50 Years Ago: George Harrison Quits the Beatles
In early 1969, while their fans were still swooning over the recently released White Album, the Beatles were holed up in London's Twickenham Studios, trying to figure out their next move. These famously fractious sessions eventually produced the band's final studio release, Let It Be -- but not before bringing long-simmering tensions between the group's members to a raging boil.
In fact, on Jan. 10, after a frustratingly unproductive morning spent working on "Get Back" and "Two of Us," guitarist George Harrison abruptly quit by walking up to the lunch table and quipping, "See you 'round the clubs." Never one to miss an opportunity for a cutting rejoinder, John Lennon reportedly shrugged that the group should call Eric Clapton, saying, "He's just as good and not such a headache."
During the days leading up to his quitting, Harrison had been arguing with Paul McCartney over Harrison's part in "Two of Us," with Harrison at one point seething, "I'll play what you want me to play. Or I won't play at all if you don't want me to. Whatever it is that'll please you, I'll do it." The relationship had been strained for some time, and as Harrison started to assert himself more musically, he chafed under what he saw as McCartney's dictatorial direction. As he later told Rolling Stone, "My problem was that it would always be very difficult to get in on the act, because Paul was very pushy in that respect. When he succumbed to playing on one of your tunes, he'd always do good. But you'd have to do 59 of Paul's songs before he'd even listen to one of yours."
But while Harrison's conflict with McCartney is often assumed to be his main reason for leaving, it wasn't the only one. As David Stubbs pointed out in his Uncut article "The Death of the Beatles," Harrison may have been more upset with Lennon, who'd been acting out his apparent jealousy of Harrison's growing songwriting output by putting down his songs at every opportunity. In addition, Lennon's relationship with Yoko Ono -- and his recent comments to the press about the dire state of the band's finances -- had driven a wedge between the former friends. Argued Stubbs, "Prior to [Ono's] arrival on the scene, George and John had become tight LSD buddies, at one point to the alienation of Paul and Ringo. Yoko had usurped George's place in John's affections. As he admits in the current Beatles autobiography, he 'lost contact' with John. That hurt."
Reflecting on the incident later for the Beatles Anthology project, Harrison attributed his departure to a number of factors -- including the fact that the band was filming the sessions, something that he found particularly annoying when the members weren't getting along.
"They were filming us having a row," he recalled. "It never came to blows, but I thought, 'What's the point of this? I'm quite capable of being relatively happy on my own and I'm not able to be happy in this situation. I'm getting out of here.' Everybody had gone through that. Ringo [Starr] had left at one point. I know John wanted out. It was a very, very difficult, stressful time, and being filmed having a row as well was terrible. I got up and I thought, 'I'm not doing this any more. I'm out of here.'"
Whatever his primary motivation might have been for leaving, it's worth noting that in the years following the Beatles' breakup, Harrison seemed to take particular delight in taking jabs at McCartney; for instance, during a press conference for his 1974 tour, he responded to talk of a reunion by praising his then-current bassist, Willie Weeks, and adding, "I don't think the Beatles were that good. I think they're fine, you know. Ringo's got the best backbeat I've ever heard ... Paul is a fine bass player ... but he's a bit overpowering at times. John's gone through all of his scene, but he's like me, he's come back around. To tell the truth, I'd join a band with John Lennon any day, but I couldn't join a band with Paul McCartney, but it's nothing personal. It's just from a musical point of view."
No matter how hard Harrison had to struggle to make room for his songs within the Beatles, once he left, it was clear they functioned better with him in the band. After a few days of muddling through at Twickenham as a trio, the group scheduled a Jan. 15 meeting with Harrison to discuss his future -- a meeting that ended with Harrison back in the band, but not before presenting a handful of demands that included abandoning McCartney's dream of getting the Beatles back in front of a live audience, as well as moving the sessions to a new location. Once the other members acquiesced, the Beatles were back on track.
Unfortunately for Beatles fans, that track was about to run out anyway; as we know now, Harrison's departure was just a symptom of the many problems plaguing the band, and they'd only manage to record sporadically for the rest of their time together, cobbling together enough sessions during the spring and summer of 1969 to complete their Abbey Road LP before effectively collapsing in the fall. Although the official announcement didn't come until the spring of 1970, the writing had been on the wall for months, with Lennon telling everybody he was quitting during a September 1969 meeting.
"Never, not in this life or any other life," Harrison said during his 1979 Rolling Stone interview when asked if he'd want to go through being in the Beatles again. "I mean, a lot of the time it was fantastic, but when it really got into the mania it was a question of either stop or end up dead. We almost got killed in a number of situations -- planes catching on fire, people trying to shoot the plane down and riots everywhere we went. It was aging me."
Still, Harrison quickly added, that didn't mean the experience didn't have value. "We had a great time," he mused. "I think fondly of it all, especially as we've been through all the aftermath of Apple. Everybody's sued each other to their hearts' content, and now we're all good friends."