Let's start by stating the obvious: The Beatles were the most important band in the history of rock and roll.
OK, so the Eagles have had bigger-selling albums: 22 million "Eagles Greatest Hits" vs. 9 million "Abbey Road," 14 million "Hotel California" vs. 8 million "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." How many people can name all the Eagles? Whereas there probably isn't an American above the age of 12 who doesn't know at least three of the Fab Four by both name and description ("The Cute One," "The Quiet One," and so on).
It isn't just a matter of fame, though. Their songs and singles reverberate through the sound of rock and roll the way Shakespeare's plays echo through the annals of English literature. From the innocent exuberance of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to the orchestral opulence of "A Day In the Life," their songs have been analyzed, imitated and alluded to by countless bands -- and, of course, covered over and over again.
So why doesn't their sound sell anymore?
I'm not talking about "The Beatles Anthology, Vol. 1," which arrives in stores Tuesday and will likely ride the hype surrounding the accompanying six-hour documentary (the first part of which airs tomorrow on ABC) to multi-platinum sales. I'm talking about the rest of the Top 40.
Because to put it in Tiger Beat terms, if the current pop charts are looked at in light of the old Beatles/Stones battle, the Stones win, hands down. And even their influence pales in comparison to that of James Brown, Black Sabbath and Motown.
Look for yourself. Which of these current best-selling album artists puts you in mind of "Revolver" or "The White Album": Alice In Chains' new one? Mariah Carey? Ozzy Osbourne? Alan Jackson? Green Day? Tha Dogg Pound?
Things are a little better on the singles chart, where Seal's "Kiss from a Rose" at least evokes something of the lush ambition of "Sgt. Pepper's"-era Beatles music. Truth is the only genuinely Beatlesque single to have cracked the Top-10 this year is the Rembrandts' "I'll Be There for You" -- and that had less to do with the tune's Beatlesque aplomb than its familiarity as the theme from "Friends."
"Beatlesque," in fact, has almost become industry shorthand for "won't get played on pop radio." So even though there are plenty of artists -- Crowded House, the Posies, Squeeze, Aimee Mann, the Greenberry Woods -- eager to maintain the Beatles tradition of ingeniously accessible melodies, cleverly harmonized backing harmonies and ear-catching, inventive arrangements, most of them languish in commercial obscurity.
What happened? How could a sound so ubiquitous and influential have such a minimal presence on the current pop charts?
For starters, influence and impact aren't always directly reflected in popular culture. Everybody knows the dah-dah-dah- DUMMM of Beethoven's Fifth, but that hasn't exactly pushed that piece up the pop charts. If anything, its familiarity almost diminishes the average listener's need to hear it again.
That may be part of the reason the Beatles' back catalog hasn't sold anywhere near as well as most fans would imagine. For instance, though "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" has sold a respectable 8 million copies over the years, that's less than Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," Carole King's "Tapestry" or AC/DC's "Back in Black" (10 million each). And while "The Beatles" (aka "The White Album") has moved 7 million units, Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell" has done almost twice as much business.
It isn't just the fact that everybody already knows these albums, though. The other part of the equation is that the Beatles were working out of a different tradition than most contemporary pop musicians.
First and foremost, the Beatles' albums were about songs. True, their later albums relied heavily on audio effects, using the studio if it were just another instrument, but the resultant recordings were no more about sound manipulation than they were about guitar tone or string arrangements. Those things were mere frosting on the cake, bows on the package; what mattered most was the song.
That isn't quite the case anymore, though. Today's pop hits tend to be records first, and songs second (if at all). What we're sold on is the performance or the groove; the melodic interest rarely stretches beyond a catchy chorus or repeated riff. It's the music of pop stars, not pop songwriters.
It's also a tradition shared by the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Black Sabbath and, to a large degree, Motown. Their music plays upon immediacy, charisma and propulsion in a way that ties them to the oral tradition of folk music. That's not to say this music downplays the importance of melody or songcraft -- who could listen to Smokey Robinson and not notice the elegance of his writing? -- but they all recognized that it's the performance, not the material, that ultimately sells records.
By contrast, the Beatles' legacy is more closely aligned to Tin Pan Alley and the British music hall. It's easy to imagine Lennon and McCartney in the company of Rodgers and Hart, Lerner and Loewe, or George and Ira Gershwin, because their work shares so many common elements: imaginative melodies, an innate sense of structure and a natural sense of wordplay.
Although the Beatles always considered themselves "a beat group" -- that is, bred on rock and R&B; -- their own material rarely seemed as riff-oriented as the Stones' did. As much as the recording of "Taxman" relied on Paul McCartney's stabbing bass- line, it's easy to imagine the song without it. Whereas, once you take the signature riff away from "Jumping Jack Flash," it loses both its vitality and point.
Maybe that's why the Beatles' music was so widely and quickly embraced. Because the songs could translate to any style, they were recorded by everybody -- from Frank Sinatra to the Boston Pops. (Try and imagine either doing "Satisfaction.") Note for note, the best Beatles songs are as resonant and enduring as any Cole Porter or Harold Arlen standard.
But that's the problem: Those qualities aren't very "rock." That's what R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe was getting at when he complained that the Beatles' oeuvre was too much like elevator music to have meant anything to him.
For many modern rock listeners, what counts is the integrity of the singer, not the strength of the song and, frankly, the music of the Beatles is too much a part of mainstream culture to say something to these listeners about their lives.
Couldn't be better
There's one other reason Beatle-isms don't sell much anymore: It's all been done, and done better by the originals. It's no more possible to improve on "Revolver" or "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" than it is to paint a better Mona Lisa. As a result, the few bands that continue to write and record in Beatle-mode invariably end up being compared to the original and found wanting.
That's how it is with classics, though. As they become a deeper part of our shared knowledge and experience, they end up being less evident in day-to-day life. So in a perverse way, the mere fact that the Beatles have cast such a long shadow over popular music explains why their sound isn't more in evidence.
We've been there, heard that. Who needs more?
The Beatles Anthology'
What: Six-hour documentary airing in three parts
When: 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday
& Where: WMAR, Channel 2