Even the bands whose members hate each other eventually reunite—Pink Floyd, Eagles, and the Police, for example. But the biggest band to never reunite is the biggest band of all: the Beatles. Except for those several times when the Beatles reunited. (Well, sort of.)
John Lennon and Paul McCartney were very hot and cold with each other after the Beatles broke up in 1970—they’d snipe at each in the press sometimes, while other times, they were friendly. For example, the night Lorne Michaels famously made his offer to pay the Beatles $3,000 to reunite on Saturday Night Live, Lennon and McCartney were actually watching the show, together, in Lennon’s apartment in New York, and almost went down to the show. But they only ever recorded together again once. In March 1974, Lennon had temporarily split with his wife, Yoko Ono, and had moved to Los Angeles. On March 28, he was at a Burbank studio producing Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats. That’s when Paul and Linda McCartney dropped by, unannounced. Lennon greeted McCartney by saying, “Valiant Paul McCartney, I presume?” McCartney responded, “Sir Jasper Lennon, I presume.” It was an inside joke—the lines were an exchange from a 1962 Beatles TV special. Before long, a jam sessions was underway—Lennon on guitar and lead vocals, McCartney on drums and harmonies. (And another drop-in, Stevie Wonder, played piano.) A bootleg of the session didn’t surface until 1992 under the title A Toot and a Snore in ’74, because Lennon repeatedly keeps asking for a “toot”—cocaine. The 26-minute recording is mostly chatter, but Lennon and McCartney play a bit of “Stand By Me” and “Sleepwalk.”
Ringo Starr’s third album features all four Beatles…but never all of them at the same time. In addition to Starr’s presence on every track, of course, Lennon takes piano and George Harrison plays guitar on “I’m the Greatest,” Harrison is on “Photograph,” and McCartney plays kazoo on “You’re Sixteen.”
“All Those Years Ago” (1981)
In 1980, George Harrison wrote “All Those Years Ago” as a nostalgic look back at the Beatles, and to make it even more poignant, he asked Starr to play drums on it (he did; he turned down the chance to sing on it). A few weeks after it was recorded, however, Lennon was assassinated. Harrison rewrote the song to be more specifically a tribute to Lennon. Harrison sang lead, Starr played drums, and McCartney came in to add backing vocals. It hit #2 on the pop chart (kept out of the top spot by Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes”).
“Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” (1995-96)
Obviously, there could never be a true Beatles reunion without Lennon. But as part of the Beatles’ Anthology TV documentary series and album releases in 1995, the three surviving band members united to add their voices and instrumental parts to do unearthed Lennon solo demos, “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love.” Both songs were top 10 hits.
Linda McCartney’s Memorial Service (1998)
McCartney’s wife and Wings bandmate, Linda McCartney, died after a long battle with cancer in June 1998. A private memorial service was held for about 700 people. No cameras were allowed in, and this was before the age of cell phone cameras. Otherwise, there would be footage of McCartney, Starr, and Harrison, who spontaneously gathered in front and led the congregation in a singing of the Beatles’ “Let it Be.”