One of the more predictable questions at Beatles press conferences was, "What will you do when the bubble bursts?" They always answered, just as predictably, "Well burst with it! Ha! Ha!" But it was not the case. Twenty-five years after the group broke up, The Beatles were once more the biggest earning entity in show business, more than the Stones, more than Michael Jackson, more than Bill Cosby or Oprah Winfrey. This was of course because of the Anthology television series, the video set and the three double CDs. But in the intervening years The Beatles had never really gone away: they and their fans behaved as if they still existed. There were none of the usual signs of a long disbanded group: all of their catalogue was always readily available, almost always at full price, and only rarely did their songs appear on Sixties compilations.
When the band broke up there were only one or two books available about them. Now there are more than 400 and new ones are published on an average of one every two weeks. On the Internet there are more Beatles sites than any other music group with over 40,000 pages devoted to them. There are annual Beatles weekends in London, Liverpool, San Diego, Orlando, Los Angeles and other cities. The Beatlefests in Liverpool, New York and Chicago attract more than 10,000 people to watch film clips, hear pundits pontificate and to buy Beatles memorabilia, most of which has been produced since the group broke up. Beatles merchandising has become an industry in itself, with hundreds of dealers doing nothing else but buy and sell the detritus of marketing campaigns, old copies of Radio Times and the occasional rare picture sleeve. Blue chip Beatles memorabilia, especially handwritten lyrics and items relating directly to John, always fetches the highest prices at auction sales.
In America there are a number of 24-hour Beatles stations, playing nothing but songs by the collective and solo Beatles, endlessly, month after month. Hundreds of stations have weekly Beatles shows or Beatles request shows. 'Yesterday' is the world's most popular song: in 1993, it passed the six million airplay mark in the USA, followed at second most popular by 'Michelle' at four million. 'Yesterday' has also been covered by more than 2,300 other artists. Just one copy of each version would fill a wall of shelves. How can anyone compete with that? Well, Paul McCartney can, of course. At the height of the punk movement, McCartney calmly released 'Mull Of Kintyre', a sentimental ballad which immediately became the biggest selling single in Britain up to that time -selling more than any Beatles' record.
There was a time when they hated to be called "ex-Beatles"; usually stressing the fact that The Beatles was just a band they were once in, and now they were doing something else. Time passed and now they are just 'The Beatles' again. They may have had enormous success with solo careers, but they are Beatles and always will be as long as they live. At Apple and in Beatles circles there was a saying: "Nothing is safe from Beatlification" and it turns out that The Beatles themselves aren't immune from it either.
In the Seventies, the image of The Beatles was frozen in time: the long-haired bickering Beatles of Let It Be and the Saville Row rooftop concert. This gradually changed, as images from all periods of The Beatles' career, from the Fab Four, the Four Mop Tops, the Lords of Psychedelia and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band all intermingled to a composite Beatles, like a collage image of the Sixties from the Kennedy Assassination through Christine Keeler to Man landing on the Moon and a Technicolor Jimi Hendrix playing the guitar with his teeth. The Beatles are a passage from black and white to glorious colour; from the cheeky Northern lads of A Hard Day's Night to the sublime psychedelic John Lennon singing 'I Am The Walrus' in Magical Mystery Tour. Not surprising then that they had a bit of an influence over the music scene.
The Beatles sit like a monolith in the middle of popular music history, you can't avoid them. In the early days of pop music there was only one hit parade and they dominated it, year in, year out. These days with the hip-hop charts, the house music and techno charts, charts for rappers and charts for sensitive Canadian lady folk singers it is hard to imagine any one group ever having that dominance again. These days someone can be number one for months and half the record buying public will never have even heard of them because they buy a different type of record.
The Beatles introduced the singer-songwriter, they did the first "concept album", they were the first to print their lyrics on the sleeve, they invented stadium rock, they not only had the John Lennon-Paul McCartney songwriting team on board but, astonishingly, had George Harrison as well. George's 'Something' was described by Frank Sinatra as "the greatest love song of the past fifty years" and has been covered by such greats as Ray Charles, James Brown and Smoky Robinson. In The Beatles George had to fight to even get a B-side.
They broke up and all went solo. George's career was the first to take off with the release of his box set All Things Must Pass, the first triple album in rock'n'roll. Unfortunately for him, in 1976 the big hit single from the set, 'My Sweet Lord', was deemed (unfairly) by the courts to have more than a passing similarity to The Chiffons' 'He's So Fine' and he forfeited the royalties on that song. In the early Seventies, however, George was riding high, he was the coolest man in rock. He even brought Bob Dylan out on stage for the first time in several years at a benefit concert for the refugees of Bangladesh which George organised at Madison Square Garden. The problem was that George is a slow writer and with his triple album set, he had put ail his eggs in one basket. There wasn't much left for the next album - or the one after that - and his recording career never reached such heights again. George turned instead to films - not acting, but producing. His company Handmade Films put £2,000,000 into the Monty Python team's Life Of Brian and made a massive profit. Suddenly George had another career.
John was also fast off the mark. Whereas Paul got married in the full glare of publicity, but honeymooned in private, John had a secret wedding but invited the world press to attend the honeymoon, first at the Amsterdam Hilton then, as he was unable to enter the States, in Montreal where he wrote the memorable peace anthem 'Give Peace A Chance'. John made his private life public, just as in his songs he expressed his most intimate private feelings. He recorded Imagine, an album which is in part hauntingly beautiful - John had a fantastic voice - and also deeply flawed with its vicious attack on McCartney, 'How Do You Sleep?'. Then in 1971 John moved to New York City, never to set foot in England again. (Even when he obtained a green card and was able to travel again, Yoko was opposed to him returning to Britain.) In New York he fell in with media hucksters and self-styled revolutionaries Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman which resulted in the terrible Some Time In New York City. For the first time John was writing about things people told him, rather than writing from personal experience, and it showed. His career in the UK effectively ended with that album until his work was reassessed at his death. The album also attracted the attention of Richard Nixon and John soon found himself under FBI surveillance as a dangerous revolutionary when all he really wanted was his green card so he could stay in the country.
Ringo also started well; 'It Don't Come Easy' in 1971 was followed a year later with 'Back Off Boogaloo', both fine singles which indicated a solid solo career. In addition, his acting improved with each film he appeared in, beginning with the dismal Candy (now a cult movie, so bad it's good), faring much better in The Magic Christian and peaking with That'll Be The Day where he was finally given the right role. His album Ringo in 1973 was better than any the other ex-Beatles had made in years and his singles 'Photograph' and 'You're Sixteen' both reached number one in the States. Ringo joined the jet set and became a tax exile in Monte Carlo with houses in Amsterdam and Los Angeles. A generation of children grew up thinking of him as the voice of Thomas The Tank Engine and as the narrator on Nilsson's animated cartoon The Point.
Paul, the most likely Beatle to succeed as a solo artist, got off to a very slow start. He had been badly affected by the break-up of the group and the subsequent legal wrangles. McCartney and Ram were slated by the critics, as were the early efforts by Wings. Then in 1973 he had his own TV special, wrote the theme to Live And Let Die and released Band On The Run. This was followed by a massive 1975-76 world tour and from then on he never looked back.
Perhaps goaded by Paul's success, John returned to the recording studio. He took his famous eighteen-month long weekend with May Pang in Los Angeles and recorded 'Whatever Gets You Through The Night', his first solo number one in America. Then he returned to Yoko and in 1975, Sean was born, John got his green card and became a "house husband", bringing up their son while Yoko got on with making money.
The Beatles, meanwhile, were not forgotten. In 1976 EMI re-promoted all The Beatles' singles - these were not re-issues because they were never off the catalogue - and they immediately charted. All of them; taking up about a quarter of the Top 100. There was a new Beatles single among them. 'Yesterday' had never been issued as a single in the UK, though it had been a huge hit in the USA. Now it had its own turn at the top of the UK charts.
1980 was a bad year. First Paul was busted at Narita airport, Tokyo, trying to take pot into Japan and spent ten anxious days in jail before being released. Then on December 8,1980, John was senselessly murdered outside his home at the Dakota in New York, and nothing was ever the same again. The remaining Beatles hunkered down, surrounded by bodyguards and security systems, and effectively disappeared from sight. Records continued to appear from them all but it was not until the late Eighties that they took on a public presence again. In 1989 both Paul and Ringo planned tours: Ringo put together his AII-Starr Band and Paul went for something rather more ambitious: a world tour of stadiums lasting 11 months to promote his Flowers In The Dirt CD and, much to the audiences' delight, play Beatles songs again. George popped up in The Traveling Wilburys and toured in Japan.
Then came the Anthology series: a worldwide multi-part television series, eight videos, three double CDs, two new Beatles singles (there would have been three but George didn't like John's tape). All that was missing at the time was the book, which eventually surfaced in the autumn of 2000, followed by 1, the first single CD of Beatles greats which music industry insiders predict will become the best-selling album ever. The Beatles were back and it seemed that Paul, George and Ringo didn't mind at all being Beatles again. They had never really been away.
As the world moves into the third millennium, the enormous celebrity of The Beatles remains firmly intact. Their status as the greatest pop group ever remains unchallenged as each new generation of bands acknowledges their influence. Paul is now firmly established as a sort of elder statesman of British pop, its senior figure who is invariably invited to top the bill at prestigious charity events, much as he did at Live Aid. He is now Sir Paul McCartney, an accolade that was long overdue considering those knighthoods bestowed upon other, lesser, figures from the world of entertainment. No matter how you measure success in the entertainment world, Paul is on top: the most number one records, the most air-plays, the fastest selling tickets, the biggest paying audience, and of course, the most money. He is unquestionably the wealthiest of British rock stars, his fortune generally estimated to be in the region of £500 million whenever broadsheet newspapers and music magazines discuss such matters. A great wave of public sympathy was extended towards Paul when Linda died, and for some time afterwards he maintained an uncharacteristically low profile. He's since re-emerged in the company of the handicapped model Heather Mills, a relationship the Great British Public seems to have gladly countenanced. Paul is a grandfather now, daughter Mary having presented him with a grandson, while his youngest daughter Stella has found fame in her own right as a fashion designer.
Low profiles come naturally to George. The quiet Beatle has become ever more silent over the years, dry of wit and content to potter around in his garden and indulge his love of automobiles and Formula One racing. He remains a deeply private and quietly religious man. The break-in at Friar Park over Christmas 1999, with its eerie echoes of John's murder, will likely push him yet further away from the limelight. As a Beatle he never much liked having his photo taken and he probably never will. Relations between George and Paul fluctuate with the tides. They haven't performed together since the Apple rooftop show in January 1969, and it's unlikely they ever will again.
Ringo remains, indubitably, Ringo, the all-smiling, all-singing, all-dancing ex-Beatle whose run of luck goes on forever. He was never taken very seriously when he was a member of The Beatles and he's never been taken very seriously since, although his problems with alcohol and drugs put a dent in the lovable image created by his deadpan rendering of Thomas The Tank Engine. Ringo presents no threat to anyone and as such he remains the bridge between Paul and George, and probably also Yoko, John's widow and the fourth, ever-intriguing factor in the ongoing saga of the greatest pop group the world has ever known.
Miles, April 1999 & November 2000.
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