Friday, March 4, 2011

Versus: The Beatles' Solo Careers

Doug: It's been quite a long time since we did a Versus post. Lately we've gotten into the Face-offs, where we give you a choice between two alternatives -- and you can look for one of those gems early next week! Today, however, we'd like to give you four options for discussion. You know I'm always inspired to discuss music after one of my long drives to Indiana to see my son in college. After one of my last trips, I was set on what this topic would be -- the solo careers of the Beatles. What we'd like to know is: Which former Beatle produced a solo playlist that you would pick first for your listening pleasure?

Doug: I don't have stats handy, but I think we could agree without reservation that Paul McCartney had the most commercially-successful career after 1970. With high-profile hits like Live and Let Die from the James Bond film of the same name, Band on the Run, Jet, Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey, and his two big hits with Michael Jackson (Say, Say, Say, and The Girl Is Mine), Sir Paul has been in the Top 40 off an on almost ever since the Beatles broke up. While his songs can be a little too pop at times (Silly Love Songs and Let 'em In come to mind), his staying power cannot be denied. Even today his concerts sell out, and it's always special when he does a big ticket appearance like the halftime show at the Super Bowl, or last year's performance at the White House.

Doug: If McCartney had the most Top 40 appearances on mainstream radio, perhaps John Lennon had the more thoughtful songwriting career. Always socially-conscious and not a bit afraid to get under people's skin politically, I think Lennon worried less about the charts and more about making the music he wanted to make. While commercial success was certainly a part of Lennon's solo career, with hits like Imagine, #9 Dream, Instant Karma, and Just Like Starting Over, Lennon never had a solo #1 hit (EDIT: Of course I had erroneous information when researching this post. I did not make this up, but did see it on a site I regretfully cannot recall. There has been further conversation on this in the "Comments" section below, and corrections have been duly noted). Still, his hall-of-fame career is distinguished and is without reproach. I still think it's such a pity that his life was cut short at such a young age. That newsflash, from none other than Howard Cosell, is still one of the events in my life where I can recall exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the awful report.

Doug: Lastly we come to George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Of the two, Ringo has perhaps the least-distinguished solo career, although he did knock out two #1 singles in You're Sixteen and Photograph. Other solo hits were It Don't Come Easy and Oh, My My. Sometimes I think of Ringo as a caricature of himself, rather than as a serious musician. Still, he remains in the public eye today and tours somewhat regularly with his All-Star Bands.

Doug: Harrison, on the other hand, found radio play over a much longer period. Songs such as
My Sweet Lord, What is Life, and Give Me Love were all thoughtful pop singalongs. And of course his career in the 1980's took off yet again with joint ventures with Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison in various combinations and as The Traveling Wilburys. Harrison also left us much too soon.

Doug: So, who ya got? If I am cruising the artists section of my iTouch, of these four I am most likely to land on George Harrison. I really enjoy the three songs I mentioned above, and his version of Ringo's It Don't Come Easy is better for my money; I love the bridge when the back-up singers cry out "Hare Krishna!" That recording is actually a bootleg release -- it was a demo version from the same recording session when Ringo recorded his final version. The backing vocals were provided by members of Badfinger. It's vintage Harrison, though. I'd mention, too, that I have an acoustic version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps and it's killer good. You?

Karen: Doug's asked me to add my two cents. Basically for me, it's between Lennon and McCartney. If I am in a happy,breezy mood, I listen to McCartney. If I am feeling more contemplative or mellow, it's usually Lennon. Both men are such talents, although I do feel McCartney often drifted into sappiness.


Anonymous said...

I think George is my favorite post-Beatle Beatle, mainly because he continued to grow and develop as a songwriter and guitarist and gained more confidence as a singer. I think in the latter part of the Beatles' time together, his songs were on a par or better than what Lennon-McCartney was producing at the same time. I had all of the Beatles' recordings and it was always interesting to me to see how he evolved as a songwriter as time passed.

McCartney produced some great work after the Beatles broke up, but it always seemed to me like he was on auto pilot and could just churn them out without much thought or effort. I realize it's hard work to do what he did, but it just seemed that way to me.

Lennon started out pretty strong, but lost his mojo along the way, call it burn-out or whatever. It would have been interesting to see what might have happened post 1980, had he lived, but alas......

Ringo just always seemed to me like the guy who wasn't sure how he got there, but just decided to enjoy it while he was there. He's a drummer, not a front man and he knows it and it seems to come through on his performances.


Anonymous said...

AHHHHH! This is making my brain fight itself! If it wasn't for one song-- Imagine--, I'd have to give Paul the edge over John. I love me some Wings. For me, Paul, John and George all had some great post-Beatle stuff--but alot of unlistenable stuff, too. But I'd have to take the great Wings stuff over John's great Double-Fantasy stuff, and the couple great songs George did on All Things.., and some Travelin-Wilbury poppy stuff.

This summer I read Peter Carlin's PAUL MCCARTNEY: A LIFE, and I recommend it for any Beatles fan. Very insightful of "the business" behind the Beatles, and how Paul was keen to it's importance, while being a control freak at the same time.


david_b said...

What a great subject.. I could write pages on this (couldn't we all..), but here are some quick thoughts..:

Paul obviously had the most prolific,profitable and rightly celebrated solo career. John said in many interviews (one on youtube from '74) that no one had a doubt Paul would be the most successful out of the four. He praised Paul's time in the Beatles as well, saying he might have made it on his own, but "wasn't quite strong enough" in the beginning..

Paul had his confidence shaken early post-breakup, but came back quite well, most thanks to Linda, who many called 'his rock'.

John had a lovely, talented way of writing melody and lyrics, but I didn't feel he had the talent Paul did. He said himself that he didn't have that distinct of a style in musicianship, which is why he didn't spend much time playing on other peoples records like Paul and George did in the late 60s. He admitted himself in the Playboy interview in '80 that he did alot of his activism music out of guilt of being rich and trying to invoke change with Yoko. He did have a wonderful sense of tenderness, which came out on nearly every album ("Love", "Jealous Guy", "Beautiful Boy"), that while it didn't have the consistency of Macca, STILL could sucker-punch your gut and pulverize any resistance.

George was the real hero in his growth, always having bouts of juxtaposing his religious lifestyle with his 'rock&roll' friends. His Wilburys records were a stunning testiment of a guy who basically wanted to have fun with his buds and remind the 80s industry not to be so serious about music. I have hours of video footage of his interviews (thanks much to a DVD seller on eBay a decade back..), and his devotion to seeking God in the end was so endearing.

Ringo's 'Ringo' album is arguably the best, or most loved solo album of the four.. Written mostly by his old pals, it shines without being too slick. '6 O'Clock' is quintessential Macca at his best..: A wonderful humble song that climaxes wonderfully at it's close. This album certainly brought the best out of his old bandmates and is a MUST HAVE. Ringo certain was the cement to keep them going, and he shared that many times. I always laugh when he comments about being with Paul and George during the Anthology filming..: "They're the only people in the world that don't treat me like a Beatle"

Fred W. Hill said...

Error alert!! Lennon actually had two solo #1 hits. The first in 1974, with "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" -- Elton John produced it and got Lennon to promise to do a show with him if it hit number one, resulting in Lennon's last concert appearance, dueting with Elton on WGYTTN, as well as "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" (Elton had a #1 with his remake of that song) and "I Saw Her Standing There". Lennon's 2nd #1 was "(Just Like) Starting Over", which was well on its way to topping the charts before Lennon was murdered. George and Ringo also each had two solo #1s, with, "My Sweet Lord" & "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" for George and "Photograph" & "She's 16" for Ringo. I believe they are the only pop/rock group in which each of the members had such solo success.

But, of course, Paul, with Wings, had the most post-Beatles #1 hits, 7 or 9.
As far as albums go, Lennon's first solo albums, Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, are among my great favorites and personally I'd give him the edge overall. But then I also like Paul's Band on the Run & Tug of War, as well as George's All Things Must Pass, and even Ringo managed to come up with enough great singles in the early to mid-70s to fill out an lp. Still, they did their best work as a group, although I also feel given the growing tensions within the band and creative differences, their break-up was inevitible and was probably a good thing, lest they wound up becoming parodies of their former grandeur.
BTW, I was big into the Beatles when I was in high school in the late '70s and during my first semester in college, I wrote a term paper on the Beatles for my English 101 class, turning it in on December 1, 1980. Of course, it was just a week later that Lennon was murdered. I got an A out of it and my professor had me read it out loud to the class. I was in a slight state of shock at the time, proud and profoundly sad at the same time.

Edo Bosnar said...

Everyone else here really covered the strengths and weaknesses of the various Beatles post-60s, which echo many of my own views, so I won't go in depth here. I'll just say my vote goes to McCartney, based on the simple criteria of the amount of songs he's produced which I still really enjoy quite a bit - and fully acknowledging that he also produced a lot of sappy, commercialized crap. Those two 'hits' with Michael Jackson I find particularly cringe-worthy - if I had remembered at the time, I would have added them to my list of ear-bleeding songs on Doug's post a few weeks back...

Doug said...

Fred --

First my apologies for the comment on "no #1's" for John Lennon. The website I consulted (which I cannot recall) was obviously in error. On further inspection, what I am finding -- and again, mainly from user sources (Billboard seems too dense to navigate quickly) -- is that you are indeed correct on Whatever Gets You Through the Night; however, he had three songs from the "Double Fantasy" album top the charts, but all posthumously.

According to "trivia" near the bottom of the page at, McCartney had 17 #1's between 1971-2005.

Saw this on a message board, so I quote: George had three number ones in America - My Sweet Lord, Give Me Love and Got My Mind Set On You and went to #1 as a writer with Ringo on Photograph.

I think I can stand by the comments that Ringo had two #1's.

So, I apologize for rushing my research, and I hope this adds a bit to the conversation. Bottom line is, you really can't go wrong listening to these four as a group or solo. I think as Karen said, it depends on the mood you're in when you are looking through your song list. Shoot, even within the Beatles catalog, there are times when I zero in on the British Invasion era as opposed to the latter years. It's all in the mood.

Thanks all,


Anonymous said...

You said John Lennon never had a solo #1 hit. Please do research before posting such nonsense.

""(Just Like) Starting Over" is a song written and performed by John Lennon for his album, Double Fantasy. The B-side was Yoko Ono's "Kiss Kiss Kiss". It was released as a single on 24 October 1980 and reached number one in both the USA and UK two weeks after he was murdered. It is his biggest solo American hit, staying at #1 for five weeks."

""Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" is a song written by John Lennon, released as a single in 1974 on Apple Records, catalogue Apple 1874 in the US and Apple R5998 in the UK. It peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 ."

Doug said...

"Anonymous" --

First, thanks for posting that way and without a legitimate screen name or ID. Appreciate that.

Second, if you'd taken the time to read the friendly, somewhat impassioned and scholarly conversation within this comments section before rifling off your venom, you'd see that our community of regular commenters had already offered corrections, and that I'd dutifully acknowledged those corrections and offered my regrets and apologies.

But thanks anyway.


Doug said...

Upon further review:

After doing a bit more research, and honestly not spending as much time as this obviously is going to take, I am finding very conflicted information (not always well-noted) between the US and UK charts. That being said, I'm going to go back to Fred's claim above that Lennon had two #1's in the United States and I think I'll just leave it at that.

Sorry for the controversy, everyone; it wasn't the original intent of the post, and I hope there's still some merit to debating the bodies of work of these four artists.


Fred W. Hill said...

Regarding #1s, there was even disagreement on the Beatles' compilation of U.K. & U.S. #1s, which left out at least two or three that were listed as #1 on some charts but not on others, which also accounts for my going for a lower count on their solo #1ss than what you subsequently listed, Doug.
Decades ago I read a satirical pseudo history of the Beatles, Paperback Writer by Mark Shipper from 1978, which had a running joke about all the big hits Ringo was enjoying after leaving the Beatles -- some of them were even songs he recorded himself! Shipper has the Beatles reunite in 1979 but it's a disaster as they all have writer's block and cant' come up with any decent new tunes and their tour goes so badly that they wind up opening for Peter Frampton. Of course, Shipper was being silly but it was amusing and did provide a bit of insight on how difficult it must be for performers who hit such massive peaks at a fairly young age to live up to expectations. As it is, Paul and Ringo can both still pull in big crowds on their own, and if George and John were still around I'm sure they could too (as long as they somewhat met audiences' expectations) while poor ol' Peter Frampton's mega-star days are long gone. Not to put Frampton down, but even after the break-up, the ex-Beatles were on another level of stardom, with perhaps only Elvis Presley as a geunine peer (at least in terms of units sold, even long after his death).

MOCK! said...

I am a McCartney fan through and through, but George's theme to Time Bandits ("Dream Away"), Ringo's "Photograph", and John's "How Do You Sleep?" are some of my favorites.

Inkstained Wretch said...

Honestly, I think "It Don't Come Easy" was the best post-Beatles single any of them had, so I put in the vote for Ringo. (Although I've been told George Harrison actually wrote the song.)

Fred W. Hill said...

I agree that It Don't Come Easy is at least a great contender for best ex-Beatles song, Inkstained. It sounds like Harrison definitely had a big hand in the song's music but I'd still give Ringo credit for the lyrics, which do include allusions to several classic Lennon/McCarney songs, notably We Can Work It Out and Come Together.

david_b said...


Great column, great comments by *mostly* everyone as well. I looked at the #1 comments and yes, "Whatever Gets You.." was a #1, it was with Elton (solo..?), but you can say the same with Paul and Wings. ('Course, one can argue that Paul had the least solo #1's since he was in another group, but that's open for interpretation..).

Anyinall, Fred, I LOVED reading 'Paperback Writer'.. A VERY witty book, and well written.

One comment on George's Number Ones..: For all the well-written songs he had with great hooks during his solo career.., to have a comeback with "Got My Mind.." was weird. Not a bad song per se, just kinda dopey. I guess it's those silly songs that had the right timing and get on the charts. Besides 'Material World' and '33 1/3', I LOVE his Wilbury work best of all.

If you want to see George REALLY mix it up and see his passion onstage, watch the '80s Carl Perkins HBO special also featuring Eric Clapton and Ringo.. When George sings rockabilly, you can tell he's enjoying himself the best.

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