Since the Beatles disbanded in 1970, Paul McCartney has released the most solo music of any of the former Beatles. Paul’s output is the most varied in quality, from excellent (Ram, Band On The Run, Flaming Pie) to awful (Flowers In the Dirt, Red Rose Speedway).
John Lennon, of course, has the smallest output due to his murder, and his self-imposed “retirement” 1975-80 to rear his son Sean. John’s output is also varied, due to his erratic recording schedule and the number of songs he allowed his wife Yoko to record.
George Harrison may have the strongest catalogue album by album starting with the astonishingly great All Things Must Past. Every George LP is worth a listen.
Ringo Starr, oddly enough, had the most commercial success out of the gate, mainly because George Harrison was very hands-on with Ringo’s early LPs – producing, writing and performing on most of the songs.
I started out with a list of 62 songs and pared it down to 29. The last nine songs were the toughest to cut. They could have easily been on this list. When I couldn’t decide, I just went with personal preference. So, here it is, my list of the best solo songs by the former Beatles.
20 “Imagine” – John Lennon
Docked 15 spots for several reasons. Due to being overplayed for the past 20 years to point of nausea, “Imagine” has become the “God Bless The USA” for the socialistic/progressive crowd. It’s basic message – imagine a world at peace, without the divisiveness and barriers of borders, religions and nationalities, and to consider the possibility that the focus of humanity should be living a life unattached to material possessions – is at best, naïve, particularly from a man who had all the trappings of material success the world could offer. It hasn’t aged well.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
19 “Handle With Care” – The Traveling Wilburys
Originally written by Harrison for his solo LP Cloud Nine in 1987. It was shelved and ended up as the rollicking opening track for the first Traveling Wilburys LP. Jointly sung by Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne, it becomes a fun, goofy song.
“Everybody’s got somebody to lean on/ Put your body next to mine and dream on.”
18 “Watching The Wheels” – John Lennon
Released posthumously in 1981 after his murder, “Watching the Wheels” was the third and final single released from Lennon and Ono’s album Double Fantasy album, and reached number #10 US on the Billboard Hot 100.
One of his most personal songs, Lennon addresses those who were confounded by his “househusband” years, 1975–1980, when he “retired” from the music industry to concentrate on raising his son Sean.
I tell them there’s no hurry / I’m just sitting here doing time
17 “Photograph” – Ringo Starr“
Everytime I see your face/ It reminds of the places we used to go
But all I’ve got is a photograph / And I realize you’re not coming back anymore.
16 “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” – Paul McCartney & Wings
The closing song from the Band On The Run LP, this is one of McCartney’s most infectious songs. The cinematic sweep of the song is propelled by the best piano playing of McCartney’s career. The grandiose ending features a full orchestra with includes mellotron, organ and horns, an almost “A Day In The Life” effect.
I didn’t think I never dreamed / That I would be around to see it all come true
15 “Mind Games” – John Lennon
Another thoughtful philosophical song with a gorgeous melody. Lennon was inspired to write the song after reading Mind Games: The Guide to Inner Space by Robert Masters and Jean Houston.
“YES is the answer.”
14 “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” George Harrison
Opting for a simpler production sound this time around, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” features some of Harrison’s best slide-guitar work. Harrison described the song as “a prayer and personal statement between me, the Lord, and whoever likes it”.
“Give me hope / Help me cope / with this heavy load”
13 “Monkberry Moon Delight” – Paul McCartney
From Ram, this is one of the most fun songs that Paul ever recorded, Five-plus minutes of mid-tempo craziness with Paul shouting out a set of ridiculously nonsensical, stream of consciousness lyrics over some bouncy repetitive guitar and piano riffs. No serous message here, just a master musician jammin’ on a fun song.
“Of two youngsters concealed in a barrel, Sucking monkberry moon delight.”
12 Working Class Hero” – John Lennon
A beautiful rumination/commentary/criticism of the difference between the social classes. Lennon at his most reflective.
“They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool.”
11 “Live and Let Die” Paul McCartney & Wings
THE epic James Bond theme song and one of McCartney’s most complex compositions. A piece of pure production overkill that works! Watching McCartney and Wings perform this song at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C. in the 1990s ranks as one of the greatest live concert moments in my life. Paul gets the “Throw-in-an-extra-preposition-and-call-it-art Award” for the awkward lyric:
“In this ever changing world in which we live in.”
10 Isn’t It A Pity” – George Harrison
From the massive All Things Must Pass LP, “Isn’t It a Pity” was rejected by the Beatles during the January 1969 sessions that resulted in their final album, Let It Be. According to Abbey Road engineer Geoff Emerick, however, the song had been offered for inclusion on 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The most majestic of Harrison’s songs, “Isn’t A Pity” is lyrically complex and musically dream-like. Tom Petty and Eric Clapton both consider this song to be Harrison’s masterpiece.
“Isn’t it a pity / Isn’t it a shame
How we break each other’s hearts and cause each other pain”
9 “#9 Dream” – John Lennon
One of Lennon’s most audacious songs. If McCartney had written and recorded this, it would be considered a piece of fluff. Filled with Sgt. Pepper-like flourishes it’s a weird trip into John’s subconscious mind. The female voice whispering John’s name is not Yoko, but his then-mistress May Pang. The nonsense lyrics, “Ah! böwakawa poussé, poussé”, came to Lennon in a dream (hence the title) and have no specific meaning. But they are fun to sing!
“On a river of sound / Through the mirror go round and round”
Reached #4 in 1971. Written by Ringo and George Harrison, this is Ringo’s signature solo song. The lyrics are a thinly veiled reflection of the lives of all four Beatles at the time. The band on this recording included Harrison and Badfinger.
“I don’t ask for much / I only want your trust
And you know it don’t come easy”
And just for fun … listen to George’s demo of the song that he gave to Ringo.
7 “Junior’s Farm” – Paul McCartney & Wings
One of McCartney’s best rockers. Recorded in Nashville it reached #3 in 1974. For a man world famous for his love songs, as time goes by the McCartney songs that tend to age better are his rockers.
“At the Houses of Parliament / Ev’rybody’s talking ’bout the President,
We all chip in for a bag of cement”
6 “My Sweet Lord” – George Harrison
One of the most overt religious songs to ever hit #1 on the Billboard charts. A massive worldwide hit, this song epitomized what the public wanted in 1970-71: shimmering harmonies, lustrous acoustic guitars, a solid Ringo Starr backbeat, and an exquisite Harrison guitar solo. The backing musicians again include the Delaney and Bonnie band and Badfinger.
The song is now as well known for the infamous copyright infringement lawsuit against Harrison that “My Sweet Lord” was direct copy of The Chiffon’s 1963 #1 hit, “He’s So Fine.” (And who are we kidding, it was!) Harrison was found guilty of “subconscious” plagiarism. The suit was settled in 1981 with Harrison buying the rights to the earlier song for $600,000. Nonetheless, “My Sweet Lord” is a gorgeous pop song.
“I really wanna be with You!”
5 “Let Me Roll It” – Paul McCartney
“You gave me lovin’ in the palm of my hand.”
4 “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” – John Lennon
From Lennon’s Walls & Bridges 1974 LP, this was his only #1 solo single in his lifetime. A rollicking rock n’ roll record, with Memphis-style horns blaring and Elton John on backing vocals, this is an infectious ode to having too much fun with a truly ironic lyric giving what the future held.
“Don’t need a gun to blow your mind, oh no, oh no”
3 “Maybe I’m Amazed” – Paul McCartney
McCartney wrote the song in 1969, just before The Beatles’ break-up. One of his best love songs, it was recorded at the Abbey Road studio in London with McCartney playing all the instruments: guitars, bass, piano, organ and drums. He declined to release the song as a single in 1970, but it nonetheless received a great deal of radio airplay worldwide.
A live recording from the 1976 album Wings over America was released as a single by McCartney’s band Wings in February 1977 and reached number 10 in the US on the Billboard pop charts. McCartney has said ’Maybe I’m Amazed’ was “the song I would like to be remembered for in the future”
“Maybe I’m amazed at the way I really need you”
2 “Instant Karma (We All Shine On)” – John Lennon
This song encompasses everything Lennon stood for—peace, love and understanding. It is a masterpiece of pop songwriting and production, from the slap backbeat of the drums to the pounding piano, this song is everything “Imagine” is not, a true anthem of the 60s philosophy, without the overt uncomfortable socialistic message.
“We all shine on/ Like the moon and the stars and the sun”
1 “What Is Life?” – George Harrison
Harrison wrote the song in 1969 during the Abbey Road sessions and it was released on his 1970 triple album All Things Must Pass. It became a Top 10 hit in the United States in February 1971. Harrison’s backing musicians on the recording included the entire Delaney & Bonnie Friends band as well as all the members of Badfinger.
Built around an infectious guitar riff, the song can be seen doubly as a romantic love song and one of George’s spiritual ruminations of human existence. Lushly produced with tasteful horns, tambourines and layers of acoustic guitars strumming behind the massive guitar riff it is impossible NOT to nod your head, smile and sing along with this song,
Tell me, what is my life without your love?
And tell me, who am I without you, by my side?