For Christmas 2010, I received the CD box set of the official Beatles albums; 16 CD’s in all! The compilation contains all the Beatles studio albums (with their original UK track listings) along with Past Masters volumes 1 & 2 to round out the collection. Every Beatles’ song ever recorded is on this set, and the packaging is outstanding. This truly is a must have set for any Beatles fan. With the exception of Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine, every Beatles’ album hit number 1 on the charts. Not to mention that they also have the record for most #1 hits in both the US (20) and the UK (17). They are also the biggest selling musical artist in popular music history.
What makes the Beatles so good? Clearly there are other musical artists who are better song writers or better musicians. I think the greatness of the Beatles can be summed up in one word: Groundbreaking. If you listen to their music, even their earlier Mersey Beat music, they don’t sound groundbreaking compared to modern pop music. Until you factor in that they were usually the first ones to come up with some new sound or technique that was copied by everyone else. Most of their early music from 1963 thru 1965 didn’t vary much, though you could still discern the maturation of their sound by 1965. This period was marked by constant recording, promoting and touring. They recorded six LP’s in their first three years. Nowadays musicians are lucky to crank out six albums in 20 years.
It wasn’t until the height of their success and creativity when they cranked out three of the most influential albums of all-time: Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Each of these albums extended the limits of their musical ability from the previous one. It was during this period, in my opinion, that the Beatles were at their creative height, and it was helped in large part by the fact that they decided to drastically limit their touring schedule to spend more time in the recording studio. This was also during the height of the Psychedelic Rock era. Beginning with the Beatles and spreading through a whole host of other groups, musical artists were experimenting with sound and recording techniques (and some mind-altering substances as well).
Following this burst of creative output, the Beatles released the eponymous album, The Beatles, a.k.a., the “White Album” in 1968. This album is considered by many to be their best album, though I would disagree. It is with this album that one can see that the band was breaking apart. The death of their long time manager, Brian Epstein, was a bitter pill to swallow, and creative differences between John Lennon and Paul McCartney were exacerbated. The soundtrack album for their animated movie, Yellow Submarine (1969) followed as well as Abbey Road (1969) and Let It Be (1970). Abbey Road usually also makes the list as one of the Beatles’ best albums.
When the Beatles broke up in 1970, it was hard to receive by many, though it probably wasn’t too big of a surprise. I feel that much of their mystique and legendary status comes from the fact that they only lasted eight years (but boy, what an eight years!). Had they stuck together for another decade or two, it would have seemed to me like an aging football player who tries to hang on to fame and glory for one more season even though his talents are obviously faded. No offense to Rolling Stones fans, but they’ve stayed together about 30 years too long. Most of their good, edgy stuff is from the 60’s and 70’s (with a smattering of hits from the 80’s). Somebody needs to tell them to hang it up.
There aren’t too many artists around today who don’t owe some homage to the Beatles. Many musical artists acknowledge the debt they owe to the Beatles for their music. I’m sure that there will eventually be artists who surpass their records of #1 singles or albums, but I find the chances very slim that anyone will overtake their overall sales numbers (especially as their musical catalog is re-released every time the music medium changes). I began listening to the Beatles in the early to mid 70’s. Too late to be there when they were together, but not too late see their impact on the musical landscape. I remember buying all of their US LP releases (I even ‘borrowed’ some money from my parents to buy a few records) and playing them to death. The Beatles will always be my first love musically speaking, and even when the remaining band members are long gone, their music will still be played. They are truly timeless.