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Image: The Beatles
AP file
Looking back after 40 years, that seems like a ridiculously short lifespan for a band as important as the Beatles, who were, from left, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/7/2010 4:37:30 PM ET 2010-04-07T20:37:30

Seven years and seven months. That’s how long the world officially knew the Beatles as a recording act, spanning from the date they released their first single in England to the day their breakup was announced on April 10, 1970.

Looking back after 40 years, that seems like a ridiculously short lifespan for such an important band. The time frame seems ever tinier considering the longevity of other popular bands of their era, like the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks, or bands that came later, like Bon Jovi and U2.

Did the Fab Four call it quits too soon? The answer might seem to be yes, considering interest in the band never really faded. Sales were massive for both the “Anthology” series from the mid-1990s and last year’s CD remasters. Rolling Stone reported in December the surprising fact that the Beatles had the biggest selling album of the last decade with “1,” and that they were second only to Eminem as the top selling artists of the decade.

In 1983, Keith Richards told Musician magazine there “was no need” for the Beatles to have broken up and that the band “could’ve taken a couple of years off, resolved their problems and still carried on.” But as tantalizing as that “what if” scenario might seem to fans, there was little chance the band could have worked as a unit any longer, said eight authors of Beatle books (three of whom knew the band). In both the personal and artistic realms, these writers said, it was time for each band member to let things be.

By summer 1969, when the Beatles recorded their final album, “Abbey Road,” the musicians were already feeling they’d long realized any collective artistic aspirations, said Ken Mansfield, the former U.S. manager of the Beatles’ label Apple and author of “The White Book: The Beatles, the Bands, the Biz: An Insider's Look at an Era.”

‘No place to go’
“There’s one subtlety that people don’t realize, and we discussed this one time at a meeting in a Hyde Park hotel: they had no place to go,” Mansfield said. “They couldn’t be more No. 1 — they couldn’t be bigger. They had the wealth, they had the success, they had all the things that would be goals for a rock band. That was one of the reasons we did Apple Records. It gave them something new to do.”

The decision to stop touring in 1966 deprived them of the normal performer-audience dynamic that keeps bands energized, said Chris O’Dell, a former Apple Records employee who penned the tome “Miss O’Dell: My Hard Days And Long Nights With The Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton And the Women They Loved.”

“As a live band on tour, they had nothing to shoot for,” she said. “They couldn’t hear themselves. It wasn’t fun for them. George (Harrison) once told me the best fun he ever had in the Beatles was in Hamburg, Germany — that was like really touring and really being out there, but that didn’t happen for them afterwards.”

Because the Beatles in their early days were united like few other bands, they were able to weather troubles that might have destroyed other acts, Mansfield said. But by 1969, that unity was coming undone. Paul McCartney disagreed with the other three members about who should manage the group, John Lennon was more interested in working with new wife Yoko Ono, and Harrison was disgruntled at not getting more songs on the albums.

Bob Spitz, author of the New York Times best seller “The Beatles: The Biography,” said these disagreements alone would have kept them from sticking around much longer, much less releasing another record up to the high standard of “Abbey Road.”

“It wasn’t likely, based on their emotions at the time, that we were going to get fabulous material as a group from them,” Spitz said. “Emotionally they weren’t in any shape to be the Beatles anymore. They didn’t like each other. When the Beatles got together they were young guys. By the time they put out ‘Abbey Road,’ their relationships had no bearing on each other as a group anymore.”

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OK, but then how did the band exit on such a high note if they were in such awful shape? Well, to pinch a phrase from the Fabs, they knew it was getting very near the end. So said Peter Doggett, the author of “Abbey Road/Let It Be: The Beatles” and the forthcoming “You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of the Beatles.”

“I think in their hearts they all knew it was the last record, so they could all say ‘OK, I’m gonna be on my best behavior for a few weeks and then we’ll get this over,’” Doggett said. “If they had to think, ‘We’re gonna do this one, and then another one in seven months’ time,’ I don’t think they would actually have managed to work together with that close knit internal harmony.”

Tim Riley, author of “Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary,” echoed this sentiment and said that during the 1960s, the Beatles “were all still really in thrall to their collective muse and that muse carried them through ruptures and conflicts.”

Riley said the band’s breakup came about at the right time: “It’s one of the key aspects of their story that they actually found a way to stay together those last couple of years and turn out a lot of great material. But it’s really in spite of the very stark internal conflicts that kept arising again and again.”

The roots of Harrison’s discontent ran deep, said Bill Harry, who founded Liverpool’s Mersey Beat magazine and was a friend of Lennon and original member Stu Sutcliffe. Although Lennon and McCartney became the band’s main songwriters, Harrison, said Harry, was the first Beatle mentioned in Mersey Beat as having had an original song recorded, the instrumental “Cry for a Shadow” (later co-credited with Lennon).

“(Then) when it started with the big Lennon and McCartney thing, and it was hit after hit, I used to see George and (ask) ‘Why aren’t you writing the music?’” Harry said. “I think the Lennon and McCartney thing was too much for him to sort of handle.”

Harry, who has written 24 books on the Beatles, said that fact alone assured a limited shelf life of the band: “Everyone thinks it would be nice if the Beatles could have had another five years, but they couldn’t. The time was over.”

One more album?
But what if the Fab Four had come together for one more album? This question was posited by David Furst, a producer at Washington DC’s WAMU-FM for a program in which music writer Richie Unterberger took part. Unterberger, who penned the book “The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film,” said fans shouldn’t look to the early Beatles’ solo albums to imagine what a group effort might have sounded like.

“A really challenging aspect of trying to predict what would have happened is that the songwriting would have inevitably changed if all four of them had been together,” he said. “Part of what made the Beatles so special is they had this synergy where they create more than they can do on their own.”

Unterberger said it was fortunate the Beatles’ albums never ended up deteriorating in quality, like those of bands that had more longevity. “They went out with a great record, and most importantly, a record on which the sense of group unity is still really strong,” he said.

Steve Turner, author of “A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song,” agreed: “You can look at some of the songs they wrote during the Beatles that got left over and put on solo albums — but whether you put all those together and it would have made a follow up to ‘Abbey Road,’ I don’t know. They seemed to have reached their limit.

“I can’t think of anything that they did better in subsequent years individually,” Turner said. “I can’t think of a particular kind of studio development or technical development where you’d think, ‘Gosh if only they’d pursued that.’”

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