The Battle of The Beatles: Looking At The Diss Tracks
"You Never Give Me Your Money" - ABBEY ROAD (1969)
This sets the tone for Paul's disses: heartfelt and wounded, a plaintive cry from moral high ground. But this one is about context. The song set off the closing suite on side two of Abbey Road, essentially Paul and George Martin's creation, intended as a swan song for the band. By 1969 Paul was their leader - he created the concepts for albums and supplied the big singles, and he was more than ready to guide them into the 70s.
You can see how this might have bristled the others. John resented being summoned to the studio to match Paul every time he had a new batch of songs and ideas. Recording for Magical Mystery Tour started in 1967 before Sgt. Pepper was even released, while Abbey Road came fast on the heels of the disastrous Get Back sessions. John also felt his biggest songs were either not getting enough studio attention (“Across The Universe”) or simply rejected altogether (“Cold Turkey”). Meanwhile George was hitting his songwriting peak in 1969 but was still limited to his one song per side.
Yet all of these creative differences were not what broke up the Beatles. In fact their creative direction was going just fine - George's new songs were making up for John's fallow period, while Abbey Road shows the band was ready for the 70s. Finances and lawyers broke up the Beatles, which is what “You Never Give Me Your Money” is really all about.
After the death of manager Brian Epstein in 1967, the boys sought to take control of their business future. The formation of Apple Corps Ltd in 1968 was to be their ticket to ride. It quickly went off the rails. But this was also a time of reckoning that showed how the Beatles had always been mismanaged. Maybe it's unfair to blame Epstein, who was just a small record shop owner thrust into the cultural wave of Beatlemania. Still, the majority share of the song publishing had been sold in 1963, while an early mechandise deal gave away 90 percent of memorabilia royalties. All this thanks to NEMS, Epstein's management company which itself took 25 percent.
By 1969 it was clear that the Beatles couldn't manage themselves. Paul volunteered the services of his new father-in-law Lee Eastman, while the other three preferred the notorious Allen Klein who had once worked the Rolling Stones. Klein was a shark where Epstein had been a lamb, and in some ways Klein was just the right guy to dig in and fight for the boys. But Paul didn't trust him and refused, which set off a contentious meetings and even a short-lived dual manager period. This ended when Eastman insulted Brian Epstein's brother Clive, disturbing a key attempt to buy back control of NEMS. This was very bad for business, but we might suspect that it pleased Klein, who wanted full control of the Beatles. Just an example of the bitter political games going on.
This was the atmosphere which informed “You Never Give Me Your Money.” We should also consider how quickly all of this snowballed. In the late winter of 1968, they were carefree, meditating in India with the Maharishi. By the next year, they'd discovered their business, band, and friendships were falling apart.
"Man We Was Lonely" - MCCARTNEY (1970)
Paul's first solo album was a far cry from the studio mastery of late Beatles. McCartney was intimate and unassuming, a charming little mess of tunes and jams. Its release coincided with the Beatles' own Let It Be, which reworked the Get Back sessions. More importantly Paul publicly announced he was quitting the Beatles. The other three had all privately quit at some point over the previous eighteen months, but Paul's announcement made it official. His catty press release interview for this album didn't help matters: (“Q: Did you miss the other Beatles and George Martin? Was there a moment when you thought, 'I wish Ringo were here for this break?' A: No.”)
“Man We Was Lonely” is a minor song but it reflects the way the business issues influenced so much their work during this period. “I used to ride on my fast city line/Singing songs that I thought were mine alone.” Paul was outnumbered at this point and went to live on his farm with his family away from the limelight.
"I Found Out" - PLASTIC ONO BAND (1970)
John's first solo album Plastic Ono Band is a cathartic affair. It's surprising that Paul got off pretty easy. On this song, he just gets hit with a slick stray line: “I seen religion from Jesus to Paul.” Otherwise “I Found Out” is emblematic of an album that's all about isolation and de-mystification. Plastic Ono Band is a classic but it's a tough, harrowing listen.
"God" - PLASTIC ONO BAND (1970)
Everything gets dissed on this finale from the same album - The Beatles, Dylan (“Zimmerman”), Kennedy, tarot, yoga, Hitler, Jesus. Its theme sort of mirrors Paul's retreat to domesticity: “I just believe in me/Yoko and me.”
Also to address the Yoko Ono situation - I refuse to accept the narrative that Yoko “broke up the Beatles.” She's all over the White Album, contributing to its weird genius vibe on “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “Revolution #9.” Note as well that the 1969 single “The Ballad Of John and Yoko” was the final Lennon/McCartney studio collaboration, with the pure joy of the moment evident on the recording. Yoko was goofy, maybe kind of annoying to the other guys at times, but hardly a villain.
Wah-Wah - ALL THINGS MUST PASS (1970)
George wrote this song after briefly quitting the band during the Get Back sessions. But I hear it as more of a sly comment on the shallowness of the entertainment business: “Wah-wah, you made me such a big star.” It could be literally about the guitar, a sort of sequel to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”Or a subtle dig on the sappiest songs that become the most successful. But I take a wider view of this one, which today could be seen as a condemnation of everything from CNN to social media: “I don't need your wah-wah.”
Run Of The Mill - ALL THINGS MUST PASS (1970)
Not really a diss, but deserves mention as one of George's best songs. And another example of how the cloud of the breakup hovered over their art, even subconsciously. You could interpret this as a message to Paul - “You've got me wondering how I lost your friendship/But I see it in your eyes.”
The McCartney/Harrison relationship was often contentious, infamously captured in the Let It Be film as well as the awkward jam session accompanying the Anthology sessions in 1995. But if Paul was occasionally dismissive of George's work, John was often apathetic. He didn't contribute at all to “Here Comes The Sun,” and he's barely audible on “Something” as opposed to Paul's bass and backing vocals. He even worked on George's “I Me Mine,” which addressed the business arguments. All evidence that Paul was willing to continue on with the Beatles and left only when the legal differences became irreconcilable. Regardless, All Things Must Pass collected all of George's recent material, by far his best solo album.
Early 1970 - single b-side (1971)
Poor Ringo was always caught in the middle of this. Ringo was lukewarm water. This song is terrible but its message is sweet, taking each verse to comically describe the Beatles. Ringo's own verse is self-deprecating: “I don't play bass cause that's too hard for me.” He remained close with George and played on John's first two solo albums. But it's a nice olive branch to outcasted Paul: “And when he comes to town/I wonder if he'll play with me.”
Too Many People - RAM (1971)
Here's where things get nasty. This whole song was a subliminal diss to John and Yoko, not apparent at first but unmistakable on a close listen. “Too many people preaching practices” is the shots fired line, the one that John later admitted he took personally. But he was listening closely to Ram, and surely the rest of this song. You can easily interpret every verse to be directed to him, from the losing weight line to the drug reference: “Too many people sharing party lines.” This makes the refrain especially stinging: “That was your first mistake/You took your lucky break and broke it in two.”
Again Paul should be granted the moral high ground here. By 1971 a court drama was playing out pitting him against Allen Klein and the other three. In February his statement was read as testimony in which he pointed out some of Klein's remarks about Yoko and the other three. Petty perhaps, but it may have sown in a seed in the coming downfall of Allen Klein.
"3 Legs" - RAM (1971)
Just a throwaway ditty also from Ram, which is my favorite solo Beatles album, a wacky masterpiece. “3 Legs” is a little blues tune, with the lyric, “My dog he got three legs/But he can't run.” Funny how this comes out just as the other three seem to be losing in court to Paul. And more pointedly, “When I thought you was my friend/But you let me down, put my heart around the bend.”
"Back Seat Of My Car" - RAM (1971)
Paul is in Brian Wilson mode on this song that dated back to the Get Back sessions. But by now John is combing through Paul's work for hidden messages and he hears the closing bit “We believe that we can't be wrong” as a subliminal diss. Too bad, because it's clearly not. This song is about young love and that line is from the kids to their disapproving parents. But here we are in the world of beefs, when every potential diss gets taken the wrong way.
And then this happens:
* "How Do You Sleep?" - IMAGINE (1971) *
Here it is, John Lennon's greatest diss song which belongs with Pac's “Hit 'Em Up” and Nas' “Ether” in the pantheon. It wastes no time getting to its personal attacks: “So Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise/You better see right through that mother's eyes.” It just gets worse and worse from there, attacking Paul's talent and his family and basically his right to exist. The wordplay is cruel genius. “The only thing you done was yesterday/And since you've gone you're just another day” references two of his songs (“Yesterday”/”Another Day”). (And supposedly a rejected second line went “You probably pinched that bitch anyway,” meaning “Yesterday” was probably stolen.)
Just as an added indignity, George plays slide guitar on “How Do You Sleep?” Recording sessions from the Imagine film show them preparing in the studio, throwing shade at Paul to the camera. Ultimately I think “How Do You Sleep?” comes off more vicious than John intended. He was always more caustic and witty, at the peak of his power whenever he felt slighted. He was just too strong and too mean for Paul on wax. “Too Many People” was a jab, but “How Do You Sleep?” was a knockout. You don't get up from a song like this.
"Dear Friend" - WILD LIFE (1971)
Paul waves the white flag on this ballad from the first Wings album. It's a quiet rumination on their friendship and financial wars being fought in the courts. It's saying - how did it all come to this? But still there's the line, “Are you a fool?/Or is it true?” Paul was about to be proved right in his initial mistrust of Allen Klein.
"I Know (I Know)" - MIND GAMES (1973)
1972 was a wild year for John Lennon. He fully embraced radical political causes; where once he just supplied slogans and songs, now he was participating with revolutionary politics. His Some Time In New York City album was overtly political and not well received, although I love it almost as much as Ram - the two albums couldn't be more different but they're my two favorite Beatles solos. This was also the period which caught the attention of the US government, spying on his activities and attempting to deport him. The controversy and poor public reaction did not please Allen Klein. The other Beatles were not pleased either: Klein had badly mishandled George's Concert For Bangaladesh and now he was butting head with John over his commercial future.
Around this time Klein had Apple issue two Beatles greatest hits albums, Red and Blue, which may have been a last ditch effort to save his own position. But that too was a fiasco, as it was bootlegged and overall may have slightly diluted the artistry of their canonical work.
“I Know (I Know)” is a lesser known but key song in which John essentially admits he was wrong. It reflects on the sad state of their partnership while hinting at the terrible business mistakes that will soon cost the Beatles - “I know what's coming down/And I know where it's coming from.” That is a basically an admission of guilt, and a reference to the fact that even after all the legal drama the Beatles were no less financially secure. The court battles would continue and it would be years before they gained some semblance of control. But since it's not as overt as “How Do You Sleep?” this song works as a universal message of apologia.
"Steel And Glass" - WALLS AND BRIDGES (1974)
Basically “How Do You Sleep? Part Two,” this time directed at Allen Klein. Listen closely as he whispers at the beginning, “Who is it?” If you knew about the background details, there would be no mistake. By now John and the others were suing Allen Klein. (Although I have to say I'm surprised a master of puns like Lennon missed the opportunity to call this song “Steal & Glass.”)
But 1974 was the time of John's Lost Weekend, his partying in California away from Yoko. It was also the closest the Beatles ever got to a proper reunion. John and Paul even jammed together at a session, which is available on a bootleg that reveals a major disappointment - it's bad, not even interesting bad but just dull. The Beatles were not really “jammers,” as evidenced by the countless Get Back tapes. They were composers and studio magicians with high artistic sensibilities. We have every reason to believe that a proper reunion would have been tremendous, but the 1974 tape is not emblematic of the real Beatles.
"Here Today" - TUG OF WAR (1981)
John Lennon's murder in 1980 is still hard to process. That this man, this flawed but supremely talented, insightful, witty man could be shot down in an instant. I just visited Strawberry Fields in Central Park two weeks ago, with tourists taking pictures of the Imagine sign on the sidewalk and a guy playing a bad version of “Hey Jude” on guitar. I bought an “Imagine Peace” button from a vendor. It's a good vibe there. But nothing helps to make sense of the idea that we lost John Lennon at age 40 because of a scumbag with a gun.
This is only a fraction of what Paul must have been feeling. “Here Today” is his elegy to his friend, a sweet conversational song. It's very personal but it perfectly reflected the feeling of the fans. In my house growing up the Beatles were a religion. “Bigger than Jesus,” as John once infamously said. Damn right.
(Much appreciation to Peter Doggett's You Never Give Me Your Money, a balanced and informative account of the breakup and solo years. Highly recommended, along with Mark Lewisohn's Recording Sessions.)