(The Let It Be album cover used for this article features photographs by Ethan Russell and design by John Kosh.)
Okay so I know Paul and Ringo are still alive (time of writing 😮) - this is my excuse to write about John and George in a single article (plus a footnote on Sir George Martin).
What would the 60s have been like without John and Paul? Others may disagree, but it seems to me that the best music of that era (at least in the UK) was focused around them. I have a lot of 'best of' albums from 60s artists (and some of the 'best' is not even that great), but with the Beatles I can stand to listen to every album regularly. Even their earliest albums, while slightly average, compare well with the best of the rest.
Imagine (1971) seems to me like a creative explosion for John, with a range of styles. "Oh My Love" is a simple yet perfect love song, while "How Do You Sleep?" presents a scathing attack on Paul. My personal favourite on this album is "How?", probably due to the artful string arrangement.
Walls And Bridges (1974), for me, is a classic 70s album and much easier to listen to than "Imagine". It's pretty much brilliant end-to-end. On the back of this I went and got Mind Games (1973) but was disappointed - the title track is memorable but nothing else stands out for me. For this reason I avoided John's other albums from the 70s.
However, in 1980, Double Fantasy came out. Although John shared the bill with Yoko I really like the whole album. John had 'lost' a few years with Harry Nilsson but he comes back strong. Every song is great. Then, of course, John was shot dead in December 1980. For a sense of completeness I bought Milk And Honey (1984), but the album feels very much like leftovers and unfinished work which I assume it must be. If Double Fantasy is the A-side, Milk And Honey is very much the B-side, and I wonder if John would have wanted it released as his final work.
Still, 39 years after his untimely death, John's music lives on in the hearts and minds of many, and I wonder what he could have gone on to if he'd been somewhere else that fateful day.
George is my favourite Beatle, both for his solo music and for his attitude. He seemed to have great humility and be unaffected by fame. His songwriting development may have initially been behind John and Paul but by the time of the breakup he was level with them - I believe there were fights about George's share of the songs on Beatles albums and wonder what would have happened if John and Paul had not fallen out. Maybe George would have left the band or done some solo albums on the side.
I struggle to describe his voice (after he abandoned his early 60s deep tones) - it's almost Dylan-esque except I don't like Dylan's voice while I do like George's. He's one of those singers who maybe isn't really very good, yet he's great.
All Things Must Pass (1970), by its size (a triple album!), indicates that George had been saving up songs. Although there is some jamming towards the end, I can't fault the rest of this collection despite the Phil Spector 'wall of sound' that characterises it. His next couple of albums are similar though maybe not so over-produced. They are pretty good quality, ranging from a great ballad like "That Is All" to an oddly reworked version of "Bye Bye Love" (unrecognisable from The Everly Brothers' version).
George also featured quite heavily on Ringo's 1973 album Ringo. He wrote or co-wrote 3 songs, including the anthemic "Photograph" with Ringo, which they sang together. Incidentally, the Ringo album might be the closest thing to a Beatles reunion as John and Paul both make contributions too.
Then, George hits gold (in my opinion) with three fantastic albums. Like John's Walls And Bridges, I would call these classic 70s albums. They are Extra Texture (Read All About It) (1975) Thirty-Three & 1/3 (1976) and George Harrison (1979). Here you'll find masterful songs like "The Answer's At The End", "This Song" (referring to his alleged copyright infringement for "My Sweet Lord"), "Crackerbox Palace", "Love Comes To Everyone" and "Blow Away", and beautiful love songs like "Can't Stop Thinking About You", the excellently executed "Learning How To Love You", and "Dark Sweet Lady".
A lot of George's songs can sound like 'normal' love songs but there is often a more religious theme. This could be off-putting but the way he does it works really well - maybe there is nothing truer than a love song to a deity?
George produced a couple of pretty good albums after those three classics. Somewhere In England (1981) includes his first look back on The Beatles with "All Those Years Ago" - presumably written after John's death. Also in 1981, Ringo had a hit with a song I think George wrote specifically for him - "Wrack My Brain" is another great George song.
Cloud Nine (1987) produced the number one "Got My Mind Set Of You" which was actually written by Rudy Clark although George shares credit. The whole album is strong and more commercial than before, apparently influenced by the production skills of Jeff Lynne - you can hear Jeff's influence throughout and while I'm a fan of ELO I'm glad that this doesn't sound like an ELO album. The other popular track on this album was the brilliant "When We Was Fab". This song could have been on the Magical Mystery Tour EP - it's so perfectly Beatlish and reflects on those times while being slightly critical of how the media and general public picked it all apart - 'the microscopes have magnified the tears'.
George then appeared on the Traveling Wilburys albums in 1988 and 1990. "Handle With Care" was a hit which George featured heavily on, while "Heading For The Light" is a favourite of mine where he sings alongside Jeff - it sounds slightly 'ELO'. George also made an appearance on Armchair Theatre - Jeff's only non-ELO album.
George was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1997, and died towards the end of 2001. The 2002 album Brainwashed came from the respectful efforts of Jeff, with George's son Dhani, to piece together George's incomplete/unpublished work. I think the result sounds like George would have wanted it. The album won't blow your socks off - George would never have intended that - yet it's a fine effort by all involved. His cover of "Between The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea" must have been completed before his death - there's a wonderful video featuring George playing it with Jools Holland (and some of his band) and Joe Brown, providing a beautifully understated way for George to sign off. 18 years after his death, it's still sad to have lost him.
One of several to sometimes be badged as the fifth Beatle, George Martin was maybe the most deserving of this title. I believe he played uncredited keyboard parts quite often on the early albums, and of course wrote and orchestrated the music on the flip side of the "Yellow Submarine" soundtrack album. When I did a cover of "In My Life", I discovered that it was him who played the solo on the original, although he had to play it slow and speed it up on analogue tape. Sir George passed away in 2016.