April 24, 1976. Lorne Michaels offers the Beatles $3,000 to appear on Saturday Night Live, as a gag mocking the full-page ads taken out in the New York Times offering the Beatles millions of dollars to reunite and play in Shea Stadium. Unbeknownst to Michaels, both John Lennon and Paul McCartney are in New York City at the time, and see the sketch airing live. They consider actually going to the studio, but decide they are too tired.
May 15, 1976. Lorne Michaels does the sketch again, this time offering the Beatles $3,200 (claiming he has “sweetened the pot”). This time, again unbeknownst to Michaels, all four of the Beatles are in New York City. Lennon and McCartney again consider going down to the studio and performing, but again decide they are too tired. However, this time Ringo Starr knocks on their door at 12:15 AM with a round of coffees (“from the awful all-night Hungarian deli on Bleecker,” he would later elaborate in an interview the next day) and George Harrison in tow. Years later in an interview with Playboy, Lennon says “I’d told Ringo about it, see, and we thought it was hilarious, but figured that was it and we’d missed the shot. When Ringo saw the second sketch, he decided to force our hand.”
Starr cajoles the other three Beatles into traveling down to 30 Rockefeller to “crash” Saturday Night Live. (Onlookers later claimed that when they entered the studio through a rear entrance, two interns fainted.) At 12:50 AM, they go on-air before the studio audience. Halfway through “Let It Be,” their second song, George Harrison yells to Michaels offstage that “after the third, we’ll just keep going if that’s all right.” Michaels quickly negotiates additional airtime with NBC (which gleefully capitulates) and the result is a spontaneous, three-hour live televised concert, famous not only for obvious reasons but for a host of its own idiosyncrasies: Lennon getting the hiccups during “Help,” McCartney playfully changing two lines of “Lady Madonna” to “where’s our three thousand, or our thirty-two/got to realize that now the cheque is due,” and Starr inviting the horn section of the Saturday Night Live band onstage “so we can do With A Little Help [From My Friends] properly.”
The “Saturday Night reunion” instantly becomes one of the touchstones of modern television history.
1977. After the reunion concert, the Beatles lay low in the public eye for about eight months. Wings concludes its world tour uneventfully; Lennon and Starr “tinker around” in the studio for a few months. People gradually assume that the reunion concert was a one-off.
November 5, 1977. Apple Records, with no fanfare whatsoever, announces via press release that a new Beatles album, titled Eventually, will be released “in the near future.” A media firestorm ensues. Lennon and McCartney both admit in the days following that they have been “hard at work” on a new album, but that this album does not constitute a “full-on comeback.” All four Beatles repeatedly stress that the production of Eventually does not mean that the various members have stopped working on their solo projects. Lennon: “Who are you kidding? We’d kill each other if we did that. We already tried that.”
February 11th, 1978. Eventually is released simultaneously in the American and British markets. Some critics find significance in the fact that the first single off the album, “Blow Away,” is not a Lennon/McCartney collaboration but instead a George Harrison song; others find themselves underwhelmed and suggest that the Lennon/McCartney “Free As A Bird” should have been the first single instead. (“Free As A Bird” is released as the second single six weeks later.) Harrison, for his part, says that “Blow Away” was “a lot less of a rocker” before Lennon suggested an increase in tempo and “letting Ringo go nuts.” No music videos are produced for the album: Lennon says “no, that would be too much bother. We want to have fun with this. Work’s for our own stuff.”
July 11th, 1978. Six months after its initial release, Eventually goes septuple platinum.
December 14, 1980. Having “had a sit back” (Ringo) after Eventually’s staggering success and taken time to concentrate on their own projects and personal lives, the Beatles make their first televised appearance as a group since the SNL reunion, appearing on The Muppet Show. (Lennon leaves New York for the first time in six months to do the gig, eventually spending the entire month of December in England.) The episode is the highest rated episode of The Muppet Show in the show’s history and the most watched television program of the entire year, beating even the news coverage of the 1980 American presidential election. The undisputed highlight of the episode is the “battle of the bands” between the Beatles and the Electric Mayhem (although Starr says his duet with Fozzie the Bear remains his personal favorite moment). Jim Henson would later say that the Beatles episode “rejuvenated” his joy in working on the show, which by that point he had begun to feel was growing stale: the show continues for another seven seasons.
January 7th, 1981. Lennon, Harrison and Starr attend the funeral of a New Yorker named Mark David Chapman, who committed suicide in mid-December and whose apartment, after the fact, was revealed to be a shrine to the Beatles. “I just felt, you know, responsible somehow, like he died because of us,” says Starr, although he refuses to articulate further on this point. Harrison agrees: “it’s amazing to think how great an impact we can have sometimes. You just want it so that you don’t have this kind of impact.” Lennon says nothing.
August 5th, 1981. The announcement of Neither Here Nor There, the new Beatles album, is less shocking than the announcement of Eventually – the previous announcement taught Beatles fans to “watch the signs” and rumours of Lennon and McCartney spending time in the studio have been swirling for months. The success of Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy had previously led some to wonder if the Beatles were once again finished; Lennon dismisses such talk soon after the press release, complaining that people “just don’t seem to understand” that the group has figured out how to continue working together without the self-destructive fights.
1982. Neither Here Nor There sells 15 million copies. The media portrays the album as in competition with Thriller by Michael Jackson; however, the Beatles think this is crap, and say so publicly (and in Lennon’s case enthusiastically so). All four Beatles collaborate with Jackson on “Say Say Say,” which becomes the best-selling single of 1982 when it is released in December. (Lennon displays an uncanny knack for marrying Beatlesque musical tweaks to Jackson’s R&B style. Jackson later comments that without Lennon the song would have taken “forever to come together.”)
1983. The Beatles announce their first tour in thirteen years, but likewise announce that Jackson will be going on tour with them as a one gigantic mega-concert event. The “Startin’ Something Again” tour plays packed stadiums and larger venues around the world for eleven months straight – the smallest concert played is 240,000 people in Rio de Janeiro, and the tour closes with a free concert in Central Park with an estimated crowd of one point three million people.
January 5th, 1984. Jackson and McCartney are filming a commercial for Pepsi when pyrotechnicians accidentally set Jackson’s hair on fire. Jackson is rushed to the hospital with severe burns, but dies of shock in the ambulance before he can be treated. The Beatles attend his funeral en masse. “He changed things,” says Lennon, “and that’s something I don’t say lightly.” Starr is especially saddened, saying “it wasn’t supposed to be like this.” Harrison says nothing. McCartney promises that Michael Jackson’s legacy “will not be forgotten” and pledges to make sure of this, although he is unspecific as to details.
December 7th, 1984. McCartney purchases the Michael Jackson song catalog for an estimated $250 million. In accordance with what he says are “Michael’s wishes,” he offers Janet Jackson a recording contract with Apple Records, offering to buy out her contract with A&M. She accepts.
1985-87. Another “lull period” in Beatles history, as the various members concentrate on solo projects and their families. Released during this period: Cloud Nine by Harrison, Wish Factory by Starr, and Mysteries by Lennon (with Yoko Ono). Janet Jackson’s solo career flourishes as her first Apple-era album, Control, co-produced by McCartney and Jimmy Jam, is a massive hit.
1988. Shortly after a triumphant recording session that would become Traveling Wilburys vol. 1, Roy Orbison suffers a heart attack. He is rushed to hospital and revived, although he is clinically deceased for nearly forty-six seconds at one point during his resecutation. Orbison makes a full recovery and tours with the Wilburys one year later. McCartney and Starr frequently sit in on Wilbury performances (McCartney playing bass and Starr on drums).
1989. The Rolling Stones Steel Wheels tour kicks off, and the Stones and Beatles engage in good-humoured sniping at one another’s expense. Lennon: “Well, I suppose this was inevitable, given that they copy everything we do.” Jagger: “Indeed, we have been known to copy all the Beatles’ ideas. That’s why we broke up for a decade to make total shit.” Starr: “I hear Mick Jagger said we broke up for a decade to make shit. That’s just not true. It was only eight years.” Harrison and Starr appear on Saturday Night Live for a staged “rumble” during a Stones appearance on Weekend Update. The Starr/Charlie Watts “ninja drumstick duel” becomes a classic SNL moment.
1991. The Beatles release Everything Else. The undisputed highlight is the McCartney/Lennon collaboration “Ophelia,” which sits atop the British charts for eleven weeks. The second single, “Weight of the World,” sung by Starr, is widely considered to be the strongest Starr Beatles song since “With A Little Help From My Friends.” The album eventually sells eleven million copies.
1993. Jeff Lynne is killed in a car crash after leaving McCartney’s recording studio in New York. Lynne’s funeral is a sad occasion, as the Beatles, Traveling Wilburys, and a host of other musicians arrive to pay tribute. Starr, Harrison, and Tom Petty perform a haunting rendition of “Every Little Thing” at the memorial service. Lynne’s production work on the first album by Sean Lennon and Zak Starkey’s band Lark is finished by Bob Rock. (The album is poorly received by critics, but most concede that the pairing has potential.)
1996. John Lennon comes out with Elastic, his first album in nearly a decade. “I like taking my time now,” he says in interviews. “I mean, it’s not like I don’t have it.” The album consists of a set of collaborations with his sons Julian and Sean, prompting some critics to call it “the Lennon Family Experience.” The album is widely praised and considered one of Lennon’s best works.
1998. George Harrison informs his friends and family that he has throat cancer. McCartney later mentions in a 2004 interview in Newsweek that “Ringo took it particularly hard.” Harrison personally requests that the band go on tour again, citing a wish to “hit the road before I’m some sort of gimp in a bed.” The band agrees. Harrison’s illness is kept quiet by his own request.
1999. After an initial round of chemotherapy at the Mayo Clinic which appears successful, the Beatles commence the “Alive” tour, with Janet Jackson opening for them. The tour is a massive financial success – but moreover a series of smaller dates, where the Beatles play small venues, is considered to creatively rejuvenate the band. Sean and Julian Lennon, Zak Starkey and Dhani Harrison all at various points on the tour play with their parents: Dhani Harrison in particular plays with the band extensively as the tour progresses and his father’s condition begins to turn south.
2000. The Beatles release their final studio album with George Harrison, which is untitled but universally referred to as “the Green Album” because of its cover. (Lennon: “We only have so many titles to go around, you know.”) Rare for a Beatles album in that the majority of the songs are written by Harrison rather than Lennon and McCartney, the album is extremely moody and reflective for a Beatles album – although not without some truly excellent pop songs, most of which are Harrison’s work. Dhani Harrison, the Lennon sons, and Zak Starkey all sit in on the album as studio musicians, and the media takes notice of the “next generation” of Beatles, although of course none of the band or their sons ever call themselves that.
November 29, 2001. Harrison dies of throat cancer. His ashes are scattered on the Ganges. Media reports of extreme depression on the part of Starr regarding Harrison’s death appear to be false when he arrives at the funeral.
2002-3. John Lennon, having never abandoned peace activism (his 1991 re-recording of “Give Peace A Chance” before the first Gulf War sparked much controversy), begins harshly criticizing the American buildup to war in Iraq, calling it a “pack of lies.” After the first round of peace protests are largely ignored by the media, Lennon goes on The Late Show With David Letterman and launches into a tirade, visibly furious that the protests were ignored. “Half a million fucking people in New York saying “we don’t want a war” and CNN doesn’t say a damn thing.” The soundbite becomes a flashpoint for debate over the war. Sean Hannity calls for Lennon’s deportation. Lennon offers to come on any show opposing his viewpoint: he receives no response.
Early 2003. Lennon, McCartney and Starr begin working on a new album, more actively collaborating with their sons and Dhani Harrison. Harrison dismisses any suggestion that he is “the new fourth Beatle,” saying that he is content working on his own projects and “helping out family, because that’s what you do.” Starr quips that “he can’t be the fourth Beatle, because that’s my job.”
July 7th, 2003. John Lennon is shot and killed outside of his apartment in New York City. The shooter, a mentally disturbed man named Davis O’Neil, says that he did it “for America and the soldiers.” O’Neil is soon understood to be incapable of forming any especially complex intent and has no significant appreciation of politics. Yoko Ono asks that Beatles fans mourn peacefully. One million people travel to New York City for a candlelight vigil one week after Lennon’s death; a similar vigil in London hosted by McCartney attracts double that number. No violent altercations are reported during these events.
2004. The charitable disbursement of Lennon’s funds not left to his family – estimated to be nearly a billion dollars – begins. Starr, acting as an assistant executor, funds numerous university research projects of all types: environmental sciences, biological, chemistry, physics, “pretty much everything, really… John said “anything that’ll help the human race,” so that’s what I’m trying to do with it.” (Critics complain that Starr favours theoretical physics too greatly; his response is that Lennon felt theoretical sciences wouldn’t get money anywhere else.) McCartney tends to the cultural side of the disbursement, funding thousands of artists, activists and aid charities worldwide.
January 3rd, 2005. Starr, in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey, says that “the Beatles are over. You can’t be the Beatles with two Beatles… you might want to go back and do more or do things differently, and I have wanted that of course, but I think if you did that, all that happens is the same things, different ways and different times. We’re just so tiny in the scope of it all; there’s only so much we can do. We had a good run and it’s over.”
December 7, 2005. Apple Records releases Where Do We Go, the final album by the Beatles. The album, only half-complete at the time of Lennon’s death, was finished primarily by McCartney working with the Lennon sons, Zak Starkey and Dhani Harrison. Critics are respectful of the effort but general consensus is that it is, for obvious reasons, a weaker than usual achievement by the band.
May 15, 2006. Starr and McCartney do a rare double interview for Rolling Stone to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the SNL concert. McCartney: “Of course one of the things I strongly advocate for now is research into cancer screening. If Linda had had more warning, if George had had more warning – maybe we could have saved them. But of course in both cases there was no way anybody could have known.” Starr: “If they had, things would be different. Maybe John would still be alive as well. Who’s to say?”
August 3, 2007. Starr, at a dinner with McCartney, acts peculiarly. “He kept on about he wouldn’t bollocks it up like the first bloke. I thought at first he was talking about Pete Best,” McCartney later says. “He said that he’d only had the one warning, and to do it properly you needed a notebook to pass along to the next fellow. Then he laughed and said “well, I guess I’m not a scientist, right? Or I wouldn’t have to do it again to get the fiddly bits.” I didn’t know what he was on about, but he looked happier than I’d seen him in years. I’d been thinking for years that he seemed adrift, sort of. I’d been worrying about him.”
August 11, 2007. Starr’s car is found parked off a roadside in Amesbury. On the dashboard is a letter addressed only to Barbara, his wife. The Starkey family refuses to discuss the contents of the letter with the general public. Ringo Starr is never seen again.