The Beatles, John Lennon and the More Popular Than Jesus Controversy (1966)





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A furore occurred in August 1966 after John Lennon's remark that The Beatles had become "more popular than Jesus" was quoted by American teen magazine Datebook. Lennon originally made the remark when English newspaper reporter Maureen Cleave interviewed him for her series on the lifestyles of the four individual Beatles. When published in the United Kingdom in March 1966, Lennon's words provoked no public reaction.

The controversy erupted on the eve of the band's 1966 US tour. The strength and scale of the reaction against the Beatles led their manager, Brian Epstein, to consider cancelling the tour for fear of their lives. Two press conferences were held in the US, where both Epstein and Lennon expressed their regret at words taken out of context and offence taken. Christian spokesmen pointed out that Lennon had only stated what the church was itself saying about the decline of Christianity. The US tour went ahead but there was disruption and intimidation, including picketing of concerts by the Ku Klux Klan. At one concert the band believed they were the target of gunfire. From the close of the 1966 tour until their break-up in 1970, the group never played another commercial concert.

In August 1966, five months after Cleave's article appeared in the Evening Standard, American teen magazine Datebook printed a quote from Lennon's words on its front cover. There was uproar in response, starting with an announcement by two radio stations in Alabama and Texas that they had banned Beatles music from their playlists. WAQY DJ Tommy Charles said, "We just felt it was so absurd and sacrilegious that something ought to be done to show them that they can't get away with this sort of thing." Around two dozen other stations followed suit with similar announcements. Some stations in the South went further, organising demonstrations with bonfires, drawing hordes of teenagers to publicly burn their Beatles records and other memorabilia. The Memphis city council, aware that a Beatles concert was scheduled at the Mid-South Coliseum during the band's imminent US tour, voted to cancel it rather than have "municipal facilities be used as a forum to ridicule anyone's religion." The Ku Klux Klan nailed a Beatles album to a wooden cross, vowing "vengeance", and conservative groups staged further public burnings of Beatles records.

The Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, was so concerned by the US reaction that he considered cancelling the tour for fear people would try to kill them. He flew to the US and held a press conference in New York, where he publicly criticised Datebook, saying they had taken Lennon's words out of context, and expressed regret on behalf of the band that "people with certain religious beliefs should have been offended in any way." Epstein's efforts had little effect. The controversy quickly spread beyond the US; in Mexico City there were demonstrations against the Beatles, and a number of countries, including South Africa and Spain, took the decision to ban national radio stations from playing Beatles music. Further concert performances scheduled for the US tour were cancelled by the venues. Even the Vatican got involved with a public denouncement of Lennon's comments. Shortly before the tour began, on 11 August 1966, the Beatles held a press conference in Chicago, Illinois to address the growing furore.

At the press conference Lennon described his own belief in God by quoting the Bishop of Woolwich, saying, "... not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us." When the tour began, it was marred by protests, cancellation of concerts, and disturbances. Telephone threats were received, and concerts were picketed by the Ku Klux Klan. The "cancelled" Memphis concert was held anyway, but a firecracker thrown during the performance led the band to believe they were the target of gunfire. After completing the tour, the Beatles never performed a commercial concert again.

Daily Express writer Robert Pitman, responding to the US outcry, wrote, "It seems a nerve for Americans to hold up shocked hands, when week in, week out, America is exporting to us a subculture that makes the Beatles seem like four stern old churchwardens." In the US too there was criticism of the reaction; a Kentucky radio station declared that it would start to give Beatles music airplay to show its "contempt for hypocrisy personified", and the Jesuit magazine America wrote that "Lennon was simply stating what many a Christian educator would readily admit."

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