We’re looking back at the fantastic solo careers that The Beatles’ John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr all enjoyed following the Fab Four’s split by bringing together the 10 greatest Beatles solo songs. It’s a list that could be extended three-fold but we’ve decided to keep the songs down to the distillation of what made the members of the band such incredible songwriters.
April 10th, 1970, will go down in history for many Beatles fans. It was the moment that several tabloids in the UK announced that Paul McCartney was leaving The Beatles and pursuing his solo work full time. Unbeknown to the nation, Lennon had already been divorcing the band in what had started to become an embittered battle. Later that year McCartney would officially move to dissolve the band and their business partnership. The end had finally arrived.
We were trawling around the internet recently when we came across John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s iconic appearance on the Dick Cavett show in 1971. During this appearance, a little under 18 months since The Beatles hit the headlines following a revelatory interview with Paul McCartney, Lennon and Ono were asked the rather pointed question whether or not Lennon’s relationship with Ono was the reason for the split. Lennon, clearly irked by such a remark, instead flipped the script: “If she took them [The Beatles] apart, then can we please give her credit for all the nice music George made, and Ringo made, and Paul made, and I made since they broke up?”
It was a seismic shift in pop culture and saw a ripple effect across the industry. Even years after the split and despite their solo careers, the band were still being asked about when the Fab Four may get back together. But, in truth, the past had already happened and the future looks brighter than ever for the four members of the band. “Imagine how we’ve flowered since [the breakup],” John Lennon told NME a year later.
“George is suddenly the biggest seller of all of us,” Lennon added in reflection of Harrison’s debut solo album All Things Must Pass. “I think my music’s improved a millionfold lyric-wise and everything. And Ringo’s coming out and writing ‘It Don’t Come Easy’ and now he’s going to write the title song for this cowboy thing he’s in, and he’s playing a really tough guy and all that. It’s really beautiful.
“The fact is, the Beatles have left school… and we have to get a job. That’s made us work — really work harder. I think we’re much better than we ever were when we were together. Look at us today. I’d sooner have [Paul McCartney’s album] Ram, John Lennon Plastic Ono Band, George’s album, and Ringo’s single and the movies than Let It Be or Abbey Road.”
It’s a fair assessment. It may be painful for some people to think about the day the Beatles split but it was like splitting the atom. A nuclear explosion erupted and Lennon, McCartney, Starr and Harrison all poured themselves into their solo work, creating albums and singles worthy of the Beatles moniker.
It may have been the end of The Beatles but it was the start of four startling careers. Below, we’ve compiled the 10 best Beatles solo songs of all time.
The best Beatles solo songs:
10. ‘Live and Let Die’ – Paul McCartney
It may have been the first James Bond film to feature Roger Moore as the titular character but all the talk was about Paul McCartney reuniting with Beatles producer George Martin.
The 1973 track is a swashbuckling and rambunctious theme song and has found its way into most of Paul McCartney’s live sets. It’s a behemoth number and one which is always likely to bring the house down at whatever venue McCartney decides to fill. While it may feel chintzy at points, the song’s longstanding position as the best Bond theme song is unchallenged.
9. ‘Photograph’ – Ringo Starr
One man who would come out of The Beatles with all members agreeing on not only his value as a bandmate but as a good friend too was Ringo Starr. So much so that each member of the Fab Four would appear on his solo record Ringo in 1973 and confirm Ringo as the central figure of friendship in the band.
Undoubtedly the highlight of that record was Ringo’s beautiful ‘Photograph’. Though it was written alongside George Harrison (we won’t tell if you won’t) it has become a mainstay of the All Starr Band’s set. The track was particularly poignant when Ringo performed it at the Concert for George in 2002 when he sang “All I’ve got is a photograph and I’ve realised you’re not coming back anymore.”
8. ‘All Things Must Pass’ – George Harrison
If you ever needed proof that John Lennon and Paul McCartney overlooked the burgeoning writing talents of Goerge Harrison then his epic song ‘All Things Must Pass’ is all the proof you need. The track was shelved by The Beatles after a couple of run-throughs, though we’d say Let It Be would be a better record if it featured on it.
Instead, the track found its way as the titular song of Harrison’s seminal triple LP All Things Must Pass, it will go down as one of the most spiritually pleasing songs any of The Beatles ever wrote. It’s about as close to the pure distillation of Harrison’s talent as you’ll ever find.
7. ‘Band on the Run’ – Paul McCartney/Wings
McCartney formed Wings in 1971 but it wasn’t until 1973’s Band on the Run that the group truly took flight. It’s undoubtedly the group’s best work and sees McCartney put a nail in his time with The Beatles in the titular track. Despite being a seemingly innocuous pop song, the track had far more weight to it than first appeared.
‘Band on the Run’ is actually a blow by blow proposition that Macca had shared with the Fab Four as a way of regaining their vigour—by playing a series of small club shows. It would never come to be but Wings’ song is the perfect ideal of what could’ve been.
6. ‘Instant Karma – John Lennon
There’s not a lot more we can say on ‘Instant Karma’ the one-day wonder that Lennon produces without a moment’s notice, that we haven’t already said. So we’ll let Lennon pick up the story.
“I wrote it in the morning on the piano,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1971. “I went to the office and sang it many times. So I said, ‘Hell, let’s do it,’ and we booked the studio, and Phil [Spector] came in, and said, ‘How do you want it?’ I said, ‘You know, 1950s.’ He said, ‘Right,’ and boom, I did it in about three goes or something like that. I went in and he played it back and there it was. The only argument was that I said a bit more bass, that’s all, and off we went.”
5. ‘What Is Life’ – George Harrison
It may not be as instantly recognisable as ‘All Things Must Pass’ but Harrison’s ‘What Is Life’ was a popular hit when it arrived in 1971. It has since featured across a host of different film and TV projects always adding a lifting moment of human connection.
It may seem a simple song to construct but in fact, it’s wrapped in layer upon layer of intricacy so well aligned that it feels like one big sound. It’s a testament to Harrison’s style and panache that the song still sounds so effortlessly fresh to this day.
4. ‘Working Class Hero’ – John Lennon
Arguably the finest moment of Lennon’s solo career came in the middle of his best solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and the brilliant yet painful track ‘Working Class Hero’.
As one might imagine it’s a deeply personal song for the working-class lad from Liverpool, who took aim at the British class system in this poignant number. “I think it’s for the people like me who are working class – whatever, upper or lower – who are supposed to be processed into the middle classes, through the machinery,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970.
“It’s my experience, and I hope it’s just a warning to people. I’m saying it’s a revolutionary song; not the song itself but that it’s a song for the revolution.”
3. ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ – Paul McCartney
The track was initially written for Linda McCartney back in 1969 and then found a home on Macca’s first solo effort McCartney, but it never really took off commercially until it was released in 1977 as part of Wings Over America and climbed the charts.
It’s no wonder the song was so successful considering it’s voracious and heartfelt core. Lyrically, it is some of McCartney’s best work, managing to toe the line between poetic mystery and connective content. In our opinion, it’s as close to completely describing the all-encompassing feeling of ‘love’ that pop music has to offer.
Following the break up of one of the most solid relationships Paul had in his life, with the loss of The Beatles, Linda offered him a place of respite as well as the freedom to express himself explicitly. McCartney chose this song to let it all hang out.
2. ‘My Sweet Lord’ – George Harrison
‘My Sweet Lord’ may well be Harrison’s definitive output. Aside from the litigation surrounding the track (a court ruled Harrison had subconsciously plagiarised the lyrics from The Chiffons ‘He’s So Fine’), it remains one of Harrison’s most iconic solo efforts the track is a perfect summation of All Things Must Pass LP and the path Harrison intended to carve out for his solo career. Another moment of higher-thinking meeting pop music, it could have easily been missed by the general public.
In the autobiography, I, Me, Mine, Harrison said: “I thought a lot about whether to do ‘My Sweet Lord’ or not because I would be committing myself publicly and I anticipated that a lot of people might get weird about it.” He continued, “I wanted to show that ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Hare Krishna’ are quite the same thing.”
And he did. The track remains a moment of transcendent joy as he blends warmest of celestial moments with the comforting glaze of pop, it’s an absolute joy and one that deserves replaying again and again.
1. ‘Imagine’ – John Lennon
We’re sure that there will be countless Beatles aficionados or hundreds of musos waiting at our figurative door ready to chew our ears off about why Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ shouldn’t be known as the greatest Beatles solo song of all time. But to counterbalance that we have literally millions of people who hold ‘Imagine’ up as a bastion of world peace, free-thinking and progressive behaviour.
It was Lennon setting himself a goal he knew that he would never achieve but simply couldn’t walk away from. It was the former Beatle putting his money where his mouth was and from it the world has gained one song that manages to unite them all.
Whether your a Beatles fan or not, Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ has always provided a place of solace for those looking for peace.