Although I was born after the Beatles first set foot in America, that never kept me from being a huge fan of the band. Like most fans, I own the entire Beatles catalog. In fact, over the years I’ve bought it twice — once on cassette tape and a second time on compact disc. But don’t feel sorry for me — I’m sure there are more than a few people out there who have bought the entire catalog three or four times over. Talk about Beatles love.
When one thinks about the Beatles, for most fans, the band members that usually first come to mind are John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Then again, asking me to pick my favorite Beatle is like asking me to pick my favorite child; I love them all equally, but each in different ways.
For most Beatle fans, the John-versus-Paul debate is still a passionate one. And although I was always been interested in finding a definitive answer, I never really had a decent feel for which of the two Beatles was more popular until iTunes began selling the Beatles’ catalog back in 2010.
Surprise! The Market Speaks
I think most people will agree that the market is arguably the purest arbiter of such perplexing and emotional questions. With that in mind, during the first week of sales, iTunes customers downloaded 450,000 Beatles albums and, incredibly, 2 million individual songs from the Fab Four. As for the most popular song … It was Here Comes the Sun, which is neither a Lennon or McCartney composition, but a tune written by the “Quiet Beatle.” That’s right: George Harrison.
Surprised? Maybe you shouldn’t be. After all, Harrison has always unjustifiably been an underrated member of the Beatles. Consider the following:
- At the height of the Beatles’ popularity, back around the time they were first appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, polls reportedly showed that Harrison was the most popular member of the band.
- The great Frank Sinatra declared another Harrison tune, Something, to be the greatest love song ever written. (Never mind that he also declared Something to be his favorite Lennon/McCartney composition.)
- Something and Here Comes the Sun were arguably the two strongest tracks on the iconic Abbey Road album, the final one recorded by the Beatles.
- Despite being the third Beatle to release a solo album, George was the first Beatle to have a number one single on the US Billboard Hot 100 with My Sweet Lord.
- George was also the first Beatle to log two songs as a solo artist in the Top 10 of the US Billboard Hot 100: My Sweet Lord, and What Is Life (which reached #10).
- Although George was responsible for solely writing just 10% of the Beatles’ catalog — 21 songs to be exact — he composed a few other gems besides Something and Here Comes the Sun including: While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Taxman, I Want to Tell You, If I Needed Someone and, my personal favorite, Long, Long, Long. (I’ll forgive George for writing Within You Without You, from the Sgt. Pepper’s album.)
- With more than six million units sold, George Harrison still has the biggest selling solo album of any of the Beatles, All Things Must Pass.
So is the most popular Beatle really and truly George Harrison? I know the market has spoken, but you’ll still never get a straight answer out of me. Like I said before, I love them all equally.
That means you too, Ringo.
Photo Credit: public domain
My guess for top Beatles song would have been Hey Jude. George may have had the biggest album as a solo artist, but I think Paul had the biggest post-Beatles career by far. By far! I also doubt that George would have made it without John and Paul — I don’t think the reverse is true.
The Financial Blogger says
Very interesting to look at it that way. I am still not convinced that George Harrison is the number one as I too love them all equally. I think the real strength of the Beatles really was the combination of the four members. Alone, some of they would probably have had success, but never as big as they had all together.
Ringo has captured the hearts of children with his portrayal of Mr. Conductor in Thomas the Tank Engine before they even know who The Beatles are. He’s my #1!
Len, I think you’re letting faith in the market get the best of you. A few contentions:
1. Consider supply and demand. The supply of Harrison songs is quite low relative to Lennon and McCartney songs, so there is some scarcity value there.
2. No artist can have every song be a huge hit. No stockpicker can have every security turn a profit. Think about Jim Cramer. If he didn’t broadcast 250 days a year, and make opinions about ~25 stocks per show, for 6250 stock picks/yr, then he MIGHT be an above-average stockpicker. As it is, he simply gives out too many opinions, and ends up average or worse. I think of Lennon/McCartney as the Jim Cramer of the Beatles — they delivered the sheer bulk of the Beatles’ production.
3. Here Comes the Sun has been covered a fair amount, by popular bands: Coldplay, Bon Jovi, James Taylor.
4. Here Comes the Sun is often used in instructional guitar courses. McCartney and Lennon tunes, in particular, use a much more complicated set of instruments — orchestra, keyboards, etc.
Not that anyone cares, but I favor the Lennon tunes, though not his politics. “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Hey Bulldog” are particular favorites.
Len Penzo says
Ha! As I was reading what you wrote, “Hello Goodbye” just randomly came up on my iPod. LOL
Thanks for your comments! You make some good points, to be sure, Hondo.
Keep in mind, although you couldn’t tell, I wrote this article with a bit of a sheepish grin. I’m really not certain if we can apply the market as final arbiter here either, but it makes for fun conversation. 🙂
Just for the record, regarding output of hits, Harrison had exactly one #1 hit (“Something,” which was one half of a double-A side single, with “Come Together”) out of 21 tries as a Beatle. Lennon/McCartney had 20 #1’s in roughly 190 tries — in other words, twice as often on a hit per per-song basis.
No doubt that George was a bit more limited in his playing compared to John and, especially, Paul (who also played bass, piano, guitar, and even drums at times for the Beatles).
I’m with you on loving John’s music but not his politics. I love how “Tomorrow Never Knows” foreshadowed what was to come with the Sgt. Pepper album.
I think my favorite John song is “Dear Prudence.”
I could talk about the Beatles all day long, as you can probably tell.
(By the way, I think Cramer has become a parody of himself. He’s always entertaining, but I find it hard to take him seriously at all any more. Just my two cents.)
Doable Finance says
I like all their songs as a group or solo, but if I have to choose one, that would be “Yesterday all my trouble…”.
Agree, “Yesterday,” and the Harrison song “Something” are my two favorites. I also enjoy some of the less serious songs, like Ringo’s “You’re Sixteen,” and “Act Naturally.”
What it comes down to is that the Beatles could do it all.
Michael J. says
John is the best Beatle. I Am The Walrus!
Kay Lynn says
Len, I love the Beatles! George was a great musician, just not as marketable as John and Paul.
I guess the truth is in the music purchases, but I still like John’s songs the best (although it’s by a very narrow margin).
P.S. Tell Kris she can still like the Rolling Stones and Prince and be a Beatle faan.
Len Penzo says
You’re right, Kay Lynn, I didn’t mean to sell George short in that department,although it does seem like I did inadvertently. Maybe I should have said he *was* a great musician, although not a technically proficient as many of his peers, or diverse in his ability to play multiple instruments. Now, who are these Rolling Stones you gals keep talking about?
george was the most artistic and creative. Long Long Long is a truly sublime song. His guitar rffs also make the beatle songs, particulary on the later albums.He was also the deepest thinker and the funniest. funny quotes- Are yhou going to get a hair cut in America? ” I just got one yesterday” George Martin asks if there is anything they don’t like after their first big meeting with EMI executives. George says ” I don’t like your tie”
Len Penzo says
I agree, j. His guitar and vocals were a very under-appreciated part of the Beatles’ classic sound and all of their songs just wouldn’t be the same without George’s contributions.
Little House says
Long ago, I was a huge Beatles fan (they were way before my time as well). I always loved George Harrison’s songs, so I can’t disagree with you on this one. Something is an awesome ballad. However, during my Beatles period, I favored Paul.
Len Penzo says
@Bella: Personally, I liked Paul’s solo stuff the best too. I had trouble getting into a lot of George’s stuff. John’s solo work, with a few notable exceptions, wasn’t up to snuff either, at least until his Double Fantasy album. Believe it or not, I think my favorite solo album of any of the Beatle’s though is Ringo Starr’s “Ringo” album, although George seemed to have a lot of his fingerprints on that one. Although Paul’s “Band on the Run” is a close second.
@Little House: Psst… As I said, I don’t have a fave, but if you forced me to pick it would probably be Paul too.
@TFB: Yep, the collective sum of the Beatles was definitely greater than its individual parts.
@Jenna: Well, I know I’m sure glad Pete Best was a lousy drummer!
Money Reasons says
Ringo was my favorite as a kid, but I outgrew him! (no pun intended)
I too, love their songs! “Help” was one of my favorite songs that I heard them sing, but I’m not sure if they wrote the original version or not?
help was written and deeply felt by john esp when paul on tours screwed as many women as he could while living in jane’s family home, as a social climber, not caring about her feelings. john was in an unhappy marriage, having to witness paul’s cheating, dishonest, self serving and need to prove his need to be the best looking of the group. martin wanted pete out of the band due to his weak drumming, paul demanded him repleased due to superior looks. want proof check the new released life magazine about this prick sir paul, a very knowable ex paul fan. wings sucked. george and john continued excel until heartbreaking deaths. john’s soul mate made him whole after he never recovered from his mother’s death who had left him to be cared for by her sister.
Len Penzo says
No it didn’t; Wings kicked ass.
(By the way, Paul had a longer tenure with Wings than he did the Beatles.)
Everyday Tips says
I don’t want you to throw old vinyl records at me, but I do not like the Beatles, and never have. I have never understood their popularity, which I know is heresy. I preferred the Rolling Stones if I had to pick one, but my favorite is Prince.
Ryuko Matoi-Yeager-Harrison says
@everyday tips *throws old vinyl records at you and kicks you*
Len Penzo says
@MR: I can definitely see how Ringo would appeal to kids. After all, this is the guy who sang a lot of the “fun” songs… “Yellow Submarine,” “Octopus’s Garden” and the kids lullaby “Good Night.” Yes, “Help” was a Beatles’ original.
@DF: Did you know “Yesterday” has the honor of being the song with the most airplays of any song — Bealtes or otherwise? (Oh, I’m full of trivia. LOL) It is also the most covered of any Beatles’ tune (“Something” is second).
@Michael: I thought the Walrus was Paul.
@Everyday: You never liked the Beatles, Kris? Blasphemy! Who are the Rolling Stones?
Ryuko Matoi-Yeager-Harrison says
I love John and George the same amount also when I was reading this,my music went to I Saw Her Standing There,the first track on their first album
David C says
Now I have to dig out “Live in Japan” and listen to that version of “Something” with ol’ Slow Hand helping out. One of my all time favorites.
George had 22 songs with the band to be exact and a couple more on the anthology. The others songs he wrote ended up on solo albums. Dozens !