Readers' Poll: The 10 Greatest Solo Beatle Songs - Rolling Stone
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Readers’ Poll: The 10 Greatest Solo Beatle Songs

Your picks include ‘Band on the Run,’ ‘Instant Karma’ and ‘What Is Life’

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Rock fans will forever wonder what would have happened to the Beatles had they carried on through the 1970s. We'll never know, but we can look to their solo projects for some answers. All four Beatles began the 1970s with very strong efforts (even Ringo had big hits) but, as the decade wore on, only Paul McCartney seemed capable of scoring on the charts. John Lennon came back strong in 1980 with Double Fantasy, though we'll obviously never know where he would have gone from there.

We asked our readers to vote for their favorite solo Beatle songs. All four of them landed at least one song in the Top 10. Click through to see the results. 


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10. Paul McCartney and Wings – ‘Live and Let Die’

The 1973 movie Live and Let Die was the first James Bond film with Roger Moore in the lead, but it's really best remembered for the theme song by Paul McCartney and Wings. McCartney wrote the track after reading the Ian Fleming novel and brought in Beatles producer George Martin to produce it. It was their first time working together since the Beatles split. The bombastic song was a hit all over the world, but it couldn't get past Number Two on the US Billboard Hot 100. Believe it or not, "The Morning After" by Maureen McGovern stood in its way. The song has been played at pretty much every McCartney concert of the past 30 years, and Guns N' Roses turned it into a big hit in 1991. 

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9. George Harrison – ‘All Things Must Pass’

George Harrison's frustration with the Beatles is very easy to understand when you learn they rejected "All Things Must Pass" during the Let It Be sessions. The band did run through it a few times, but ultimately the brilliant song was shelved. (Thankfully, extensive bootlegs from these sessions survive.) Harrison's songwriting abilities grew exponentially during his time with the Beatles, but John Lennon and Paul McCartney just didn't recognize this.

The public first heard the song on a 1970 Billy Preston album, and later that year, Harrison released a new recording of the tune on his triple LP All Things Must Pass. He never released it as a single, but it's become one of his most beloved songs. Let It Be would have been a better album if John and Paul had taken the time to appreciate the song. 

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8. John Lennon – ‘Instant Karma’

A few months before the public learned that the Beatles had broken up, John Lennon woke up with a new song in his head. "I wrote it in the morning on the piano," Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1971. "I went to the office and sang it many times. So I said, 'Hell, let's do it,' and we booked the studio, and Phil [Spector] came in, and said, 'How do you want it?' I said, 'You know, 1950s.' He said, 'Right,' and boom, I did it in about three goes or something like that. I went in and he played it back and there it was. The only argument was that I said a bit more bass, that's all, and off we went." The song was in the can the very day it was written, and just 10 days later, it appeared on store shelves. It was a huge hit all over the world. 

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7. Ringo Starr – ‘Photograph’

For a few years after the Beatles broke up, they only found a single thing they could agree on: Ringo. They all loved him and they did everything they could to help his solo career. In 1973, they even came together (separately) to play on his Ringo LP. A clear highlight of the album is "Photograph," co-written with George Harrison. It's a lovely song about the power of nostalgia, and Ringo sings it every night in his All Starr Band concerts.

It took on a new meaning in 2002 when Ringo sang it at the Concert for George. Everybody seemed to be holding back tears when he sang the lines, "All I've got is a photograph and I've realized you're not coming back anymore." 

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6. John Lennon – ‘Working Class Hero’

John Lennon's 1970 LP John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is arguably the greatest work of his solo career. The fourth song, "Working Class Hero," is a painfully personal look into the British class system. "I think it's for the people like me who are working class – whatever, upper or lower – who are supposed to be processed into the middle classes, through the machinery," Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970. "It's my experience, and I hope it's just a warning to people. I'm saying it's a revolutionary song; not the song itself but that it's a song for the revolution."

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5. Paul McCartney and Wings – ‘Band on the Run’

Paul McCartney formed Wings in 1971, but the group didn't really take off until Band on the Run hit in 1973. It was their third album, and many see it as their finest work. The title track is a tale of a band that feels confined by the business side of the industry until they break free and get back to their roots by playing small, impromptu shows. This was how Paul McCartney hoped to save the Beatles when they were falling apart in 1969. He wanted them to agree to a series of club shows, but the others weren't interested. Wings went on such a tour in their earliest days, and it inspired this song. It's over five minutes on the record, but they chopped it down to 3:50 for radio. 

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4. George Harrison – ‘What Is Life’

George Harrison surprised a lot of people by landing a couple of massive hits on the charts right after the Beatles broke up. "My Sweet Lord" hit Number One all over the world, while "What Is Life" proved almost as popular. Today, many people know it merely as a song from all those soundtracks: it's in This Is 40, Patch Adams, Goodfellas and many more. It's almost as ubiquitous as "Let My Love Open the Door" or "Solsbury Hill." The track is deceptively simple, and more layers become apparent the more often you play it. 

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3. George Harrison – ‘My Sweet Lord’

"My Sweet Lord" was a huge blessing for George Harrison, but also a huge curse. It was a huge radio hit that helped propel the triple LP All Things Must Pass up the charts, but it also caused a plagiarism lawsuit that led to years of expensive and embarrassing litigation. The song is very similar to the 1963 Chiffons song "He's So Fine," and a court ultimately found that he "subconsciously" plagiarized the song. (The Chiffons later cut their own version of "My Sweet Lord.")

"He must have known, you know," John Lennon told Playboy in 1980.  "He's smarter than that. It's irrelevant, actually. . . only on a monetary level does it matter. He could have changed a couple of bars in that song and nobody could ever have touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off."

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2. Paul McCartney – ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’

It took a long time for Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" to become a big hit single. He wrote the song about his wife Linda in 1969, before the Beatles even broke up. It first surfaced on his 1970 solo debut McCartney, but he didn't release it as a single. Only seven years later, when he released a live version on Wings Over America, did it finally land on the charts. That live version is the one you hear most often on the radio, and McCartney almost never finishes a concert without breaking out this song. 

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1. John Lennon – ‘Imagine’

This wasn't even a close contest. "Imagine" got over 200 more votes than the Number Two song. That shouldn't be a huge surprise, but the song is very polarizing. Many on the right see it as a call for socialism and communism. Lennon, however, had no such intent. It's merely a call for people to set aside their differences and come together in a peaceful fashion. "It's not like he thought, 'Oh, this can be an anthem,'” Yoko Ono has said. “It was just what John believed — that we are all one country, one world, one people. He wanted to get that idea out.”

The song is one of Bono's favorites. "I don't like how the song has become this New Age anthem — 'Imagine no restrictions,'" he's said. "It is a rigorous idea — that you have to hold a thought, and then go after it. My respect for John is that he didn't just have the thought. He went after it. Sometimes he made errors of judgment, but his mistakes were made in earnest."

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