I don’t think I need to talk about who the Beatles were or what they meant to popular music; about how they helped revolutionize the industry by writing their own songs and added import to the album rather than just singles; about how it’s hard to imagine a rock and roll band bigger than the Beatles. Even at the time of their breakup John, Paul, George, and Ringo had already achieved mythic status. People still love discussing who their favorite Beatle is and why he’s the greatest. I progressed like most any other fan from Paul in high school, John in college, and a love for George and Ringo in adulthood. But really, I love them all. Together they formed the biggest band in the world and apart their talent shone even more.
After the break-up in 1970 each of the four men struggled to shake off the Beatles, to show that they were more than the band and prove to themselves and naysayers that they could do it on their own. This pressure actually proved fruitful in the early 1970s and explains why most of the albums on this list are from that time period. From endearing pop to bitter vitriol, from themes of tearing down false idols to just trying to put out enjoyable music, these 10 albums not only give us a better idea of their individual contributions to the Beatles but they also help provide insight into their state of mind. It wasn’t until one of these post-Beatles efforts that you could actually understand George’s disillusionment, John’s anger, Paul’s ambition, and Ringo’s desire to collaborate with those who take his contributions seriously. Fanatics will refuse to believe it but some of these albums sit up there with the best Beatles albums. Don’t believe me? Read on and then go listen for yourselves.
George Harrison, the quiet Beatle, had quite a lot to say as the band he had been in for a decade was in its death throes. Most of us would agree he penned some of the most perfect songs on the White Album and Abbey Road. Little did we know how the floodgates would open now that he was free to let it all out on 1970’s triple-LP epic All Things Must Pass. Harrison is joined by friends Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, and many others during the sessions that were co-produced by Phil Spector. Harrison exploded with creative output both spiritual and introspective, some of which was culled from songs rejected during the Beatles days. The conflicted emotions on the title track and “Wah-Wah,” and overcoming material desires in “Beware of Darkness” give us glimpses of Harrison’s frustrations with the Beatles, the latter song being one of the major highlights of the album. It isn’t all dark reflection as we are also treated to joyful numbers like “What Is Life” and “My Sweet Lord” with Harrison’s signature slide-guitar adding poignancy to one of the greatest Beatles solo singles ever.
As far as opening salvos in the post-Beatles era, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band (1970) is an album full of raw, personal statements, taking the autobiographical album to a whole different level. He had undergone primal therapy along with wife Yoko Ono where one relives pain experienced in childhood and for Lennon that meant re-experiencing the anguish of abandonment by his parents and later his mother’s death. Lennon channeled these traumas, along with the emotional fallout of the Beatles breakup, into a difficult, threadbare opus. There’s no holding back on album opener “Mother” which begins with an ominous bell toll where Lennon cries over the loss of his parents then he consoles himself (and us) with “Hold On.” It’s a bit of a rollercoaster, harrowing in its content and musical style, where we’re rocking out to “I Found Out” only to face the harsh, sparsely arranged “Working Class Hero” and then later the delicately beautiful “Love.” Plastic Ono Band’s themes are clear: there’s disillusionment, but there’s also salvation through love.
Paul McCartney’s second solo effort, Ram, wasn’t that well-received by critics at the time of release in 1971 though it sold well and is now considered quintessential McCartney. On it you’ll find a happy McCartney, collaborating with wife Linda (who was not really a musician but gamely learned along the way), and still figuring out his post-Beatles sound. There are no political indictments here and though some of his former bandmates took umbrage at perceived slights on “3 Legs” and “Too Many People,” Ram is essentially a pop album with well-written melodies and lush arrangements. It is very reminiscent of his songs on the latter Beatles albums, particularly on “Dear Boy” and hit single “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” You’ll find whimsy (“Uncle Albert”), country-bliss folk (“Heart of the Country”) and some rockers (“3 Legs,” “Smile Away,” and “Eat at Home”). It’s an album you can’t help but go back to and think, shit, that guy can write some catchy tunes.
Some folks see the title and all they think of is the idealism of the title track but John Lennon’s Imagine (1971) is also Lennon at his most biting. Don’t be fooled by the more polished production compared to Plastic Ono Band; ballads and rockers, anti-war statements and expressions of love, all of these (and George Harrison) join forces on Lennon’s most cohesive and perhaps best album. If Plastic Ono Band showed what confessional songwriting could really be, Imagine showed a Lennon aiming his critical gaze on society, politics, and war with “Imagine,” “Gimme Some Truth,” and “I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier.” Things get more personal as he pointedly takes shots at Paul McCartney on “How Do You Sleep?” with lines like “the only thing you done was yesterday and since you’re gone you’re just another day.” Ouch. Lennon also finds time for some straightforward love songs like the romantically apologetic “Jealous Guy” (did you know some Beatles fans think this song is about jealousy over McCartney?) and the happy pop of “Oh Yoko!” which closes the record.
There’s no doubt that following up the critical smash All Things Must Pass and his charity project The Concert for Bangladesh must’ve been hard for George Harrison. On 1973’s Living in the Material World he makes a great decision not to bring back Phil Spector to produce. The spiritual influences remain but the production is stripped back, utilizing a smaller group of session musicians, allowing Harrison to take center stage. It opens with the lovely “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)” which showcases his signature slide-guitar and the litigious “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” which has Harrison influenced by McCartney’s suit to dissolve the Beatles in court. He openly aches on “Who Can See It” and then drives hard on the title track which closes the first side. And if you thought Harrison couldn’t be more raw than he was on “Who Can See It,” side two’s opener takes you further inside his anguish in “Be Here Now,” which further contemplates the past, reminding himself to “be here now because it’s not like it was before.” Living in the Material World is sentimental but also reveals a more mature and thoughtful Harrison.
On 1973’s Ringo, his third solo album, Ringo Starr makes a proper rock album (his first being an album of pop standards and the second a country record). It’s an all-star affair with contributions from all three former Beatles bandmates and friends like Harry Nilsson, Marc Bolan, members of The Band, Billy Preston, and more. It’s telling that even though they could no longer work together as the Beatles, Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney were willing to write and appear on songs for Ringo (though never all four together). Highlights include the hit singles “Photograph,” which was co-written by Harrison and Ringo about looking back at a broken relationship, and the cover of “You’re Sixteen” which is the tongue-in-cheek Ringo we all love. In 1978 Ringo made a music video for “You’re Sixteen” with Carrie Fisher playing the love interest and you can watch it here because the more Carrie Fisher the better. A little bit rock, boogie, and glam, Ringo is just a fun record that deserves multiple spins.
Mind Games is the weakest of the 1973 albums released by the rest of the Fab Four but it’s still John Lennon and a weak Lennon album is still pretty damn good. Writing and recording came during a tumultuous period. His political 1972 album Sometime in New York City flopped, he fought legal battles to stay in the U.S. and was under surveillance by the FBI for his activism, and he separated from Yoko Ono just before the ’73 recording sessions were to begin. Rather than write another overtly political album Lennon decided to get back to the more personal side of things, looking to be more accessible than biting. The results are mixed though when he gets it right he knocks it out of the park, like on the lush title track yelling out to the world that “love is the answer” and “Bring On the Lucie (Freda Peeple),” an ode to peace. “Out the Blue” is another highlight, a ballad dedicated to his love for Ono which starts with a simple acoustic guitar and Lennon’s vocals then growing into a sweeping statement of thankfulness for having Ono come into his life. Mind Games is that transition album where he’s all over the place musically but you can tell he’s reaching for something and you want to listen and reach along with him.
George Harrison’s Cloud Nine (1987) has the added distinction of being the only album on this list that I can remember being released, helped by Harrison’s resemblance to my father on the album cover (blurry toddler memories of Lennon’s Double Fantasy don’t really count). Harrison himself had taken a hiatus from music and when he was ready to give it another go, he asked Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra) to co-produce. Lynne’s influence is particularly heard on the co-written tracks such as “This Is Love,” my personal favorite, and “When We Was Fab,” a look back at Harrison’s time with the Beatles. The result is simple and brilliant songwriting, a pop-rock album that doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Other album highlights include the bluesy rock of “Cloud 9,” a redone “Breath Away From Heaven” from the film Shanghai Surprise (the one with Madonna and Sean Penn), and hit single “Got My Mind Set On You,” a fabulous cover of a ‘60s song where it’s obvious Harrison is just having a ball. With contributions by friends like Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, and Elton John, Cloud Nine is Harrison’s most focused album, his last solo work before his death in 2001, and best since All Things Must Pass.
Paul McCartney, the first to publicly break away from the Beatles, struggled early with critical success compared to some of his former bandmates. After the lackluster reception for 1970’s Ram, he decided to form a proper band with Wings but their first two albums didn’t live up to expectations either. It wasn’t until 1973 that McCartney and Wings hit their stride with their third effort Band on the Run. Not only are the songs more focused, there’s a confidence in McCartney that’s easily felt in the songs. It opens with the title track, a monster of a song that plays like a suite with mini-movements, reminiscent of the Abbey Road medley (which is one of my top 5 favorite album sides ever). “Jet” hits you over the head with its bombastic power pop and I defy anyone not to yell along “Jet!” even when it shows up later in the dreamy “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me).” Be they gorgeous low-tempo numbers (“Bluebird” and “Mamunia”), a bluesy slow-burn (“Let Me Roll It”) or an over-the-top orchestral album closer (“Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five”), Band on the Run was a critical and commercial success, reestablishing McCartney as a creative force.
In a parallel to Plastic Ono Band, 1980’s Double Fantasy opens with the ringing of a bell but this time the chime is delicately wistful that when coupled with the opening line “Our life together is so precious, together, we have grown, we have grown…” you know you’re in for a softer ride into John Lennon’s life. Couched as a dialogue between Lennon and Yoko Ono, the songs alternate between his and hers, the rock star at his most domesticated and the avant-garde artist experimenting with pop and new wave music. Released after a long break while helping to raise his son Sean, Lennon was ready to get back into it. “Cleanup Time” and “Watching the Wheels” comment on his hiatus and view of the future. His happiness with his family are on full display with “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” “Woman,” and “Dear Yoko.” But it isn’t all marital bliss. Lennon and Ono had their issues as heard on “I’m Losing You,” a harder rock song about Lennon’s remorse at having done wrong and the anger felt at not being forgiven, and Ono’s answer with “I’m Moving On” saying no more bullshit. Double Fantasy has achieved legendary status in part for being the last album released before his death but it also happens to be a solid rock album, showcasing some of Lennon’s and Ono’s best work together.