Saturday marks the 46th anniversary of one of the more surreal press conferences in the Beatles' career. One the eve of the band's '66 American tour, John, Paul, George and Ringo met with a group of reporters who only wanted to ask one question: Where the Beatles really more popular than Jesus?
It was a serious question born of strange circumstances. Five months previously, Maureen Cleave, a friend of the band, had interviewed each member individually for a series of weekly articles for the London Evening Standard titled "How Does a Beatle Live?" When she interviewed John Lennon at his home in England, he mused on a variety of topics for a British audience, including the band's hysterical treatment from fans as well as the impermanence of all things:
"Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first -- rock and roll or Christianity."
It was a deep statement buried in a detailed profile piece, just one part of a larger series of stories. In the U.K., nobody batted an eye. But when the American teenybopper rag Datebook highlighted the "more popular than Jesus" bit on its cover in August, some Southern Christians went apeshit, banning Beatles music from the radio, burning records and demonstrating at concerts. It was a terrific opportunity for pulpit moralizers and Klan kooks to denounce rock and roll as the devil's work, and they were all too willing to put on a show of their own.
That's why the Beatles had to show up at that press conference in Chicago -- so Lennon could apologize for offending Christians and quell the controversy. He wasn't exactly enthusiastic about it, either:
" I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing. I apologize if that will make you happy. I still don't know quite what I've done. I've tried to tell you what I did do but if you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then OK, I'm sorry."
Sorry or not, Lennon didn't quite retract his statement. Why? Because he thought he was right. And at the height of Beatlemania, the four of them must have truly felt like gods. But were they more popular than Jesus? Are they more popular now? Has history proven Lennon correct?
To find out, let's examine both Jesus and the Beatles in popular media. After all, you ain't popular if nobody's talking about you. In the information age, who really reigns supreme in the hearts of the world: the Son of Man or the Eggman?
1. Lifetime Notoriety
In his lifetime, Jesus drew crowds of thousands in cities all over Israel. During the Beatles' lifetimes, they drew crowds of tens of thousands in cities on different continents. By the time Jesus was killed, he'd achieved regional fame as a healer and a teacher. By the time John Lennon was killed, the Beatles were world famous as the planet's top rock band. It's just a fact: The Fab Four were more famous during their own lifetimes than Jesus was during his.
Now, obviously Jesus is at a big disadvantage here. He died younger than any Beatle, and the complete lack of any mass media in the ancient world meant news traveled a hell of a lot slower back then. Not even Caesar Augustus was famous all over the planet. But nobody said objectivity was fair. Chalk up a win for the Beatles.
Beatles: 1 Jesus: 0
This one's a no-brainer. There have been dozens, maybe hundreds of Beatles biographies written over the years, but even all of them put together can't touch the massive sales of the only detailed accounts of Jesus' life: The Bible. There's really no telling how many copies of the Good Book have been printed, sold and distributed over the past couple thousand years, but most estimates range between 2.5 and six billion copies.
Jesus is helped here by the fact that he's got a 2,000-year head start in publishing, but even today, right this second, the Bible is outselling Beatles biographies. Who has the better story may be up for debate, but there's no debating those stories' popularity: Jesus by a landslide.
Beatles: 1 Jesus: 1
3. Rock and Roll Recordings
This is where the wheels kind of fall off for Team Jesus, and considering the fact that this is a music blog, it's a pretty serious loss. But facts is facts: The Beatles are the biggest-selling rock and roll band of all time, having shifted more than 600 million recordings worldwide and enjoyed 20 No. 1 singles.
What's more, fans have purchased millions of albums and singles by the Beatles on successive formats, following the music from vinyl to cassette to CD to MP3. When it comes to rock and roll recordings, the Beatles define popularity.
Jesus, on the other hand, never got around to making a single, solitary rock and roll record. To be fair, he was busy, and he lived thousands of years before audio recording technology was invented. But even if he returned tomorrow and picked up a guitar, his songwriting chops would have to be pretty damn divine to have any hope of catching up 600 million fucking records! 'Til that happens, the Beatles are on top.
Beatles: 2 Jesus: 1
Both Jesus and the Beatles have enjoyed a good amount of box office success. The biggest-selling movie starring Jesus, Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, earned a record $600 million in theaters. It was one of the biggest blockbusters of all time. The Beatles' most popular film, A Hard Day's Night didn't do quite that well at the box office, but it was still a big hit, and it's regarded by many critics as the better film -- particularly outside of America.
While critical adulation can be key to popularity, we're going to have to hand Hollywood to Jesus. More films have been made about him than the Beatles, dating back to the earliest days of cinema. And it's tough to argue with $600 million. That's Avatar-type money, enough paper to drive Mel Gibson completely insane. The golden ticket belongs to the J-man.
Beatles: 2 Jesus: 2
1. Google Search Results
What more modern, comprehensive way to break this tie than a simple Google search? The powerful search engine is a terrific window into what people are talking about around the world, and "googling" is a task simple enough to be performed on your telephone at a concert or in church.
So who's it going to be? Who's got more search results -- the Beatles or Jesus? Well, "Jesus" returns about 845 million results. "The Beatles" returns about 205 million. Unless those Beatles pages are getting, like, four times as many hits at Jesus' sites, the deciding round must go to the Good Shepherd. Jesus Christ is officially more popular than the Beatles. Suddenly, Houston radio begins to make more sense.
"And They Shall Reign Forever and Ever"
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So Lennon was wrong about being more popular than Jesus -- at least outside of England. His comments were originally made in the context of a post-war nation whose churches were rapidly falling behind the times, when it was beginning to seem possible to young people that sex, drugs and rock and roll could improve the very fabric of society. Until his death, Lennon never wavered from the belief that we were all headed toward a post-Christian future.
600 million records sold or not, though, nobody has ever died for the Beatles. "Love thy neighbor" is a little trickier than "all you need is love," and yet it's a philosophy that has conclusively stood the test of time. And yet, the Beatles don't appear to be going away anytime soon. Remind us to revisit this debate in 4012.