Everyone has heard the saying “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” It’s an old chestnut that must predate the Beatles, but it seems to have been coined with them in mind. I won’t waste your time by piling a bunch of effusive praise on a band that receives little but effusive praise (if you want a time-waster, check out “Face-Off #1” from August), but I’ll just plunge ahead on and say the individual Beatles’ post-1969 careers have been a little patchy. Navigating their solo waters is treacherous, and sometimes you wonder what happened to the white-hot, jaw-dropping level of creative genius that fueled the Beatles in the 1960s. It seems to have just faded away when the four individuals were separated. Much like the Sankara stones in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t moments of greatness in the Beatles’ solo discography. There are. Many of them. It just requires a little stick-to-itiveness to separate the wheat from the chaff. So, armed with patience, earbuds, a copy of Madinger & Easter’s Eight Arms To Hold You: The Solo Beatles Compendium, and mp3s of each and every Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr song (the fewer questions you ask about how I got them, the better), I listened to every note so you don’t have to, and I am here to report back to you so you can fill your iPods with the cream of the solo Beatles’ output, legally purchased from a reputable vendor. And since it’s way more fun to write about things you don’t like, I’ll also be cautioning you on what to avoid.
The format will be as follows: Best Album, Best Hit Single, Best Non-Hit Song (there’s lots of treasures buried halfway through an album side), followed by the Worst of those categories, and — since I never know when to shut up — runners-up for all categories. Only official studio albums of new material will be considered. No live albums, no albums of cover songs, no bootlegs, no film soundtracks, no compilations. Because that would take forever, and hey man, I have a life.
It’s no real surprise that John Lennon has the smallest solo discography — he was murdered just ten years into his post-Beatles career, and he spent half of those ten years in retirement. His official output shrinks even more when you consider that two of his albums were credited jointly to wife/artistic partner Yoko Ono and were only partially filled with Lennon songs, one was a posthumous release containing leftovers from one of the joint albums, and one was an album of oldies covers (1975’s Rock and Roll). When he was still with the Beatles, he and Yoko put out three “experimental” albums of random noise and Yoko’s charming screeching. (Unfinished Music, Vol. 1: Two Virgins (1968), with the infamous nude cover, Unfinished Music, Vol. 2: Life With The Lions (1969), and The Wedding Album (1969)). Since these are not in any sense of the word “music” (unfinished or no), and even I won’t sit through them, they won’t be considered here. So we’re left with only four true solo albums of new material.
John Lennon discography:
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)
Some Time in New York City (1972) with Yoko Ono
Mind Games (1973)
Walls and Bridges (1974)
Double Fantasy (1980) with Yoko Ono
Milk and Honey (1984) posthumous; with Yoko Ono
BEST ALBUM: Imagine — The title song is a plea for peace and understanding beloved the world over, but the album itself is not as gentle-spirited. (And although the song remained a favorite of John’s, he got a little tired of people thinking it was the be-all, end-all. “It’s just a song, mate,” he would say sharply whenever anyone got too dewey-eyed over it in his presence.) There’s a lot of brittle anger on the album, directed at individuals (McCartney gets raked over the coals explicitly in “How Do You Sleep?” and implicitly in “Crippled Inside”) and at society in general, such as on the sneering, spitting “Gimme Some Truth” and the hypnotic trance-rocker “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier.” There’s also a trio of Lennon’s best post-Beatles love songs, “How,” “Jealous Guy,” and “Oh My Love.”
Like its predecessor (see below), Imagine was produced by Phil Spector, who in many ways was the opposite of long-time Beatles producer George Martin. Martin’s style was tasteful and restrained, but with a fondness for a little sonic experimentation as long as it served the song. (Although in this area, Beatles recording engineer Geoff Emerick not-so-subtly hinted in his excellent book that Martin — while never less than a gentleman — was a little too happy to take sole credit for the work of the Abbey Road engineering staff as a whole.) Spector’s approach could never be called restrained — and his big, splashy, echoey “Wall of Sound” was a double-edged sword. Majestic when done right, an over-baked mess when misapplied. No one could blame the Beatles for wanting to switch up producers in their early solo years, but Spector’s style sometimes struggled to mesh with their songwriting. It was Lennon and Harrison that used Spector at this time. Ringo went with another well-known over-producer, Richard Perry, who had the uncanny ability to somehow capture the sound of inhuman amounts of cocaine. McCartney tended to self-produce, which is another double-edged sword that we’ll get to in the McCartney entry.
And Jesus-Mary-Joseph-and-Jimi, what the hell’s with all the saxophone?! It seems like every third solo Beatles song from the early 1970’s had a big, loud, braying, stupid-sounding saxophone honking through every break. Never (never? see Comments below) having used it as a solo instrument during the Beatles’ career (except when guest musician Brian Jones of the Stones blew a few shaky notes on one on the B-side “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)”), all four ex-Beatles inexplicably fell in love with it. Its grating presence ruined many an otherwise-good song, until they blessedly fell back out of love with it around 1976 or so.
BEST ALBUM RUNNER-UP: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band — Often touted as Lennon’s best, it’s certainly a close second in my opinion. Much of its appeal lies in its tough, stripped-down sound. Lennon plays all the guitars on the album (and quite well, too, out from under George Harrison’s more technically-proficient shadow). Ringo mans the drum stool and really draws attention to himself, for the first time being produced by someone other than Martin. Spector’s production makes Starr’s drumming boom out like he’s on the warpath. Although nicknamed the “Primal Scream Album” due to its songwriting process being aided by Dr. Arthur Janov’s controversial trauma-based psychotherapy technique Lennon was undergoing at the time, the vocals are relatively restrained (except on the ultimate childhood-trauma song “Mother” and the unclear but for some reason furious “Well Well Well.”) The Dylanesque “Working Class Hero” became an strange sort-of anthem, marked the first time a Beatle dropped the f-bomb on record, and gave Lennon an undeserved nickname, even though anyone who bothered to listen to the lyrics understood he wasn’t really applying the label to himself. (“He wasn’t a working class hero,” his Aunt Mimi famously said. “He was a middle-class snob.”) And the dippy, childlike “Love” was released as a British single after Lennon’s assassination, but it’s saccharine enough to make your teeth ache. A vengeful “God” puts the final nail in the coffin of the Beatles with its famous last line “I don’t believe in Beatles/I just believe in me.” What puts this a notch below Imagine for me is that there are two or three weak tracks (there are none on Imagine), and its relentless air of self-absorption becomes a little oppressive at times.
BEST HIT SINGLE: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” Beyond being Lennon’s best single ever, this is high in the running for best thing ever. (Highest Chart Position: UK, #2)
BEST HIT SINGLE RUNNER-UP: “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On).” Apologies to “Imagine,” but this is the Lennon anthem that the world should pay attention to. (Highest Chart Position: US, #3.) Neither of these singles were included on an original album.
BEST NON-HIT SONG: “Oh Yoko!” — Imagine. The final song on Imagine has a scruffy charm that sets it apart from the rest of its very earnest album-mates. Lilting, up-beat, and funny, it seems like a tossed-off throwaway until you realize you love it. It was used to good effect in Wes Anderson’s film Rushmore.
BEST NON-HIT SONG RUNNER-UP: “I Found Out” — John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. When Lennon found himself a spokesperson for the hippies after “Give Peace A Chance,” he quickly grew tired of their druggy, spacey psychobabble. (Sure, he’s tossed out some druggy, spacey psychobabble himself, but he’s John Freakin’ Lennon, not a bunch of noisome hippies.) The result was this rage-filled screed (“The freaks on the phone won’t leave me alone/So don’t give me that ‘brother-brother-brother-brother'”) set to a bare-bones, guttural, growling rhythm that says “stay away” as clearly as the lyrics, which lambast the flower children and their sheep-like need to follow gurus.
WORST ALBUM: Some Time in New York City — Sometimes you go with the obvious choice. This record was critically reviled and a relative commercial flop at the time of its release (#48 on the charts, unthinkably low for a former Beatle in ’72), and neither its reputation nor its contents have improved over time. Although, in fairness, I’ll admit being surprised that the album was fairly solid from a musical standpoint. No great shakes, but “Luck Of The Irish” has the proper Celtic flourishes, and “Attica State” and several other tracks are decent enough examples of that muscular, muddy-festival-friendly jam-boogie so particular to the early 70’s. (Backing band Elephant’s Memory do not embarrass themselves here as they occasionally did in live settings with their sloppy over-playing.) The lyrics, however, are atrocious, and sink the whole thing. The newspaper-style album cover is indicative of the “torn-from-today’s-headlines” nature of the songs within. Lennon was in the midst of his hardcore “activist” phase, so each song tackled a recent cause: the Bloody Sunday massacre, the Attica prison riot, the John Sinclair case, Angela Davis, women’s rights, etc. All well and good. Social consciousness can lead to great music, but that type of music needs to resist the urge to become preachy and holier-than-thou. The songs on this album do nothing but point a self-righteous finger in the listener’s face. What’s worse, each of these topics occupied Lennon’s notoriously brief attention span just long enough for him to write the most simple-minded, sloganeering lyrics possible. He sounds like a sheltered college freshman discovering left-wing rhetoric for the first time. The man who once gave us “Strawberry Fields Forever” is reduced to lines like “You Anglo pigs and Scotties/Sent to colonize the north/You wave your bloody Union Jacks/And you know what it’s worth!”
The idea, I suppose, was to try to “capture a moment” and get the album written, recorded, and released while the issues were still current (although the Sinclair uproar was long-resolved by ’72). And I read somewhere that Lennon even envisioned an entire series of these “newspaper” albums to be put out every few months. Luckily, Lennon’s agitprop phase passed quickly, the idea for multiple Some Times was dropped, and all we’re left with is this single dog of a record. When you resort to calling your lead-off single “Woman Is The N***er Of The World,” the clumsy attempt to be shocking simply weakens the metaphorical point, and you’re better off scratching the whole thing and starting over. (Yoko’s three solo songs on the album obviously weren’t any better, but they weren’t much worse either.) The only track to survive the carnage is the non-political “New York City,” a bouncy 50’s-style rock & roll throwback (complete with that goddamn saxophone) describing the Lennons’ arrival and adventures in their new American home — a kind of “Ballad of John and Yoko Part 2.”
Oh, and the album comes with a bonus disc of live recordings made during John & Yoko’s guest appearance with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention at the Fillmore East in June 1971. Most of it is incredibly tedious experimental jamming, which completely alters our notion of a “bonus,” although this kind of shit seems to be beloved by a certain breed of foul-smelling, stringy-haired heavy drug user. Like the main disc, there is one listenable moment here: a version of the Walter Ward R&B number “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)” with a blistering Zappa guitar solo, and Yoko’s characteristic vocalizations that are actually eerie and atmospheric, rather than the colossal annoyance we’ve all come to expect.
WORST ALBUM RUNNER-UP: Mind Games — By no means awful, just slightly dull. An attempt to rehash the sounds of Imagine without the spark of inspiration, it’s the kind of album you put on as moderately pleasant background noise, and then don’t notice when it ends. Only Lennon’s distinctive voice keeps this from being just another collection of bland 70’s soft-rock. Actually, much the same could be said for its follow-up, Walls and Bridges, which contains some better songs (such as the pretty, George Harrison-ish “#9 Dream”), but its lows are lower (see below.) If it sounds like I’m being too hard on these albums, keep in mind very little on either of them is truly bad (the key phrase is “moderately pleasant.”) Lennon’s solo career was so short he only made one album that was sub-par all the way through.
WORST HIT SINGLE: “Woman Is The N***er Of The World.” (Highest Chart Position: US, #57.) I guess if it charts, it’s technically a “hit,” and it was included on Lennon’s first greatest-hits album, but Top 60 is a pretty poor showing, due to a rare display of taste by the 1970’s listening public. The song itself is another political polemic from the Some Time debacle, with little to recommend it except an interesting double-tracked guitar solo, and it’s ability to get stuck in your head when you really, really don’t want it to (and if you start absent-mindedly singing it to yourself around your workplace, there will probably be consequences.)
WORST HIT SINGLE RUNNER-UP: “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night.” (Highest Chart Position: US, #1) — Walls and Bridges. Elton John contributes co-lead vocals to this bit of sax-saturated, proto-disco fluff, making it sound like one of his own B-sides. It fits right alongside the other nonsense America sent to the top of the charts that year — “You’re Having My Baby,” “Kung-Fu Fighting,” “Seasons In The Sun,” and Grand Funk’s version of “The Loco-Motion.”
WORST NON-HIT SONG: “Bless You” — Walls and Bridges. Lennon had a lot of nerve accusing McCartney of “mak[ing] Muzak” when he was willing to shovel out elevator-friendly pap like this that would be suitable for a cheesy motel cocktail lounge if the energy level were a little higher.
WORST NON-HIT SONG RUNNER-UP:“Beef Jerky” — Walls and Bridges. A pointless, go-nowhere instrumental. Or near-instrumental. Lennon and the studio musicians shout the title a few times.
RECOMMENDED LENNON SONGS FOR YOUR SOLO BEATLES PLAYLIST: “Give Peace A Chance,” “Cold Turkey,” “Mother,” “Working Class Hero,” “I Found Out,” “God,” “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On),” “Imagine,” “Jealous Guy,” “Gimme Some Truth,” “How Do You Sleep?,” “How?” “Oh Yoko!,” “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” “New York City,” “Mind Games,” “Bring On The Lucie (Freda People),” “Out The Blue,” “I Know (I Know),” “Going Down On Love” (not what it sounds like), “#9 Dream,” “Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox),” “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Watching The Wheels,” “Woman,” “Nobody Told Me,” “Borrowed Time.” (And you can throw in “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” dumb as it is, because it was his biggest hit during his lifetime and it’s pretty harmless.)