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Paul McCartney was an ex-Beatle on a mission as he arrived at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Midtown Manhattan on 19 January 1994. He was there for the induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame of John Lennon, his friend, collaborator and occasional rival.
Also at the ceremony was Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono, who would appear that night onstage alongside McCartney. In Beatles lore, the two were sworn enemies (an overstatement, though McCartney had admitted to feeling “threatened” by Ono when she started turning up to band recording sessions with Lennon). So it was seen as hugely significant that they would come together to honour a fallen husband and comrade. This was the hell-freezes-over moment many “Fab” fanatics had never imagined they would witness.
“I wish John could have seen this,” Ono said as she and McCartney publicly patched up whatever differences they had. Later that evening, back at Yoko’s residence, she and her 19-year-old son, Sean, went further with the reconciliation by handing over to McCartney and his wife Linda several battered recordings, dating from the late 1970s. And with that, began the next chapter in the story of The Beatles.
The Beatles Anthology, released 20 years ago this September, was both a bit of a muddle and hugely ahead of its time. This deep dive into the band’s catalogue and history was a many-headed multimedia onslaught unleashed at a time when few people could have told you what “multimedia” even meant.
There were, in fact, several “Anthologies”. A six-part documentary, aired on ITV from 26 November to 31 December, featured new interviews by Jools Holland of McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. This was accompanied by Anthology 1, a double album of unreleased demos and alternative versions of familiar songs (the first of three such collections), released on 20 November 1995.
Later came a book, credited to “The Beatles” and featuring further interviews. Together, documentary, albums and book traced The Beatles’ evolution from scrappy skiffle merchants to the biggest, occasionally weirdest band on the planet. And the key to the entire endeavour was contained on those tapes handed over in Yoko Ono’s living room.
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“Once we get the bulls**t behind us, we all end up doing what we do best which is making music,” Ringo Starr would say of this unusual reunion. On 11 February 1994 he, McCartney and George Harrison – quickly dubbed the “Threetles” – had convened at McCartney’s Hog Hill Mill studio in East Sussex. Their mission was to breathe life into the scratchy John Lennon demo recordings that Yoko had given to Macca.
This was in service of a big idea. The biggest idea: to open the first Anthology collection with a new Beatles single. This would be an extraordinary statement of intent – particularly when their “final” single was the peerless “The Long and Winding Road”, released a month after their split in May 1970. Of course, with Lennon not around and with the three surviving bandmates determined to include him in some way, options were limited.
Hence McCartney reaching out to Yoko for demos which Lennon had recorded on a boombox at his Dakota Building apartment in New York in the late Seventies along with another demo recorded in Bermuda in 1980.
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Two tracks had immediately jumped out. These were woozy ballads “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” (the latter already released as part of the soundtrack to the 1988 documentary Imagine: John Lennon). “Free as a Bird” was ultimately picked first because the lyrics were unfinished. That gave Macca and the gang the opportunity to meaningfully add to the song.
In New York in 1994, McCartney had become emotional hearing Lennon’s voice from beyond the grave. Struggling to stay composed he promised Yoko and Sean that he wouldn’t release any new music without their blessing. At the same time, once he and his fellow “Threetles” took material away and brought their own perspective they needed to know there wouldn’t be any external interference. Yoko could hear the results. She needed to stay out of the way during the sessions.
“We don’t know, we may hate each other after two hours in the studio and just walk out,” he told her. “So don’t put any conditions, it’s tough enough.”
The surviving Beatles didn’t hate each other. Not after two hours in the studio, at least. And that despite the fact that some of the power struggles that had doomed the band in the late 1960s had continued into the new undertaking.
Harrison had, for instance, pushed for “Free as a Bird” to open with a languid slide guitar solo. McCartney didn’t necessarily see the wisdom in it but shrugged: sure, why not? Harrison had also insisted he would participate only if his friend and collaborator Jeff Lynne produced. Which meant an invitation was not extended to George Martin, the miracle worker who had overseen their progression through the 1960s from naive scallywags to pop geniuses.
“It was George [Harrison] who said, ‘no, we need a producer,” McCartney later said. “It could be dangerous just to all get in the studio. Could get nasty. You’ve got egos flying around.”
“It was really quite scary,” said Lynne. “I really didn’t know Paul very well at all. I’d only met him a couple of times before. He was a bit worried about me because I was George’s pal.”
Not that George Martin would necessarily have said “yes”. Years later he appeared to imply that he considered it ghoulish to record a “new” song featuring vocals by someone who had passed away 15 years previously.
“I kind of told them I wasn’t too happy with putting them together with the dead John,” he told Rock Cellar magazine in 2013. “I’ve got nothing wrong with dead John but the idea of having dead John with live Paul and Ringo and George to form a group, it didn’t appeal to me too much.
“In the same way that I think it’s OK to find an old record of Nat King Cole’s and bring it back to life and issue it, but to have him singing with his daughter is another thing. So I don’t know, I’m not fussy about it but it didn't appeal to me very much.”
“Free as a Bird” was the first track on Anthology 1, released five days before Queen’s post-Freddie Mercury release Made in Heaven. Parlophone, the Beatles label, did their best to turn the release into an event. In the run-up to the song’s first play on Radio 1 the record company issued a “timetable of events” to the press, tracking every minute from the moment copies of the Anthology 1 CD left the pressing plant at Uden in the Netherlands. In the event presenter Annie Nightingale judged it merely “alright”.
A grand press conference was arranged for the Savoy with 350 journalists attending. George Martin and Jeff Lynne were there. But no Beatles. They were at home, said their press officer Derek Taylor, “But they send their love.”
With the Fabs having flown the coop, the media was not in the mood to play nice. The mood in the room probably wasn’t helped by over-the-top security. “This is not the Rosetta Stone,” shouted one reporter. “This is just a pop record that you are marketing.”
“People are ready for it now, and they probably weren’t in 1970 and 1980,” said Martin. He was responding to the question of why The Beatles were putting out an odds ’n’ sods compilation when the official line for decades was that there was nothing in the vault worth releasing.
Lynne was asked why “Free as a Bird” sounded less like The Beatles than it did his and Harrison’s supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys. “I put a lot more work into this,” he joked (presumably). “The Wilburys take 10 minutes, and this took 15.”
Martin would also contradict his later statements on “Free as a Bird”, saying he would have liked to have produced it. “Jeff Lynne has done a brilliant job, and having heard it now, l wish I had produced it. Because if anything, it would have given me 30 number ones, instead of 29.”
To this day, “Free as a Bird” divides opinion. Whatever the ethics of using Lennon’s scratchy home recording, from a technical perspective the results were flawed.
Lennon’s demo was of poor quality. And Lynne, for all his studio wizardry, couldn’t quite paper over the cracks. “What you ended up with was quite a thick homogeneous sound that hardly stops,” critiqued George Martin. “There’s not much dynamic in it.”
“It was a crackly old thing, it was a cassette,” said McCartney of the original demo. “You don’t use that. [Jeff] took the cassette and put it in time.”
“It was so hard,” said Lynne. “Layering that voice in there, which had piano glued to it. Really difficult, virtually impossible. But we got it done somehow.”
Tellingly, the producer Lennon had been working with when he recorded the demos in the late 1970s had already rejected the “Free as a Bird” demo. The ex-Beatle had sent Jack Douglas the tapes of “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love”. This was in 1979 as they were preparing to make Double Fantasy. Douglas told him bluntly that the compositions were too embryonic.
“Here’s the basic thing about those songs,“ Douglas explained to The Washington Post. “I rejected those for Double Fantasy because I didn’t feel they were completed.”
“‘Free as a Bird’ is disappointingly low-key, to put it mildly,” agreed Andy Gill in his assessment in The Independent. “A slight song taken at sluggish pace, it sounds like what it is: Jeff Lynne’s graduation exercise from the School of Beatlism.”
Gill also suggested the Anthology project had been conceived of as a cash-cow as the Fabs neared retiring age – in particular George Harrison who had apparently fallen on the rock star equivalent of hard times. “Down to his last £20m or so,” wrote Gill. “Poor lamb.”
The rest of Anthology 1 was less contentious. It was what it was – a grab bag of demos, often spectacularly scratchy, from The Beatles early days as the Quarrymen through to their stint in Hamburg as back-up band for Tony Sheridan, spruced up with live recordings from the Ed Sullivan and Morecambe and Wise shows.
It undoubtedly came along at an important time, however. The Beatles had never quite gone out of fashion. Still, it is safe to say that through the 1970s and 1980s they were not perceived as entirely at the cutting edge. What was left of McCartney’s credibility after the often supremely cheesy Wings had evaporated when he released “We All Stand Together”, aka the Frog Song, in 1984.
Ringo Starr had meanwhile spent the 1980s narrating Thomas the Tank Engine. George Harrison was releasing hokey novelty tunes such as his 1987 number one, “Got My Mind Set on You”. This is remembered chiefly for its video in which Harrison vied for attention with a dancing grandfather clock and a singing moose’s head.
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As the Britpop era dawned, though, perceptions of The Beatles changed. Oasis covered “I Am the Walrus”. Liam Gallagher tried to bring back the John Lennon Windsor “rounded” glasses look (he also mimicked Lennon’s haircut at one point). The Boo Radley’s Britpop classic Giant Steps was an unabashed love letter to The White Album.
“The Beatles have to be the best band of all time. There’s no one to touch them,” Suede’s Simon Gilbert told The Independent in 1995. “Revolver is the only album I’ve listened to at least once a week ever since I first heard it. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is my favourite song from it. It’s just way ahead of its time.”
And then there was Blur v Oasis, a chest-bumping jamboree explicitly modelled on The Beatles-Rolling Stones rivalry. The defining moment of Britpop was just another Beatles rehash.
It was no surprise, then, that, notwithstanding the response of critics such as the late Andy Gill, “Free as a Bird” and Anthology 1 were rapturously received. The single reached number two in the UK. No doubt its success was bolstered by the cinematic Joe Pytka video in which a bird in flight soars through the Beatles history (fluttering past references to “Eleanor Rigby”, “Helter Skelter” and “Strawberry Fields” among an estimated 100 Beatles allusions).
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Anthology 1 did well too. Incredibly, it was the first Beatles album to debut at number one in the US. In the UK it suffered the arguable humiliation of being held off top spot by Robson and Jerome. Nonetheless, in its first week of release it sold in excess of 900,000 copies worldwide.
“It was great to have some Beatles product again in 1995,” says Tony Barrell, journalist, writer, Beatles expert and author of The Beatles on the Roof.
“It wasn’t the best time for music – yes, we had Oasis, Garbage and Björk, but there was also a lot of Robson & Jerome and Take That, and it was a good moment to be reminded of The Beatles’ brilliance.
“On one level, ‘Free as a Bird’ was an imagining of what they might sound like if they’d remained together as a band, and I loved it. The double CD Live at the BBC had been released the year before and sold very well, and I think Apple [The Beatles’ record label, and technically a subsidiary of Parlophone] may have been using it to test the market for the big Anthology releases.”
“It’s important to remember that the general public didn’t yet have the internet in 1995, and it was still hard to find good unreleased recordings,” he continues.
“You might hear a vague rumour that someone at Camden Market was selling Beatles rarities, and you’d spend good money and come away with something very dubious. I recall hearing a lot of distorted songs on dodgy cassettes and doubting if they really were by The Beatles. It felt much better to have releases that were properly mixed and were sanctioned by the three remaining members of the band.”
“I think the Anthology, especially the first volume, was incredibly important in The Beatles’ catalogue and story for a couple of reasons,” says David Thurmaier, who hosts I’ve Got a Beatles Podcast and is associate professor of music theory and chair of the Music Studies Division at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory.
“First, it contained ‘Free As A Bird’, the first ‘new’ Beatles song since 1970… also, it proved that fans really liked hearing unreleased material of all types – music from live shows, demos, Decca audition songs, aborted takes, and alternate versions.
“George Martin was reportedly unable to understand why fans would want to hear such things – as was Paul McCartney, at one point,” continues Thurmaier. “Anthology 1 showed how there was a market for such material.”
Twenty five years later – and 50 since their original break-up – are The Beatles still the biggest brand in rock? The case can be made that Anthology marked one of the last occasions the group could command global headlines. If there’s a 1960s band young (and older) musicians today strive to emulate it isn’t The Beatles, with their silly haircuts and interesting moustaches.
It’s the Rolling Stones, those paragons of bad boy glamour. Just look at Johnny Depp and how he ruined his career by living out his Keith Richards fantasies.
Who today fantasises about being Paul McCartney or John Lennon? The coolest rock star Danny Boyle could persuade to cameo in his dreadful 2019 Beatles fantasy movie, Yesterday, was Ed Sheeran. The hip kids have moved on.
Even at the time of Anthology’s release, there was some unease over the direction the surviving Beatles were taking.
“Anthology 1 divides the fans,” says Tony Barrell. “It’s a great historical document for completists, but it’s quite rough in places, and I certainly don’t listen to it as often as Abbey Road, Rubber Soul or even Beatles For Sale. If you don’t have all of The Beatles’ main albums, you really should complete the set before you dive into these recordings. And Anthology 2 and 3 are more listenable, because the musicianship is better.”
“As to whether it has held up, I think in some ways yes, and in other ways no,” says David Thurmaier. “For me teaching courses on The Beatles and doing a podcast, it’s invaluable material and the students nowadays really enjoy hearing the material that wasn’t released.
“So as a scholar, the Anthologies are important. But as a listener, I don’t think they hold up all that well. The mixture of material in bad quality, studio “doctoring” – ie, blending a demo with the finished version – and too many fragmented tunes can be jarring as a listening experience.”
Nor did it herald a new beginning for the remaining Beatles. There were further sessions on 5-6 February 1995 at which they recorded “Real Love”. It was released on 4 March 1996, to nowhere near the acclaim as that received by “Free as a Bird”. Radio 1 declined to playlist it, saying, “It’s not what our listeners want to hear ... We are a contemporary music station.” Ooof.
Yoko Ono may have agreed with that assessment. “John always said there could be no reunion of The Beatles,” she had commented when the prospect of the “Threetles” was mooted. “If they got together again, the world would be so disappointed to see four rusty old men.”
It likely wouldn’t have lasted, anyway. The surviving Beatles had reconvened in March and May 1995 to work on the remaining Lennon demos (having initially attempted to tackle another Dakota recording “Now and Then” in June 1994). But they weren’t getting on quite as famously as during “Free as a Bird”. The tensions that had brought an end to the group in the first place in 1970 had seemingly flared again. Harrison, who had always felt stifled by Lennon and McCartney, was overcome with déjà vu. As he put it: “It’s just like being back in The Beatles.”
Formed around the nucleus of Lennon and McCartney, who first performed together in Liverpool in 1957, the group grew out of a shared enthusiasm for American rock and roll. Like most early rock-and-roll figures, Lennon, a guitarist and singer, and McCartney, a bassist and singer, were largely self-taught as musicians.What was the Beatlemania phenomenon? ›
Beatlemania was the name given to the popular frenzy surrounding the Beatles after the band's first appearances on British television in 1963. When the Beatles appeared on American television in 1964, Beatlemania also erupted in the United States.Would the Beatles have reunited if John Lennon was still alive? ›
McCartney previously said in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2012 that the rock band considered getting back together when Lennon was still alive. “There was talk of reforming The Beatles a couple of times, but it didn't jell. There was not enough passion behind the idea,” he admitted.Who brought the Beatles back Catalogue? ›
Then just two years later on August 14, 1985, Jackson purchased the publishing rights to the majority of the Beatles' catalog—some 251 songs—for $47 million, outbidding McCartney.Who was blamed with breaking up the Beatles? ›
Now, her legacy is re-examined. The new docuseries “Get Back” is making fans re-evaluate Yoko Ono's relationship with the band.Who almost joined the Beatles? ›
But Eric Clapton once turned down the chance to join The Beatles in the lates sixties. Imagine what could have been if he had agreed to the band's wishes but, alas, he had his reasons for refusing to join the biggest band in the world.Did John Lennon and George Harrison stay friends? ›
Harrison and Lennon were possibly the closest friends in the group at the time — and following the band's breakup with the guitarist notoriously featuring Lennon's famed Paul McCartney attack song — but their relationship was dramatically withering.Did Paul McCartney and John Lennon become friends again? ›
The scathing 'How Do You Sleep' pulled no punches ("the only thing you done was yesterday"), with McCartney admitting to being genuinely hurt by the lyrics. But thankfully Lennon and McCartney rekindled their friendship in the years after the split, and they were on good terms when Lennon was murdered in 1980.Who is the only surviving member of The Beatles? ›
Lennon was murdered in 1980 and Harrison died of lung cancer in 2001. McCartney and Starr remain musically active.How much did Michael Jackson pay for the Beatles back Catalogue? ›
It was sound financial advice that McCartney may have come to regret giving on August 14, 1985, when Michael Jackson purchased the publishing rights to the vast majority of the Beatles' catalog for $47 million, outbidding McCartney himself.
The company that resulted was called Northern Songs, majority-owned by publisher Dick James with Epstein, Lennon and McCartney, with the latter two songwriters owning 20 percent of the business apiece.How much royalties do the Beatles get? ›
How much do the Beatles make in royalties? The Beatles make tens of millions in royalties every year, raking in a whopping $67 million in 2019 alone. McCartney and Lennon's estate get larger shares of royalties since they're credited as writers on more songs than Harrison or Starr.What psychedelics did the Beatles do? ›
It was a moment of cultural significance when The Beatles, who were deemed as four whiter-than-white personalities that could never put a foot wrong, admitted their affinity for the psychedelic drug LSD.What are fans of the Beatles called? ›
The term Beatlemania was first used in the British press in 1963 to summarise the excitement and passion of its devoted fanbase that had developed due to their UK tour. Beatlemania expanded into the US after The Beatles infamous performance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 and the subsequent North American Tour.When did the Beatles start using psychedelics? ›
The first time George Harrison and John Lennon tried LSD, in 1965, a dentist in London gave them acid-infused sugar cubes without their prior knowledge. Later that year the two took it again in Beverly Hills, Calif., with Ringo Starr, but Paul McCartney opted out.Which Beatle cheated? ›
Yes. George was having an affair with Ringo's wife Maureen. Ringo and Pattie were understandably upset. It was one of the factors in Pattie's leaving George for Eric Clapton.Who was The Beatles worst enemy and why? ›
It's easy to see why those two extremely popular British bands were pitted against each other, but when it came to innovations in the songwriting, arrangements, and production of pop music in the 1960s, The Beatles' greatest rivals were The Beach Boys.What was the biggest Beatles controversy? ›
In 1966, John Lennon entangled The Beatles in what was likely their biggest controversy. In an interview, he spoke about the enduring quality of rock music versus religion. “Christianity will go,” he said, per Rolling Stone. “It will vanish and shrink.Who did Paul McCartney say is the greatest band? ›
“The biggest influence on John and me was The Everly Brothers,” he once admitted. “To this day, I just think they're the greatest. And they were different. You'd heard barbershop quartets, you'd heard the Beverley Sisters – three girls – you'd all heard that.Did any of The Beatles not get along? ›
The Beatles' split and subsequent falling out between John Lennon and Paul McCartney remains a frequently debated aspect of rock history. The tension between the two led to numerous jabs within their albums and singles in the following years, and the two continued to use one another as inspiration after they disbanded.
Though Best was ousted from the band before they became wildly famous, he did receive ample royalties when The Beatles' Anthology 1 came out in 1995, which included ten songs recorded with Best on the drums.What were John Lennon's last words to Paul McCartney? ›
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Eric Clapton was Harrison's closest friend, but he had actively pursued Pattie Boyd romantically while she was married to Harrison.Did John and Ringo get along? ›
Ringo Starr and John Lennon held a strong bond that was never in doubt and, following the split of The Fab Four, the success that Starr had in his solo career made Lennon immensely happy.Was Paul McCartney upset when John Lennon died? ›
"When John died, it was so difficult," McCartney told host Tom Frangione. "It was difficult for everyone in the world because he was such a loved character and such a crazy guy. He was so special." McCartney, 80, continued, that the death of his Beatles bandmate hit him so hard "that I couldn't really talk about it."Did John Lennon forgive Paul McCartney? ›
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One of Starr's longest-standing friendships is with his fellow Beatles bandmate, Paul McCartney.“Paul called me the other day … We're close, close friends.What was George Harrison's cause of death? ›
He was 58. Harrison died at a friend's Los Angeles home following a battle with cancer, longtime friend Gavin De Becker told The Associated Press.Why did John leave the Beatles? ›
McCartney said Lennon's decision to leave the band was driven by his pursuit of social justice, including movements such as “bagism,” where he and his wife, Yoko Ono, wore bags to urge people not to judge others based on their appearance.Who was the most popular Beatle? ›
An analysis of the median number of song counts shows some interesting facts: Paul was the most popular Beatle!
Unfortunately, the copyright will only belong to McCartney in the US. While the bassist's half of the songs will return to him, Lennon's will not belong to his estate. Yoko Ono sold the rights to his music to Sony/ATV Music in 2009, those rights lasting the entire copyright's lifetime (70 years).Who sold more Michael Jackson or the Beatles? ›
The Beatles sold over 600 million albums worldwide, whereas Michael Jackson sold over 400 million albums worldwide. Beatlemania what a very serious thing, but a lot of that popularity is just from the members being together, how was it when they were separated?Were Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney friends? ›
From then onwards both artists would confide in each other, offer each other advice, and even talk business on occasion. Paul would even offer his song 'Girlfriend' up to Michael, though he eventually ended up recording it himself for Wings. But by then, the beautiful friendship had already begun.Who owns most of The Beatles music? ›
McCartney regained rights to most Beatles songs in 2017.
In 2017, McCartney got back the copyrights to the Beatles catalog of songs in a private settlement with Sony ATV, which had owned them for years.
Despite Harrison's accolade, Paul McCartney achieved the greatest chart success through the sheer quantity of music he has released. Macca was the most prolific Beatle whose solo career outlasted the other Beatles, especially both John Lennon and George Harrison, whose lives were taken from them far too early.What was the first Beatles song? ›
50 Years Ago Today: The Beatles Released Their Debut Single, 'Love Me Do' – Rolling Stone. Music.Which Beatle made the most money? ›
Who is the wealthiest Beatle? Paul McCartney is the richest Beatle by far with an estimated net worth of a whopping $1.2 billion.Who owns the rights to all the Beatles songs? ›
Copyright is a confusing subject in and of itself, and the saga of the Beatles catalog is a particularly complicated case. The short answer is that Paul McCartney and Sony/ATV both own publication rights to the Beatles catalog, but this was not always the case.How rich would the Beatles be today? ›
The group once held the top five spots on Billboard 100—in April 1964—an achievement that's likely to remain unmatched. They made $25 million in earnings that year, which translates to almost $188 million today.How did George Harrison and Ringo Starr join The Beatles? ›
Friday, 10th August 1962: 10, Admiral Grove
John and Paul asked George to contact Ringo to invite him to join The Beatles. In an interview with Mersey Beat, Ringo's mother Elsie recalled this as the first time she had met George Harrison. She explained why he had called.
Sir Paul McCartney recently insisted that he didn't break up the Fab Four - it was John Lennon. However, as Radio X reveals, all four members had reason to walk out on the greatest band of all time...Why were The Beatles so groundbreaking? ›
The Beatles Ushered In a New Type of Music
From Bach to the Beatles, music evolves in periods that change the way we listen, write and imitate. Their arrival triggered the musical revolution of the Sixties, introducing a modern sound and viewpoint that parted ways with previous decades.
It was an instinctive element of their art and one that is evident at all stages of their career. The Beatles deep understanding of music due to their natural talent, hard work and relentless drive to learn gave us some of the greatest pop music ever.Did George Harrison enjoy The Beatles? ›
Unlike John Lennon, who used his status to establish himself as a countercultural preacher-for-peace, George regarded fame as innately destructive. It is perhaps for this reason that he once said he stopped enjoying being in The Beatles when they became famous. Sure, it made them rich, but it also made them complacent.Why did George Harrison almost leave The Beatles? ›
George left because Paul and he were having a heated discussion. They weren't getting on that day and George decided to leave, but he didn't tell John or me or Paul.Did The Beatles attend George Harrison funeral? ›
Did the Beatles go to George Harrison's funeral? No, because George didn't have a funeral - at least not in the traditional sense. George passed way in the early afternoon of 29th November 2001 in Los Angeles.