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.
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