The Beatles - 1
he Diamond is an apt name for albums certified for 10 million + sales by the Recording Industry Association of America. The hardest substance on earth: insoluble, impervious to penetration, secure in itself. "The formation of natural diamond requires very specific conditions," Wikipedia says. The aim of this feature is to define what made Cracked Rear View, Come On Over, Boston and The Lion King soundtrack not just sales benchmarks of their respective artists' careers, but inexplicable loci at which shrewd marketing and the inscrutability of mass market taste met to produce high-quality entertainment no one breathing could escape. This column will also study why artistic peaks like Rumours, Born in the U.S.A., Thriller, Can't Slow Down, and Hysteria deserved their sales. Each entry in this series will pose the question: why should we separate art from commerce?
“When, in a generation or so, a radioactive, cigar-smoking child, picnicking on Saturn, asks you what the Beatle affair was all about ... don’t try to explain to him about the long hair and the screams! Just play the kid a few tracks from this album ... The kids of AD 2000 will draw from the music the same sense of well-being and warmth that we do today.” -- Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ press agent, liner notes of Beatles For Sale
The greatest-hits collection 1 was certified diamond in 2005, five years after its release. Quick, but Britney Spears did as well—as did Linkin Park, Creed, and the soundtrack from Titanic. More remarkable is the distribution of the other Beatles albums on the RIAA’s list: the White Album, Abbey Road, and 1973's "Red" and "Blue" compilations all achieved certification on the same day in February of 2001, a few months after the release of 1. Only Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—arguably the single Beatles record to escape the orbit of the band itself—stands outside this cluster: it went diamond in 1997, the first tremor of a publicity earthquake that would hit with the millennium.
Like a lot of middle-schoolers on Christmas vacation in 2000, I received 1 in matching wrapping-paper from a hopeful mother who immediately insisted that I put it on. Like many of them, I listened to no other album for the rest of vacation; like a few, to no other band for the rest of the year. Thus I may be taken as an ideal subject—a triumph—pledging myself to this dead notion of a band as violently as any Apple suit could have hoped. But to me, of course, there was nothing dead about it, nothing calculated. That year was a period of voracious love, and those albums were the kinds of things that pull depressives back from bridges. But I was rescued on purpose—my life was changed for profit.
1 was the apogee of a well-managed Beatles revival that began with the concurrent releases of the first episode of the ITV documentary series “The Beatles Anthology” and first volume of the CD series of the same name—tremendous successes, both, the Beatles being perhaps the only band able to summon real sales figures with the distended platters of arcana usually outside the province of the fair-weather fan, but neither successes the way 1 was: twelve million copies in three weeks, the fastest-selling album of all time. The Anthology series catered to those already familiar with the Beatles, a group outside which few were thought to exist; 1, its release timed to coincide with a new generation’s pubescence, was a cherry-red cherry-popper, and there was something didactic in its success as a Christmas gift for the kids: the older generation had already been reminded the Beatles were good; now they’d explain it to us. Two joys—introduction and discovery—were funneled through coin slots, the thirteen-year-old’s lust for something to love as skillfully manipulated as the Boomer’s lust to talk about the Beatles.
It is curious to reflect on what the Beatles meant to me in the months following that Christmas. One incident, vicious to recall, concerned an extended musing about Muses for some English class in which I remarked that I wrote better with the Beatles in the background, “so perhaps the Beatles [were] my muse.” Another, more telling: for the fourth or fifth day in a row the only guy in class who knew who Pavement were asked what I was listening to, pursed his lips, and delivered cogent criticism: “That’s a lot of fucking Beatles, man.” It was a lot of fucking Beatles, and the Pavement fan only had my nutrition in mind. Like all addicts and lovers I had ceased to discern appropriateness. I made a movie about a horribly mutated creature escaping from a laboratory; the melancholy ending of this movie—the monster was poignantly destroyed, Godzilla-like—played to “Ticket to Ride.” This is not a decision made soundly, even sanely, but if there was music more suited, I didn’t want to know; the script for an unmade movie from the same period calls for the use of “Revolution 9,” which, had the project been completed, would have been some kind of world record.
I could go on like this, but memories grow so personal they’re redundant; anyone who liked the Beatles in middle school has the same Mad Libs I do. Commonality is the heart of all fandom, but particularly here, where it was designed, carefully and solemnly, by people whose business it is to know what bubbles in the twelve-year-old brain: to know where love comes from and how it is summoned; to know what opens minds and sends kids hurtling past the bad spots. Sure, anyone who quivers to the Backstreet Boys or the Sex Pistols someday coughs at the same discovery, but this is different—not something plastic expertly made but something fleshy and rotting carefully revived, cleaned off, a kind of miracle, for who save the svengalis thought in 2000 that the Beatles could get a little more famous?
The younger me—paranoid, like all kids—might have been furious at such delicate management of his emotions, might have hated thinking so many others followed his arc. But now that year seems a gift, not a cynical accident. Some business deals feed camaraderie, grant us all a common trivial foundation, and marketeers give us things to remember on late nights with new friends. A thirty-years-later hits collection stinks of exploited nostalgia, but that isn’t what 1 was: in terms of cultural impact it was a new album, by a new band, a new set of songs for a new set of fans; it didn’t tug old heartstrings but threaded new ones. In a way it did precisely what Beatles for Sale did, layers of immediacy fallen away and not really missed—remember when they played Shea Stadium? Remember when Yellow Submarine came out on DVD? The flurry of certification in 2001 was a second Beatlemania, the exhaustion that followed a second dormancy, and the memories a second spawning-ground for human connections. Perhaps thirty years will see a second 1. But even if we’re picnicking on Saturn the day we foist it on our kids, it won’t be all about warmth and well-being any more than it was this time. Some of it’ll be about whether the PR companies hired the right people. I am at peace; I hope they do.