For Millennials. By Millennials.
The Beatles were popular for making bold statements. That’s exactly what John Lennon did this one time in an interview. He made a claim that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. It was ignored at first by the British audience, but all hell broke loose when news reached the US. It was so bad, that they started receiving death threats!
A rare break for the Beatles at the peak of Beatlemania
Firstly, we have to see what was going on in their lives at the time. It was March 1966, and the Beatles finally had some free time in the early months. And this was a very rare thing to happen because this was 3 years into the peak of Beatlemania. These were some crazy days, so much so that the four barely got any time to rest. During this break, John Lennon got time to read extensively about world religion and try out psychedelic drugs, like LSD.
Lennon gives the fateful interview
At this time, he and The Beatles decided to give Maureen Cleave an interview. Now, Cleave was one of the few journalists the Beatles actually trusted. That’s why most of the interview was quite intimate. However, there was one line in the interview by Lennon, that didn’t create a fuss at first but changed their world later on. John said:
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 ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.
The interview was first published in the Evening Standard series, named “How do the Beatles live”? The English audience gave no reaction to this claim. Europe was heavily leaning towards liberal politics at the time, and the church had very little influence over England. In fact, they were undergoing a ‘modernization’ phase at the time. So, everyone and The Beatles forgot about the interview.
But, a few months later in July, an American magazine Datebook published a condensed version of the interview, with John Lennon’s Jesus comment at its cover. And when that happened, all hell broke loose.
Response in America went violent against The Beatles
The response, especially in the American South was very severe. People were burning Beatles records and their effigies all over. Right-wing religious groups were terming Lennon’s comments as sacrilegious and blasphemous. Almost 30 radio stations in total, including New York and Bostom refused to play any of The Beatles’ songs.
One particular radio station named WAQY, hosted by Tommy Charles and Doug Layton was leading the charge. So much so that they hired a tree-grinding machine and asked everyone to bring their Beatles’ records to be destroyed. Public bonfires were held to burn their records altogether. It was complete mayhem! And remember, some of these southerners were massive fans of the Beatles. But, when poised with the question to side with either Jesus of the fab four, they chose Jesus.
Moreover, this gave people in the south more chance to take revenge from the Beatles. This was because of the band’s previous refusal to play in front of segregated audiences, and their support for African American musicians. If you want to see how bad things were, here’s an interview of a member of the Ku Klux Clan openly threatening violence against them on their expected tour in Memphis, Tennessee:
And it wasn’t just the KKK and clan members, but the entire conservative Christian community was out to get them. And this put their upcoming tour to the US in jeopardy.
Lennon didn’t apologize
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Lennon was quite distraught by the reaction he received for only expressing his opinions. Moreover, he was afraid that his comments put the lives of his bandmates in jeopardy. After leaving London on 11th August, the Beatles arrived in Chicago for a press conference. David Epstein tried his best to convince him to do so, but his comments in his press conference weren’t as convincing for the people protesting in the South:
I suppose if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I would have got away with it. I’m sorry I opened my mouth. I’m not anti-God, anti-Christ, or anti-religion. I was not knocking it. I was not saying we are greater or better.
He concluded the press conference by saying:
If you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then OK, I’m sorry.
After this conference, the matter began to settle down. WAQY called off the bonfire where their records were to be burnt. And the media was largely sympathetic. But, it wasn’t enough for some right-wing Christians, such as the KKK. And they made their tour memorable, for all the wrong reasons.
There was a blast in one of their concerts in Memphis!
Despite the outcry, Epstein continued with the tour of The Beatles. However, it wasn’t like it was before. The band was already tired of touring and wanted to work more in the studio on their music. Moreover, the tour was already taking place in Memphis, Tennessee, a city deep inside the American South. The security around them was very high, and they were receiving death threats from the Ku Klux Clan. It was so scary, that the band members were in danger of being assassinated. Ringo Starr said:
There was always that edge in America – we knew they did have guns.
After landing in Memphis in high security, they felt nastiness in the atmosphere. There were two shows, the afternoon and the evening ones. After the afternoon show went peacefully, the Beatles felt some confidence restored. But in the evening show, there was a blast! It was louder than the audience, enough to turn screams of delight into screams of fear. John Lennon remembered:
Every one of us … look[ed] at each other, because each of us thought the other had been shot. It was that bad.
However, it was only a cherry bomb. It caused a few minor injuries to four of the fans, but the Beatles just hurriedly sped through the performance.
And this is how the touring days of the Beatles and Beatlemania came to an end. But, the repercussions of the “more popular than Jesus” controversy weren’t over for John Lennon. In fact, it became the very reason for his death. But, we’ll cover that story some other time.