Is Paul McCartney Bigger Than the Beatles?

McCartney's post-Beatles success with Wings may have overshadowed his work as a member of the groundbreaking boy band.

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It’s the sort of intense, hypothesis-filled, statistically-driven debate that can rage for generations among dedicated sports fans: Who was better in his prime?

Yankees greats Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris? Wimbledon champs Chris Evert or Serena Williams? Basketball legend Lew Alcindor, before -- or after -- he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?

[VIDEO: The Beatles on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’]

The 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ invasion of America, however, has rekindled a similar discussion among die-hard fans and historians of the Fab Four: Did Sir Paul McCartney and his band, Wings, a chart-topping rock act of the 1970s and ‘80s, eclipse his history as a founding member and songwriter of the Beatles -- arguably the most influential and successful group in rock music history?

Like the debates in sports, it depends largely on who you ask.

[ALSO: What the Beatles Meant to America]

A cutting-edge pop group, the Beatles inspired legions of rock musicians, transformed the music and pop-culture landscape and left behind a catalog of albums that still sell well in the digital age. Beatles history -- from the early performances at Liverpool’s Cavern Club in the early 1960s to the breakup that stunned the world in 1969 and 1970 -- spurred countless books, documentaries and even college courses; nearly half a century after they disbanded, their obscure studio outtakes and rare demo recordings are treated like archeological finds among hard-core fans.

But Wings, under McCartney’s direction, sold out some of the same arenas as the Beatles, produced a string of Top 10 hits, gold and platinum albums, and legions of devotees on both sides of the Atlantic. Their studio album, “Band on the Run,” and a triple-live album, “Wings Over America,” are considered classics. With 1972’s “Live and Let Die,” a James Bond movie theme song, the band accomplished something the Beatles never did, becoming the first rock group to receive an Oscar nomination.

Apart from the Beatles, McCartney collaborated with or wrote for some of pop music’s most influential artists of the late 20th century, including Michael Jackson, Elvis Costello, Nirvana and Stevie Wonder. At age 71, he’s still writing, recording and touring, and he’s had nearly as many solo hits as his former Beatles bandmates combined.

Most Beatles historians and music critics concur: McCartney is a gifted, prolific songwriter, and many rock musicians envy the success he’s had in his post-Beatles career. But the Beatles were, well, the Beatles, perhaps the biggest music act of all time.

Comparing the success of a band that changed the music industry with the solo career of a man who helped them achieve it, however, is like comparing a Honeycrisp apple to a Fuji or Granny Smith: same fruit, different flavors.

“Basically, it still is the same guy who wrote the Beatles songs,” says Allan Kozinn, culture critic for the New York Times. The difference, he said, is McCartney’s work with Wings reflects change -- of the music industry, of McCartney’s perspective as a maturing artist and of his circumstances as a composer who no longer had John Lennon to critique him.

“McCartney was like any other composer. He was informed by things around him,” says Kozinn, who wrote several books on the Beatles, interviewed McCartney and taught a course on the Fab Four’s music at New York University. By the time that the Beatles ended and Wings began, Kozinn says, “everything around [McCartney] had changed, so he’s going to change, too.”

When the Beatles disbanded, Kozinn said, McCartney was only 27, a restless young man with phenomenal success behind him but much of his life still ahead.

“He has to do something, so he did what he knew how to do: get a band together make music and start touring,” he said. But with McCartney as principal songwriter, “Wings was an employer-and-sidemen situation. The Beatles were a four-way collaboration.”

John Covach, director of the University of Rochester’s Institute for Popular Music and a Beatles historian, says it’s easy to judge McCartney the loser in any comparison with his old band. But the answer, on close inspection, isn’t clear cut.