The most successful musical group of this year is . . . the Beatles. That’s right. Thanks largely to their “Anthology” series, the Beatles have sold more records than any artist in 1996. This might surprise some people — since the Beatles broke up in 1970 and one of them is dead — but it does not surprise me.

Those of us who grew up in the ’60s feel the need to keep our music going, almost as much as we need to keep our pulse going. Without our music on the airwaves and sales charts, we would feel, well — how can I put this? — old? Square? Unhip? Fading from coolness?

And this would kill us.

So there is not a city in America without an “oldies” station or a “classic rock” station (both of these phrases, by the way, are much preferred to “Music For Balding Men and Middle-Aged Women”).

And all these stations play the Beatles.

That is because, at the core my generation’s belief system, right up there with freedom of speech, civil rights, peace and growing your hair however long you want it, is perhaps the most unshakable of all concepts:

The Beatles — John, Paul, George and Ringo — were the best group ever.

End of discussion.

A long and winding road

Back in the ’60s, this was as obvious as Michael Jordan is now with a basketball. There were the Beatles, and there was everyone else. A new song by the Beatles was cause to stay home in your bedroom, frozen to the radio, until you heard it come on, at which point you immediately called your friends to announce 1) “It’s a slow one,” 2) “It’s a fast one,” 3) “It sounds like
(fill in the blank),” 4) “It’s cool.”

You then memorized the lyrics and you bought the album. There was no question about buying the album, by the way. There were no bad Beatles albums. While they were together, the Beatles didn’t put out re-releases or greatest hits. They didn’t do an collection of standards by Nat King Cole or big band albums or unplugged albums.

Every Beatles record was new and original, a step in a journey, like lines on your growth chart. They wrote about love, they wrote about drugs, they wrote about peace, they wrote about escape. They got shaggy as we got shaggy. They got psychedelic as we got more psychedelic. They sort of walked us through the ’60s.

And if you check my generation’s record collections — perhaps in the attic now, collecting dust — you likely will find the albums still in order, from
“Meet The Beatles” to “Revolver” to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” to
“Abbey Road” to “Let It Be.”

We have them all. The order was important.

Which brings us to the last question: Why?

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

My good friend, the comedian Ken Brown — who is younger than I — does not get the Beatles. He is constantly asking, “What is the big deal?”

This is how I answer him. Everything under the big umbrella they now call rock ‘n’ roll music, the Beatles did.

The energy of punk? The Beatles had it on stage with “Can’t Buy Me Love.”

The noise of heavy metal? The Beatles did that on The White Album.

The angst of today’s pseudo-folk rockers? The Beatles did it with “Eleanor Rigby” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

The lyrical love songs that made “soft rock” in the ’70s? The Beatles did all that needed to be done with “Yesterday.”

Now, it’s true, rock ‘n’ roll existed before the Beatles, harmony existed before the Beatles, good lyrics, energy, melody, studio experimentation — all there before the Beatles.

But what the Beatles did was put it together into a one big bus, and opened the door for the world to come along. And their single biggest message — and you can’t overlook this — was love. More love. Free love. All you need is love. Even in their wildest periods, when they were arguing and splitting up, they still recorded as pure a love song as “Something.”

Something in the way she moves

attracts me like no other lover

Love. In a decade as turbulent as the ’60s, that was as universal a message

as you could find.

Maybe that’s why Beatles music is still big. We live in an era of cell phones, cable TV, mutual funds, O.J. Simpson, ATM’s instead of tellers, answering machines instead of voices. We work harder and we feel less satisfied, and more and more we find ourselves looking back over our shoulders at the years behind us.

The Beatles were the soundtrack of those years, and they made us feel good about ourselves. It’s like that line from “The Big Chill” when the woman sits with her old friends and says, “I feel like I was at my best when I was with you people.”

That’s the way my generation feels about the Beatles. Better. Truer. Younger. Freer. So we buy their records, we find their music on our radio stations, and we go on yearning.

The truth is, we didn’t collect the Beatles as much as they collected us. And even today, in 1996, we don’t want to let go.

Mitch Albom’s radio program, “Albom in the Afternoon,” can be heard weekdays from 4-6 p.m. on WJR-AM (760).

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