Oasis want to be them, the Boo Radleys sound like them, everybody else has haircuts like them. But if you're under 25, you may not be too sure who the Beatles actually were. Our (young) guide explains it all

BEATLEMANIA is back! The whole world's frantic for the Fab Four again! That's the theory, anyway. The difference is that this time Beatlemania doesn't consist of millions of teenagers screaming for Ringo's body, it consists of millions of words by the Beatles' contemporaries, informing us that their teenage years were better than everyone else's. If you were born after Beatlemania died, you may be confused.

I hate to appear stupid, but who are the Beatles?

You mean who were the Beatles. The Beatles, the people everyone is writing about, don't exist anymore. The men you see on magazine covers looking like the finalists of the All-England Bad Hair Competition (Facial Growth Included) are Ringo Starr, the narrator on Thomas the Tank Engine; George Harrison, who discusses levitation on the news whenever there's a General Election; and Paul McCartney, who did "The Frog Chorus" and "Mull of Kintyre", and whose wife makes fattening vegetarian sausages. Notable for his absence is John Lennon. Lennon is most people's favourite ex-Beatle. He's perceived to be an intelligent, artistic, cynical and rebellious rock'n'roller with a natural facility for inventive wordplay. And he's dead. If he were alive, people could well be dreading yet another unlistenable concept album made with his wife, Yoko Ono. Instead, they remember the fantastic songs he used to write. The other three have just made The Beatles Anthology.

What is the Anthology?

Jarvis Cocker (Pulp): I'm a bit dubious about this new song that they've done. What's important about the Beatles is that the timing was good. They stopped it just when they should have stopped it, and so their memory has not been violated in the same way that maybe the Rolling Stones's memory has been violated by some of the abominations that they've produced since then.

Eric Clapton: The Beatles reunion? It'll never catch on.

Blessed with an unrivalled reputation, the Beatles are determined to risk screwing it up. Last year we had Live at the BBC, a double CD of early radio appearances; next Sunday, the band switch allegiance to ITV with The Beatles Anthology. This is a six-part documentary produced by their company, Apple, and will attract as many viewers as is possible for a programme which isn't based on a Jane Austen novel.

The first of three new records to tie in with the series is out tomorrow. Except that they're not new records as such, but compilations of bits and pieces that have been gathering dust and mystique for decades. A press release for volume one promises "some false starts and experimentation"; a song on which Morecambe and Wise join in; a rejected version of "Can't Buy Me Love"; the Quarrymen (an early incarnation of the Beatles) performing "That'll Be the Day"; "My Bonnie" with the Beatles acting as a backing band for Tony Sheridan; five tracks from an audition with Decca (they failed it); and several more songs featuring Pete Best, the drummer they sacked. If that were not off-putting enough, the first track on the album is "Free as a Bird", a "new" Beatles song. The three survivors have dubbed their voices and instruments on to an unfinished demo recorded by John Lennon, given to them by Yoko Ono. Could it be a hoax? Think about it. An Ono/ McCartney reconciliation? A McCartney/ Harrison/Starr reunion? A Lennon track awaiting completion? It would be just like those crazy funsters to say "thanks for the publicity and the resultant resurgence of popularity, we were only joking". But it doesn't look that way.

Hang on. You still haven't explained who the Beatles were.

Suggs: The Beatles were the best band ever. It's very difficult to do anything better than them. They went more psychedelic, they went more melodic, they had better hairdos, they had everything. If you play your record and put the Beatles on afterwards, your record unfortunately doesn't sound better. There are still new things you can do, sonically, but in terms of the four-square pop song that we're all so addicted to - with a verse, a chorus and a middle eight - I sadly think that maybe you can't write better than the Beatles.

The Beatles were more lauded than Portishead, more successful than U2, more melodic than The Beautiful South, more groundbreaking than Tricky, and more popular than Jesus Jones, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and - allegedly - Jesus Christ. The length of their sideburns or collars was less a fashion statement, more a fashion command. They did the hard rock bit, the blues bit, the ballad bit, the psychedelic bit, the avant-garde bit. In most cases, they did it first, and in almost all cases, they did it best. "Beatlesque" is therefore a particularly useful term for music journalists, because it can mean just about anything. Today, when bands say they are inspired by the Beatles, they don't mean that they are bursting with their spirit of invention and experimentation, they mean that they have ripped off the Beatles to within an inch of their copyright, whether it's Oasis's string parts, Dodgy's harmonised vocals or the whole of the Boo Radleys' last album.

The Beatles promulgated the notion that pop groups could write their own material - so if you're wondering why illiterates like Cast don't get someone else in to knock out some lyrics, blame the Beatles. Able to conceive and record a classic song or two per day, they released 12 albums and 22 singles in the UK between 1962 and 1970. And that doesn't include compilations and EPs. Compare that with the Stone Roses.

Did everyone like them?

More or less. Initially they were the wedge that widened the generation gap, but in 1965 they were awarded MBEs for services to British industry (which makes a lot more sense than Cliff Richard's knighthood). The music critic of the Times, William Mann, had already praised their "chains of pandiatonic clusters", "flat submediant key switches", and the "the Magyar 8/8 metre" in "Baby, It's You".

On the other hand, in 1964, Paul Johnson of the New Statesman railed against the "apotheosis of inanity" and "the monotonous braying of savage instruments". "Those who flock round the Beatles," he concluded sympathetically, "are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures." Elvis Presley used to say: "Lennon? You oughtta spell that L-e-n-i-n." And when Presley's least favourite Beatle was murdered in 1980, Kenneth Williams noted in his diary: "The news- vendor said, 'All this fuss about John Lennon! It's all you read about!' and I said 'Yes, ludicrous! Even I would not deserve such eulogies.' "

The other people who didn't like the Beatles were ... the Beatles. In Hunter Davies's 1968 biography, John Lennon declares: "We're a con. We know we're conning them, because people want to be conned." In the same book, George Harrison says: "I don't personally enjoy being a Beatle any more. All that sort of Beatles thing is trivial and unimportant." Bear in mind that what he considered important and untrivial was levitation.

Have the Beatles been revered ever since?

Bob Geldof: In 1976, anything that had any trace of the past had to be destroyed, because it had led to the malaise of the present. In 1995, to look back to 1965 is a good thing, because the music was so effortlessly brilliant. We know that now.

Noel Gallagher (Oasis): In the 1980s, rock'n'roll wasn't as important as it is now. It was all synthesisers and pop music.

Derek Taylor has worked as a writer, an aide of the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, a press officer for Apple Records, and is a contributor to the Anthology. He remembers when the Beatles weren't considered quite as fab as they are today: "In America they've never really become passe, because the punk outburst wasn't as noticeable socially as it was in England. But here we had the Sex Pistols and The Clash deciding, very healthily: 'We've had enough of all this. Music's gone too soft, let's have a bit of energy.' Doing an interview like this at that time would have been anathema to me." Under fire from the artillery of punk, McCartney's post- Beatle band, Wings, couldn't always keep his fashionability in the air. But who needs to be fashionable? Shortly after the Sex Pistols' first LP hit No 1 in the album charts in 1977, "Mull of Kintyre" hit No 1 in the singles charts, and stayed there for nine weeks. Still, the Beatles had gone soft. The back catalogue kept on selling, but the band, says Taylor, "were not so much part of the Zeitgeist. I did a book about Sgt Pepper in 1987 to go with the TV special It Was 20 Years Ago Today, but that was a one-off, it wasn't in the air the way it is now."

Beatles songs were covered by the Bee Gees, Bananarama, Wet Wet Wet, and every easy- listening outfit imaginable. Whereas nowadays, the coolest bands don't just borrow from the Beatles, they own up to it.

Why is there so much nostalgia for that era?

Noel Gallagher: If there was anything around at the moment that was new and was good, sure- ly we'd be into that? You get repeats on the TV of 'Match of the Day' and all that because the football games were better then. People now are in-to old bands because the old bands are better than the new bands. It's just as simple as that.

Ronnie Wood (the Rolling Stones): Talk to any young person. They think the Sixties were ... nearly as good as they really were. The main thing to them is that ... it must have been a great time to have lived in. And for me, it must've been a great time to have lived in as well. Except I don't remember much about it. It's all a 'blur' to me. Ya ha ha ha. No, I said that as a pun. It's not a bad thing, because now bands are into playing live again, like real drums and real guitars and real vocals. It's wonderful that we're getting out of the horrible stage of everything being pre-recorded and done with machines.

In the Eighties, mainstream pop music relied more and more heavily on drum machines, samples triggered by computers, and sounds that were as clean and shiny as George Michael's teeth. Alternative bands dived for the other extreme: they were lo-fi, noisy, and often in need of a good wash. If you wanted an alternative to the alternative, with pop's accessible tunes and indie's rock guitars, you had to look backwards. Some performers chose to spend their lives impersonating the groups of the past: the Australian Doors, the Counterfeit Stones, the Bootleg Beatles and Lenny Kravitz among them. The Stone Roses announced that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were the only influences they recognised. Real guitars became hip again (and people started using terms like "hip" again). Ironically, the Beatles, the boldest pioneers of studio trickery and technology, are now cited as the touchstones of "real", back-to-basics rock.

Meanwhile, the rise of green politics and the fall of Thatcher made the hippy ethic of the Sixties less of a joke. As 2000 loomed, fin-de- siecle retrospection and evaluation spread, and the proliferation of CDs fooled people into repurchasing their old records. Oliver Stone made a very long film about the Doors; Stephen Dorff did a reasonable Liverpudlian accent in Backbeat, the story of the Beatles in Hamburg.

And the Sixties were a long time ago. Record-buyers can barely even remember the last release from an individual Beatle. "Ebony and Ivory" and "Mull of Kintyre" fade from the collective memory. The Beatles have become a secret again. "Pop music's basic currency is being secretive and being smarter than the person next to you," says writer and broadcaster Danny Baker. "I loved taking a King Crimson album to school when nobody knew what it was. The Beatles have been caught up in that. In my generation, no one could ask, 'Who are the Beatles?' Now people can actually be smarter- than-thou and say, 'Yeah, of course, I like Oasis and stuff, but I've delved further into this and I know about the Beatles.' "

The American invasion grunged up music for a while, but now Blur and Oasis are being unambiguously English, using English rock heritage as their inspiration. Derek Taylor puts this down to coincidence. "Somehow Blur and Oasis and all this carry-on has come along at the same time as the Anthology, but we started work on it back in 1990. Once again we seem to be bang on time."

I still don't understand why everyone is talking about the Beatles now.

Louise Wener (Sleeper): You know how the Press every so often picks up stories about killer dogs that attack you without muzzles? I think they're picking up the Beatles in the same way.

Danny Goffey (Supergrass): Perhaps it's a force to will John Lennon back to Earth.

The Beatles are so limitless a subject that journalists can fill magazines and newspapers with articles about them comparatively easily. The actual news - a documentary, an album of curios, and two dubious new songs - is a perfect excuse. And, overall, the Beatles are a lot more agreeable than killer dogs.

! 'The Beatles Anthology': Sun 26 Nov, 8pm ITV. 'The Beatles Anthology 1' is out on Tuesday.

THEY were the best pop group in the world, ever. But even genius has its off days, and now is a good moment to pay tribute to the Beatles' greatest misses. These aberrations should be savoured, because there's every chance that they will soon be outdone. The forthcoming triple CD will probably contain the odd gem, but also a lot of dross - otherwise why would it have taken so long to be released? Meanwhile, here are the Beatles' desert-island recordings - the ones that should be taken to a desert island, and left there.

Sure to Fall (in Love with You)

(radio performance, 1963; track on 'Live at the BBC', 1994)

As a rule, songs with brackets (in the title) are a good thing. This is the exemption. It was co-written by Carl Perkins, distinguished author of "Blue Suede Shoes", but you'd never know. It rounds up every cliche in the country-&-western book, and that's a lot of cliches.

Got to Get You into My Life

('Revolver', 1966)

McCartney pays homage to Motown. Snappy title, swinging horns, but this is soul music without one vital ingredient - soul. For the Beatles, pastiche was a foreign country.

Paperback Writer

(single, 1966)

Most of the Beatles' singles are hard to fault. Not this. It was a nice idea - original, and redolent of its time. But the result was awful. It's one thing to write a twee ditty (and Paul would do so often enough in years to come); it's quite another to throw in a proto-metal guitar riff. Always grating, the song reached serious pain levels when it became the theme tune of the BBC book programme of the same name, presented by Melvyn Bragg in his moptop period.

Within You, Without You

('Sgt Pepper', 1967)

Side one of Sgt Pepper may be the finest 20 minutes in the whole of rock. And then comes this, the most notorious of George Harrison's Indian numbers. As an artistic experiment, it's brave. As a historical document, it's valuable. As a pop record, it's unspeakable. The tune is a dirge, the words are a lecture, and the combination is enough, on its own, to justify buying a CD player - then you can programme it out.

Good Morning, Good Morning

('Sgt Pepper', 1967)

While you're at it, skip this one too. Cocks crow, lions roar, chimps chatter, and John gets into a bad mood after watching a CornFlakes ad. He once called the song "a piece of garbage". That's a bit unfair - it's quite fun the first time. But you have to be very young or very drunk to want to hear it again.

The Long Medley

('Abbey Road', 1969)

The medley is a curious device, designed to toss away good songs. It appears here as the result of a compromise, struck amid the friction of the Beatles' last months together. Paul wanted Abbey Road to be a pop opera; John saw it as a straightforward rock'n'roll record. No prizes for guessing who was right. Side one (mainly John) is excellent - "Come Together", "Something", "Oh! Darling", "Octopus's Garden". Side two (mainly Paul) starts brightly, with George's "Here Comes the Sun", then descends into the sequence known as the Long Medley. It has its moments - "Golden Slumbers", George Martin's favourite McCartney song, has a wistful beauty, and "She Came Through the Bathroom Window" is a cheery ode to a fan. But there's also the dreary facetiousness of "Polythene Pam", the overblown sprawl of "You Never Give Me Your Money", and the even more overblown sprawl of "The End". For eight years the Beatles had resisted the temptation to give Ringo a drum solo. Now they succumbed. It was time to split. Tim de Lisle

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