In the tumultuous year of 1966, amidst the height of Beatlemania, John Lennon’s now-infamous comment about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus” sparked a firestorm of controversy.
Three years into the fan frenzy dubbed “Beatlemania” and right in the middle of the band’s promotion for Revolver, a seemingly ordinary statement launched protests and threats against the world’s biggest rock band.
1966 Beatles: More than Half a Decade into Stardom
The Fab Four had a prolific six years, releasing seven chart-topping albums that catapulted the quartet of unassuming Liverpool lads to rock godhood. They are about to wrap up a string of world tours that started in 1964, powered by the Beatlemania craze.
They are at the heights of musical glory.
It was undoubtedly a tiring journey, and their shoulders sag at the weight of their own popularity. If their albums were to be placed side by side, the imagery could become a graphic telling of their change.
Little did they know, though, that there will still be a few more years to spiral down—and the untimely death of manager Brian Epstein— while putting out records that will influence generations of musicians. Heavy was the halo they carry.
Revolver was released in August of that year, and it once again broke records and musical boundaries. The album was the culmination of the band’s sonic innovation, which they started on the predecessor, Rubber Soul.
View this post on Instagram
This shift became a defining point not just in the genre but also in music as a whole, with the record being hailed as one of the greatest in popular music.
Many music critics and journalists even called it the Beatles’ ‘crowning glory’, surpassing the achievement of the oft-praised Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club which was released after Revolver.
1966 was also the year when the quarter started their “psychedelic period” when members started experimenting with the usage of LSD. This evidently seeped into their music and influenced Revolver.
While creating the album, they had quite a long time to explore for direction, all the while getting the chance of self-introspection. George Harrison and John Lennon developed a fascination for Eastern philosophies while influencing Ringo Starr to partake in LSD trips.
Paul McCartney refused the drug despite his bandmate’s urging but was stimulated by something else: London’s thriving avant-garde scene. These development directions were like extending limbs of inspiration that grappled beyond the rock genre and converged into the multi-faceted gem that was Revolver.
Sadly though, for many Beatle fans, the album is also where the four’s diverging paths became obvious. It has literally become their acid test.
Ringo related that while Rubber Soul propelled some change, it was Revolver that “started to become really us”
The Shocking Claim: “We’re More Popular Than Jesus”
As they await the dates for the tour, Epstein approved and arranged a series of individual interviews of the Beatles’ members by journalist Maureen Cleave. These interviews were done in order to give readers and fans a glimpse of their lives outside of their Beatle identity.
It was also a peek into the state of mind of the Beatles as they undergo the changes reflected in Revolver during the group’s rare months-long of downtime.
George has finally started his metamorphosis into a force in songwriting, stepping out of his usual role as the Beatles’ quiet lead guitarist. Paul was also becoming more confident in his musical direction, gaining a hunger for more knowledge and creative possibilities.
While Revolver witnessed the true birth of Paul as a musical phenom, John was in a spiritual and mental rut. He still liked performing with the Beatles, but he’s undergoing struggles with his previous work and his relationship with his then-wife Cynthia.
A bored, dissatisfied, and weary Lennon gave Paul the chance to claim equal status in terms of creative control.
In March 1966, Cleave’s interviews ran as a weekly series titled “How Does a Beatle Live?” on London’s Evening Standard.
View this post on Instagram
The interview, which was conducted at Lennon’s home in Kenwood, Weybridge earlier in February, gave birth to an explosive and unforgettable time bomb, that exploded months later in a faraway land.
Cleave noticed that Lennon was “reading extensively about religion”, and quoted him claiming:
“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.”
When it was first published in the UK, it did not stir any controversy. The editorial staff of the Evening Standard didn’t even deem this quote headline- or highlight-worthy. But that was just the calm before the proverbial storm.
International Fallout: A Global Controversy
In the UK, Christianity is synonymous with the Church of England, a religious organization that at the time was declining and considered out of touch. Lennon’s introspective take on the decline of the church’s spiritual hold was not taken as a revolutionary remark.
The interviews started making rounds in the US. Newsweek made references to Lennon’s comments in the March issue. By May, the interview appeared in Detroit magazine. No substantial noise was created, still.
In July, the interviews were even published as a five-page article titled “Old Beatles – A Study in Paradox” in The New York Times Magazine.
It wasn’t until the American teen magazine Datebook published the four interviews on July 29 for its September 1966 issue that the Lennon comment started making waves.
Magazine editor Art Unger purposely chose Lennon’s most damning comment, highlighted it, and paired it with McCartney’s, “It’s a lousy country where anyone black is a dirty n******!”
All for sensationalism, of course, and these out-of-context quotes did their part very well.
The waves started gaining momentum as Unger stoked the flame by sending copies of the interviews to the radio stations in the American South. Disc jockeys were dismayed by Lennon’s comments, the listeners’ responses were overwhelmingly negative, and the LP-burning movements started taking shape.
Right-wing religious groups deemed the comments blasphemous. More than 30 radio stations initiated bans of playing Beatles’ music, with WAQY. the first radio station to denounce Lennon’s comments, even inviting listeners to take their Beatles merchandise to them for destruction via tree-grinder.
The Bible Belt in the US, led by socially conservative Protestants, was having a field day in making sure their anti-Beatle complaints were heard.
Public bonfires for burning Beatles records and memorabilia were staged, drawing crowds of eager teenagers. Images of these were widely distributed throughout the US, while the controversy itself received major media coverage.
‘The second political thing I did was to say ‘The Beatles are bigger than Jesus.’ That really broke the scene, I nearly got shot in America for that. It was a big trauma for all the kids that were following us.’ pic.twitter.com/ia6UkKCJD9
— John Lennon (@johnlennon) June 16, 2019
Paul remarked decades later that the burnings were comparable to Nazi burnings, calling it an example of “hysterical low-grade American thinking.” He recalled that they really didn’t take it seriously.
With protests and threats left and right, and possibly a box full of dusty remains of their merchandise waiting for them, Epstein knew he had to make things right.
Damage Control: The Beatles’ Response
“John had to apologize,” Ringo reminisced in the Beatles Anthology.
Failing to wrestle the bullheaded Beatle to say sorry, Epstein called a press conference on August 6th at the American Hotel in New York. He read a prepared statement that got the reluctant approval of Lennon. It said:
“The quote which John Lennon made to a London columnist more than three months ago has been quoted and misrepresented entirely out of context. What he said, and meant, was that he was astonished that in the last 50 years, the Church of England, and therefore Christ, had suffered a decline in interest. He did not mean to boast about the Beatles’ fame. He meant to point out that the Beatles’ effect appeared to be, to him, a more immediate one upon certain of the younger generation.”
Lennon himself started seeing the escalation of things and started fearing for his life. He addressed members of the press at a suite in Astor Towers hotel after they arrived.
The usual light and jovial atmosphere of Beatle interviews were replaced with palpable gloominess. An uncomfortable Lennon is scared and is trying to prevent his hands from shaking. He knew things were bad.
Paul saw and knew how nervous John was. “I had never seen John so nervous. He realized the full import of what he said,” he remembered.
But John manned up and faced the music, answering the volley of questions as he grappled with his thoughts. “I’m not anti-God, anti-Christ, or anti-religion,” he said.
“I was not knocking it. I was not saying we’re better or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I happened to be talking to a friend and I used the word ‘Beatles’ as a remote thing – ‘Beatles’ like other people see us. I said they are having more influence on kids and things than anything else, including Jesus. I said it in that way, which was the wrong way.”
One of the reporters asked, “But, are you prepared to apologize?”
And an exhausted Lennon surrendered, “I’m sorry I said it – really”.
“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.”
John Lennon, the repentant de-facto leader of the biggest band in history, apologized. And his sorry calmed down the storm a lot.
Still, throughout their tour, the gloom remained. Nineteen shows, 17 days, 14 different cities. Protesters bearing slogans such as “Beatles Go Home” and “Jesus Died For You, John Lennon” was commonly seen, and a handful of Ku Klux Klan members were the exasperating icing on an unwanted cake, staging demonstrations outside their concert venues.
Epstein was stressing about their Memphis show the most, as rumors about an assassination plot against Lennon were heard being propagated. And it was not an unfounded fear, as several bullet marks were found on the fuselage of their plane.
Amidst crowds of religious zealots, a security entourage of 80 policemen, and an “official disapproval” resolution from the mayor and board of commissioners of Memphis, the Beatles experienced one of their most, if not the most, unforgettable shows.
During their song, George Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone,” a terrifying blast prevailed over the shrieking of fans, loud enough to plaster looks of fear on the Fab Four.
Lennon recalled that “each of us thought the other had been shot. It was that bad.”
In what will be later known as the “Cherry Bomb Incident”, the blast turned out to be a cherry bomb thrown out from the balcony by some naughty kids.
It effectively helped the Beatles end their touring life with a literal bang, as Lennon later remarked “I didn’t want to tour again, especially after having been accused of crucifying Jesus when all I’d made was a flippant remark, and having to stand with the Klan outside and firecrackers going on inside. I couldn’t take any more.”
Legacy and Interpretation
The “More Popular Than Jesus Controversy” was an unforgettable moment in the lengthy storied career of the Beatles. The impact illustrated the immense influence the Beatles wielded and the strong attachment people had to their religious beliefs.
However, looking back on the controversy from a historical perspective, its legacy and interpretation have evolved. While Lennon later expressed regret for the phrasing of his remark, acknowledging that it had been misconstrued, many journalists backed the Beatle and claimed that the quote was taken out of context.
Even the journalist herself Cleave tried to smooth over the situation and published an unsolicited clarification saying “John was certainly not comparing the Beatles to Christ. He was simply observing that, so weak was the state of Christianity, the Beatles was, to many people, better known.”
Lennon himself, way before the apologies, even recalled saying “I’d forgotten [all about it]. It was that unimportant – it had been and gone.”
L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily publication even announced that the apology was sufficient. A New York Times editorial, in a similar manner, thought the matter was over.
From a broader viewpoint, the “more popular than Jesus” controversy can be seen as a reflection of the cultural and generational shifts taking place in the 1960s.
The Beatles were at the forefront of the counterculture movement and represented a departure from traditional values and institutions. The controversy highlighted the generation gap and the clash between established authority and the emerging youth culture.
Conclusion and The Beatles’ Enduring Influence
Over time, as society became more accustomed to questioning authority and engaging in open discussions about religion, the controversy surrounding Lennon’s remark has somewhat faded.
It is now often viewed as a pivotal moment in the Beatles’ career, illustrating their immense impact on popular culture and the power of their influence. Today, it serves as a reminder of the complex relationship between artists, their statements, and the public’s reaction to them.
The release of six more albums after the incident and the band’s continued success until their disbandment is a clear indication of not just their enduring musical influence, but also their qualifications as generational talents.
It is unfortunate to note though that the “Jesus controversy” created a butterfly effect 14 years later that realized Lennon’s fears while he was in Memphis.
A young born-again Christian by the name of Mark David Chapman nursed a bitter hatred that turned into a psychotic obsession, culminating in the death of one John Lennon.