massive Attack genre of music has ever done production-wise is captured in the Revolver song 'Tomorrow Never Knows.'"
Like dreamers do
Though he caters to a readership of insatiable Beatlemaniacs, Matt Hurwitz rejects conjecture about possible Beatles reunions, now or then. "It's just so unlikely that they would have stayed together,"says Hurwitz, publisher of Beatles fan magazine Good Day Sunshine (also at www.gooddaysunshine.net).
Pressed to speculate, he relents. Like the Rolling Stones and Crosby, Stills & Nash, an ongoing Beatles enterprise might have waned in popularity. "They were always a year ahead of everyone else. Assuming they'd be adept at healing rifts, they could have come back together once or twice. It's hard to look in hindsight at a small but powerful body of work and guess the next move. I know this: If they discovered they were no longer creative, they'd have quit. John Lennon would never have stood for mediocrity."
Regardless of any later output, history would favor the early classics that galvanized the globe. And had the band continued touring, attentive music lovers would have replaced screaming mobs.
"In the '60s, people went to see a painting of their idols, not to hear the music. The Beatles realized that and didn't want to be a part of it anymore. They loved playing live -- before Beatlemania."
Though he dismisses any notion of a Beatles comeback, Hurwitz sympathizes with dreamers. "I would have liked to see them stay together a few more years," he concedes. "But they gave us some great solo albums in the '70s: Imagine, All Things Must Pass, Band on the Run. Those are Beatles albums to me."
Ticket to write a Beatles fantasy tour
Above you've read the theories of musicians, scholars and fans as to what might have happened if The Beatles had not broken up. Not content to leave it at that, Ken Barnes sketches a scenario of events that, in some alternate reality across the universe, may have taken place if the greatest band of the century had stayed together.
John Lennon, preparing to leave The Beatles to go solo and work with Yoko Ono, learns that Paul McCartney plans to beat him to the punch. Paul is drafting a press release to announce the release of his first solo album, declaring that The Beatles are essentially finished.
John visits Paul and beats him to the punch by landing a solid right to his jaw. Scuffle concluded, the longtime mates have a drink at a pub and decide to give The Beatles another go.
The reinvigorated Beatles rethink their just-completed Let It Be album. Paul contributes "Maybe I'm Amazed" from his planned solo album. John volunteers "Working Class Hero" from his planned solo album. George proposes "My Sweet Lord" from his planned solo album, but John and Paul reject it, saying it sounds too much like The Chiffons' "He's So Fine."
The Let It Be album is released three months late, but spawns four No. 1 hits: the title track, "Long and Winding Road" (with an orchestration-free arrangement whipped up by Paul at the last minute), "Working Class Hero" and "Maybe I'm Amazed."
Critics agree the high point is Paul's confessional rewrite of "Two of Us," an unusually frank depiction of the Lennon/McCartney team's working methods: "Two of us fighting daily/Putting George down/Ignoring Ringo/On our worst behavior."
The Beatles turn down a lucrative tour offer to headline over Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Let It Be loses the best-album Grammy to Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Sessions for the next album begin. George says he has enough songs for a triple album and threatens to quit if the group doesn't use them. John wants to devote a side of the album to an improvised one-chord jam featuring Yoko on vocals. Paul says he's working on a 20-minute suite of nursery rhymes with Linda on backing vocals. Stalemate ensues.
Three months later, a series of stormy sessions produces a four-album set, Beatles 4 Ever. Each Beatle gets an album of his own, though since Ringo has no songs, John and Paul press him to give up his space on the record, then reluctantly join George in providing suitable material for him. None of John, Paul and George's songs become hits, but the album still has three No. 1 singles -- all sung by Ringo, including a song he and George write in reaction to John and Paul's pressure tactics, "Back Off Boogaloo."
Beatles 4 Ever loses to Carole King's Tapestry at the Grammys.
Tensions flare again during early sessions for a new album, so the group announces a two-year sabbatical to pursue individual projects. Fans fear the group has broken up. March 1973
In a peculiar coincidence (or shrewd marketing move), four solo albums by the Beatles are released on the same day. The albums are highly experimental, partly because the individual Beatles have no other group members to rein in their self-indulgent tendencies, and partly because they prudently save all their most commercial songs ("Imagine," "What Is Life," "Live and Let Die" -- better known today as the "Theme From Jaws") for the next group album. The solo albums sell dismally.
John relocates to New York for his album, which is called Summertime in New York City. It consists of recorded sounds from the city's streets overlaid with Yoko's moans and John's untutored saxophone bleatings. Paul's, recorded at his Scottish farm, is titled Abandon the Run, a concept album about a marathon champ who contemplates retirement because he's lost his will to compete.
George moves to Hawaii for Living With a Material Girl, a series of complaints about his ex-wife backed by a squad of slack-key guitarists. The newly L.A.-based Ringo contributes Gringo, a set of Latin-flavored instrumentals featuring the drummer on timbales, congas and maracas along with members of Santana.
The Beatles turn down a lucrative tour offer to headline over Queen and David Bowie.
The sabbatical, stretched to nearly four years owing to wounded feelings over the unsuccessful solo ventures, ends as the four Fabs gather at London's Abbey Road studios. They turn down an offer to compose the soundtrack for a forthcoming movie called Saturday Night Fever and record a new album instead.
John and Paul have listened to a lot of disco, and it shows on the new album, Just to Dance With You -- especially in Paul's ode to a roller disco queen, "Hell on Wheels," and John's account of trying to sneak into Studio 54 incognito, "Whoever Gets You Through the Line." The most sobering note on a generally hedonistic album comes, unexpectedly, from Ringo, who pens a melancholy meditation on the ravages of cocaine, "The No Nose Song."
Reaction to the album is negative: It barely goes gold, and critics blast it as derivative and needlessly trendy. It eventually loses to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours in the Grammys. Headlines asking "Are The Beatles Over?" appear in tabloids and rock magazines. The new British punk bands refer to the Fabs as "dinosaurs." The Sex Pistols title their debut album Never Mind the Beatles.
John, stung by the slings and arrows of critics and punks, rushes the band into the studio for a quick follow-up album. "Back in Hamburg we were the original punks," he snarls. Paul is still enamored of disco, however, citing the success of the Bee Gees. The resulting album -- tellingly titled Tug of War after the group vetoes John's suggestion, Never Mind the Sex Pistols -- is a train wreck.
Augmented by Yoko's background vocals (which critics carp "aren't nearly far enough in the background"), such clumsy Lennon rants as "We Were the Original Punks" sit uncomfortably beside Paul's chirpy dance tunes (likewise augmented by Linda). Reviews are savage, it peaks on the album charts at No. 28, and it produces only one hit, Paul's "Getting Closer," which is chosen as the theme to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Tug of War loses to Saturday Night Fever at the Grammys.
John and Yoko, Paul and Linda, and George and Olivia meet at a Manhattan restaurant to plot group strategy. (Ringo is in Mexico filming Caveman with future wife Barbara Bach.) Walking toward John's apartment, they're accosted by a fan carrying a copy of the Tug of War album. John signs a typically sardonic autograph: "To Mark -- This record's a bloody drag."
Worried about their career momentum, The Beatles pull out all the stops with their new album, Duets and Cameos. Elton John plays piano, Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton add guitar. Celebrity duets abound -- Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney tell the tale of the eccentric elephant hunter "Ebenezer Ivory"; Michael Jackson and George Harrison engage in a mock spat over spiritual advisers, "The Guru Is Mine"; and Prince and John Lennon duet on a song co-written by John's son Julian, "2 L8 4 Goodb(eye)s."
The duets streak to the top of the airplay charts, and their videos are aired non-stop on the new MTV network (especially the Eric Idle-directed psychedelic flashback extravaganza for "The Guru Is Mine"), but album sales improve only slightly over Tug of War.
Duets and Cameos loses to Toto IV at the Grammys.
The Beatles turn down a tour offer to headline over Duran Duran and Culture Club.
The Beatles join the throngs of superstars checking their egos at the door for the "We Are the World" recording session. John says his ego checks out just fine, thanks.
Bob Geldof talks George into assembling The Beatles onstage to play four songs at Live Aid. A reverent hush greets the group at London's Wembley Stadium. Bolstered by the presence of Clapton, Steve Winwood, Phil Collins and other star back-ups, but still visibly nervous, they stumble slightly through "Get Back," "Imagine," "All You Need Is Love" and a peculiar medley of "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax," but receive a thunderous ovation for their first official live performance since 1966.
The Live Aid broadcast whips up a new wave of Beatlemania among baby boomers who'd previously taken the group for granted. Media observers point out that it's the 20th anniversary of the group's farewell concert in San Francisco -- the perfect occasion to announce a tour.
Press and popular demand rise to fever pitch, capped by a fervent plea by Larry King in USA Today ("Called my close pals John, Paul, George and Ringo to ask them to tour for charity. A lot of poverty-stricken poor people could really use the help...Never underestimate my good friends at Coca-Cola -- mark my words, they'll make New Coke a hit yet!").
The Beatles, however, are in the studio working on a new album.
The new album, It Was 20 Years Ago Today, is released. A sequel to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had come out exactly 20 years before, it blatantly plays off the original's cover art. (The cover depicts an updated assemblage of celebrities -- Margaret Thatcher, Robin Leach, Knots Landing star Joan Van Ark, among others, in the same florally opulent setting as on the Pepper cover. Unfortunately, with the cover art shrunk to CD size, virtually no one notices the changes.)
The album also blatantly plays off Pepper's music, but radio jumps all over such tracks as Paul's "Lovely Lita" (a tribute to rock guitarist Lita Ford) and "Almost 64" and John's dyspeptic "Getting Bitter" and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Geldof" (royalties consigned to Live Aid). George's harrowing tale of a friend's weight fluctuations, "With Thin You, With Stout You," and Ringo's all-star sing-along, "With a Lot More Help From My Friends," have their adherents as well. But the consensus favorite is "A Night in the Life," a rare Lennon/McCartney collaboration about a Hollywood prostitute and her famous clients.
The group's return to the styles of its most famous album pays huge sales dividends. Despite the protests of critics, who label it a "desperation move," and The Beatles' refusal to release any singles (just as with Sgt. Pepper) or videos from it, the album enters the chart at No. 1, stays there for 32 weeks and becomes their biggest seller, eventually reaching the 12 million mark.
20 Years loses to U2's Joshua Tree at the Grammys.
The prayers of the faithful are answered. The Beatles announce a world tour, starting in June and extending until the following May, with U2 as support act. The Fab Four will be augmented by supplementary keyboard players and guitarists, an additional drummer, a string quartet and the Memphis Horns, plus a backing-vocal quartet consisting of Linda McCartney, Yoko Ono, Olivia Harrison and Barbara Bach.
Boomers have been flocking to sold-out stadiums worldwide to see the idols of their youth in the flesh, but never in such numbers as the crowd that gathers near Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for the four-day festival known informally as Woodstock II (held 20 years after the first one). The Beatles top a bill ranging from R.E.M. to Run-D.M.C.
The Fabs bring life to never-performed-live Revolver, Pepper, "White Album" and Abbey Road tracks, as well as a sprinkling of more recent tunes and such contemporary covers as Guns N' Roses' "Paradise City" and Roxette's "The Look," and an estimated 400,000 fans cheer themselves hoarse. (Another 300,000 audience members, most under 20, sit expressionless, wondering what all the fuss is about.)
Having taken three years off to rest on the laurels of their mega-successful tour, The Beatles reconvene in the studio. John has become enamored of hip-hop (its verbal flow intrigues the author of two tongue-twisting wordplay volumes) and grunge (he says the angry, tortured Kurt Cobain reminds him of himself in the early '60s).
But his attempts to combine the two styles result in detuned, tuneless dirges punctuated by awkward -- though often verbally dazzling -- rap sequences. George's attempts to mimic the esoteric sound of Mongolia's Tuvan throat singers also seem grating, while Paul's saccharine, pseudo-classical "Linda's Suite (Isn't She?)" is off-putting to the group's rock fans.
The lyrical concerns of the project, called The Green Album because of its pervasive environmental sermonizing also turn off many listeners -- particularly McCartney's duet with Sting about destructive logging practices, "A Clearcut Failure." The album -- with no obvious hit that can transcend the fragmented formats of radio -- struggles to reach platinum.
The Beatles reject a tour offer to headline over Pearl Jam and 2Pac.
John and Paul pass up the opportunity to write the songs for The Lion King.
The Green Album loses to The Bodyguard soundtrack at the Grammys.
The Beatles announce the Family Values Tour. The wives will once again sing backup; Lennon's sons, Julian and Sean, will perform; and Ringo's son, Zak, will drum with his father. Stella McCartney designs the stage outfits. Supporting acts include the Mamas & Papas, with Mackenzie, Chynna and Bijou Phillips, and The Jacksons, with LaToya and Rebbie but without Michael or Janet.
The tour sells out, but acres of empty seats are visible by concerts' end. Reviews are scathing, criticizing the "self-indulgent stylistic schizophrenia" that has John covering the Wu-Tang Clan's "Bring da Ruckus," Paul performing the Gin Blossoms' "Hey Jealousy" and George reading selections from James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy.
A live album from the tour, Values for Money, enters the chart at No. 19 and falls off after six weeks, failing to reach gold status.
Paul writes the theme song for the movie Titanic. The song, "That Sinking Feeling," fails to crack the top 40, despite the film's runaway success and an impassioned Celine Dion vocal performance. Critics cite such lyrical passages as "Ice through the floor/Water through the ceiling/No more nude modeling/You'd best get to kneeling/When you get that sinking feeling" as a factor in the song's chart failure.
"That Sinking Feeling" beats Shawn Colvin's "Sunny Came Home" for record and song of the year at the Grammys.
At a Christmas Day press conference, John admits that in light of the "born-again" Christian groundswell, The Beatles are no longer more popular than Jesus. He can't resist adding, "But if our next record's a smash, we'll be back on top!" The group also announces a show for Millennium Eve, Dec. 31, 1999, at Las Vegas' new Colossus of Roads Hotel.
Convinced that they need to reach out to a new generation, The Beatles accept a spot on the closing night's bill at Woodstock 99. Assuming they'll headline, they're disgruntled to find they've been slotted just after Rage Against the Machine but before the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the final night, but decide to play the gig.
Yoko accompanies the group, but rushes offstage in tears during the first song after frat boys demand that she flash them. John angrily leaps into the moshpit and is knocked senseless. Paul and George are struck by bottles filled with what they hope is water. Ringo drums on obliviously until the trash-can fires start.
The Beatles close out the Millennium in Las Vegas. Tickets, priced from $20,000 to $100,000 (for front-row tables), sell sluggishly. The group's set is lackluster, highlighted only by John's comment to the audience: "You in the front rows, just rattle your jewelry. Those of you in the cheap seats...well, you paid 20 grand, I suppose you can afford to rattle your bloody jewelry as well."
John, Paul, George and Ringo announce that they're breaking up. Paul says, "We're a 20th century phenomenon, and we feel we should keep it that way.
The first of a planned dozen five-CD Beatles "anthology" box sets is released.