50 Years of Beatles: To 'Get Back,' Or Not To 'Get Back' -- That Was The Question

10/08/2016 10:40 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2016
Paul McCartney with promoter Sid Bernstein in 1991
Paul McCartney with promoter Sid Bernstein in 1991

On Saturday, October 7, 1967, promoter Sid Bernstein offered the Beatles the unprecedented sum of $1 million to perform in concert. If the band mates had accepted his proposal, the one-time show would have been their first appearance since abandoning life on the road after their August 29, 1966, swan song at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.

As history well knows, the Beatles turned Bernstein down flat. Within two years, they had disbanded, playing one last time in public during their impromptu rooftop concert on January 30, 1969. But as it happened, Bernstein’s 1967 offer was only the beginning of the reunion rumors that would hound the group through John Lennon’s senseless murder in December 1980 and, amazingly, even beyond his untimely death.

More often than not, Bernstein was behind the ongoing effort to reunite the estranged band mates in concert. The famed promoter originally booked the Beatles for $6,500 for a twin bill at the normally staid Carnegie Hall in February 1964, only scant days after their legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. In August 1965, Bernstein broke even greater barriers with the band when he staged their Shea Stadium appearance before nearly 56,000 fans, taking rock music beyond the confines of dance clubs and concert halls. In so doing, Bernstein ushered in a new era in big-time pop music promotion that lingers into the present day.

But by October 1967, with the drudgery of their touring years behind them and having enjoyed the artistic heights of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the band had become immune to Bernstein’s advances. The situation was no doubt compounded by the recent death of manager Brian Epstein, the architect of Beatlemania who had found his mettle during their heyday on the road.

The Beatles’ mystique—and, likewise, the record-buying public’s hunger to see them back together again—would only increase exponentially after their breakup in September 1969. With the release of the Abbey Road LP that same month, they quite literally departed the world stage forever. The following April, Paul McCartney would confirm the awful truth about the band’s demise in the global media, but the discerning fan would have already glimpsed the writing on the wall: an album that closes with a song called “The End” makes for a truly prophetic note, if ever there were one.

But in many ways, the rumors of a Beatles reunion were only just getting started. Things reached a fever-pitch by 1976, when the group was deluged with increasingly lucrative offers—with one notable exception, that is.

In January 1976, promoter Bill Sargent floated the figure of $50 million for a Beatles reunion—a steep increase from his own $10 million offer just two years earlier. Not to be outdone, Bernstein tendered the staggering sum of $230 million in September 1976 for a one-shot charity reunion. McCartney would later admit that the band mates briefly considered Bernstein’s gambit. After all, if you could net that kind of money and wrap it up in a charity effort to boot, how could anyone pass up such an unprecedented opportunity?

Ironically, that very same year Lennon and McCartney had considered a far less rewarding offer during the April 24, 1976, episode of Saturday Night Live. Producer Lorne Michaels offered a comparative pittance for the group to reunite on his program, famously remarking that NBC “has authorized me to offer you . . . a certified check for $3,000.” Michaels added that “you can divide it anyway you want. If you want to give Ringo less, that’s up to you.”

Years later, Beatles fans would learn that Lennon and McCartney had been watching SNL at that very moment at John and Yoko’s apartment building just across town. As Lennon later recalled, McCartney “was visiting us at our place in the Dakota. We were watching it and almost went down to the studio, just as a gag. We nearly got into a cab, but we were actually too tired.”

In September 1979, the stakes became even higher when United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim attempted to stage a Beatles reunion as a charity effort on behalf of the Vietnamese boat people. Bernstein rallied to support Waldheim, taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times in which he entreated the Beatles to consider the UN’s offer. “The music you created in the 60s is still heard in every corner of the world in the 70s,” Bernstein wrote. “The joy that you gave to people everywhere . . . gives you a unique place in history. It also gives you an importance and a voice to make a difference in the lives of many human beings who need our compassion and immediate help.”

By Bernstein’s own estimation, the UN’s proposed reunion had the capacity to generate some $500 million in relief on behalf of several hundred-thousand refugees from war-torn Vietnam. But as with the other reunion attempts throughout the 1970s, the Beatles simply couldn’t quite make their way back to the world stage.

Years later, the surviving band mates would suggest that the pressure to reunite for humanitarian causes was understandably beginning to register with them, although Lennon’s 1980 assassination seemingly ended that possibility forever. Even still, rumors would continue to persist throughout the 1980s and 1990s—at times, suggesting that the surviving band mates might reunite with Julian Lennon or his younger brother Sean sitting in for their fallen father.

In a 2012 Rolling Stone interview, McCartney admitted that the group seriously considered the various opportunities to reunite, observing that “they were kind of nice when they happened—‘That would be good, yeah’—but then one of us would always not fancy it. And that was enough, because we were the ultimate democracy.”

But the decision against reuniting often came down to the simple fact, McCartney admitted, that their legacy was once and truly complete, that they had come full circle as an artistic unit. Worse yet, a poor showing in concert was loaded with potential risk. What if they weren’t any good as live performers after having subsisted for so many years in mothballs?

“It could have spoiled the whole idea of the Beatles,” said McCartney. Or perhaps not. The world will never know.

Ken Womack is an internationally renowned Beatles authority regarding the band’s enduring artistic influence. His latest book, Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years: 1926-1966), is forthcoming in 2017. His previous Beatles-related books include Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles and The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four. You can learn more about Ken’s work at kennethwomack.com.

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