03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Band of the Decade: The Beatles?!

What does it say that the biggest musical group of the first decade of this new millennium recorded its last album 40 years ago?

That's what sales figures show, that the best-selling album of the decade is the Beatles' 1, a collection of their number one hits. And that, when counting the individual albums in their massive (and very expensive) box sets of remastered recordings released just this past September as individual albums rather than one "unit," the erstwhile lads from Liverpool have sold more CDs than Eminem, the leading solo act of the decade, or any group, for that matter.

That's what the figures show, but what do they mean?

"A Hard Day's Night" from 1964's A Hard Day's Night.

For one thing, it points up the fragmentation and flash-in-the-pan American Idol mindset of the new music scene. For another, it points up the ongoing appeal of the Beatles.

Though I liked them, I was never a big Beatles fan. They were somewhat before my time, and when my time came I embraced California bands and singers. I've gone through a number of musical phases, and there were years that passed in which I didn't listen to the Beatles, aside from the unavoidable snippets one hears passing through life.

When the remastered Beatles albums were released this past September, I was intrigued. As I looked over what was being released, I realized that I really didn't know a lot of the material, as familiar as the Beatles seemed. I had a few of the later classics -- Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper, the White Album -- but the earlier Beatles material, which merely made them famous, was largely a mystery. Even though I had compilation albums. The context was lost. And the recording quality, frankly, left a great deal to be desired.

Since I was writing extensively about Mad Men's season three, set in 1963, the same year as the Beatles' first two albums, when the remastered Beatles albums were released, I decided to get the earliest Beatles albums to have a greater feel of the time.

"Please Please Me" from 1963's Please Please Me.

Which inadvertently kicked off my own sort of personal Beatlemania. Rather than get all the albums at once, I got them one at a time, to get a feel for what each was about and how it resonated with the year in which it was released.

It was like discovering a new band. The remastering of the albums is so well done, the sound so clear and vibrant, it sounds like the music was only recently recorded. And what a band! They put out a tremendous amount of material in a relatively short period of time, from 1963 to 1970. There are 14 remastered albums released by Apple Corps -- 13 studio albums and one double-album of songs released only as singles. That's an average of two per year. (Let It Be, released in 1970, was recorded in 1969, briefly abandoned amidst squabbling before being released after the final Beatles recordings to be found on the vastly superior Abbey Road.)

I'm especially partial to the early Beatles, 1963 to 1965, because it was so unfamiliar and new to me. I knew some of the songs, of course, but they were wrenched from the development of the group on compilation records.

It turns out the early and middle period Beatles albums were all wrenched from context in their original American releases, with Capitol Records frankly screwing them up, changing the lineup of the songs and frequently omitting songs altogether found on the original British releases. Naturally, the remastered albums follow the original British format.

"All My Loving" from 1963's With the Beatles.

Taking each of the early albums in their original order -- Please Please Me and With the Beatles in 1963, A Hard Day's Night and Beatles for Sale in 1964, and Help! and Rubber Soul in 1965 -- it was easy to see how Beatlemania progressed in Britain, then spread to America (breaking huge in the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy) and around the world.

The Beatles were fun and fresh. Still fresh, that is, as they'd played together for years and were a ferocious live act, their chops honed with endless playing in Britain and Germany.

America never really got a strong feel for the Beatles as a live act, since Beatlemania was so powerful a force here that the fans' incessant screaming made it sound as though shows here were being performed on the tarmac at a busy airport. And by the time people had stopped screaming all the time, the Beatles were such superstars that touring seemed a disturbing chore, and they retreated to the studio, where they became the first studio band, experimenting with pop music in ways never seen before.

So the two albums from 1963 stand as the best example of the Beatles in concert. The first, Please Please Me, was to have been recorded as a live album at the Beatles' home base club The Cavern in Liverpool. But producer George Martin decided the acoustics weren't good enough. So he and the Beatles recorded the album in a day at the Abbey Road Studios in London. With the Beatles was recorded later in 1963, in six sessions totaling 28 hours shoehorned into the Beatles' extensive schedule of touring and appearances.

"Can't Buy Me Love" from 1964's A Hard Day's Night.

What we get on these albums, bashed out in rapid-fire succession by today's standards, with rudimentary recording equipment, is a tight, energetic group with great vocals on a blend of rock 'n roll, rhythm and blues, and pop ballads. While the band still relied some on cover versions of songs they'd played a million times in their live shows -- as was the fashion of the day -- most of the material is original, with the Lennon/McCartney partnership already striking gold.

A Hard Day's Night, which I've quickly come to love, came out in 1964 along with the brilliant pseudo-documentary film by Richard Lester. The Beatles are antic, arch, and vibrant as they make their way through what came to be known as "Swinging London," which they merely own. Seven of the songs play as nascent music videos during the film, a new genre which comes even more to fruition in Lester's 1965 Beatles film, Help!

"Eight Days A Week" from 1964's Beatles for Sale.

While they had more time for recording this album, they didn't have much by today's standards, recording the album on the run again in the midst of all they were doing. By any standards, they delivered a masterpiece, the best example of a guitars-and-drums vocal band playing and singing their own songs in live studio recordings.

This time round the Beatles present 13 original songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and they sound tight and fresh and smart, from the classic clanging George Harrison chord that opens the title song to "I'll Be Back."

"Help!" from 1965's Help!

After Beatles for Sale, a rather hurried record done for the Christmas 1964 market which nonetheless has some gems like "Eight Days A Week" and "I'm A Loser" along with a return to cover songs, the Beatles hurried to make a follow-up to the hit film A Hard Day's Night.

That's 1965's Help!, which again makes drummer Ringo Starr into an unlikely movie star. Starr, regarded by many as the luckiest man on the planet to get the gig, the runt of the litter, was actually the key to making the group work. The Beatles had suffered for years without a proper drummer. Starr, the working class kid contrasted to John, Paul, and George's rather more posh and educated middle class backgrounds, filled the bill in the nick of time, and added a big dollop of charm to an already charming group.

As a movie, Help! is a Pop Art-inflected, pot-fueled melange of arguably amusing bits. In addition to the obvious nod to the Marx Brothers, it's something of a spoof of the James Bond films -- with the orchestral parts of the soundtrack mimicking John Barry's style, turning a riff from A Hard Day's Night into a mock espionage theme -- perhaps in answer to Sean Connery's famous put-down in 1964's Goldfinger: "Champagne without ice? My dear girl, that's as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs."

"Ticket To Ride" from 1965's Help!

The plot? Ringo has this enormous ring he can't get off his finger, so naturally a fiendish religious cult and a pair of mad scientists are after him and the rest of the Beatles, and ... Well, enough of that, except to say that the plot took the lads to the Austrian Alps and the Bahamas. All the better for some cool song sequences, this time in color, adding to the reason why MTV declared director Richard Lester the father of the music video.

Help! is not as consistent an album as A Hard Day's Night, but it marked a further advance, with the great title track a Lennon confessional of antic confusion and McCartney's "Yesterday" merely the most recorded romantic ballad in history, along with the brilliant mid-tempo rocker "Ticket To Ride."

"Nowhere Man" from 1965's Rubber Soul.

Then came Rubber Soul, the first Beatles album recorded over a consistent stretch of time uninterrupted by tours and appearances, to close out 1965. Widely regarded as one of the greatest albums in pop music history, Rubber Soul, a more folk rock-oriented album, marks the real beginning of the Beatles' transition from a live band to a studio band. It's the first of their albums to seriously utilize studio effects, with new instrumentation and the beginnings of psychedelic rock.

After this, the Beatles pulled back from the breakneck pace that marked the pop and rock stars of the era, working hard during their contracts to extract the most possible from their fleeting fame.

It was evident by then that the Beatles' fame was far from fleeting. From then on, with the exception of some brief touring that ended forever on August 29th, 1966 at San Francisco's Candlestick Park, they concentrated on albums that became classics of the baby boomer generational soundtrack -- Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, the White Album, Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road, and Let It Be.

Branching well beyond the guitars-and-drums rock/rhythm and blues/pop sound of their early years, these albums embrace psychedelia, hard rock, art rock, music hall, children's songs, classical strings, and the beginnings of world music with the introduction of an Indian sound.

I already had Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper, and the White Album, and the remastered versions of these all sound far better than the earlier versions.

Whether you prefer the later Beatles, long acclaimed as avatars of the counter-culture and progressive politics, or the earlier Beatles, for many of us a largely undiscovered, vibrant young band, it's not hard to understand why their music lasts and lasts and lasts, as fresh and intriguing as ever.

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