The Beatles!

You say you want a revolution/ Well, you know/ We all want to change the world.

When John Lennon wrote those lyrics, he and his band mates already shared the rare distinction of knowing they actually had changed the world.

And three decades later, we're still feeling reverberations from the cultural earthquake those four lads from Liverpool created.

"The Beatles changed the pop landscape so fundamentally that their continued success only shows how hard it's been to change things since then," says Tim Riley, author of "Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary."

For evidence of that success, consider the statistics: "The Beatles Anthology," a hefty and expensive tome (list price $60) of old pictures and recollections by each band member, has held one of the top three spots on The New York Times bestseller list since its October release.

A new compilation of the group's No. 1 singles, titled "1," gave the Beatles yet another No. 1 album, outselling almost every other disc released this year - and not just in the United States. The album sold 12 million copies in its first three weeks, putting it on track to be the all-time bestselling album by a group. More than 3.5 million copies were snatched up in the first week. The Fab Four surpassed 'N Sync, whose "No Strings Attached" sold 2.4 million last March.

A spate of TV shows about the late John Lennon (coinciding with the 20th anniversary of his Dec. 8, 1980, assassination), including a VH1 "Behind the Music" segment, have also done well. Fans also flocked to theaters for the re-release of the Beatles 1964 movie, "A Hard Day's Night." It has earned about $170,000 (on just 12 US screens) so far.

Rolling Stone magazine just named Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" the most important pop song of all time. It and other publications have called "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" the best album in rock history. British music mag Mojo anointed Lennon's "In My Life," as "the most important song of all time."

It seems we still can't get enough of those four mop tops.

"A good deal of their continuing popularity has to do with the incredible melodies that they wrote and the diversity of the music they produced," says Terry Stewart, president and chief executive officer of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, where a new exhibit titled "Lennon: His Life and Work" is drawing significant traffic.

The Beatles "melodies seemed to appeal across all generations; there's something in there for everyone," he says.

Boston resident and author Mr. Riley, a speaker last summer at an international academic conference on the Beatles held in Finland, explains, "They're an anomaly in pop. The most successful group in showbiz history, they are also generally regarded as the best at what they did in all areas: writing, recording, singing, playing. It's very rare that you get that convergence of aesthetics and popularity."

Carl Grefenstette, a Pittsburgh-based vintage guitar dealer and Beatlephile, provided historically correct instruments and amplifiers for the first "Beatlemania" shows, in which impersonators took on the roles of the famous foursome.

"The Beatles impact was multidimensional in that they not only fulfilled the need for adolescents to have a musical hero figure, the same way Ricky Martin does now and Frank Sinatra did in the '40s, but from a musical presentation standpoint, they were breaking new ground in that they were a seriously successful, yet self-contained pop musical group," Mr. Grefenstette says.

Most teen idols, including Sinatra and Elvis, were frontmen, performing songs written by others, and backed by mostly anonymous players, he points out.

The Beatles not only were attractive and sang well, they wrote their own music, and performed it in a relatively new way, using what became standard rock instrumentation: electric guitars and drums.

"The significance of this is, rock music hasn't changed that much since then because there really isn't that much further you can take four guys and electric guitars and drums," Grefenstette says.

Since then, he explains, "there have been different, artsier approaches. But from the Beatles to U2 or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it's still four guys and guitars and drums. We're still in rock mode now....

"Their worldwide fame almost helped bring the world together - not as much as the Internet - but still, can you think of anybody prior to the Beatles who were as big in America as they were in Japan and Australia and Europe and everywhere?"

The Beatles cannily used their fame to espouse idealistic hopes: that peace was attainable, that maybe all we really did need was love.

"The Beatles Revolution," a recent ABC TV special, featured an assemblage of clips and reflections from current celebrities. "Monty Python" comedian Eric Idle commented, "It suddenly became about ... [how] young people would decide how we dressed; young people would decide the music we made. And all of that culture that we now take for granted happened for the first time then."

Adds rock hall president Stewart: "At one point in '64, when the Beatles first hit America, they had the top five songs in the nation, and that just doesn't happen." Indeed, that feat has never been repeated.

Today's teen stars, while wildly famous, are mainly regarded as manufactured fads facing short careers. No one since the Beatles has been able to capture the world's imagination in quite the same way, and pop-culture experts agree no one will: The media climate is too different, and the relative innocence of those times is long gone.

Clay Kisker, a 30-something Beatles fan in Pittsburgh who's too young to remember the Beatles' live performances, says most people automatically accept the group's legendary status. Listening to the album "1" has helped him understand why. "These guys knew how to [make a No. 1 song] 27 times over," says Mr. Kisker, a record-label marketing director and video producer. "Twenty-seven songs, and every one is better than the last." Noting the disc contains not one cover of another artist's work, he says the Beatles delivered "some of the best songwriting that's ever been put down on paper."

Journalist Ben Fong-Torres, the ex-Rolling Stone editor depicted in this year's film "Almost Famous," explains, "Boomers still love to travel in the 'wayback machine,' especially when it can take them back to a group that was so fresh, so witty, so revolutionary, so right for their times, that they somehow remain so today."

Also a minister, Fong-Torres recently officiated at a wedding in which the couple used one song: the Beatles' "I Will." Like Pachelbel and Beethoven, the Beatles' music has become a standard soundtrack for such milestone events.

As for the memories, most baby boomers shape their musical frames of reference around two dates: Feb. 9, 1964 - when they watched, rapt, as the foursome "yeah, yeah, yeahed" their way through "The Ed Sullivan Show," and Dec. 8, 1980 - the day Lennon was shot, and the hopes and dreams of a generation were also killed, along with any faint possibility of a Beatles reunion.

As Grefenstette says, the Beatles phenomenon was magical, serendipitous, a singular time in history that's unlikely to be repeated - or forgotten.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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