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PERSPECTIVE

Taking Abbey Road in a Backstreet Era

Surprised the Beatles outsell teen faves today? It's proof of the power of their artistic legacy. If only a new release would focus on that, instead of hits.

February 04, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN

One of the most remarkable pop stories of 2000 was that a band that has been defunct for 30 years topped the nation's album charts for two months--a feat all the more impressive because the run started during the holiday season when record companies normally showcase their hottest new commercial guns.

The surprise, in retrospect, is how few in the pop retail world predicted the album would be a blockbuster--even though it contained 27 No. 1 singles by the Beatles.

It's another sign of the unprecedented pop legacy of the Beatles.

Although the album, "1," entered the chart at No. 1 in mid-November, industry attention was on the new album by the Backstreet Boys, a group that has captured young girls' hearts in recent years much the way the Beatles did with their initial hits in the '60s.

Sure enough, the Boys' album opened big, selling 1.6 million copies the week of Nov. 30--the third highest first-week total in history and far more than enough to knock the Beatles out of No. 1.

But "1" wasn't finished.

Rather than slip meekly down the charts, the Beatles album soon reclaimed No. 1--eventually selling 4.6 million copies in just six weeks, enough to make it the seventh biggest selling CD of 2000. It is still in the Top 5.

One reason the Beatles crushed the Backstreet Boys in the sales race ("1" is now almost 1.5 million copies ahead of "Black & Blue") is that it had two generations pulling for it, not just one.

Even though baby boomers who grew up on the Beatles' music probably already have most of the songs on "1" in various CD collections, it's hard to resist getting the 27 hits on a single disc.

If parents needed any further nudging to buy the album, it came when they noticed their youngsters--teens to preschoolers--responding to the music on an ABC-TV salute to John, Paul, George and Ringo that aired the week the album was released.

My guess is that a million parents or grandparents added "1" to their holiday shopping lists that night--eager to share the prized music of their youth as a bonding rite, much like taking youngsters to their first baseball game.

Imagine the thrill for them, in an age of Eminem/Korn darkness and Backstreet Boys/'N Sync sterility, seeing their youngsters delight in music so much closer to their own cultural values.

In many ways, however, "1" is a Beatles introductory course.

Though the music on "1" is so filled with the wit, warmth and melodic grace of the Beatles, much of the group's best--and most defining--music is missing from it.

That leaves the door open for a sequel to "1"--call it "2: The Artistry," which would look beyond the hits to the music that spoke with an intimacy and individuality that touched many listeners on a deeper and more personal level than most of the celebrated chart-toppers.

The difference between "1" and the proposed "2" is a reminder that the whole business of hit singles is such a crapshoot that it's not always an artist's or even an era's best work that makes it to the top of the charts.

Many of the most distinguished artists of the modern pop era, in fact, have never reached No. 1 with a single--even early in their careers when their music was chiefly youth-oriented. They include the Allman Brothers Band, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen and the Who. Even a band as commercially and creatively potent as U2 has had only two No. 1 singles.

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When selecting singles, record executives are looking not for the best track on an album, but the one that has the best chance of winning the widespread radio exposure that is key in building a hit.

Radio programmers, in turn, aren't looking for an album's creative high point. They want the song with a catchy hook or other instantly identifiable strain that forges a quick bond with listeners. Subtlety and depth don't count for much.

Considering the difficulty of achieving a No. 1 single, it's astonishing, in retrospect, that the Beatles were able to come up with so many good ones. Only 20 of the 27 singles on "1" were actually chart-toppers in the U.S. (the rest were No. 1 in England), but that's still one more than Elvis Presley registered during his long career.

One reason was the group's phenomenal popularity as personalities and cultural icons. As with Presley, fans were so devoted that they would buy virtually anything their heroes put out. That unquestioning support could have led the group into complacency, and there is a certain slickness and predictability to some of the tracks on "1," including "Eight Days a Week" and "Lady Madonna."

But the Beatles were their own best critics.

By the time of the "Rubber Soul" album in 1966, the quartet was making a conscious effort to expand its musical horizons. Inspired in part by what Dylan was doing with words and what Brian Wilson was doing with music, the Beatles injected more character and ambition into their recordings.

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