“We try not to make plans,” John Lennon emphasized to the newest group of reporters gathered around him. He was referring to himself and Yoko Ono, who sat quietly beside him, flashing a retiring smile. In his almost singsongy Liverpool lilt, Lennon continued: “I don’t really like knowing what I’m gonna do for the next eight months.”
Even for someone who preferred to live life on the fly, it’s doubtful Lennon had planned on being where he was now, on the chilly afternoon of January 5. A few weeks earlier, he’d been in Toronto, talking up a festival he was helping organize and meeting with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Now, on the fifth day of the new decade, he was giving a hastily organized press conference in what felt like the most remote locale possible, a college in the remote northeast of Denmark.
For anyone who’d kept up with the Beatles’ changes in wardrobe and hairstyles, he looked and sounded like the revamped modern John: wire-rimmed glasses, shoulder-length waterfall of brown hair, full beard. Ono flanked him on one side; on the other was her six-year-old daughter Kyoko from her first marriage, to Tony Cox. Cox himself, sporting sunglasses and a smirk, sat next to Kyoko, along with Cox’s new, stern-looking wife, Melinda Kendall. When the local press had heard Lennon was in town and wanted to know why, Lennon agreed to the press conference.
As soon as it began, he still flashed a bit of his familiar combination of wit and sneer. “All right, you rumor mongers, let’s get going!” he cracked. To the reporters, he denied reports he’d bought land there, said he loved the snow, and addressed rumors about the Beatles’ finances. “The people around us made more money than the Beatles ever did, I’ll tell you that,” he said bluntly. “None of the Beatles are millionaires. But there’s a lot of millionaires who became millionaires around the Beatles.”
Although he wouldn’t dwell on it that afternoon, the past year had been a particularly turbulent one for the Beatles and Lennon. The filming sessions at Twickenham almost a year before had been unpleasant enough. Then they’d reconvened in July to make a new album, Abbey Road, the old-fangled, studio-produced way, but the four were rarely in the same room together. One reporter who visited during the sessions witnessed McCartney giving Harrison a particularly hard time over a guitar solo—and that was when a journalist was around. The days when they were together, all for one—in Liverpool and Hamburg, on The Ed Sullivan Show, having pillow fights for the press in hotel rooms—now felt as distant as Lennon’s childhood. Factor in a sometimes hostile press, heroin, and intragroup business friction, and no wonder Lennon—who’d turned twenty-nine three months before—had removed himself, even temporarily, from it all.
As 1969 receded, Ono grew desperate to reconnect with her daughter, whom she hadn’t seen in years. Cox, who’d been given custody of Kyoko, was temporarily living in Denmark. Shortly before Christmas, the Lennons had flown to Aalborg and been driven to Cox’s rented farmhouse outside the small town of Vust.
From the start, Lennon went along with Cox’s lifestyle requests, like undergoing hypnosis to stop smoking. Few were surprised he was agreeing to all this for Ono’s sake. Wearing matching black turtleneck sweaters at the Danish press conference, the couple came across as a hairier, countercultural version of the Bobbsey Twins. In a recording studio in London that winter, they sat together in a control room, listening to a new track and chewing gum in time. “They breathed the same air and completed each other’s sentences,” recalled Dan Richter, a friend who was house-sitting at their home outside London that winter. “They were like Romeo and Juliet, only older.”
Lennon remained his seat-of-the-pants self, as John Brower, a young Canadian promoter and club owner, had witnessed in the fall. One September day, Brower had phoned the Apple offices to ask if Lennon would be willing to participate in a multi-act festival, the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival, that Brower was organizing. To his surprise, Lennon took the call and agreed—and then almost missed the chaotic flight over. On the plane, Lennon and the band he’d thrown together for the show—Ono; Eric Clapton; artist, bass player, and longtime friend Klaus Voormann; and Alan White, a twenty-year-old drummer between bands—rehearsed in seats at the back of the plane. (When Lennon called to offer him the gig, White thought it was a joke and hung up; luckily, Lennon called back.) Before the show, Lennon took heroin and wound up leading the band through a bedraggled, under-rehearsed set. But the rawness and electricity of the event inspired him. He hadn’t received a rush like that from his regular band in what felt like years.
Brower, a dough-faced twenty-three-year-old with sunken eyes, had been inspired too. After the festival, he approached Lennon with a far more grandiose, almost fantastical plan: a “music and peace conference” to be held outside Toronto over the July 4 weekend. Brower and Ritchie Yorke—a Canadian journalist who’d come to know Lennon during the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival—would organize it, and Lennon would recruit the talent. Everyone was hoping for a turnout of two million—an event that would dwarf Woodstock and announce to the world that a new era of peace and harmony had descended on the planet in the year 1970.
Brower and Yorke were the next to arrive in Denmark, even though, like Lennon, they hadn’t planned on it. Lennon had summoned them by phone in order to discuss plans for the festival, and they had no choice but to take the long flight from Canada. On the morning of January 15, the day after they’d arrived, the two of them—along with Anthony Fawcett, the Lennons’ personal assistant—found themselves sharing a taxi from their hotel in Aalborg to Vust. As rain turned what been a foot of snow into dreary slush, they stared out the windows at the desolate landscape until the cab pulled up at what looked like a deserted farmhouse. At the door, Cox asked them all to remove their shoes, leave any drugs behind, and step inside.
The sight that greeted them was like nothing they’d expected. Yes, upon his arrival Brower had met with a mysterious, bug-eyed “doctor” Lennon had also flown out to Denmark and who was talking about extraterrestrials visiting the festival. Sure, they’d heard the story the night before from a local hairdresser, who told them she’d been summoned to a farm to trim John Lennon’s hair. Before she began, Lennon had shown her a copy of his passport photo, from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band days, and asked her to cut it even shorter. Ono cried as her husband’s locks fell to the floor. When it was over, Lennon asked the haircutter to move on to Ono and then Kyoko. It was as if Lennon was both returning to his past and simultaneously cutting his ties from it. Adding to the strangeness, all the shorn hair was collected into bags and carted away.
Despite these stories, neither Brower nor Yorke expected to be so taken aback by a gaunt Lennon, his hair buzz-cut short, staring at them from the kitchen table. He looked less like a Beatle and more like a Vietnam POW after months in the Hanoi Hilton. “That was a shock,” Yorke recalled. “It was a pretty dramatic moment.” Seemingly confused by all the adults around, Kyoko ran up to Brower and said, “I don’t like my hair, I want my old hair back.”
From that point, the meeting took a dramatic turn akin to Lennon’s makeover. In no uncertain terms, Lennon announced the festival should be free. Brower was stunned by the comment: How would they be able to pay for such a thing if that were the case? Lennon didn’t want to hear it. “It was all a bit dismaying,” Yorke recalled. “There were conflicting agendas. What we hoped to start with John was certainly not turning out the way we’d hoped.” To Brower and Yorke’s surprise and chagrin, Allen Klein popped into the kitchen—despite the fact that Lennon had asked them to compile a dossier on Klein’s reputation in the music business.
Less than an hour later, Brower, Yorke, and Fawcett were back in a taxi, returning to the Aalborg hotel. What had just happened? Having digested a mysterious tarry black substance on toast in the Cox kitchen—probably hashish, although he never knew for certain—Brower was doubly befuddled. Where was the Lennon that Brower and Yorke had met with a few months before—even the funny, animated man at the press conference for the festival in Toronto just before Christmas? “Fawcett said, ‘They love their hair,’” Brower recalled. “So cutting it was like embarking on this new path.” But what was that path, and where would it lead? No one, perhaps even Lennon, was sure at the moment.
On January 25, Lennon and Ono finally returned to London; the next day, Ringo Starr left. By then, Starr had two comfortable homes: a house with a garden in Highgate, a hilly London suburb, and a centuries-old Tudor mansion in Elstead in county Surrey that he’d purchased in 1968 from his friend, actor Peter Sellers. With its oak-beamed rooms, wandering packs of ducks and geese, and separate movie theater, Brookfield House, as the Elstead home was called, was a welcome retreat from the pressure of Beatlemania.
Still, Starr had to leave, even for a bit. As unappealing as the thought of inquisitive reporters was—he dreaded the inevitable questions about how the Beatles were getting along—he had a movie to promote and a career of his own to map out. With Maureen, his low-key wife of nearly five years, and Apple administrative director Peter Brown, he boarded a plane for Los Angeles.
The oldest Beatle and the last to join, Starr had been a drowsy-eyed but amiable child growing up in Liverpool. To everyone around him, he still was. He’d been the first to say he was leaving: After a tense 1968 recording session, he stayed home and didn’t return for several days (when he was welcomed back with a drum kit enshrined in roses). They knew he would come back: More than the others, Starr was always happy with his job, so why change anything? According to one former Apple employee, Richard DiLello, Starr’s presence was especially welcome the day Lauren Bacall called and said she wanted to swing by with her daughter to meet a Beatle. Starr, the only Beatle available on short notice, charmed them so much that Bacall felt as if they were all in the offices. Starr’s interest in the business of the Beatles, while never as intense as McCartney’s, rose in the new decade: Now it was he, not McCartney, who was the most visible at 3 Savile Row and most passionate about the idea of the Beatles. As the four pulled away from each other, Starr steered closer to home base.
The previous October, Starr had launched a project of his own, an album of standards from the pre-rock era—purposefully cornball but guileless songs like “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” and “Stardust,” with big-band arrangements courtesy of Quincy Jones and McCartney. “The idea of Ringo doing his own album made us all think, ‘Oh, really?’” remembered Paul Watts, an EMI marketing executive at the time. Plenty of others, including Starr himself, didn’t see the project as more than a way to pass the time and record long-ago pop songs his mother would enjoy hearing him sing. Over the course of four months, with the Beatles on an extended hiatus of some sort, Starr worked on the album at his leisure.
Since he’d been such a natural, unaffected screen presence in A Hard Day’s Night and Help! a career in acting became another way to pass the time between Beatle projects. He’d already played a Mexican gardener in 1968’s Candy, a warped sex comedy based on a novel coauthored by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, and he’d just wrapped up a larger, costarring role in The Magic Christian, also based on a Southern novel, in which he was cast as the adopted son of a rich cynic (played by Sellers) who bribes unsuspecting people to do outrageous things for cash. The film had already opened in the U.K. to mixed reviews, but a U.S. premiere was set for the middle of February.
Arriving in Los Angeles for the film’s opening, Starr made nice at a press conference. With his usual nonchalance, he deflected most of the Beatle questions, only saying the group would most likely be recording together soon. Hardly anyone seemed to care about the movie; most of the non-Beatle questions had to do with working with his busty costar Raquel Welch.
Starr couldn’t have been happier to leave the next day for Las Vegas to see Elvis Presley. The previous summer, Presley had returned to live performance with a string of triumphant and inordinately profitable shows at the International Hotel. Coming on the heels of his 1968 comeback TV special, the Vegas shows marked the concert debut of a different Elvis. His voice revealing new layers of emotional depth and velvety richness, he was still undeniably sexual, a prowling cougar onstage. But he was singing far more contemporary pop tunes, he was surrounded by a choir and orchestra, and he was wearing a newly designed one-piece jumpsuit that made his karate stage moves easier to pull off. Before long, Presley would be taking a nearly identical version of the show on the road.
After being sneaked in through the kitchen entrance at the International, Starr, Maureen, and Brown were escorted to their table. Halfway through the show, Presley introduced the visiting Beatle from the stage and Starr, good-natured as always, took a bow. Afterward, he and Brown were hustled backstage for a quick meeting with Presley. Despite the presence of more beefy security types than he’d ever seen, Brown was pleasantly surprised by how chatty, courteous, and charming Presley was. Six years before, the Beatles had visited Presley at his Bel Air home, a meeting notorious for Presley’s indifference to their presence. Now, as the new decade arrived, Presley and Starr were on equal ground: two well-compensated, beloved pop aristocrats, each searching for something new in their lives and work.
Two weeks after John Brower left Denmark, Lennon’s assistant Anthony Fawcett tracked him down at a hotel in Los Angeles, where Brower was being interviewed about his grandiose festival by a writer from the Los Angeles Free Press. Still scrambling to turn his idea into reality, Brower had changed the name of his festival company to Karma Productions. Now, here was Fawcett on the line, telling him Lennon had written and recorded a new song, “Instant Karma,” and offering to play it for him over the phone.
On January 26, just before the call, American gossip columnist Earl Wilson had written a syndicated column, “Beatles May Not Record Together,” in which he noted there was “increasing conviction among their intimates that they may never record again as a whole.” The following day, Lennon unintentionally backed up Wilson’s story. Having just returned from his Scandinavian trek, he’d woken up with a lyric in his head, written a rudimentary melody on a piano, and then, with the help of Apple employees Mal Evans and Bill Oakes, rounded up a quick cast of musicians (including Harrison and White, substituting for the nowdeparted Starr) to help him put it to tape. To oversee the session, Lennon suggested Phil Spector.
In rock and roll circles, the diminutive but intense Spector was a controversial and mythical figure. After a flush of early success, he’d retreated into seclusion. Starting with a cameo as a drug dealer in Easy Rider the year before, he’d emerged from semiretirement. He was strong-willed and strident, yet he and Lennon shared a caustic sense of humor right from the start: The two men joked about starting and finishing the song in a day. As Spector scurried around the studio hooking up tape machines and setting up microphones, the band began rehearsing the tune. “John played the song and we all started playing and it sounded good and was very swinging and came together fast,” recalled Voormann, a German artist and musician who’d met the Beatles in Hamburg and was playing bass at the session. Evans corralled a bunch of locals from a nearby pub to join in on the background vocals in the chorus. By 4 A.M. it was done—recorded, mixed, and ready to roll off a vinyl assembly line. Again, Lennon was elated: The Beatles would never have bashed out a song so fast. “There was a simplicity in the way he did it that I don’t think he would have been able to get across with the Beatles,” recalled Voormann. “He felt much freer than before.”
In the L.A. hotel room, Brower and the Free Press’ John Carpenter picked up separate phone lines and prepared to hear the results. “Instant Karma” roared out; even over a Transatlantic connection, Brower could hear its massive, reverberating piano chords and White’s loud, pushy shuffle beat, which put a massive exclamation mark at the end of each line in the chorus. But those lyrics . . . “Who on earth do you think you are—a superstar? Well, right you are!” taunted Lennon with a rasp that stung like scalding water.
When it was over, Carpenter looked at Brower and brought up the use of the word “karma” in the song. “Isn’t that the name of your company?” he asked. “I don’t know if that’s a song for your festival. It doesn’t sound very positive.”
Brower had to admit that, yes, it was the name of his production company, and no, he didn’t know what to make of its message. Similarly, plenty of Beatle fans scratched their heads when copies of “Instant Karma” arrived in stores ten days later: The sleeve credited the song to “John Ono Lennon.” Although Lennon had had his middle name officially changed from Winston to Ono when he wed Ono the previous March, “Instant Karma” marked the first time he used the name on a record. Even in the world of John Lennon, it was hard to imagine a more puzzling month than the one just ended.
Both everyone and no one knew where Paul McCartney was. Certainly, the other Beatles and Apple employees knew he’d spent a good deal of the winter holidays at his bare-boned farmhouse outside Campbeltown in the remote southwest of Scotland. He’d purchased it several years before, during his relationship with Peter Asher’s sister Jane. In the fall of 1969, when a new degree of tension enveloped the Beatles, McCartney had retreated to the house with Linda, her seven-year-old daughter Heather from her previous marriage, and her and McCartney’s new baby Mary. Aside from a Life magazine photographer and journalist who tracked him down that fall, looking to prove he was actually alive during the “Paul Is Dead” uproar, McCartney was guaranteed isolation.
None of the Beatles ever made the trip to the house, and in February, Lennon gave an interview—one of many at the time, sometimes to promote his peace causes, sometimes to simply keep his name in the papers—saying he and McCartney hadn’t spoken in two months and only communicated by postcard. Even Peter Brown, Apple’s dapper and unflappable administrative director and one of the few in close touch with McCartney, didn’t bother making the trek to the farm, knowing he’d have to hike from a main road to reach it. McCartney told everyone the house didn’t have a phone, even though it did; Brown, who’d more or less taken over the duties of handling the Beatles after Brian Epstein’s death in 1967, would often receive calls at Apple from Scotland.
With McCartney’s exact whereabouts up in the air and communication among the Beatles fractured, Klaus Voormann was particularly stunned to receive a call one winter afternoon from McCartney himself. Would Voormann be up for a visit to McCartney’s home in London?
In Hamburg a decade before, Voormann, then a young Berlin-born artist with male-model cheekbones, chanced upon the Beatles when they were blasting out sweaty rock and roll at the Kaiserkeller Club during their residence there. With his friends Astrid Kirchherr and Jürgen Vollmer, Voormann became an immediate Beatle follower and friend. When he moved to London a few years later, he remained close with Lennon, Harrison, and Starr; it was Lennon who suggested Voormann illustrate the cover for Revolver, and Voormann at various times crashed at Harrison’s and Starr’s homes.
No sooner had Voormann said yes to McCartney’s invitation than the Beatle himself pulled up to Voormann’s apartment on Heath Street. McCartney was driving a Mini, one of Europe’s fashionably small cars, complete with dark-tinted windows. In the car on the way to McCartney’s home in St. John’s Wood, Voormann noticed the collar of his friend’s blue shirt: scruffy and worn down, not quite the sartorial garb everyone associated with McCartney. Like others, Voormann had heard McCartney’s fashion sense had taken a funkier, more downscale turn with his new wife.
In less than ten minutes, they arrived at 7 Cavendish Avenue, a cozy three-story home behind a black security gate that McCartney had purchased five years earlier. Voormann stepped inside and came upon keyboards, drums, and guitars: a veritable one-man band scattered about the living room. Voormann picked up a guitar and the two men jammed a bit together. Then, to Voormann’s added wonder, McCartney cued up a tape machine and played him a few songs he’d been creating on his own.
Upon his return to London in the new year, McCartney had bought a home recording unit and had it delivered to Cavendish Avenue. There, he began putting on tape some of the songs and fragments he’d been playing at the farm. He started with a trifle, strumming lazy chords and singing about the way Linda looked “with the lovely flowers in her hair.” It wasn’t much of a song, but it was a start. Over the next month and a half—at home and then in Morgan, a studio just north of London—more songs began taking shape, with McCartney playing all the instruments himself. Some, like a modest rocker called “That Would Be Something” built around a coiled-up guitar line, were cut in his living room. (In that song and others, he’d hum when he didn’t have enough words written down.) He tossed off “Valentine’s Day,” an instrumental, and resurrected “Junk,” a wispy, lullaby-style leftover from the White Album sessions. With its bumpy rock and roll feel, “Oo You” recalled “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” from the White Album. “Momma Miss America,” another instrumental, was fueled by a rumbling piano and drumbeat that were, by his standards, experimental and ambient. Like a few other songs, it devolved into random strums and giggles, as if McCartney wanted to make it explicitly clear that he wasn’t taking it all terribly seriously.
In late February, McCartney returned to EMI Studio, the Beatles’ home base, bringing the tapes with him. John Kurlander, a young EMI employee who’d worked as an assistant on the Abbey Road sessions, couldn’t help but notice the difference in McCartney’s mood. McCartney was now relaxed and productive, playing one instrument at a time as he constructed or finalized his new songs, only Linda and their children his companions. Inspired by the plight of a South American tribe he’d seen on TV, he recorded “Kreen-Akore,” essentially a drum solo, then played every instrument and sang every note on two truly fully realized songs, “Every Night” and “Maybe I’m Amazed,” both odes to Linda.
To Peter Brown, one of the few told of the work in progress, the unassuming project hardly felt out of the ordinary. After all, Brown thought, the Beatles were always working on one thing or another, albeit increasingly on their own. As McCartney well knew, Lennon had just finished “Instant Karma,” Harrison had already put out an album of instrumental film music, Wonderwall Music, and Starr was at work on his album of oldies. Brown also knew McCartney had a particularly strong work ethic and, far more than the others, a deep-seated need to entertain.
On February 25, one of McCartney’s last days at the studio, he began and finished an entire song, “Man We Was Lonely.” The music—a gentle sway led by an acoustic guitar, with mild bass and drum parts that hinted at polka oom-pah—was determinedly casual. Starting with the ungrammatical use of “was” instead of “were,” the song was consciously hammy, and the repetitive lyrics, with their references to his former city life and his new wife, were his most direct comment on his state of mind. “But now we’re fine all the while,” he and Linda sang at the end—three times in a row, as if to ensure the point was made. “After all the tension with the Beatles, spending several weeks up at the farm with Linda put him in a state of relaxation he hadn’t been in for a while,” Kurlander recalled. “There was no one else to answer to at all.”
In part, that was because few knew he was there. Following an earlier session, on February 22, Kurlander jotted down McCartney’s name in his logbook—then scratched it out and wrote “Ssssh.” Starting the following day, McCartney was referred to in Kurlander’s journal as “Billy Martin,” his nom de studio. For reasons Kurlander couldn’t discern, the sessions were suddenly clandestine.
The silver film canisters squirreled away in an office at Apple Corps told their whole story, or at least the early part of it. Footage of them, young and ebullient, at the Cavern Club. Clips from their early days on tour, playing to swaying stadiums of weeping female fans. Film of Brian Epstein, youthful, alive, talking of his plans for the group. The canisters sat in a small room with no windows located next to the second-floor office of Neil Aspinall, the Beatles’ longtime and loyal friend. Despite all the changes in the band and at Apple, Aspinall remained a valuable, rocksteady presence. He’d gone from working as their first road manager—putting up posters of their club gigs, among other tasks—to helping run Apple from its launch. A movie projector sat in the middle of the room, with a projection screen nearby. All that was needed was someone to catalogue the contents of each canister, and for that job, Aspinall turned to Chris O’Dell.
O’Dell, a vivacious brunette born and raised in Oklahoma, was on her second tour of duty at Apple. She’d been living in Los Angeles in 1968 when she’d met Derek Taylor, Brian Epstein’s former assistant and a dapper hippie aristocrat in his own right. After a falling-out with Epstein, Taylor moved to southern California to become a rock publicist—for, among others, the Byrds, who then included David Crosby. When Taylor met O’Dell, he told her he was returning to London to work for the Beatles’ new business, Apple. A few months later, at Taylor’s invitation, O’Dell was at Apple herself, working random jobs like answering the switchboard, until Peter Asher asked her to be his personal assistant. In the fall of 1969, O’Dell left Apple and returned to Los Angeles to be with her new boyfriend, singer and pianist Leon Russell. But when their relationship soured, O’Dell was back in London, this time at the dawn of 1970.
A year and a half after its launch, Apple Corps at 3 Savile Row looked unchanged in many ways. The five-story building tucked away on the modest Piccadilly Square street, alongside a string of upper-crust tailoring shops, retained its reddish-brown brick exterior; the Apple Scruffs, the loyal female fans, still gathered outside, just beyond the black iron front gate. Peter Brown was still reporting to work, handling the band’s social engagements, helping organize wedding plans, and juggling innumerable Beatle details. His office at Apple was on the second floor, right across from the one the Beatles shared, and Brown, in the old days, would see McCartney there almost every day.
But that was before Epstein’s death, before the fractious making of the White Album, before the Twickenham Studio filming, before Lennon and Ono had held that meeting with Allen Klein. It was before their marriages and house purchases, and it was certainly before the meeting in Brown’s office the prior September, when McCartney had argued for future concerts and a TV special and Lennon had called him “daft,” told everyone he wanted a divorce from the band, and stormed out. “Well, that’s that, then,” said one Apple employee glumly afterward.
Apple was different now. Inside, the whirlwind of activity O’Dell had witnessed in 1968—the constantly brrrring phones, the sight of McCartney, Lennon, Harrison, or Starr whipping in and out, the secretaries brewing tea and making sandwiches—was largely gone, as was her old boss Peter Asher. Everything was so quiet now, the mood so much less freewheeling. O’Dell heard from the outset that McCartney, once the most business-focused, never came into the office anymore.
Apple was hardly in a position to hire, especially now that Klein was pruning its budgets and attempting to rein in its out-of-control finances. But Aspinall needed an assistant, so O’Dell had a new job helping him dig through the film canisters. For several weeks, O’Dell diligently scribbled down the contents of each reel. Aspinall never talked about his assignment in detail, but after a while O’Dell assumed he was putting together a documentary on the history of the Beatles. It felt odd to compile what amounted to a chronicle of a band that still existed, but O’Dell didn’t question the project.
Nor did she see it through to completion. To O’Dell’s surprise, Harrison called her one late winter day and asked her to work for him at his new home. By 1970, rock and roll was roughly fifteen years old and ready for royalty of its own. The Beatles fit the bill, and as O’Dell saw for herself on a late-night drive to the house, so did Harrison’s new home. In early March, he and wife Pattie Boyd had left their bungalow in Esher, Surrey, and moved into Friar Park, a Gothic mansion in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, over an hour west of London. Once visitors drove past the entrance house and onto the main property, they saw a mansion a far cry from the drab, two-floor Upton Green, Speke, council house in which Harrison had lived with his family as a teenager. Surrounded by thirty acres, Friar Park had two dozen rooms, stainedglass windows, multiple gardens, oak-paneled rooms, a library, and pointed turrets outside. If Harrison wasn’t able to place many of his own songs on Beatle albums, he’d at least show them up with the grandest of all Beatle residences.
Although now a devout student of Hinduism, Harrison could also be unpredictably moody, sullen, or sarcastic. Part of him stewed over the way the others, McCartney especially, were dismissive of his songs and still treated him as if he were simply the lead guitarist. He’d gritted his teeth through the Get Back and Abbey Road sessions. At Friar Park, Harrison was finally in control of at least one aspect of his life. He could work on his songs in solitude, without feeling the scrutinizing eye of McCartney. When he so desired, he even had his own bass player. Shortly after moving in, he heard Voormann’s marriage was breaking up. “Come on, stay here,” he told Voormann, who took his friend up on his invitation to move into one of the cottages on the estate. The two would play or talk about music, apart from the others and in Harrison’s own enclosed world. At one point, O’Dell overheard Ono remark that O’Dell was now in “George’s camp.” “We’re in camps now?” O’Dell thought.
Lennon had his own luxurious camp by then. The previous May, he and Ono had bought Tittenhurst Park, an estate thirty miles outside London. Starting in the fall of 1969 and continuing into the new year, their friend Dan Richter had been overseeing its renovation. A thirty-year-old actor from the American Northeast, Richter had made his name with mime performances throughout Europe. While doing street theater in Tokyo in the early ’60s, he’d met Ono and Tony Cox. After moving to London in 1965, Richter reconnected with the couple and rented an apartment right next to theirs; the two homes shared a common balcony. Before long, Richter noticed all wasn’t well with the Ono and Cox marriage. Looking out his window, he’d see Lennon’s white limousine pull up and Ono rush in.
In the summer of 1969, Richter achieved a level of fame. He’d been hired by director Stanley Kubrick to choreograph the enigmatic opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a group of prehistoric, manlike apes fight with another tribe and come across a mysterious black monolith. Richter wound up playing the head ape in the scene. But he was also addicted to heroin, and at the Lennons’ invitation, he and his wife Jill moved into two of the back cottages at Tittenhurst.
Like O’Dell at Friar Park, they were overwhelmed by the grandeur of the place and its surroundings: seventy-two acres surrounding a massive white house with huge bay windows. Since he needed something to do, Richter was hired (albeit for no pay, at his request) to oversee the makeover of the home. A white marble fireplace was installed on the first floor. A round bed—resembling a turntable, at Lennon’s request—had been built for the Lennons’ bedroom (for which Richter had to search for custom-made circular sheets). The floors were covered with off-white carpets made of unbleached wool specially woven in China; a green Queen Anne desk was installed in the bedroom. Since Lennon wanted to wake up each morning and see water, a lake was dug where once had lain an empty field. Everyone darted around the estate on golf carts. “The money kept coming in,” said Richter, who signed off on all the work charges without ever looking at the bills. “It was like a waterfall.”
By the time Lennon and Ono returned to Tittenhurst from Denmark, their hair still far from grown in, the work was dragging on; a planned recording studio off the kitchen remained under construction. Undeterred, Lennon and Ono went about their many varied plans. While they were in Denmark, a gallery exhibit of their partly nude lithographs, “Bag One,” had opened in London. (A tweedy Upper East Side gallery in New York City also displayed them, complete with ads that read, “Over 18 only.”) The British police raided the London gallery, confiscating a number of the prints on grounds of obscenity, although the charges were ultimately dropped. Later, at a press gathering in London, they publicly donated their shaved locks to Michael X, an incendiary, Trinidad-born radical who spearheaded the Black Power movement in the U.K. X was planning to auction off the hair to raise money for his commune, Black House. To some, their string of controversial media events were fun and charming, while others, like Brown, weren’t sure how seriously to take any of it.
In contrast to the Lennons’ public joviality, the atmosphere around Tittenhurst grew as gloomy as the English winter. After the creative outburst that resulted in “Instant Karma,” Lennon seemed creatively adrift. Few other new songs emerged, and his main hobby became watching television in his bedroom. Lennon was clearly depressed, and he and Ono were squabbling more than they had. In March, Ono had a miscarriage. In his back cottage, Richter was trying to kick his heroin addiction with low doses of methadone; a doctor visited him daily. Lennon and Ono, who were talking about having a child, were trying to do the same. Richter never asked them about why they’d shaved their heads in Denmark but assumed it was connected to their desire to get clean. “We were all holed up,” he recalled. “They were up in their bedroom and I was over in mine. We all decided it was time to stop. You don’t have a good future if you use heroin. Both of them had their careers, and it was clear it was time to stop.”
By then, Lennon’s other planned activity, the Music and Peace Conference, had been discarded. In the middle of March, John Brower told Billboard it had been canceled because he “didn’t want another Altamont.” But he was just saving face. Earlier, Lennon had sent Brower a telegram declaring he wanted nothing to do with it anymore. The entire project collapsed of its own naïveté, poor planning, and Lennon’s requirement that the shows have free admission. The first major cultural event of 1970 was finished before it started.
On March 17, about two weeks after Harrison and Boyd moved into Friar Park, the Beatles nearly reunited. Harrison threw a twenty-sixth birthday party for his wife on the grounds, and Lennon, Ono, and the Starrs showed up and took their first private tours of the estate. All were impressed with the imposing grandeur of Friar Park. Afterward, everyone gathered in the main hall, smoking pot and casually chatting. The McCartneys were invited, but few remember seeing them there.
Even Starr began to realize he needed something to do—a plan, both creatively and financially. After all, he wasn’t the one receiving all those checks for publishing royalties from Beatle albums. He began doing something he’d rarely done before—writing a song, this one with the working title “You Gotta Pay Your Dues.” In the basement studio of his Highgate home, he sang what he had for Voormann: a “nah nah nah nah nah” melody and little more. “He had a few nice starts for songs and then didn’t know how to carry on,” Voormann recalled. “George or I would say, ‘Well, you could play another chord there.’ He always did things with the help of his friends. Like that song.”
Harrison, always eager to help his ally, started to shape and trim the many words Starr began jotting down for the lyrics. In late winter, Starr bore down on what would be his first genuine statement as a recording artist in his own right. Lending a hand in the studio over the course of many days were Harrison, Voormann, George Martin, and on piano, one of Starr’s new friends, Stephen Stills.