What does the Google Books project tell us about this important question, and has the answer changed over time?
This was regarded as a very important question at the time, carrying at least as much significance as your preferred football team, maybe even your religion. In the end it was a non-contest. The Rolling Stones played the bad boy card all the way from pissing against service stations through Brian Jones’ death, marijuana busts, tax exile and heroin abuse. They were THE rock band, until they got a bit older and some younger, snottier bands tried to push them aside and claim THE mantle. Even then they came back with one seriously good, mean single as a last extended digit in yer face to the young punks. That said, the Keef & Mick Taylor era Stones were as potent a white boy rock band as ever pranced about onstage in satin pants.
The Stones didn’t click with the pop music audience all that often. Dirty blues performed by a band that invoked Satan and revelled in their outlaw status (for publicity purposes) was a 12 bar bridge too far for fans of radio friendly pop music.
The Beatles were widely loved by pop fans and their mothers while still retaining musical credibility with the rock audience. Mud never really stuck to the working class Scouser louts who played dockside strip clubs in Hamburg, sacked their original drummer when they were on the verge of success, claimed to be bigger than Jesus and did as many drugs as any other 60s band. Those cheeky Beatle boys wore nice suits, were initially always respectful and sang some lovely slow ballads with nice harmonies. By contrast the middle class Londoners, including that nice choirboy Keith, were more than happy to point out all the shit stuck on their shoes.
In the end the music didn’t matter all that much after a while. Fame was fame, and it followed its own inexorable logic. Elvis Presley had taken popstar fame as far as he could in the 50’s and then removed himself to the safety and banality of Hollywood. In this, he was following in the footsteps of Frank Sinatra who attained a similar level of musical fame after the war and then moved it out to Vegas and Hollywood. Bob Dylan’s graph had a similar trajectory and number of references to him over time. Bob gets points in for not going Vegas. These four artists are all very closely ranked in the quantum of interest revealed by the Google Books project.
That the Beatles had transcended purely musical fame can be seen on the graph where they are referenced four times as often as the other acts that operated more purely at the level of musical fame. By the time they got to America they couldn’t hear themselves playing and the teenagers were just screaming their heads off. The Beatles became the first instance of Superstar fame. This is easily checked by plugging the term Superstar into the graph with Beatles as it trails along respectfully at a much lower trajectory about five years behind, although Andy Warhol claimed to know the New Jersey wannabe actress who invented the term. In the same way that ‘genius’ came to represent what Shakespeare had accomplished as a playwright, so superstar came to describe the magnitude of the Beatles 1963 – 1970 artistic and commercial achievements in popular music and beyond on a worldwide scale, almost for the first time.
They also came to represent shorthand for an entire decade and there is no quicker and easier decade setting line than “We were singing along/dancing/ getting stoned/ all of the above to the Beatles Sergeant Pepper.” By way of contrast it is more difficult to imagine the same line being used as a universal shorthand for Blonde on Blonde, Satanic Majesties or the banana album. That would be a much more knowing sub cultural reference which would leave most people scratching their heads.
The NGram graph:
While the Beatles were comfortably clear of their entertainment industry rivals in the fame and recognition stakes they did not live up to John Lennon’s infamous prediction:
but they did get ahead of the Dalai Lama. And hasn’t Jesus made a big comeback since the 1990s! He was running at about four references compared to each Beatle reference through the 70s and 80s but in the last 20 years he has moved up to about 9:1 without the Beatles falling away noticeably.
Christianity may just outlast rock’n’roll after all.