LONDON — Forget the Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen, the phenomenon of TV’s “X Factor” or the comeback of Take That. The biggest event in British rock ‘n’ pop this year was the “new” Beatles album “Love.”
Released by EMI in November, “Love” hit No. 1 in the Europewide album chart with over a million sales inside two weeks. Boosted by rave reviews, the album charted at No. 3 in the U.K. where it has now sold more than 500,000 copies. It reached No. 4 in the U.S. (and No. 1 according to the Coalition of Independent Music Stores), with sales rising week on week to reach 750,000 units so far.
Not bad for a band that disintegrated 37 years ago.
The Fab Four franchise is the bedrock upon which the EMI empire is built. It’s hard to think of any other body of work that’s sustained its financial value and its creative relevance at such a peak for so long. This has been achieved despite (or maybe because of) the fact that the canon of 13 albums was recorded in the space of seven years, and nothing has been added since 1969 to refresh or dilute it.
Having pioneered the art of pop and of studio recording, the Beatles since their demise have pioneered the art of repackaging. They were among the first great beneficiaries of the CD revolution — the reissue of all 13 albums in 1987 opened the ears of a new generation to their music and led directly to the Britpop explosion in the early ’90s.
They fed the flames with their three “Anthology” discs of previously unreleased material in the mid-1990s. But even EMI was taken aback by the success of the “One” album in 2000. That collection of the band’s U.K. and U.S. number ones, which every Beatles fan surely already owned, sold a staggering 21.6 million in its first year of release and has now reached 28 million, which means it is still shifting over a million copies a year.
The “Anthology” and “One” concepts have both been copied by other rock and pop legends. “Love,” a selection of Beatles tracks mashed together from the original masters by the band’s own producer George Martin and his son Giles, is a step into new territory, mining the motherlode of Beatles recordings and creating new and surprising alloys.
The album was created as the soundtrack to a Cirque de Soleil extravaganza in Las Vegas. That may have led some to expect a cheesy travesty of the Beatles’ past glories. But the fortunate few invited to the unveiling of the album at EMI’s legendary Abbey Road studios in November soon learned otherwise.
Walking into Studio Two, where the Fab Four recorded most of their music, felt like entering a shrine to the greatest icons in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. But when the a capella harmonies of “Because” floated from the 5.1 surround sound speakers and merged into the thunderous intro to “Get Back,” it became clear that the Beatles are no historical monument, but a living, breathing band whose freshly remixed music still sounds as urgent and original as anything being recorded today.
Critics have raved over the inspiration of combining “Within You Without You” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” into a single track, or picking out stray bass lines or drum breaks from one song or discarded take and fitting them into another.
“It’s a first, a unique way of presenting and working with an artist’s catalog,” says EMI U.K. topper Tony Wadsworth. “Trying to predict where ‘Love’ was going to go was very difficult indeed, because there’s nothing to compare it with. It’s not a greatest hits album that you can measure against other greatest hits albums. And it’s going to be interesting to see whether other artists emulate this.”
Critics have also pointed out, however, that the greatest impact from “Love” comes not from the mash-up of familiar sounds into unfamiliar shapes, fascinating though that is, but from the power of hearing songs such as “A Day in the Life” given a fresh polish and pin-sharp clarity, using the latest technology to bring out what was already there but previously obscured.
After all, it was nearly 20 years ago today that the Beatles albums were first transferred onto CD, back in the prehistoric days of the digital revolution, and the results, by today’s standards, are somewhat muddy. EMI is working with the surviving Beatles on freshly remastered versions of all 13 albums for release sometime in 2007.
If “Love” is any guide, the results are likely to be a revelation. So the Beatles phenomenon will renew itself again, and EMI will earn itself another windfall.