The Beatles: NYC and their breakup

Giles Martin speaking at the Power Station. Photo: Jon Friedman
As the White Album turns 50, looking back at signs of discord during a 1968 trip to the city
by jon friedman

There is tremendous excitement about the Beatles these days, even though the band broke up nearly five decades ago. Their fabled White Album turns 50 years old next month, and it will be re-released. Paul McCartney celebrated his first profile on “60 Minutes” the other day to commemorate the occasion.

Giles Martin, the son of George Martin, who produced all of those great tracks, has remastered the original recordings, and the result, as with the refurbished “Sgt. Pepper” last year, sounds, well, fab. I attended a listening party last week at the Power Station, a recording studio on the West Side, and heard the incredible new music as well as the raw demos that John, Paul, George and Ringo created just before entering Abbey Road studios to record the great double album in May 1968.

You might think you’ve heard and examined every bit of Beatles intrigue (never call it “trivia!”). But did you know about the part that our fair city played in the breakup of the greatest rock and roll band in history? (And don’t even try to change my mind about that point!)

A few weeks before the four Beatles started recording what would be immortalized as “The White Album,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney visited New York City to publicize the band’s new music, retail and film company, Apple Ltd. They appeared on “The Tonight Show” and held a press conference.

What was extraordinary, as we look back, was that this marked the first time that all four members didn’t appear together for something major, like this unveiling of Apple. You might say the breakup started to occur on this trip. As with most seismic events that happened when the Beatles were an active entity during the Sixties, John Lennon was the mover and shaker.

Lennon looked very angry on the “Tonight Show” and chose to be his witty/acerbic self, instead of the mop-top who had cracked wise, “Turn left at Greenland,” in “A Hard Day’s Night,” when a reporter stage-asked, “How did you find America?” Perhaps he was pissed off that Johnny Carson had slighted him and Paul by deciding to perform that evening in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and left him in the care of a clueless substitute host, Joe Garagiola and fellow guest Tallulah Bankhead, who seemed to be on another planet that night.

We couldn’t know that Lennon was on the verge of breaking up his marriage to his first wife Cynthia and settling down with Yoko Ono. We couldn’t know that he had become extremely disillusioned with the Beatles’ extraordinary visit, a few months earlier, to India, where they wanted to kick back and meditate under the guidance of the Maharishi. He had become bored playing the role of Beatle John and yearned to return to his roots a rebellious art student in his native Liverpool. And, fascinated by the loud, jagged sounds that guitarists like Jimi Hendrix were creating, he had become really disenchanted with Paul’s “granny” music.

But Lennon’s unhappiness couldn’t detract from the majesty of the White Album. It sounded modern and sharp at the Power Station. Giles Martin did a wonderful job. When he talked with reporters, he acknowledged that “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” presented the greatest engineering challenge. “It’s a very relevant song,” Giles said.

Giles said that Paul and Ringo, the surviving members of the Beatles, had indeed heard — and loved — the remastered double album.

Since the 30-track album came out (featuring material with such questionable quality as “Revolution #9” and “Wild Honey Pie”), there has been debate about whether it was the wisest course to put out a two-record set instead of two separate albums.

“They had so much material,” Giles Martin pointed out.

I’m glad the Beatles released one double album. So much great music! As a kid in 1968, it was one of the highlights of my life when a Beatles single or album came out. I could revel in the brilliance of the White Album — and, now as an adult New Yorker, imagine the part that my little town played in the Beatles’ breakup.

Jon Friedman’s favorite track on the White Album is “Back in the USSR.” What’s yours?