November 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Sure, I remember John Lennon. I remember watching him howl his lungs out on ”Revolution” when I was 11 years old. His name wasn’t really John Lennon, though. It was Joe Pecorino.

Joe Pecorino was the guy who played Lennon in Beatlemania, the ’70s Broadway smash that cloned the Fab Four for the stage — and slipped the phrase ”incredible simulation” into our national lexicon. The real Beatles had thrown in the towel eight years earlier, but that didn’t stop America from twisting and shouting its way through a new spasm of hysteria. In those days director Robert Zemeckis was dishing up a screwball flick called I Wanna Hold Your Hand, while Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees were strutting their psychedelic duds in an even weirder scrap of instant nostalgia: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — the movie!

It was 1978. My generation hadn’t even hit its teens, and the Beatles were already the King Tut exhibit of rock — ancient history, mummified for the masses. Great music, yeah. But if you wanted real rock & roll, you listened to Kiss.

Fast-forward to 1995 and get ready for the sequel — Beatlemania With a Vengeance. ABC airs a six-hour Beatles documentary starting on Nov. 19. Then comes an album of lost Beatles tunes (Anthology, Vol. 1, the first of three) — and kookiest of all, a new Beatles single. Like a visual trick from Forrest Gump, ”Free as a Bird” fuses the disembodied voice of the late John Lennon with backup from the three surviving moptops, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. It is, you might say, an incredible simulation.

And not every fan is thrilled. ”It just seems embarrassing as hell,” says Wayne Coyne, 34, leader of the Flaming Lips. ”It’s like, ‘Stay home.’ I wish they would just let it go and let us listen to the old stuff.” Even blunter is John Rzeznik, 29, frontman of Goo Goo Dolls. ”I don’t even want to hear this new thing they’re doing,” he admits. ”It will be cheesy. It is not relevant.”

Not relevant. Call it blasphemy, but it’s a long and winding road indeed from Lennon and McCartney’s ”I Want to Hold Your Hand” to Trent Reznor’s ”I want to f— you like an animal.” Music and society have changed drastically since the split-up that shook the world a quarter-century ago. Do the Beatles still matter?

The easy answer is duh. Twenty-five years of Muzak and Broadway can’t sully the fact that the four lads from Liverpool were outright geniuses — and the most influential group in pop history. ”I don’t think there’s a single song that I’ve written in my entire life that doesn’t have little pieces of something the Beatles once did,” says the Gin Blossoms’ Robin Wilson, 30.

Pearl Jam, Boyz II Men, and Phish cover Beatles songs. British superstars like Oasis and Blur wouldn’t even exist without their Liverpool forebears. Everyone from funk legend George Clinton to punk godfather Bob Mould speaks of the band in terms verging on the sacred. ”The Beatles,” says Mould, ”are as embedded in contemporary modern music as any classical composer would have been in his time.”

Even so, a magical mystery tour through the Fab Four’s songbook can be a baffling experience — especially to those whose ears have been numbed by the twin thugs of grunge and gangsta rap. Ditties like ”Penny Lane,” ”Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” and ”When I’m Sixty-Four” have the dippy bounce of nursery rhymes. ”Let It Be” sounds like a Christmas song.

Slap ”Get Back” or ”Hey Jude” (or even ”Helter Skelter”) next to the coarse furies of Hole, Nine Inch Nails, or Snoop Doggy Dogg, and suddenly the Beatles feel no more influential than Benny Goodman or the Carpenters. Lennon and McCartney cast a long shadow, sure, but when was the last time you heard a rock band singing about yellow submarines and octopuses’ gardens — or minting characters like Rocky Raccoon, Mean Mr. Mustard, and Bungalow Bill? ”The Beatles were goofy as hell,” says Dave Dederer, 31, of Seattle’s Presidents of the United States of America. ”A full quarter of their songs probably are joke songs.”

The rest are love songs — not the hippest genre these days. Sadly, the sweet sentiment of ”With a Little Help From My Friends” has lost ground to Kurt Cobain’s ”I Hate Myself and Want to Die.” ”People now don’t know how to say anything as simple as ‘All you need is love,”’ laments Michael Krugman, coauthor of Generation Ecch! And if they did, they’d sound crushingly naive. ”The world is so dangerous now,” offers Rzeznik. ”It is so much harder to be 16 years old now than it was 25 years ago.”

So, what if an act like the Beatles did surface, cut a demo as baroque and brilliant as Abbey Road, and went hunting for a record deal? ”A majority of A&R people probably wouldn’t sign them,” says Cliff Cantor, Artists and Repertoire director at Chrysalis Music. ”Because a lot of them are chasing what’s ‘cool’ today.”

True, you’ll catch a whiff of Beatlesque ambition in the lush symphonies of the Smashing Pumpkins, but that’s the exception. ”The craft of production started with the Beatles,” says folksinger Ben Harper, ”and I’m afraid to say it damn near stopped with them.” Historically, acts that specialize in exquisite pop chestnuts — from Big Star to Matthew Sweet — have had trouble breaking out of the college circuit.

Then there’s the hard truth of time: When a ”Beatle nut” recently sought to start yet another fan club on America Online, he got this astonishing response: ”I’ve never listened to them, save a few songs. Hootie & the Blowfish is my favorite right now.”

”I love listening to the Beatles,” sats Gaz Coombes, 19, the scruffy singer from Britain’s Supergrass. ”But that was back in the ’60s, and that’s where it stays.”

Of course, banish the Beatles at your peril. ”One time I was in a parking lot and there was a big church a half block away, and it had bells,” says Coyne. ”And the bells were playing ‘Penny Lane.’ The Beatles are a universal thing. They are approaching a status where you don’t even think of them as humans.” Do church bells constitute a rock & roll legacy? As Joe Pecorino — I mean, John Lennon — once put it, tomorrow never knows.

(Additional reporting by David Bourgeois, Heidi Siegmund Cuda, and Russ Spencer)

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