Discography Guide: The Beatles Solo Years 1970-80

22 01 2012

Everyone knows that together, The Beatles were largely brilliant. Apart? Like so many bands that followed in their wake, they were sporodically brilliant, but never reached the consistant level that they had done together. The Beatles break up was hardly acrimonious, and there are plenty of veiled (and otherwise in the case of John) references to one another over the course of the following ten years. If you don’t really know anything about the solo work, there is some great stuff, but you have to be careful, because some of it, as we shall see, is a real mess.

1970:

In 1970, Paul released McCartney, and in the press for the album officially announced what the music press already suspected (George and John had already got their albums out)  that The Beatles had broken up, like Bryan Adams in the Summer of 69. This incensed John as it was he who had left the group, but it did him a favour in a way, as it briefly turned public view against Macca for breaking up the world’s biggest band. His first solo effort is an enjoyably low-fi affair, featuring some of his genuinely great work – Maybe I’m Amazed stands up to anything he ever recorded. Every Night is also great and deals with him being at a loss as to what to do post-Beatles. Most of the rest of the songs are thumbnail sketches of his love for The Lovely Linda.

By contrast, George released All Things Must Pass, a gigantic triple album which finally got rid of all the songs he had been building up over the previous five years stuck behind John and Paul in the Beatle queue. It is (largely needless third record aside) a masterpiece, with Phil Spector on production duty it sounded even bigger than its triple status suggests. Wah-Wah directly referenced the argument with Paul from Let it Be, while My Sweet Lord and What is Life happily sit among the best things he ever wrote.

If George was relieved to be out of the Beatles so he could do his own thing, John was angry about various things. He had entered Primal Scream therapy, which informed his first solo album Plastic Ono Band (officially titled John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band because it realeased alongside a Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band) a shouty masterwork railing against absolutely everything, from childhood abandonment (Mother) The Beatles (God) and his supposed roots (Working Class Hero). It is absolutely astonishing, a bold move for someone exiting the biggest pop band of all time.

Ringo meanwhile, just wanted to “do songs me mam wanted to hear” and so released Sentimental Journey a collection of his various family members favourite songs. Its a nice gesture really, and lovely for what it is. Perhaps all the Beatles solo albums sum up their respective personalities to some degree, and none more than Ringo’s. He is stood outside a pub on the front cover too, which probably is making as much of a statement as George sat by those three garden gnomes on the cover of his. He managed to get a second album out before the year was out Beaucoups of Blues, a country album (think Act Naturally or What Goes On), which is surprisingly enjoyable. It was however a commercial failure (even in America where country music is beloved) and so Ringo turned back to the movies for the time being. 

1971

Paul had two albums out in 1971, the first was Ram, essentially the first Wings album (though not credited as such) featuring as it does Linda and Denny Seiwell. Rightly Ram has picked up a cult following for its homspun charm (including covers albums) as it is a great record. John didn’t think so and perceived a host of pops at him and Yoko (especially on Too Many People) which fed into Imagine, the centrepiece of which is How Do You Sleep? a none more bitter (but thanks to a cameo from George on guitar, catchy) attempt to tear Paul’s reputation apart.  Elsewhere though it is a pretty great record, a self-conscious attempt to sugar the pill that was Plastic Ono Band. So things take on a more wistful note, struck by the career-defining title track, Gimme Some Truth and I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier. It is let down a little by the whiney How? and the doodle non-song Oh Yoko! at the end.

Paul responded to John’s baiting by forming his own band. He was always the most likely to miss being in a band setting and playing live (John and George had seemed perfectly happy to have given it up in the 60s) but setting up Wings was naiive, as there was little chance the other members were going to feel on a equal footing to Macca, or recreate the magic he had with The Beatles. Sure enough Wild Life is far from a classic, notable now only for Dear Friend, in which he offers an olive branch to John.

George spent the year focused on his Concert for Bangladesh, the proto Live Aid that wrote the rule book for big charity events (charity tie-in song with lyrics clearly knocked out in 10 minutes, all-star gig, released as an album etc etc)  and featured him and Ravi Shankar playing live, along with cameos from The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr and Billy Preston.

1972

A quiet year, with just the one Beatle related album release, coming from John. Unfortunatly it was Some Time In New York City. A dreadful album which stopped a good run of post-Beatle form he had found himself in, New York City was John’s first album after moving to the States, and this suggested it didn’t agree with him at all. He tackles various political issues of the time – the Woman’s movement (Woman is the Nigger of the World) Prison Riots (Attica State – coincidentally the prison his killer Mark Chapman would find himself in) and the Ireland situation (various on Side 2), but all super-simplistically, and unmemorably.

Paul released a single approaching the Ireland situation much better the same year – Give Ireland Back to The Irish – which bought him some credibility after it was banned from Radio 1. In typical Paul style, he pissed away this credibility by following it up with a version of Mary Had a Little Lamb. Yes really.

Ringo meanwhile was passing the torch from one generation to another, directing Born To Boogie, a concert film for T.Rex, featuring the kind of rabid fanbase not seen since the height of Beatlemania. The actual concert stuff is spellbinding, although the least said about the cod-Lewis Carroll sections, perhaps the better. Ringo also released his most successful single to date (No2 in the UK chart) A T.Rex-lite single, Back off Boogaloo.

1973

As if knackered from knocking out All Things Must Pass, it took until now for George to follow up his solo début, with the patchy Living In The Material World. If you imagine While My Guitar Gently Weeps: The Album you are not too far away – a bit pompous and judgmental, but also sort of enjoyable.  The highlight is Try Some, Buy Some which was later covered by David Bowie in his famous “Man in a suit” period.

John bounced back from the awful Some Time…with the imperfect Mind Games, which at the very least featured a stonkingly good lead single (the title track). It is imperfect as a whole, and got terrible reviews at the time, but is probably the best of this middle period of his solo career.

Paul again had two albums out in 1973, first off Red Rose Speedway, which featured some smart production and suggested there might be life in the old boy yet – especially My Love, the kind of love song you imagine Paul could write in his sleep. By the end of the year he was putting out Band on the Run, a sudden solo-career high. Featuring a whole host of his best songs (the title track, Jet, Mrs Vandebilt, Let Me Roll It are all still live standards on his tours) as well as a good sense of humour in the right places (Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me) relates the story of Picasso telling a friend he knew didn’t drink to drink to his health before promptly going upstairs to die) it is probably the best thing he produced outside of The Beatles.

Ringo too had his career high in 1973, with Ringo. Featuring all three of the other Beatles (though not at the same time – they all wrote, or co-wrote songs to play with him on) various members of The Band, Marc Bolan from T.Rex, and Harry Nilsson. It provided two US No 1 singles for Ringo and is a very, very enjoyable record.

1974

Ringo was back with a multi-collaboration project with Goodnight Vienna, another lightweight but enjoyable record. No Paul or George this time, but Lennon wrote him the title track and both Dr John and Elton John turn up, suggesting that Ringo would perhaps only work with people called John at this point.

Also featuring on that Ringo album was No No Song, which was about the drink, and Lennon, recently separated from Yoko Ono, would spent much of the next period drinking with Ringo. Walls and Bridges is hit-and-miss, but does include the Elton John collaboration Whatever Gets You Through The Night, which is great and #9 Dream also is a decent hit single.

Paul didn’t have an album out in 1974, and neither should George. Recently having had laryngitis, his voice was an absolute wreck, but he soldiered on with Dark Horse anyway. There are a few songs that shine through the dire vocals (notably the title track) but what is even more astonishing is that George followed the album with an extensive (and his only) tour of America, his voice apparently still in ruins. It charted in America, but didn’t in the UK.

1975

Wings were back with Venus and Mars in 75, a solid if largely unremarkable album. It features the rather good Listen To What The Man Said and the title track, but side two sees Paul let the others have a go at doing the lead vocals, and somewhat bizarrely a rocked up cover of the theme from UK soap Crossroads.

If that suggested that Paul wasn’t taking things all that seriously, John was busy doing a rock ‘n’ roll covers albums before disappearing from view for another five years. The appropriately titled Rock ‘n’ Roll features some decent versions, but it clearly is the work of a drunk man doing the songs he really liked – not that far away from Ringo’s solo albums then.

Ringo’s work in the first half-decade out of The Beatles was collected with Blast From Your Past, which considering his largely patchy solo work, works very well as a first buy for anyone curious of Ringo’s past.

George meanwhile was similarly bored, and with one album left on his EMI contract produced Extra Texture (Read All About It) and everything about it feels like a contractual obligation, from the lazy cover to the fact that the best track on it was a left over from All Things Must Pass (You). Yes, a left over from a triple album, incredible. George would later call this his worst solo work.

1976 

Paul continued his policy of letting everyone else have a go with Wings At The Speed of Sound, which even let the drummer have a sing. Like when John let Yoko have a go, this was basically the albums downfall, as the Paul songs – Let Em In, Beware My Love, Silly Love Songs – are great.

George’s general attitude hadn’t picked up upon being freed from his EMI contract, but Thirty Three and A Third is better than his previous couple of records, although he appeared to be only carrying on at this point for the sake of it. Still it features a great cover of Cole Porter’s True Love, sees him have a sense of humour about being sued over My Sweet Lord with This Song, and See Yourself was a left over from his Beatle days about the controversial Paul interview where he admitted to trying LSD.

John wasn’t completely absent, turning up as he did on Ringo’s Rotogravure.  George and Paul are also on the album, with all three at least writing one song for the record, meaning it is, if nothing else a curio for Beatle fans, though it lacks some of the charm of his best solo work.

1977 

But it was certainly better than Ringo The 4th, which is Ringo’s disco album. It is worth hearing mainly because it is unimaginable, but it is also not very good at all, depsite the presence of Bee Gees producer Arif Mardin. In the UK, Ringo suggested where his career was heading, with kids album Scouse The Mouse in which Ringo voiced the titular mouse. The latter is much better than the former.

George was taking a needed break in 77, and Paul didn’t have an album out, though he did finish the year with the mammoth hit Mull of Kintyre, which broke sales records made by The Beatles.

1978

Paul did have an album out in 78 though, the underrated London Town. Largely the kind of AOR pop that was deeply uncool in the wake of punk, London Town features a fair few gems, such as With A Little Luck (which feature no guitar whatsoever), the title track and I’ve Had Enough which was unfairly ignored at the time.

Ringo wasn’t doing so well – following his disco album was Bad Boy, which featured a Supremes cover, as well as a reworking of one of the songs from Scouse The Mouse (A Mouse Like Me became A Man Like Me) and those are the highlights. Oh dear.

1979

George was back in 1979, with his George Harrison, a marked imrovement after a couple of years away. It feature Not Guilty, finally released after being cut off of The White Album, as well as the brilliant Faster, George’s ode to Formula 1. Possibly due to the birth of his song Dhani, the album is much lighter than some of his other 70s work, and all the more enjoyable for it.

Back to The Egg saw Paul do genre-hopping the best he had done since The White Album. As such it features a soul track (Arrow Through Me) a metal track (Old Siam Sir) and a punk track (Spin it On). Pete Townsend, John Bonham, Hank Marvin and Dave Gimour all turn up on the brilliantly bonkers Rockestra Theme. It would turn out to be Wings swan song, and its experimental bent informing McCartney’s next work.

1980

Despite the deification of John after his death at the end of 1980, it was probably Paul at this point who was making the most interesting music, and with McCartney II, his first post-Wings solo album he was back to employing the kind of weirdly lo-fi music he started with, though this time with synths. It features the glorious Coming Up and the magnificently underrated Temporary Secretary, which remains a forgotten gem.

It was hearing Coming Up on the radio that apparently inspired John to come out of retirement and make another record and although he was headed into the same MOR territory that had affected all of the Beatles at some point, his half of Double Fantasy (it alternated with Yoko tracks) is not half bad – Just Like Starting Over was a mature comeback hit, and Woman a lovely ode to Yoko, whom he was back with now. Unfortunately Lennon was shot at the end of the year, and killed by crazy fan Mark Chapman, so we were robbed of seeing where he would go next in the 80s. It sent George into worry and isolation (though he would return in the 1980s with the brilliant but tragically forgotten Cloud Nine) and ended any chance of seeing The Beatles do a proper reformation – although they took demos Lennon had lying around for Real Love and Free as a Bird and converted them into “new” Beatle songs in the 1990s.

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