More Popular than Jesus?

Jonathan Bellman

I believe it was Edward Macan (*Rocking the Classics*, 1997) who suggested that the ubiquity of real and synthesized pipe organ sounds in the Art Rock of the early 1970s represented a kind of unspoken desire to make the music Transcendent or Important or … Sacred.  Listeners to, say, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and the Rick Wakeman solo albums probably did not generally distinguish themselves by regular church attendance, yet that pipe organ sound—forever associated with churches and church services—had a high profile in the Art Rock style.  Music became something greater, an Utterance with a scriptural tinge, much more important than mere rock ‘n’ roll tunes.  I always liked this idea, though I’m agnostic on the subject of Art Rock standing in for church.

This idea of Rock music and the sacred came up again this past weekend.  I wonder why it is that Sunday morning has become the default time-slot for Rock radio stations to have their slickly-produced, weekly Beatles show.  Now, I *like* the Beatles, but I’m not convinced that two hours per week of ritual listening to a band that broke up in 1970 is really all that necessary.  Their birthdays are celebrated, archaeological dust in the form of demo tapes and alternate takes and so on is aired, and whoever last wrote a Beatles book is invited on to read excerpts.  When it’s George Martin, the discussion is musical, historical, and technological; when it’s (say) John Lennon’s first wife reading personal stuff you’d rather not be hearing, well…

Why Sunday mornings?  Human beings really are organisms of habit and ritual, clearly.  The Beatles are as close to Rock deities, universally loved artists, as anyone ever gets.  Most people are aware that one does not have a direct religious experience every time one enters a house of worship; that isn’t even really the point.  Is Sunday morning simply the majority-consensus time for our rituals of the sacred?  If that’s the case, I can’t get over the irony of John Lennon’s celebrated remark about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus Christ.”  Are they in competition now?  The services even compete for the same time slot…!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
This entry was posted in Religion, Rock. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to More Popular than Jesus?

  1. Phil Ford says:

    I believe this is the appropriate image for this post:

  2. eba says:

    Why Sunday mornings? Because you can record your Our Lady of the Fab Four Church services way in advance, on say a dreary Tuesday afternoon, and then the DJs and other radio personnel can sleep in on Sunday mornings and let the tape roll.

  3. Charles Freeman says:

    Lots of possible things to observe here. For example, one wonders if, in other cases (perhaps other radio formats?) Elvis might be the deity of choice over the Beatles. Of course, Elvis did record his handful of hymns and gospel songs, which would do something else to the religiousity of such a program…
    On the other hand, eba’s point is also quite pertinent. Even in the classical format Sunday often ends up being the home for such shows as _Pipe Dreams_, the organ program, or early-music shows with their sacred polyphony–things which can be safely pre-recorded and transmitted and let everyone sleep later.
    But if one takes Jonathan’s idea of Sunday as the default majority consensus time for sacred or sacralized ritual, then it is certainly a source of ironic amusement to juxtapose that idea with the phenomenon last December of numerous Christian churches of the contemporary mega-church stripe optioning off their Sunday services on Dec. 25?

Comments are closed.