Bigger than the pop charts Fab before: Their perfection has made the four lads from Liverpool a museum piece. They can be imitated, but never topped. That doesn't sell, for several reasons. And so they are left to history.

The Beatles

November 18, 1995|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

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.

Too familiar

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.

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