Friday, January 16, 2009

Who is the best Beatle?

As part of a facebook wall exchange on the best bands in the world Andy Boyer asked me “who was the best Beatle?” This came after I pointed out to him the ridiculous notion of his that placed Nirvana in the top three bands of all time and missed the Beatles completely. [EDIT: Andy reminds me that he did mention the Beatles in his "bands I also like" section so saying that he missed them completely is unfair. I agree.]

His question, though, needs a response that is longer than a facebook wall can easily contain so I thought I’d respond here.

First of all, this is the sort of question that you shouldn’t have to answer. One is capable of enjoying the Beatles music without picking favorites or trying to sort out who brought what to the band. Not only that but there was something special in the collaboration of the four people involved. I know from playing with a variety of people that, if you let it, changing even one player in a band will change everyone. I play differently with a different piano player or drummer. When I played with the Lazy Blue Tunas I was able to play a lot differently because there were two other guitars occupying the same aural space and I needed to back off on some things and I was able to add other things. So, it’s hard to sort out what was going on with the Beatles as well.

All four Beatles brought something special to the band and that changed over the ten years or so that they were together. Paul’s bass playing, for example, is one of the high points of the best Beatles music. Have you listened to the bass on Sgt Pepper or in George’s beautiful song “Something?” Paul doesn’t get enough credit for that. John’s playing, while not virtuosic like Paul and George’s still carried the day on more than one occasion – his piano in “Ob La Di Ob La Da,” for example is what made the track work (even though it’s not one of Paul’s best songs.) George’s guitar is often just the thing that made a track work. His 12-string playing on A Hard Days Night made the album. Ringo’s drums were always on target – listen to the drums on “Come Together” – they’re brilliant. You can’t pull the pieces of the Beatles apart easily.

So let’s take a look at their post-Beatles work. This is also tough because John’s was so much shorter than the others and, for about half the time John was alive after the Beatles he wasn’t actively recording. George, too, took a lot of time off. Ringo had an on-again off-again recording career, even at times losing his recording contract. Paul, on the other hand, kept working. So how do you compare them? John’s songwriting has been recently highlighted on the wonderful “Instant Karma” collection where other artists covered his music and that reinforced the notion that he had a lot of good songs on his own. But, frankly, how many of John’s solo songs can people list? Even Imagine, his most popular album has only one song that people know - the title track. He also had minor hits with “Instant Karma” and “Give Peace a Chance.” In the same period McCartney had a large number of hits – “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Another Day,” “Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey,” “My Love,” “Band on the Run,” “Jet,” “Listen to the What the Man Said,” “Silly Love Songs,” “Let ‘Em In,” and“With A Little Luck” (to name the ones that I can off the top of my head.) And that’s just in his first decade after the Beatles. There have been nearly three more decades since then. In that same first decade George had “My Sweet Lord” and “Give Me Love.” So Paul is the clear winner in this category.

But it’s not just about hits. What about quality? Paul made a couple of lousy albums along the way. Wild Life has long been seen as one of his weaker albums and, indeed, it is not very good. And Paul has been tagged with writing a bunch of silly love songs – a charge that sticks to a certain extent. John’s work though is at least as uneven. Some Time in New York City was pretty poor. Side two of Live Peace in Toronto is unlistenable. Even his brilliant work on Double Fantasy really only amounts to half an album with Yoko’s music making up the other half – I’m quite content having on the John songs from that album and it’s posthumous follow up, Milk and Honey. George also had his stinkers – Extra Texture and Dark Horse haven’t even been released on CD yet. Ringo had one great album, Ringo. He did have a number of cool songs but, frankly, if you buy his Photograph anthology you’ve got just about all the Ringo you really need on one CD. So how do you compare Paul’s massive output with the relatively meager output from the others? It’s tough but on balance I think Paul had at least as high a batting average as the others and he came to the plate much more often. This, I think, gives him the edge.

So, Andy, with no disrespect to the other three, I think my answer is Paul McCartney.


Isorski said...

This is a tough one. I think you missed a gating category, which is how much impact on the world has the Beatle made? While I agree that McCartney had (has) a much higher profile career with more hits, and stinkers too, people STILL think Lennon is the guy who stood for the 60s, peace, peaceful protest, change etc.

Now, I think a lot of this is due to the fact that he was murdered (martyred). But to have had such a short solo career and much smaller pool of material but to still be ranked consistently as one of the best songwriters and most influential icons in rock music is very significant.

I think it is because he always wrote very honestly and from the heart, and rarely told third person stories in his music. I think McCartney has been unfairly hit for NOT writing first person, but this perception is a big part of Lennon's appeal.

Even if Lennon's songs in the mid 70s were crappy in general, at least they were fairly honest, and I think people extend him a lot of rope for that.

So I have to disagree and say that since Lennon has made a bigger impact on the world, he is the 'best' Beatle, however ridiculous that question is anyway.

Bob K said...

Isorski - thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with nearly everything you said (especially about how this is a ridiculous question.) That said, it really doesn't deserve an answer so I'll just say that your reasons are sound and I'll do what I should have done off the bat - ignored the question.

Isorski said...

Nice! But that is what ihe Web is all about anyway - inspired dialog. Ha ha.

Zachary said...

I'm so glad you picked Paul. He's also my favorite, because (as you said) he's lasted.

When they were together, I would consider them equals or close to it.

I'm surprised, though, to find your response as the top one on Google. I have long been under the impression that almost everyone favored Lennon across the board.

Conor said...

Isoriski- If John was the peace maker of the group, then being an excessive alcoholic and beating one of your friends up with a shovel for calling you homosexual must be peaceful and Bob; i fully agree with your statement that Paul is the best beatle. He was the most talented and hard working. Lennon may have been a phenomenal song writer but he was never very stable or peaceful

Don Capone said...

What about Pete Best? ; )

Sheffieldspark said...

For Me John Lennon was the best beatle... In the early days from Please Please Me, With The Beatles, A Hard Day's Night, Help he dominated these albums, He wrote/sang more songs on these albums than any of the other 3 Beatles, Songs such as Ticket To Ride, Help!, A Hard Day's Night hit after hit just seeping from the pen of John Lennon. Rubber Soul he had some brilliant songs In My Life, Girl, Norwegian Wood the better matierial still coming from Mr Lennon. Its only when it comes to Revolver than Paul starts to come into his own, He wrote some brilliant songs on this album and I'd say Sgt Pepper was more His project than any of the other Beatles but even so John still produced Lucy in The Sky with Diamonds which is proberbly the ultimate physcadelic song, And lets not forgot that John produced most of the lyrics for A Day in The Life, His later hits with the Beatles Strawberry Fields, All You Need Is Love, I Am The Walrus, Come Together all timeless Beatles classics. I respect the work both Paul/George added to the band, Paul's also phenomenal songwriting ability and his genius for Melody, George's faultless guitar riff's and fills, And not to forget Ringo's also faultless beat throughout the Beatles records but John wrote the bulk of My favourite beatles song's. I know alot of his solo work isn't the best but the Plastic Ono Band album aswell as the Imagine one are both brilliant, And I think he was starting to find some of his former brilliance on Double Fantasy, Yet thats the unfortunate part We will never know. For Me Paul as been chiselling away at his reputation for years, I mean hes wrote some brilliant songs Maybe Im Amazed, Mull of Kintyre, Live and Let Die but hes also wrote some absolute tosh like Frog Chorus and I Hear Someone Knocking which is possibly the most ridiculous piece of music ever written... Lennon is one of the most interesting and intriguing people to have lived in the 21st century, He added that character to the Beatles and thats why for Me along with the brilliance of His music he is the best beatle

Bob K said...

SheffieldSpark - thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with much of what you said - it is impossible to overestimate John's part in the Beatles, especially in the early albums, as you point out. And I also agree about Plastic Ono Band, Imagine and Double Fantasy (although that's really only half John's songs.)

Let's not forget, though, that John had some lousy albums in the middle - most notably Some Time in NYC. I can't defend all of Paul's music (if you look further in this blog you'll see a very negative review of Wild Life) but John had his stinkers too.

All that said, it's a no-lose situation between these guys - they were brilliant. We can both be right.

laura.lyon said...

My personal opinion is that Lennon outshines them all. I love Paul and his music. Love it. They play it all the time for MUZAK where I work. What does that mean? They also play Ringo once in awhile..never George. I sing to every one of them. So won't you listen to what the man says? No matter, I will and have always loved John's voice, music and personna. I loved him when I was 8 years old and I love him now. My 5 year old daughter is also listening and she LOVES John Lennon. I didn't ask her..she just does.

Marc Varvaro said...

This is an easy one. Paul is the best. He and Lennon both wrote all of their songs but i believe once John got into the whole "peace" project, he became very weird and irritable. I love all of the beatles but Paul is the one that had the long lasting career.He is the one that people will remember that arent from the "beatles era"

Thomas said...

personally i have paul as a favourite, but i must say that john and george are really good songwriters to, i dont think anyone can make a song as good and importen as IMAGINE. i think all of them should have the same credits :) except for Ringo, well he is a nice little man, but his nose is too big.
no disrespect ringo but you had your moment in Yellow submarine, and that was enough XD.

Peace And Love!!

buzzhoven1 said...

The interesting fact is that together they were better than S individuals. John and Paul alone werent as good as they were in the Beatles. There is something's in the complimentary talents. Paul was gifted musically John was the better lyrics . Both were melodic with Paul out front by a nose but John slightly better Voice. And on it goes. Their combo beats any individual.

Blueberry said...

George Harrison, because he wrote the songs that mean the most to me. I see him as a bright light.
Jai Guru Deva. Ommmmm

igautlucky said...

Hello. I am not sure if its too late to leave a comment, but aren't we all discussing a band of the 60's?? So I guess its never too late!

For the record, I'd like to start with - all four being superb/unique in their own ways..but for me, it is John Lennon and it will always be. Period.

John, I believe was the central nucleus around which the rest of them revolved. He was the face of Beatles. There was this special aura about him. Be it his granny glasses, his weird temperament, his sarcastic remarks or his affair with Yoko Ono - in one way or the other, he ensured 'The Beatles' were in news!
John was definitely the most progressive one among the four - evident from the transformation in style of music The Beatles made, not to mention those 'out of the blue' lyrics (listen to 'I am the Walrus' and you'll know what I mean) John was NOT scared to experiment and unlike the others, never stuck to a single style of music just to please the fans!

Even his post Beatle days were full of experiments. They may not have been successful, but did Lennon care??

Other than his talent as a musician playing guitar, piano and other instruments and being one of the best song writers, it is his role as a lead singer which is above all. His voice is the soul of The Beatles. Just listen to "Twist and shout", nobody could've sang it better than him. Even "Happiness is a warm gun" or "Everybody's got something to hide except for me and my monkey"

Everybody else could get away with the soft soulful numbers and even John could do that, but nobody rocked like John Lennon. Though he was murdered very early, he is very much alive for the Beatles fans. He shins on and on and on on on.. :)