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Paul McCartney at 80: Ranking McCartney's 20 best songs for The Beatles


Paul McCartney is undoubtedly one of the most gifted songwriters pop music has ever known, his recent album McCartney III is proof of that, still thriving at the very top of the music industry as the former Beatle celebrates his 80th birthday. As a solo artist over the last 50 years, McCartney made an incredibly large imprint on music, one that can still be seen clearly today. However, it was his work with The Beatles that will likely outlast us all. Below, we’ve been through every hit McCartney created with the Fab Four and pulled together 20 of the best.

McCartney and John Lennon may have shared one of the most fruitful songwriting partnerships of all time but, in truth, the pair often worked separately before joining their workings together. Macca was known to even create some of the songs purely on his own, recording a few tracks singularly too.

Paul McCartney joined The Beatles in 1957 and happily played second-fiddle to Lennon for some time before breaking out into the songwriting world of his own. Gifted musically, Macca has one thing that most musicians would kill for but only very few have; a nose for what the public wants.

It has seen the world’s most famous bass player create ballads, rock numbers, songs that make you laugh and songs that send you to the bridge. Paul McCartney, it is safe to say, will forever be one of Britain’s most cherished songwriters and a pillar of the culture.

“One of my biggest thrills for me still is sitting down with a guitar or a piano and just out of nowhere trying to make a song happen,” McCartney once commented. “People think once you get famous and rich you move out of the public sphere and you have nothing left to write about,” he added. “I’ve heard that – Bruce Springsteen was this real street boy, now he’s got this big house. How does that compute? If you don’t look at the material side of someone’s life, if you look at more the emotional side, there’s always a wealth of stuff to write about”. It is for this reason McCartney has been able to remain relevant for such a long period of time.

Below, we’ve got 20 of our favourites.

Paul McCartney’s 20 best Beatles songs:

20. ‘I’m Looking Through You’

Taken from the Rubber Soul album, McCartney wrote this song for his then-girlfriend Jane Asher. It sees Macca use his pen to send shots at the actress whom he believed had let him down by refusing to stay at home and going out on a theatre tour.

Despite the difficult subject matter, like much of Rubber Soul, ‘I’m Looking Through You’ is as close to putting summer down on record as you’re likely to get. It’s bright, bouncy and full of sunshine.

19. ‘We Can Work It Out’

For a while, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were speed demons. As with a lot of The Beatles’ early output, ‘We Can Work It Out’ was written quickly and with the knowledge that it was likely destined for the top of the charts. The Fab Four had become a behemoth and by 1965, during the making of Rubber Soul, they were keen to keep the good times rolling in.

That means that despite lots of interpretations suggesting the band wrote the song to oppose the US being involved in the Vietnam war, it’s far more likely it was written as a cash-in single. Still, it’s one of the best pop ballads you’ll ever hear, so there’s it certainly has that going for it.

18. ‘Paperback Writer’

One song which is credited to the Lennon-McCartney partnership was ‘Paperback Writer’. Lennon would later admit that bar a few words and some inspiration that the song was entirely McCartney’s idea. “I think I might have helped with some of the lyrics. Yes, I did. But it was mainly Paul’s tune,” Lennon told Hit Parade in 1972, later confirming with Playboy that “‘Paperback Writer’ is son of ‘Day Tripper’, but it is Paul’s song.”

While that is certainly true, we’d say a fair chunk of credit should also go to Macca’s Auntie Lil.

“The idea’s a bit different,” McCartney recalled. “Years ago, my Auntie Lil said to me, ‘Why do you always write songs about love all the time? Can’t you ever write about a horse or the summit conference or something interesting?’ So, I thought, ‘All right, Auntie Lil.’ And recently, we’ve not been writing all our songs about love.” One such song was ‘Paperback Writer’.

17. ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’

McCartney always drew form those around for his nuggets of inspiration. Having previously gone by the name of ‘Auntie Gin’s Theme’ Macca had originally dedicated the song to his father’s youngest sister. But eventually, the song became known as ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ but loses none of its conversational charm.

McCartney has stated: “It was slightly country and western from my point of view… it was faster, though, it was a strange uptempo thing. I was quite pleased with it. The lyric works; it keeps dragging you forward, it keeps pulling you to the next line, there’s an insistent quality to it that I liked.”

16. ‘Love Me Do’

Taken from 1963 effort Please, Please Me, ‘Love Me Do’ is as close to archetypal Beatles as you’re likely to find. It’s arguably the song that started it all. Written in 1962, the song became the Fab Four’s introduction to songwriting.

After the track had given the group confidence in their abilities they auditioned the song for a producer George Martin who began work on the song right there and then, later adding a harmonica part. This was the start of it all and saw the group set the roots that would flower into one of the most prosperous careers of all time.

15. ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’

1964’s Beatles for Sale saw the beginning of the band’s evolution from hit-making boyband into serious artists. On ‘Ill Follow The Sun’, though the band stay true to their love-filled themes, the song has a darker undertone than their previous efforts.

The track instead focuses on a man feeling under-appreciated by his partner, offering her an ultimatum. It may be on one of the band’s least-adored albums, but the track is a tender reflection of a difficult moment for any relationship. Lyrics like “And now the time has come, and so, my love, I must go. And though I lose a friend, in the end you will know…” showed a new side to the band.

14. ‘Helter Skelter’

Famously released as the second single from The Beatles’ ninth studio record The White Album, music historians consider the addition of “proto-metal roar” on ‘Helter Skelter as major early development for music. In fact, it would later be credited as a major influence in the formation of heavy metal music.

Macca has grabbed inspiration from everywhere when writing his songs. However, rumour has it that The Beatles bassist had become inspired to write ‘Helter Skelter’ after seeing an interview conducted by the Who’s Pete Townshend. Townshend, who at the time as a cantankerous young upstart, described the song ‘I Can See for Miles’ as their “loudest and dirtiest” song to date.

With those comments, Macca accepted the challenge of pushing the public perception of The Beatles. McCartney, with the words of Townshend ringing in his ears, sat down to create ‘Helter Skelter’.

13. ‘I Saw Her Standing There’

A Cavern Club classic, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ is arguably one of The Beatles breakthrough tunes. It set girls hearts alight and made the Fab Four the talk of every town. Macca’s count-in may be famous but it was the stinking riff that followed which told every music fan around, this was no boyband.

In 2007, Macca recalled of the song’s creation: “Those early days were really cool, just sussing each other out, and realising that we were good. You just realise from what he was feeding back. Often it was your song or his song, it didn’t always just start from nothing. Someone would always have a little germ of an idea.”

The duo would then sit across from one another and try to write a song, “So I’d start off with [singing] ‘She was just 17, she’d never been a beauty queen’ and he’d be like, ‘Oh no, that’s useless’ and ‘You’re right, that’s bad, we’ve got to change that.’ Then changing it into a really cool line: ‘You know what I mean.’ ‘Yeah, that works.'”

12. ‘All My Loving’

Never released as a single, the song is widely-adored for its show-stopping appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was the first track the band played on their now-iconic appearance and has stuck in the hearts and minds of the public ever since.

Broadcast to over 73 million people, the show launched the band’s career in the US and begun the British Invasion in earnest. Originally starting life as a poem for Jane Asher, it’s one of the first songs in which Macca had the lyrics before the music.

11. ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’

Chances are, if you start singing this anywhere in the world, you will get at least one call back. When The Beatles achieved the incredible feat of holding the top five positions of the US chart in 1964, this song was right up there.

Despite many people’s attempts to suggest that McCartney wrote the song about a sex worker, knowing Macca the chances of that being true are very slim. Instead, it tackles the idea of love and the transactional way people approach it.

10. ‘Oh! Darling’

The first appearance of an Abbey Road song on our list and it’s ‘Oh Darling’ which gets the nod. By the time of this composition, Paul McCartney had quickly learned that to enact his singular vision he needed to work on his own a lot. It meant that he came in early to the studio every morning to achieve the strained vocal that the song hangs on.

It was one song which Lennon believed was not only a great track but that he wished he had sung on, suggesting he would’ve done a better job, Abbey Road’s ‘Oh! Darling’. He told Sheff: “‘Oh! Darling’ was a great one of Paul’s that he didn’t sing too well.

“I always thought that I could’ve done it better.” Acknowledging that the duo didn’t operate in that way: “He wrote it, so what the hell, he’s going to sing it,” Lennon said, he also suggested it was more in his style. He recalled to Sheff, “If he’d had any sense, he should have let me sing it.”

9. ‘Get Back’

What was set to be the titular track of the band’s 1970 album Let It Be was imbued with the kind of energy and power the group had hoped to bring back to their recording sessions. The song suggests Macca was looking to America for his inspiration as this radio-ready rocker feels candidly more Americanised.

While the recorded may have been scrapped, this song still reminds us that The Beatles left the band while they were all on top. It’s a remarkable song that most people would see as their crowning achievement.

8. ‘For No One’

Another ode to Jane Asher, McCartney puts down in song the struggles he is dealing with internally, hoping for Asher to fit in with his life and forget her own career, something that was never on the cards. Though Macca has never fully admitted the song was about Asher he did say: “I guess there had been an argument. I never have easy relationships with women.”

The track is a mainstay on the Revolver album and perfectly highlights the group’s transition from pop stars to musicians as they evoke the baroque pop that would see them evolve once more.

7. ‘Penny Lane’

Recently marred in controversy, ‘Penny Lane’ is right up there as one of The Beatles most widely-known songs. Written for the Magical Mystery Tour in 1967, the song was composed while Macca sat at a bus stop on Penny Lane waiting for Lennon to arrive.

Noting down what he saw he conjured up a colloquial look at Liverpool and the British society which had spawned it. It was pure chart fodder for the American audiences, beguiled by the tweeness of Macc’as nursery rhyme childhood.

Not necessarily Macca’s most daring number, it’s on the list because it welcomed in a new era for the band and saw in 1967 with aplomb.

6. ‘Eleanor Rigby’

“It just came. When I started doing the melody I developed the lyric. It all came from the first line. I wonder if there are girls called Eleanor Rigby?” We imagine there certainly are now! The luscious trace is beautifully mirrored in the lyrics which depict the story of a lonely old woman.

One of many great McCartney tracks from Revolver—arguably his best showing on record for the band—the song is a continuation with Macca’s fascination with the unloved and forgotten.

As well as shining a light on those lost stories, McCartney always puts a mirror to our actions and asks if we’ve done enough.

5. ‘Let It Be’

Possibly one of the most notorious song compositions of all time, Macca came up with the song after the image of his passed mother appeared to him in a dream and told him to ‘Let It Be’. Perhaps because of this origin story or more likely because of the song’s choral undertones but there’s something definitively spiritual about this song.

There’s no doubt it’s one of the most widely-known Beatles songs of all time and that can often have a dramatic effect on Fab Four purists picking it as their favourite, after all, there’s thousands of cover of the track. But we’d argue there’s a good reason for it, it’s one of Macca’s best.

4. ‘Blackbird’

One of Paul McCartney’s most political songs sees the Beatle sit down to write ‘Blackbird’ after seeing countless stories of civil rights suppression in 1968. It’s not only one of his simplest songs (using only his vocals, his acoustic guitar and a metronome tap) but also most powerful.

Macca said of the song in 2008: “We were totally immersed in the whole saga which was unfolding. So I got the idea of using a blackbird as a symbol for a black person. It wasn’t necessarily a black ‘bird’, but it works that way, as much as then you called girls ‘birds’; the Everlys had had ‘Bird Dog,’ so the word ‘bird’ was around. ‘Take these broken wings’ was very much in my mind, but it wasn’t exactly an ornithological ditty; it was purposely symbolic.”

The real power fo his song comes from the understated message. It’s a simple one, equality for all should be a given. But the way it is delivered, like when you Dad proclaims they aren’t angry, just disappointed, is captivating, encouraging and entirely unique.

3. ‘Yesterday’

Endlessly covered and possibly over-played it can be easy to overlook the songwriting genius that goes into a song like ‘Yesterday’. In the same way we all take sliced bread for granted, forgetting when it was the best thing, one can sometimes forget how beautiful this track truly is.

McCartney even picked it as one of his favourites: “Well, it’s difficult to choose the favourite. It (‘Here, There and Everywhere’) is one of my favourites. You look at your songs and kinda look to see which of the ones you think are maybe the best constructed and stuff,” says McCartney. “I think ‘Yesterday’—if it wasn’t so successful—might be my favourite.

“But, you know, you get that thing when something is just so successful… people often don’t want to do ‘the big one’ that everyone wants them to do. They kind of shy away from it,” continued McCartney.

“‘Here, There and Everywhere’ with ‘Yesterday’ as a close second.”

2. ‘Here There and Everywhere’

The Revolver anthem ‘Here There and Everywhere’ is a song that has ubiquitous appeal even for the cantankerous John Lennon, who said of the song: “This was a great one of his,” before adding: “That’s Paul’s song completely, I believe. And one of my favourite songs of the Beatles.”

McCartney himself later remarked that it “was the only song that John ever complimented me on.” And he deserved the compliment too. Inspired by ‘God Only Knows’, McCartney’s favourite song of all time, the song is achingly beautiful. “It’s actually just the introduction that’s influenced. John and I used to be interested in what the old fashioned writers used to call the verse, which we nowadays would call the intro – this whole preamble to a song, and I wanted to have one of those on the front of ‘Here, There and Everywhere.’ John and I were quite into those from the old-fashioned songs that used to have them, and in putting that [sings ‘To lead a better life’] on the front of ‘Here, There and Everywhere,’ we were doing harmonies, and the inspiration for that was the Beach Boys.”

Adding: “We had that in our minds during the introduction to ‘Here, There and Everywhere.’ I don’t think anyone, unless I told them, would even notice, but we’d often do that, get something off an artist or artists that you really liked and have them in your mind while you were recording things, to give you the inspiration and give you the direction – nearly always, it ended up sounding more like us than them anyway.”

1. ‘Hey Jude’

We needn’t tell you about the power of ‘Hey Jude’, all you need to do that is to listen to this song being sung at a festival or large gathering and hear 90% of people join in.

We thought it best to let Macca’s songwriting partner describe it best for you, Lennon said: “That’s his best song. It started off as a song about my son Julian because Paul was going to see him. Then he turned it into ‘Hey Jude’. I always thought it was about me and Yoko but he said it was about him and his.”

During his famous 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon also offered another theory to the song’s inception: “He said it was written about Julian. He knew I was splitting with Cyn and leaving Julian then. He was driving to see Julian to say hello. He had been like an uncle. And he came up with ‘Hey Jude.’ But I always heard it as a song to me.

“Now I’m sounding like one of those fans reading things into it… Think about it: Yoko had just come into the picture. He is saying. ‘Hey, Jude’—’Hey, John.’ Subconsciously, he was saying, ‘Go ahead, leave me.’ On a conscious level, he didn’t want me to go ahead. The angel in him was saying, ‘Bless you.’ The devil in him didn’t like it at all, because he didn’t want to lose his partner.”

The direct target of McCartney’s anthemic and downright astounding song is likely to be a combination of both of these sentiments. Whether it was for Julian as a moment of friendship, a hand on the shoulder of his friend’s son and a knowing, guiding smile to what life could be like. Or indeed whether it was a letter to John to try and connect with him as they had done before.

The truth is that the song, like any great song does, can be moved and repositioned to fit whatever the audience may need at the time. It is a song bristling with emotion, care, comfort, and love. It’s a song like no other. It’s a letter to a friend.

Find the complete playlist below: