Same songs, but a different message from yesterday

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The Independent Online

The Beatles are set to be back at No 1 tomorrow, and retromania is sweeping the country again. As Karl Marx might have said, hysteria is repeating itself, the first time as teenage rebellion, the second as nostalgia. The success of the compilation CD of Beatles chart-toppers confirms, should anyone have doubted it, the canonisation of the Fab Four.

The Beatles are set to be back at No 1 tomorrow, and retromania is sweeping the country again. As Karl Marx might have said, hysteria is repeating itself, the first time as teenage rebellion, the second as nostalgia. The success of the compilation CD of Beatles chart-toppers confirms, should anyone have doubted it, the canonisation of the Fab Four.

This is a matter not so much of secular sainthood, although the tragic death of John Lennon and the attack on George Harrison seem to contain an element of martyrdom. It is more that the Beatles have entered the canon, if not of classical music, of a cultural heritage that is so universal as to be its modern-day equivalent. The Beatles industry is said to employ more than 2,000 people - not including the 250 tribute bands plying their imitative trade in Liverpool alone.

The new collection is perhaps the weakest outcrop of the phenomenon. Paradoxically, it is the opposite of the concept album, invented by the Beatles with Sergeant Pepper in 1967. It is merely a collection of well-known singles that reached No 1 in the charts in either Britain or America or both. The critic Charles Shaar Murray rightly condemned it as "less than the sum of its parts", though it is difficult to argue with the logic of ruthlessly exploiting pop's strongest brand.

Any music sophisticate knows, too, that No 1 hits are a poor measure of lasting artistic worth. The roll-call of greats who did not have a No 1 single includes Little Richard, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, The Who, Bob Marley, the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, The Smiths, Nirvana, REM and Radiohead. That pattern has been accentuated today by the fizzle-marketing of dance bands singing cover versions for pre-teens, while the best bands on the current pop scene, such as Travis or Coldplay, continue to be denied No 1 chart status. Anyone who wants to sample the Beatles' real contribution to music would do better to buy The White Album or Revolver than this K-Tel-isation of the Lennon/McCartney oeuvre.

The significance of this sudden outbreak of nostalgia for records made before many of today's purchasers were born (not all the buyers are ageing baby-boomers replacing their vinyl) is that it evokes a golden era when British pop took the States by storm. Today the scene looks very different. Never before has America been so little interested in British music. Instead, British music has a greater and greater affinity with that on the Continent. As the Beatles fade into harmless history, safe enough for the kids to plunder from their parents' CD collections, we are left to reflect on how our culture, like our economy, is converging with the rest of Europe.

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