Following the 1975 Live from New York concert, the Beatles actually did end their collaboration. Fans often debated the likelihood of a reunion, and the strength of the 1970s albums, which became widely known known as the group’s Phase Two (since the end of Phase One was marked by Let It Be‘s “Two of Us”). Rather than the hard cut of disbanding the way it could have happened in 1970, the Beatles created a slow dissolve for themselves that gave John, Paul, George and Ringo and their fans some time for closure.
Yet there was one more Beatles album. Always the one more album. Since And the Band Plays On, it had been the continual game. Would this current album be the last? Would there ever be another one? There always was. And it would happen again. Sort of.
To understand how Encore (or The Black Album) was made at all, involves understanding what happened between 1976 and 1980. McCartney formed a new band he called Wings (with Denny Laine, plus several members of the Apple band, Badfinger) and went on the road. Lennon won his legal case, committed to living in New York for good and cocooned with Yoko in his Dakota apartment, overlooking the site of The Beatles’ glorious last show. George mostly took up gardening, making movies with his Monty Python friends and releasing the occasional album. Ringo settled down with film star Barbara Bach but continued his role as an ambassador of good will, popping up at one public event after another.
In interviews during those years, all of the Beatles referenced the fact that they’d come so close to breaking up in 1969 and 1970 that, in their own minds, those years between then and 1975 were more than they could have imagined having together. They were done.
Chances for the Beatles to re-group were tragically ended in 1980 by the murder of John Lennon. Even though McCartney, Harrison and Starr had all recorded albums post-Beatles, Lennon had only recorded some rock-and-roll standards that hadn’t been released. He was finishing up a new album, though, when he was murdered in New York City on November 29, 1980, while purchasing cigarettes in a convenience store that was being robbed. Lennon ended up the victim of a ricochet bullet during a shoot-out between the cashier and the robber.
And so 1981 began with all the Beatles, including the late John Lennon, having not-yet-released songs in their personal catalogues. The public, reeling in pain from Lennon’s shocking demise, seemed to demand some grand gesture. Accounts differ as to who came up with the idea first, but pressure began building for the surviving Beatles to release a double album of their solo work under the banner of the Beatles, with all the profits going to victims of gun violence. Once the idea got floated and the public tightly embraced it, there was nothing to do but put it together. It became the price of moving on.
Some fans continue to this day to refer to Encore as The Black Album, seeing it as the dark doppelganger to The White Album of 1968. Other fans have long argued that it is truly a solo album, released under special circumstances, and cannot be considered to be part of the Beatles discography. It is certainly pro-forma in its structure. There is no question that everyone involved felt deferential to Lennon’s memory in their song selections. In essence, whatever Yoko Ono asked for she got. No one dared oppose her opinions, as the act would be seen as being uncharitable to a ghost.
And yet there are high points. Lennon’s new material like “Starting Over,” “Beautiful Boy,” “Woman” and “Watching the Wheels” showed off a startling new direction in his music. More mature and far less angry on this record, it seemed as though John had found peace at home instead of having to demand it in the public eye. He even got a long-standing hit out of his previously unreleased “Stand By Me,” the classic Leiber-Stoller song written with Ben E. King that was a testament to friendship and faith.
For his part, McCartney took some of the best material he had written for his new band, Wings, sensing it would be seen in a much better light if presented on a Beatles album instead. He scored hits with “Listen to What the Man Said,” “With a Little Luck” and, particularly, “My Love,” a song that had been written in the early ’70s and which had inexplicably never made the cut on any of the earlier albums.
Finally, Side 4 ends with Lennon’s lost classic “God” and its poignant lyrics (“I don’t believe in Beatles; I just believe in me, Yoko and me”), followed by “Real Love,” a song he’d written in the 1960s that the surviving Beatles had resurrected and re-recorded, using his voice from an old demo tape. Then came the emotional farewell of Starr’s “Goodnight Vienna” (written for him by Lennon), and Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago” and McCartney’s “Here Today” (both written about Lennon).
The McCartney song was inspired when the wounded cashier at the convenience store where John had been killed testified that Lennon tried to talk the robber into giving up by saying, “You got no past and no future with that gun in your hand. All you got is here. Today.”
The dream truly was over, but oh, what a dream it was!