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And ... in the end

Regardless of how many rock and pop musicians stand up each year to receive their Grammys, Brits and platinum albums, The Beatles remain the yardstick by which their success is measured. Thanks to the ever increasing size of the global music industry they did so much to establish in the first place, many of the statistical sales records that The Beatles once held have now been eclipsed, but no one has ever really become "bigger than The Beatles" or even the "new Beatles", nor are they ever likely to because becoming "bigger than The Beatles" is simply unattainable. Their achievements will forever remain unique because of the context and the manner in which they were accomplished.

Most of those now compared briefly to The Beatles begin and end their careers as what are today referred to as 'boy bands', but many of these acts don't even play musical instruments, let alone write all their own material. Their stage shows are often limited to displays of athletic formation dancing while they sing or mime along to pre-recorded tapes, and there is a tendency for their back catalogues to stagnate within 12 months of their demise. What price today the back catalogues of The Monkees, The Osmonds, The Bay City Rollers, Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo, Wham!, A-Ha, Bros, New Kids On The Block, Brother Beyond or Take That?

It is equally inconclusive to compare the success of The Beatles with serious stadium filler artists of the calibre of R.E.M., U2 or even Bruce Springsteen, none of whom were actually compared to The Beatles because their careers developed slowly and big success arrived only after several years of hard graft. Although all three have now produced around as many albums as The Beatles and their record sales (and concert ticket sales) certainly measure up, it has taken them at least three times as long to achieve this. Regardless of their integrity in an increasingly profit motivated industry, R.E.M., U2 and Springsteen never really changed anything, or even attract more than a few dozen fans whenever they land at Heathrow Airport.

Any act that becomes very popular very quickly are tagged "the new Beatles", but this overlooks the fact that The Beatles, or at least three of them, played together for almost four years before they saw the inside of a real recording studio. In the meantime, somehow, they scratched a living by performing live. In the modern era it's unlikely that any group, including R.E.M or U2, would stick it out together for four years from formation to recording, though Springsteen certainly paid his dues on the New Jersey shore. Among The Beatles' near contemporaries, only The Who, again just three of them, made a living playing live for four years before recording. But The Who made only four albums in the Sixties, against The Beatles' twelve. By comparison, less than six months elapsed between the formation of The Beatles' biggest rivals, The Rolling Stones, and the recording session that produced their first single.

Of course, the sedulous conditions under which The Beatles produced their work are unlikely ever to be repeated. It seems extraordinary to say it, but for all their modern-day sophistication, today's multi-national record companies are simply not equipped to handle two albums a year from the same artist, nor are they likely to welcome non-album singles which won't act as promotional tools for the triennial album. Perhaps there's a lesson to be learned here: today's Top Five singles often sell less than 100,000;

in their heyday The Beatles' singles sold over a million on advance orders alone and that's just in the UK!

No matter how successful other acts may prove to be in the future, it is unlikely that more than 2,000 other artists will record a cover version of any of their songs. Nor do more recent bands have the widespread appeal of The Beatles. Again, looking at the cover versions of their songs, they have been tackled by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Peggy Lee at one end of the scale, to Laibach's thrash metal version of the entire Let It Be album on the other, to say nothing of Cathy Berberian's Beatles' Arias, an entire album of Beatles songs given operatic treatment, or the many brass band, string quartet and even steam organ versions of their songs.

The Beatles cast a giant shadow, a shadow so huge that many bands don't even realise they sit within its umbra. At the height of their fame, in the mid-Sixties, they influenced a huge number of their contemporaries: from Brian Jones period Rolling Stones (particularly Jones's use of sitar, and the whole of Satanic Majesties which was a Sgt. Pepper imitation), through Donovan, The Kinks to all the other pop acts who went on to produce more complex, lasting work, spurred on by the advances and experiments of The Beatles. Before the end of the Sixties their vocal harmonies were influencing everyone from The Hollies to The Bee Gees and by the end of the decade their impact was spreading out through ELO who took mid-period psychedelic Beatles songs as a blue print for almost everything they did. Another strand of their work, notably the guitar heavy White Album, was developed by Led Zeppelin, much more of a Beatles band than most people think; and Syd Barrett took much from The Beatles for the whimsical early Pink Floyd. Their influence was all encompassing. In the USA, one only has to look at the work of The Byrds, The Beach Boys and Buffalo Springfield - to name just those groups whose name also begins with "B" - to see how the Americans coped with the British Invasion.

Interest in their work remains far higher than any of their contemporaries, so much so that their complete repertoire remains in print at full price, and fans still clamour for more. They have become the most collected group of all time and the most bootlegged. In the years since The Beatles disbanded lawyers and managers representing their interests have increased their tight stranglehold on the group's product. Although Paul and John's heir Yoko Ono have lost control of their song publishing, they (and George and Ringo) have effectively turned around the slave and master situation that existed with EMI in the Sixties, i.e. The Beatles are now very much the masters.

All of which probably explains why the three volume Anthology series of rarities and outtakes, released in 1996, sold as well as it did and, together with the accompanying eight volume video collection, raised a sum not unadjacent to $400 million for the three surviving Beatles and Yoko. This made them, in 1996, the third highest paid entertainers in the world, after Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, almost 40 years after John first encountered Paul at the Woolton village fete. Even in 1999, a year when the corporate entity now known as The Beatles released absolutely no CDs, books or other artefacts, only two entertainers in Britain earned more than they did on back catalogue sales alone.

Their musical accomplishments aside, these cold cash statistics alone explain why The Beatles remain the yardstick by which others are and always will be measured.

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