In Beatles lore, no person is as divisive or controversial as Yoko Ono, the lover and eventual bride of John Lennon, who arrived on the scene as the band was facing its toughest hardships. It was a time of deep loss, psychological questioning and bitter in-fighting over leadership and business that would ultimately end in the band’s split.
But was Ono to blame for the breakup of the Beatles?
The Beatles were already 'breaking up' before Ono came around
Regardless of public record in the intervening decades since the group went their separate ways, many fans still lay the blame at Ono’s feet. Addressing the rumor directly in 2012, Paul McCartney told British interviewer David Frost that Ono "certainly didn’t break the group up, the group was breaking up."
“There is not a Beatle fan out there that doesn’t have strong feelings toward her, either hating on her or thinking she and John had the greatest love story ever,” says Robert Rodriguez, author of Revolver: How The Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll, and host of the podcast Something About The Beatles.
Ono entered the world of the Beatles in 1966. The 33-year-old conceptual artist had been living in New York but was now in London and first met Lennon, then 26, when he previewed an exhibition by Ono at the Indica Gallery in November 1966. They would not officially become a couple until 1968 with their marriage to follow in March 1969.
The intervening period between that first meeting and public declaration of their love was a tumultuous time for the band. The grueling touring schedule of the past five years had stopped, their recording label Apple Records was created, Lennon’s substance abuse was getting out of hand, and the band sought meaning from the Transcendental Meditation teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. But it was the sudden death of longtime manager Brian Epstein due to an accidental drug overdose on August 27, 1967, that left Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr reeling and adrift. Epstein is credited as having discovered the band and had steered the group through their most successful and influential period.
Coming off his acid period, Ono showed Lennon 'another way to be'
With Epstein gone McCartney stepped into the role of quasi-manager in an attempt to keep the band on track. In February 1968, the band went to study Transcendental Meditation at the Maharishi’s ashram in India. Disillusioned with the teacher and aware he was not finding the solace he sought, Lennon returned to London where he abandoned his current wife, Cynthia, to begin a relationship with Ono following the recording of their first musical collaboration Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins.
“John is spinning coming off his acid period, suffering the psychological loss of Brian Epstein and having this great disappointment in India. He’s very vulnerable and relapses back into acid,” Rodriguez says. "The timing of it is very much in line with his psychological neediness and him wanting to replace something else. He doesn’t go all in on Yoko until he becomes disillusioned with the Maharishi. … He replaced one guru with another.”
“When Yoko came along, part of her attraction was her avant-garde side, her view of things,” McCartney told Frost in 2012. “So, she showed him another way to be, which was very attractive to him.”
Ono was allowed in the studio, where no other wives or girlfriends were allowed
Previously a background figure, Lennon now ushered Ono into the inner circle. “In so doing, making her this joined-at-the-hip figure, bringing her into Beatle world where no other wives or girlfriends were ever granted that status in the studio, you can read that as, well, Yoko broke up the Beatles because she was the one that disturbed the order of things,” says Rodriguez. “But it was John who was in effect hiding behind her, he brought her in. The stories about her accompanying him to the bathroom [during studio sessions], she would say later ‘he made me.’"
“[Lennon] was using her, but she was also becoming part of something that naturally they would have been savvy enough to recognize was disruptive to the Beatles working habits. The other Beatles were remarkably tolerant and patient. Paul, who is really the guy pushing and trying to hold the band together at the time, is bending over backwards to be accommodating.”
McCartney and Ono were competitive with each other
Despite such allowances, Rodriguez cites McCartney as the person Ono became most competitive with. During the White Album sessions in 1968, Ono was present with a tape recorder to which she narrated a stream-of-consciousness dialogue about the music and the band members.
“When she describes Paul, she is pretty much laying out there or pointing her finger on what was the status of the relationship, which is a love triangle with John in the middle between Paul and Yoko,” Rodriguez says. “[On the recording] she says something to the effect of, ‘If he was a girl I would be jealous.’ And if you look at their relationship through the years, during John’s lifetime and after, she took it upon herself to be this sort of firewall to keep those two apart.”
Even after Lennon was shot and killed by Mark David Chapman outside Lennon and Ono’s New York City residence on December 8, 1980, the competitive nature of the relationship remained, with Ono and McCartney publicly disputing the order in which credit was given on some Beatles’ songs. “That is coming from someone who absolutely sees Paul as a rival and needs to be the number one partner in John’s life, even unto death,” says Rodriguez. “Their relationship is very complex but if you look at it through the prism it is like a romantic triangle.”
Ono says she 'had nothing to do with breaking up the Beatles'
It was 1970 when the Beatles officially ended, not with a grand announcement but words contained in a press release by McCartney for his upcoming solo album in which he declared his writing partnership with Lennon over and his time as a Beatle finished. No longer a combined artistic force, their musical tastes had diverged and the business of being the Beatles had overtaken whatever joy remained, in particular, the in-fighting over the decision of who to employ as the new manager with Lennon/Ono, Starr and Harrison choosing Allen Klein over McCartney’s choice of Lee and John Eastman, the father and brother, respectively of his then-girlfriend and future wife Linda.
Lennon and Ono would go on to push their platform of pacifism and record collaboratively and as solo artists. Following a brief separation in 1973/74, Ono gave birth to their son, Sean, in 1975. Lennon and his ex-wife Cynthia were already parents to a son, Julian, who was born in 1963, the same year Ono’s daughter Kyoko, with her previous husband American jazz musician/film producer Anthony Cox, was born.
Dogged by the rumor of her responsibility in the breakup, Ono addressed it as recently as 2016 via Us Weekly’s “25 Things You Didn’t Know About Me” column. “I had nothing to do with breaking up the Beatles,” she said. “And I think Paul is a pretty cool dude.”
McCartney, in an interview with Howard Stern in 2018, placed responsibility for the split on Lennon, who had declared privately to the band in 1968 that he was done.
“There was a meeting where John came in and said, ‘Hey guys, I’m leaving the group.’ He’d found Yoko, and John loved strong women. His mother was a strong woman, his auntie who brought him up was a strong woman, and bless her, but his first wife wasn’t,” McCartney continued. “So, John had met up with Yoko, even though we thought it was a bit intrusive when she used to sit in on the recording sessions and we’d never had anything like that. But looking back on it you think, ‘The guy was totally in love with her and you’ve got to respect that.’ So, we did. And I do.”