In September 1969 John Lennon secretly informed Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr that he was leaving the Beatles. He wished to spend more time with Yoko Ono and disagreed strongly with the direction Paul wished the group to go in. The band had been drifting apart since the death of Brian Epstein in 1967, when John, George and Ringo signed Allen Klein as their replacement manager, a man Paul strongly distrusted and refused to do business with. He had preferred his brother-in-law, John Eastman.
Disagreements between Eastman and Klein led to the Beatles losing their song rights, held by company Northern Songs, and they also failed to purchase Epstein's company NEMS Enterprises. However as Klein was negotiating a new deal in which the Beatles would receive 69% of record sales, the Fab Four agreed not to mention the fact that John had left the band, especially as they still had an album's worth of unreleased material from the Get Back sessions recorded in January 1969. These had been abandoned when the recording sessions resulted in argument and anger. John did not attend the last Beatles recording session on 3 January, 1970, in which Paul, George and Ringo finished George's song 'I Me Mine'.
Paul and John's lyrics naturally often reflected their experiences. When John had had an affair, he wrote about it with the words 'I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me' in the song 'Norwegian Wood (That Bird Has Flown)'. When he felt down and in need of help, he wrote such songs as 'Help!' or 'Misery'. When Paul had an argument with his fiancée, actress Jane Asher1, he wrote 'We Can Work it Out'.
Yet both Paul and John were well aware of the dangers of people misinterpreting their lyrics. Some people who had listened to their lyrics bizarrely came to the conclusion that these were telling them that Paul McCartney was dead. Tragically Charles Manson, when he heard the Beatles song 'Helter Skelter' about the joys of a fairground slide, decided that an apocalyptic race war was coming and that the song was telling him to commit murder.
Even the BBC would misinterpret lyrics now and then, later banning Paul's song 'Hi Hi Hi' for its drug references. Paul has always insisted that it was purely about sex2 and there was nothing drug-related in the song, which included lyrics such 'I want you to lie on the bed get you ready for my body gun'. This was not the first time that this had happened, as Bob Dylan had misheard 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' and believed the line 'I can't hide, I can't hide, I can't hide' was actually 'I get high, I get high, I get high'. To an extent, debating whether a song like 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' was about LSD or discussing that 'Ticket To Ride' was inspired by the time Paul and John spent in Ryde, Isle of Wight, adds an extra layer to the songs.
John had long been fond of wordplay, as shown in his books In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. He enjoyed both looking for and hiding meanings in his lyrics, and had written songs like 'I Am The Walrus' and 'Glass Onion' to be deliberately ambiguous. Under the strain of the break-up of the Beatles, John began to wonder how many of Paul's lyrics were specifically about him and his relationship with Yoko Ono. Was Paul looking at Yoko when he sang 'Get Back to where you once belonged'?
Please note that quoting a song's full lyrics is prevented by copyright regulations. As well as listening to the lyrics on the albums themselves, some albums contain printed lyrics in the accompanying booklets and most of George's lyrics from this period were printed in his autobiography, I Me Mine.
Let It Be by The Beatles (May 1970)
One of Klein's main tasks was to take the work already completed on the aborted Get Back project and release these songs, most of which had been recorded when the Beatles were still together back in January 1969. In early 1970, Klein hired record producer Phil Spector to release an album based on what the Beatles had recorded the year before. Spector had assured all the Beatles, including the perfectionist Paul, that he would accede to their wishes and would be happy to make any changes they suggested. While the material was being transformed into the final Beatles album, Let It Be, the former Beatles began recording material for solo albums.
'The Long and Winding Road'
On April Fool's Day 1970, Spector used his 'wall of sound' technique to transform Paul's song 'The Long and Winding Road', which Paul had intended to be a pure, simple song, into one dominated by a celestial choir and orchestral backing. Paul's letters asking for his original version to be reinstated were ignored and he was unable to get in contact with either Spector or Klein.
'Two of Us'
As part of the bitter break-up of the Beatles, on the Let It Be album John introduces Paul's songs with sarcastic comments. The song 'Two Of Us' is preceded by John saying: 'I Dig a Pony' by Charles Hawtrey3 on the deaf aids. Phase One, in which Doris gets her oats.
'Let It Be'
The song 'Let It Be' was introduced with Now we'd like to do 'Ark the Angels Come'. Following it is a rather poorly sung version of traditional song 'Maggie Mae', which is about a Liverpool prostitute. As 'Let It Be' mentioned 'Mother Mary', Paul's mother's name, this was intended by John as a big insult.
Two ex-Beatles' solo albums, Paul's McCartney and Ringo's Sentimental Journey4, were originally due to have the same release date as Let It Be, which Paul felt was an attempt by his former bandmates to bury his new album.
Furious that he now had no control over how his own songs sounded with the Beatles and hurt by John's deliberate insults, he insisted that his own first solo album, McCartney, be released before Let It Be. After angry conversations it was agreed to stagger these albums' release, with Sentimental Journey on sale first, followed by McCartney, released three weeks before Let It Be.
Paul would release Let It Be... Naked in 2003. This was a version of the Let It Be album that erased Spector's influence, replaced the insulting 'Maggie Mae' with 'Don't Let Me Down' and deleted John's sarcastic introductions.
McCartney by Paul McCartney (April 1970)
This album of one-take home demos was recorded from December 1969, largely in Paul's Scottish retreat, as a means of getting back to basics, recovering from the pressure and stress of the Beatles' break-up and a means of recovering from his breakdown. Paul played every instrument heard on the album.
On the album's release, Paul broke the promise to keep the Beatles' break-up secret, announcing that he had left the Beatles even though John, George and Ringo had all left before him. Accompanying the album was a press release in which Paul said 'no' to the questions 'Did you miss the other Beatles?', 'Do you foresee a time when Lennon-McCartney becomes an active songwriting partnership again?' and 'Are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles?' This was due to 'personal differences, business differences, musical differences'.
The group had been split up for eight months when Paul made the public announcement; hence he got the blame even though he had been the last to leave.
'Man We Was Lonely'
I used to ride on my fast city line
Singing songs that I thought were mine alone.
This song's line about singing songs that I thought were mine refers not only to the ongoing argument about 'The Long and Winding Road' but also the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership as a whole, in which John was credited on all Paul's compositions with the Beatles, even on songs that he did not contribute towards at all, such as 'Michelle' and 'Yesterday'.
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band by John Lennon (December 1970)
'I Found Out'
I seen through junkies - I been through them all
I seen religion from Jesus to Paul.
I don't believe in Beatles
I just believe in me.
All Things Must Pass by George Harrison (December 1970)
All Things Must Pass was George's first, and greatest, solo album. Like John's later Imagine album, it was produced by Phil Spector.
The song 'Wah-Wah' had been written about Paul on 10 January, 1969, the day when George (temporarily) left the Beatles after an argument with Paul. This argument ended the Get Back recording sessions at Twickenham. George described writing the song with the words:
I just got fed up with the bad vibes and that arguments with Paul were being put on film. I didn't care if it was the Beatles, I was getting out. Getting home in that mood, I wrote that song. 'Wah-Wah' was saying, 'You've given me a bloody headache!'
The lyrics include:
Wah-wah - You made me such a big star
Being there at the right time, cheaper than a dime.
'Early 1970' by Ringo Starr (April 1971)
'Early 1970' was the B-side to Ringo's first single 'It Don't Come Easy', a song which outsold John's 'Power to the People', Paul's 'Another Day' and George's 'Bangla Desh'. It was written by Ringo in early 1970 and is a straightforward confession that he misses all three of the other Beatles and expresses a hope that they can get back together. The first verse is about Paul, the second about John, the third about George and last but not least, Ringo. Paul is described with the words:
Lives on a farm, got plenty of charm, beep, beep.
He's got no cows but he's sure got a whole lotta sheep.
The final line in Paul's verse shows how Ringo wondered how strained his relationship with Paul was at the time, but hoping to move beyond any difficulties. John's verse mentions Yoko, their Bed-In campaigns and Primal Scream therapy. The song concludes with Ringo hoping that the Beatles will get back together.
In fact, the closest the Beatles got to being back together was Ringo's 1973 Ringo album. Still, Ringo discussing Paul's sheep leads naturally to:
Ram by Paul & Linda McCartney (May 1971)
Ram was an album that angered John, largely as a result of a misunderstanding. He mistakenly believed that the song 'Dear Boy' contained offensive lyrics that were aimed directly him, when in fact the song was about Linda McCartney's ex-husband.
Relations between Paul and John continued to deteriorate in early 1971. Paul was suing the other three Beatles in order to dissolve their business partnership and remove the influence of Allen Klein, who had been convicted of ten counts of tax fraud in America. Despite the Beatles earning £5 million in 1970, somehow they did not have enough money to pay their tax bill. The judge concluded that when George, John and Ringo appointed Allen Klein without Paul's consent, they had broken the terms of their partnership. John reacted by throwing a brick through Paul's window. Although no evidence that Klein had been stealing from them was uncovered at that time, he would later be imprisoned for tax evasion on illegal sales of George's charity album The Concert for Bangladesh.
The album, which features a picture of Paul holding a ram6 on the front, certainly contains hidden, as well as not particularly subtle, messages. The front cover contains the hidden letters 'LILY' – although these stood for 'Linda I Love You', John wondered whether the L and Y might have stood for 'Lennon' and 'Yoko'. The back of the album contains a photograph of two beetles, one mounting the back of the other. This was Paul blatantly visualising either that he felt he was being shafted by the Beatles, or expressing a wish for the Beatles to leave him alone.
'Too Many People'
This is the one song that Paul has admitted was about John and Yoko. Beginning with the mumbled words, 'P-ss off, yeah yeah', the song contains the lyrics:
Too many people... waiting for that lucky break
That was your first mistake - you took your lucky break and broke it in two.
The 'too many people' mentioned in the song relates specifically to Yoko. By mentioning breaking the lucky break in two, Paul is stating that it was John who split the Beatles up. Other lyrics show how Paul felt that John was now 'preaching', in songs such as 'God'. Paul would later say:
I'd taken a few mild digs at John in some of my early solo songs like 'Too Many People'. I was trying to tell John something with that... Then he came out with 'How Do You Sleep?'
Though not one of Paul's most inspirational songs, it was one that John paid close attention to. Some of the lyrics are:
When I thought you was my friend
But you let me down, put my heart around the bend.
John wondered whether the '3 Legs' of the title were John, George and Ringo. It also mentions an omnipresent dog who is both here and there - was this referring to Yoko, who accompanied John wherever he went, even into the recording studio?
John felt that this song had been written as a dig at his relationship with Yoko. The lyrics include the words:
I guess you never knew, dear boy, what you had found,
I guess you never knew, dear boy, that she was just the cutest thing around.
John interpreted lines like 'you never knew... what you had found' and similar phrases such as 'you never did become aware' and 'I hope you never know how much you missed' as further digs about how he had broken the Beatles. John also thought that the line 'the cutest thing around' was a reference to Paul as the 'cute Beatle'.
In fact, this was never Paul's intention at all. The song was about his relationship with Linda, and the 'Boy' of the title was Linda's ex-husband Joseph See, known as Mel, who lived in Tucson, Arizona in 19607. Paul is telling Mel about his deep relationship with Linda, and how he cannot believe that Mel had allowed his relationship with her to drift and fade.
The song is deeply personal to Paul, with the chorus specifically mentioning the darkest time in his life, and how his wife helped him through it. Following the break-up of the Beatles, Paul had a breakdown. He spent days unable to get out of bed, not shaving, spending his time drinking and feeling he had lost all purpose until Linda inspired him to continue making music on his own. The song later played a prominent part in Linda's memorial service.
Unfortunately, once someone begins going out of their way to look for secret meanings that are cryptically hidden insults, they have entered a frame of mind in which it is all too easy to spot things that aren't there. Was 'The Back Seat of My Car' aimed at John and Yoko's 'Bed-In' for Peace and 'Two Virgins' album? The lyrics 'Honey, I want it my way' and 'Oh-oh, we believe that we can't be wrong' could be seen as mocking their beliefs. The song 'Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey' mentions 'the kettle's on the boil' and 'I had another look and I had a cup of tea' in the lyrics, was this a dig at Yoko's inability8 to make a decent cuppa? Of course not; however the damage had been done and, encouraged by Yoko, Phil Spector9 and Allen Klein10, John sought revenge for every perceived slight, real or imaginary.
Imagine by John Lennon (October 1971)
Minutes after singing lyrics such as 'imagine all the people living life in peace' John can be heard singing one of the bitterest songs of all time. Forget 'all we are saying is give peace a chance', instead it was Paul he was slaying, giving him a piece of his mind. The singer of 'Happy Xmas (War is Over)' almost certainly did not have Paul on his Christmas card list.
From the album's cover it was obvious that John was attacking Paul. The back cover has a picture of John holding a pig in the same way that Paul held a sheep on the front cover of Ram.
'How Do You Sleep'
This is the song in which John's anger is most visible, with almost every line a bitter attack on Paul. The song originally included more lyrics and the original rhyme to 'Yesterday' was to have been 'You probably stole that bitch anyway'. Felix Dennis, publisher of Oz magazine, was staying with John at the time following the Oz trial11. He described the writing of the song with the words:
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'... It is absolutely true to say that Yoko wrote many of the lyrics.
One of the most hurtful things about the song was that it was not only John singing, but George was involved in the song too, playing guitar, with bass played by another long-term friend, Klaus Voormann.
The only thing you done was Yesterday
And since you've gone you're just Another Day.
The song references the 'Paul is Dead' rumours, accuses Paul of being controlled by Linda and two verses downplay Paul's songwriting ability, mentioning the classic 'Yesterday' and stating that since that song, the best he had managed was the 1971 #2 surprisingly-catchy single 'Another Day'. Again John states that Paul's success has been due to his good looks and that he can only write 'Muzak', named after the trademarked name of the then leading company supplying piped background music to lifts and shopping centres.
Paul would later say:
When John did 'How Do You Sleep', I didn't want to get into a slanging match. And I'm so glad now, particularly after his death, that I don't have that on my conscience. 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... or deciding not to take up the gauntlet, and I remember consciously thinking , 'No, I really mustn't'... I knew that those vibes could snowball, and you start off with a perfectly innocent little contest and suddenly you find yourself doing a duel to the death.
I think he was a sod to hurt me. I think he knew exactly what he was doing and because we had been so intimate he knew what would hurt me and used it to great effect... I always find myself wanting to excuse John's behaviour, just because I loved him. It's like a child, sure he's a naughty child, but don't you call my child naughty. Even if it's me he's [hurting], don't you call him naughty.
Another song that is believed to be an attack on Paul, which George played guitar on. The lines again refer to Paul as being the 'cute' one and dismisses 'Let It Be' as a hymn. Paul is now called a 'suit', meaning a conventional money-grabbing businessman who 'wears a face' and lives a lie. As in Paul's '3 Legs', the number of lives and limbs that dogs have is discussed. The lyrics include these words:
You can comb your hair and look quite cute...
One thing you can't hide is when you're crippled inside.
Wild Life by Wings (December 1971)
Following John's bitter lyrics, the first album by Paul's new group had songs in a more reconciliatory tone, intending to end the feud.
Dear friend, what's the time? Is this really the borderline?
Does it really mean so much to you?
Admittedly, most diplomatic peace messages would not usually contain sentences like 'Are you a fool, is it true?'
'Some People Never Know'
Some people can sleep at night time, believing that love is a lie
I'm only a person like you, love, and who in the world can be right all the right time.
Another reconciliatory song, in which Paul informs John how he manages to sleep at night, and also reminding John of their close bond and apologising.
Post Wild Life
In early 1972, John had a bigger battle on his hands than a lyric war with Paul – he was fighting the US Government. Having spent some time staying in New York, he and Yoko decided to move there permanently. However, their visa was due to expire. After having gained a reputation for speaking out on political matters and opposing President Nixon, America's Senate Internal Security Sub-Committee wanted John and Yoko gone, and as John had a drug conviction they felt it would be easy to deport them. It would take four years before John and Yoko would earn the right to live in America unopposed.
'Back Off Boogaloo' by Ringo Starr (March 1972)
Following George and John's united front against Paul, Beatles fans eagerly waited for Ringo to show his allegiance. Which way would he go? It seemed to many that the answer was given with the single 'Back off Boogaloo'. Surely 'Boogaloo' was Ringo's long-standing nickname for Paul, and therefore the song was all about Ringo telling Paul to go away? The lyrics include:
Wake up, meat head, don't pretend that you are dead
...Ev'rything you try to do, you know it sure sounds wasted.
In fact, it probably isn't. Ringo has always stated that it is just a song, that the lyrics are simply words devoid of animosity and that he was influenced by Marc Bolan of T Rex. That said, he has admitted that he co-wrote some of the song with George. Numerous Beatles fans have continued to speculate that the song lyrics are criticising Paul's recent music, saying it, and by extension his talent, is 'wasted' - as well as mentioning the 'Paul is Dead' rumours with 'don't pretend that you are dead'.
The speculation helped the song's chart performance; it became a number two hit in the UK. Yes, up until mid-1972, Ringo was the ex-Beatle having the greatest success in the UK's singles chart.
Band on the Run by Wings
Band on the Run is by far the most critically-acclaimed Wings album of the 1970s. It has been believed that one track on it, 'Let Me Roll It', sung in a John-like style, was intended as another reconciliatory gesture, although the lyrics are very vague.
'Let Me Roll It'
You gave me something I understand,
You gave me loving in the palm of my hand.
The Last Word
Paul and John reconciled and became friends again in 1974, when John was temporarily separated from Yoko. Paul again spent time with John in 197612. Sadly John later fell out with George following the publication of George's autobiography I Me Mine in 1980 and they had not made up by the time of John's death.
Two days before he died, John Lennon discussed 'How Do You Sleep':
I used my resentment against Paul that I have as a kind of sibling rivalry resentment from youth to create a song... It was a creative rivalry, like there was a rivalry between the Beatles and the Stones, not a vicious horrible vendetta. I used my resentment and withdrawing from Paul and the Beatles to write 'How Do You Sleep'. I don't really go round with those thoughts in my head all the time.