The reviews coming out on The Beatles’ 1, an anthology of 27 songs that went to number one in Britain and America, have been largely anecdotal. That’s because the songs are so familiar, it’s difficult to find much new to say about them. “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, “Yesterday”, “Yellow Submarine”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “Lady Madonna”, “Hey Jude”, and “Let It Be” are as much a part of Western culture as Plato and television commercials. And speaking of TV commercials, how about that Internet, a place where we can all “Come Together” (included here), or those running shoes that started a “Revolution” (not here).
My own anecdotes are about my step-daughters. The older one, 17, is currently a Beatles fanatic, so I bought this album for her as a Christmas present (nice timing, Capitol). For her, the Beatles are a revelation, a raw blast of inventiveness, as they must be for anyone first encountering their music. She’s definitely a Lennon partisan, no matter how persuasively I may argue for Paul’s sweetness, goofy sense of humor, and (admit it) superiority with a melody. She tells the story of driving her car on the twentieth anniversary of John’s death, arguing with her friend that they were going to listen to the Classic Rock radio tribute, not ‘NSync, and she didn’t care how loud her friend protested.
Then there’s the younger one. We were parking at BeBop Burger in Santa Barbara, and I pulled into the stall marked Ringo Starr (“No relation to the famous Beatle”, I said, though she didn’t get it). All the other spaces were full. “Wasn’t there a guy named John Lennon in the Beatles?” she asked. I nodded, thinking: Thirty years ago, no one in America (or at least in California) would have thought to speak those words aloud.
I remember my own inauguration into Beatlemania in the mid-’70s, around the time “Got to Get You into My Life” (not included) was re-released. I’d just begun seriously listening to the radio, and it struck me as odd that an old song had made it to the Top 40, the province, I’d thought, of new material. Still, those horns were awful catchy, and it’s never too early to learn that nostalgia equals money, and fresh markets are being born all the time.
As The Beatles’ 1 breaks the 20 million unit sales mark worldwide and marches inexorably toward The Eagles’ Greatest Hits, the line between commerce and art — always an issue with the Liverpool lads — blurs once again. Is it worth buying this album if you already have this stuff on CD or tape or, God forbid, vinyl? Probably not. These particular 27 songs don’t have anything startling to say about the development of the band, other than that their songs got more ambitious, more poetic, as they went along. The fact is, from Rubber Soul on, the Beatles were really an album band. Their singles are great, but they’re not the essence of the group. However, if you’re 13 years old and the Beatles are these guys your parents or grandparents worship, and you’re kind of skeptical but kind of curious, then, yes, go for it. Before you know it, you’ll be saying to ‘NSync, “Bye bye, baby, bye bye”.