John Lennon tried to kill the Beatles way back in 1970. It’s right there in the lyrics on his first solo album: "I don’t believe in Beatles...the dream is over." And so it is, but the Beatles refuse to die. They’ve lived on for three decades now as an exceptionally durable, and valuable, brand name. The albums have stayed in print, and, once a decade or so, some new product is cranked out to excite again the market for all things mop-top. And so we have 1, the compilation of the 27 Beatles songs to reach the titular position on either the U.S. or UK charts.
This collection has no reason to exist, except as a shameless exploitation of the Lennon-McCartney catalog, and as an ancillary product to The Beatles Anthology, a big coffee table book also released for the Christmas 2000 market. All of the songs on 1 are available on the comprehensive Red and Blue collections that were issued ages ago. But that didn’t keep 1 from topping the Billboard album charts in the shopping weeks before Christmas.
It’s true that the market for the Beatles’ work persists in large part because it’s great work. It stands alongside the achievements of Elvis, Bo Diddley, James Brown, and perhaps a dozen others as part of the legacy every up-and-coming rocker needs to chew up and digest. And young people discovering the Beatles for the first time have always been a big share of their afterlife market. But a collection of Number Ones is hardly the best way to approach the Beatles legacy. For instance, Revolver, issued in 1966, is the Beatles album I think has held up the best over the years, but on 1 it is represented only by "Eleanor Rigby," admittedly a beautiful song, and its flip-side, "Yellow Submarine." The 1 concept has the effect of forcing the Beatles 1960s countercultural aesthetic into the bottom-line terms of today’s culture where the only thing that counts is what sells.
I must admit that I can’t imagine why anyone over 40 would buy a Beatles CD now. For us geezers, what made the Beatles seem revolutionary was the shock of the new in their harmonies and chord changes and a big dose of youthful exuberance. The latter doesn’t hold up so well over the long forced march of middle age. In fact, the only Beatles album I have consulted with any frequency in the past 15 years is a tape I made of all the Lennon songs on The White Album. It still works for me because it is, in reality, an unofficial Lennon solo album. Its greatest "hits" are "I’m So Tired" and "Yer Blues," a pair of bone-chilling anthems to the dark night of the soul. That’s rock for all ages.
In 1980, Lennon showed every sign of being prepared to carry the Beatles legacy into the age of hip-hop. When he died at age 40, he had just finished laying down a very funky, disco-fied rhythm guitar track for Yoko’s dance single "Walking on Thin Ice," which still sounds remarkably contemporary. He was clearly still growing as an artist.
In fact, Lennon’s notion of the rock musician as self-conscious artist is probably the Beatles most important historical legacy. The first generation of rockers were artists. They fashioned an aesthetic universe out of personal vision and the materials at hand. But they didn’t know they were artists. In 1950s America, art was a thing made by upper- to middle-class people from the best schools, preferably on the northeast coast. But Lennon knew that he was an artist early on. He had to be because the British government sent him to art school. That egalitarian innovation of Britain’s postwar Labour governments helped bring about a fusion of the Bohemian radical aesthetics and politics associated with the folk revival of the early 1960s and the working-class, blues-based sound and vision of the original rockers.
The Beatles were the first brilliant flame from that fusion, and the rest is history. We now have an institution—call it rock, rock and rap, or whatever—through which the joyful noises, rude remarks, and utopian aspirations of America’s outsiders can sometimes reach the mainstream culture. That is a contribution that can’t be commodified and wrapped up for Christmas.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.