Goodbye Hello: Beatlemania 2009

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They formed five decades ago, broke up 40 years back, and this week they will attract a new audience. Author and historian Simon Wells investigates

The Beatles – yes, it's them again. This once peculiar, slightly corny word coined by John Lennon has now endured almost 50 years of passionate usage. While there may have been a few occasions on which someone has dared to question the group's seemingly limitless appeal, here we are once more with yet another resurgence expected just around the corner. And if you haven't already noticed, Wednesday sees the release of the entire Beatles studio catalogue, digitally remastered from the original session tapes, no less. And if that weren't enough, a new computer game, The Beatles: Rock Band, hits the shelves the very same day. While it's probably overstating the case somewhat to suggest that shopkeepers are boarding up their windows for the anticipated rush, it's a certainty that the interest from all quarters will be nothing less than colossal.

While to some, the release of the Beatles' remastered CDs is long overdue, it is computer game that will pull in the bulk of new admirers. Purists (myself included) may find the thought of computerised Mop Tops somewhat incongruous, but such jaundiced opinions will mean little to the comfort-funsters who'll no doubt enjoy dancing around their living rooms, plastic guitars hanging round their necks. With the teasing addition of 45 Beatles songs specially lent for the project, one can only imagine that many will be queuing up (or at least tapping into Amazon) to complete their collection of CDs once they tire of the game.

To add further excitement to the digital maniacs' already overloaded senses, it has been hinted that the computer game will allow for the long-awaited transfer of the Beatles catalogue as a downloadable product.

But before we all get too carried away, we've been here before – quite a few times. The first Beatles CD releases in 1987 sent cartloads of vinyl to the local Oxfam shops, while sales of compact disc players rocketed. The Beatles Anthology, ostensibly the last word on the phenomenon in 1995, generated six CDs of unreleased material, a hefty book, several T-shirts and a library of unreleased videos. In between these well-hyped unveilings, we've had the odd re-released film, radio sessions and greatest hits compilations to keep the kettle boiling.

To the cynical, all this may seem to be just another ploy to reline the pockets of those who are already far too wealthy; and yet the reality (sad or otherwise) is that, five decades on, no one has yet to claim the mantle donned by the Beatles.

In fact, most have now given up trying. For a while, following the group's split in 1970, many attempted to steal their enormous fanbase. The cuddly Osmonds and tartan-clad Bay City Rollers were just two of many who had a go, and while they accrued something of Beatlemania, their appeal was largely ephemeral. Over the following years, others were driven to try to emulate the Beatles' stratospheric success, but came away with little more than a few hits and a hefty tax bill.

Showing little shame, Oasis would borrow heavily from the Fab Four's wardrobe and songbook, yet they were never going to acquire any of their global appeal. Ironically, understanding this enduring supremacy is also beyond the two remaining Beatles, who despite the constant reminders of their glory days, appear as mystified by it all as the rest of us.

Indeed, the group's bemusement at the Beatles phenomenon was evident as early as 1963. If you have the stamina to sit through the hours of Beatles-related films, you might come across a little-seen featurette entitled The Mersey Sound. Made by the BBC in mid-1963, the 30-minute show devoted a large part of its time to the Beatles, by then the newest craze on the fledgling pop roundabout. From a 21st-century point of view, the film appears curious and dated; but, in watching these four awkward youngsters struggling to come to terms with their extraordinary fame, it is a fascinating piece of television.

Probably aware that the group would elevate themselves beyond novelty status, the BBC allowed each individual Beatle a few moments to expand on the future. The lads' answers are quite amusing in their modesty.

John Lennon: "How long are we going to last? Well, you can't say. You can be big-headed and say, 'Yeah, we're going to last 10 years', but as soon as you've said that, you think: we're lucky if we last three months."

George Harrison: "I hope to have enough money to go into a business of my own by the time we do flop. We don't know: it may be next week, it may be two or three years, but I think we'll be in the business, either up there or down there, for the next four years."

Paul McCartney: "Well, obviously we can't keep playing this same sort of music until we're about 40. Old men playing 'From Me to You'; nobody's going to want to know about that sort of thing ... Who knows, at 40 we might not be able to write songs any more."

Ringo Starr: "I've always fancied having a ladies' hairdressing salon, a string of them in fact. Trot around in my stripes and tails saying, 'Like a cup of tea, madam?'"

Despite these largely self-effacing comments, within a few short months Beatlemania had fully conquered Britain. By the end of 1964, America had also fallen to the group's young, fun and carefree ethos. The world, starved of such joyous abandon in the post-war years, easily took the bait. It is said that the associated Beatles merchandising industry took in over $100m in two years – yet largely through ineptitude and innocence, the Beatles saw very little of it.

Nonetheless, the band continued to ascend the dizzy heights of success. Their MBEs, collected at an investiture at Buckingham Palace in November 1965, was confirmation that they had conquered every level of society. They were the world's favourite "children": adored, adorned and adulated wherever they went.

But behind the masks of passive acceptance lay deep resentment. Lennon, especially, hated society's fawning over the group and yearned for newer, more creative pastures where he could explore fully the surreal bohemia he adored.

One fundamental change in the band's way of thinking was fuelled by their insatiable ingestion of marijuana. Soon, LSD would transform the group into full-blown musical extraterrestrials, sending them well outside the monochrome world in which the rest of the population laboured. These seeds so freely scattered into the fertile and receptive imagination of the world's youth began to blossom during the tail end of 1966.

Naturally, the Beatles were at the forefront of the new hippie movement and they freely promoted the nebulous but appealing manifesto of love and peace. Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album that best reflects the spirit of the "Summer of Love" of 1967, helped to win more serious musical aficionados over to the Beatles.

Reality, however, drove a wedge through the psychedelic landscape in August of that year, with the news that the band's manager, Brian Epstein, had died from a drug overdose. After his death, the extent of his pitiful handling of their finances quickly became apparent.

Their first attempt at managerless autonomy was the film Magical Mystery Tour. Broadcast on Boxing Day 1967, its quirky psychedelia unwittingly gave the press their first chance to ignite a backlash against a band that had hitherto known only success and adulation. Even so, the accompanying soundtrack scored them yet another worldwide hit.

In an attempt to regain control over their own finances in the wake of Epstein's death, the group established Apple, a record label-cum-artistic clearing house, which was mainly the brainchild of Paul McCartney. With no other source of direction, the rest of the group followed McCartney's brief, chivvied along by their accountants saying that something had to be done about the crippling amounts of tax they were paying. In the spirit of the times, Apple was an imaginative, if wholly idealistic, concept. However, within two short years, it did little more than prove the point that while the Beatles were extraordinary musicians and writers, they were not cut out to be businessmen.

Nonetheless, the upheaval behind the scenes had little effect on the quality of their music. The White Album and Abbey Road sold millions of copies worldwide, and while the free-range antics of John Lennon and Yoko Ono caused consternation among some erstwhile fans, the Beatles' music remained impregnable.

The band's break-up in early 1970 was, to an extent, something of an anticlimax. While the world attempted to come to terms with the extraordinary events of the 1960s, the Beatles were sidelined – a new era of flares, perms and punk rock was on the verge of being born. Ironically, it took the death of John Lennon in 1980 to kick-start the group's perpetual renaissance; something that continues to roll. Despite its formative blip, Apple Records is a tightly run ship today, and to its credit it has taken care not to saturate the market with Beatles products. Ultimately, these new CD remasters and the Rock Band computer game will inspire countless more words. Yet like many, I doubt that we will ever tire of the Beatles.

The pretenders: Fab Four are still the band to beat

There will never be another Beatles – fact. But that hasn't stopped legions of young pretenders trying to claim their throne over the years. The Osmonds were up there when it came to a squeaky-clean image, energetic pop-rock sound and legions of fans, yet "Osmondmania" was hardly akin to "Beatlemania" and only people of a certain age can remember any of their songs. The Aussie rockers AC/DC certainly don't look or play like the Beatles, but when it comes to number of albums sold, they're hard on their heels. Duran Duran had the looks, the fans and the new sound – but that new sound was distinctly Eighties and hasn't aged well. In the Nineties Take That had an army of screaming fans and several number-one hits under their belts. Yet for all his shiny pop tunes, Gary Barlow was no Paul McCartney, and they never produced anything to match the White Album. Oasis, on the other hand, played all their own instruments, had mop tops and hailed from the North... but they couldn't shake off the criticism that all they did was rip off the Beatles. What's more, all their albums sounded exactly like their debut, Definitely Maybe. So who next? Perhaps four young mop-topped scamps named Arctic Monkeys will provide the longevity lacking from today's groups. Or perhaps we should just give up hoping and enjoy what they left.

The Jonas Brothers? Not likely, says Simmy Richman on page 52. You wouldn't catch them smoking a spliff in the Queen's loos – plus they're American.

Paul Bignell

Beatles in numbers

74m The number of people who tuned in to watch the Fab Four on The Ed Sullivan Show in America in 1964

1,400 The number of concerts the band played during only six years spent touring

13 Studio albums produced in the 10 years the Beatles were together

1bn One estimate of the band's total record sales

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