John Lennon’s “We’re more popular than Jesus” quote is published in the US

Friday, July 29, 1966


In March 1966, the London Evening Standard newspaper published an interview with John Lennon. Titled “How does a Beatle live? John Lennon lives like this“, it was penned by Maureen Cleave, a friend of The Beatles. Within the piece, John stated:

Christianity will go. It will vanish and sink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right and will 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.

John Lennon – From interview with London Evening Standard, March 1966

While this statement went largely unnoticed in the UK, its reception in the US was a different story.

The American teen magazine, DATEbook, had intended to publish the article in their September 1966 issue, following discussions with Tony Barrow, The Beatles’ press officer. However, by late July 1966, snippets of the article had already leaked to the American press, even before DATEbook hit the newsstands.

Dear Art, […] I think you might be more than interested in a series of “in-depth” pieces which Maureen Cleave is doing on each Beatle for the London Evening Standard. I’m enclosing a clipping showing her piece on John Lennon. I think the style and content is very much in line with the sort of thing DATEBOOK likes to use. I have told Maureen I am writing to you on this and, in fact, I think she would be quite willing to do a re-write job on the full series specifically for DATEBOOK. […]

Tony Barrow – in a letter to Art Unger, editor of DATEbook – From “Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year” by Steve Turner

Interestingly, the cover featured Paul McCartney, proclaiming, “It’s a lousy country where anyone black is a dirty nigger!”. Extracted from an earlier interview with Maureen Cleave from March 1966, this bold statement surprisingly didn’t generate any media attention.

By the end of July, John’s comment had caught the attention of two Alabama DJs, Tommy Charles and Doug Layton from radio station WAQY. Appalled by the claim that “The Beatles are more popular than Jesus”, they initiated a campaign urging listeners to discard or incinerate the band’s albums. Their radio station was among the first to boycott The Beatles, dubbing them as the British sensation who amassed wealth from young admirers. They even called for a “Beatles Burn-In”, coinciding with the band’s impending Memphis concert.

This sentiment quickly spread, with numerous radio stations joining the boycott. By August 1966, fervent protests, primarily in the US South, had Beatles memorabilia going up in flames.

From a business perspective, this backlash risked jeopardizing The Beatles’ imminent US tour starting on August 12, 1966. Recognizing the severity, Brian Epstein, The Beatles’ manager, hastily travelled to New York on August 5, 1966. There, at the Americana Hotel, he addressed the controversy in a televised press conference.

From “Burn The Beatles!”1966: Bigger Than Jesus? | The Pop History Dig – Two-page layout of the September 1966 “DateBook” magazine article on John Lennon (from the March 1966 London Evening Standard) using the headline, “I Don’t Know Which Will Go First – Rock `n Roll Or Christianity”.

From “We’re More Popular Than Jesus!” – Fans Burn Beatles Records When John Lennon Compared the Beatles to Jesus in 1966 ~ Vintage Everyday – Birmingham disc jockeys Tommy Charles, left, and Doug Layton of Radio Station WAQY, rip and break materials representing the British pop group The Beatles, in Birmingham, Alabama, August 8, 1966. The broadcasters started a “Ban The Beatles” campaign. (AP)
From “We’re More Popular Than Jesus!” – Fans Burn Beatles Records When John Lennon Compared the Beatles to Jesus in 1966 ~ Vintage Everyday – The Beatles went up in smoke near Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., on August 12, 1966. The Beatlemania bonfire, planned by Chuck Smith, 13, was in protest against John Lennon’s remark.
From “We’re More Popular Than Jesus!” – Fans Burn Beatles Records When John Lennon Compared the Beatles to Jesus in 1966 ~ Vintage Everyday – The Beatles appear to have lost their popularity at Beaver Meadows, a small community in northeastern Pennsylvania according to the sign, ‘God Forever, Beatles Never’, posted along Route 93, near Hazleton on August 10, 1966.
From “We’re More Popular Than Jesus!” – Fans Burn Beatles Records When John Lennon Compared the Beatles to Jesus in 1966 ~ Vintage Everyday

From Wikipedia:

“More popular than Jesus” is part of a remark made by John Lennon of the Beatles in a March 1966 interview, in which he argued that the public were more infatuated with the band than with Jesus, and that Christian faith was declining to the extent that it might be outlasted by rock music. His opinions drew no controversy when originally published in the London newspaper The Evening Standard, but drew angry reactions from Christian communities when republished in the United States that July.

Lennon’s comments incited protests and threats, particularly throughout the Bible Belt in the Southern United States. Some radio stations stopped playing Beatles songs, records were publicly burned, press conferences were cancelled, and the Ku Klux Klan picketed concerts. The controversy coincided with the band’s 1966 US tour and overshadowed press coverage of their newest album Revolver. Lennon apologised at a series of press conferences and explained that he was not comparing himself to Christ.

The controversy exacerbated the band’s unhappiness with touring, which they never undertook again; Lennon also refrained from touring in his solo career. In 1980, he was murdered by a Christian fan of the Beatles, Mark David Chapman, who later stated that Lennon’s quote was a motivating factor in the killing. […]

Publication in the US

Newsweek made reference to Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” comments in an issue published in March, and the interview had appeared in Detroit magazine in May. On 3 July, Cleave’s four Beatles interviews were published together in a five-page article in The New York Times Magazine, titled “Old Beatles – A Study in Paradox”. None of these provoked a strong reaction.

Beatles press officer Tony Barrow offered the four interviews to Datebook, an American teen magazine. He believed that the pieces were important to show fans that the Beatles were progressing beyond simple pop music and producing more intellectually challenging work. Datebook was a liberal magazine that addressed subjects such as interracial dating and legalisation of marijuana, so it seemed an appropriate publication for the interviews. Managing editor Danny Fields played a role in shining a spotlight on Lennon’s comments.

Datebook published the Lennon and McCartney interviews on 29 July, in its September “Shout-Out” issue dedicated to controversial youth-orientated themes including recreational drugs, sex, long hair and the Vietnam War. Art Unger, the magazine’s editor, put a quote from Lennon’s interview on the cover: “I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity!” In author Robert Rodriguez’s description, the editor had chosen Lennon’s “most damning comment” for maximum effect; placed above it on the cover was a quote from McCartney regarding America: “It’s a lousy country where anyone black is a dirty nigger!” Only McCartney’s image was featured on the front cover, as Unger expected that his statement would spark the most controversy. The same Lennon quote appeared as the headline above the feature article. Beside the text, Unger included a photo of Lennon on a yacht, gazing across the ocean with his hand shielding his eyes, accompanied by the caption: “John Lennon sights controversy and sets sail directly towards it. That’s the way he likes to live!”

Escalation and radio bans

In late July, Unger sent copies of the interviews to radio stations in the American South. WAQY disc jockey Tommy Charles in Birmingham, Alabama, heard about Lennon’s remarks from his co-presenter Doug Layton and said, “That does it for me. I am not going to play the Beatles any more.” During their 29 July breakfast show, Charles and Layton asked for listeners’ views on Lennon’s comment, and the response was overwhelmingly negative. The pair set about destroying Beatles vinyl LPs on-air. Charles later stated, “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.” United Press International bureau manager Al Benn heard the WAQY show and filed a news report in New York City, culminating in a major story in The New York Times on 5 August. Sales of Datebook, which had never been a leading title in the youth magazine market beforehand, reached a million copies.

Lennon’s remarks were deemed blasphemous by some right-wing religious groups. More than 30 radio stations, including some in New York and Boston, followed WAQY’s lead by refusing to play the Beatles’ music. WAQY hired a tree-grinding machine and invited listeners to deliver their Beatles merchandise for destruction. KCBN in Reno, Nevada, broadcast hourly editorials condemning the Beatles and announced a public bonfire for 6 August where the band’s albums would be burned. Several Southern stations organised demonstrations with bonfires, drawing crowds of teenagers to publicly burn their Beatles records, effigies of the band, and other memorabilia. Photos of teenagers eagerly participating in the bonfires were widely distributed throughout the US, and the controversy received blanket media coverage through television reports.

The furore came to be known as the “‘More popular than Jesus’ controversy” or the “Jesus controversy”. It followed soon after the negative reaction from American disc jockeys and retailers to the “butcher” sleeve photo used on the Beatles’ US-only LP Yesterday and Today. Withdrawn and replaced within days of release in June, this LP cover showed the band members dressed as butchers and covered in dismembered plastic dolls and pieces of raw meat. For some conservatives in the American South, according to Rodriguez, Lennon’s comments on Christ now allowed them an opportunity to act on their grievances against the Beatles – namely, their long hair and championing of African-American musicians.

Pre-tour press conferences

According to Unger, Brian Epstein was initially unperturbed about the reaction from the Birmingham disc jockeys, telling him: “Arthur, if they burn Beatles records, they’ve got to buy them first.” Within days, however, Epstein became so concerned by the furore that he considered cancelling the group’s upcoming US tour, fearing that they would be seriously harmed in some way. He flew to New York on 4 August and held a press conference the following day in which he claimed that Datebook had taken Lennon’s words out of context, and expressed regret on behalf of the group that “people with certain religious beliefs should have been offended in any way”. Epstein’s efforts had little effect, as the controversy quickly spread beyond the United States. In Mexico City, there were demonstrations against the Beatles, and a number of countries banned the Beatles’ music on national radio stations, including South Africa and Spain. The Vatican issued a denouncement of Lennon’s comments, saying that “Some subjects must not be dealt with profanely, not even in the world of beatniks.” This international disapproval was reflected in the share price of the Beatles’ Northern Songs publishing company, which dropped by the equivalent of 28 cents on the London Stock Exchange.

In response to the furore in the US, a Melody Maker editorial stated that the “fantastically unreasoned reaction” supported Lennon’s statement regarding Christ’s disciples being “thick and ordinary”. Daily Express columnist Robert Pitman wrote, “It seems a nerve for Americans to hold up shocked hands, when week in, week out, America is exporting to us [in Britain] a subculture that makes the Beatles seem like four stern old churchwardens.” The reaction was also criticised within the US; a Kentucky radio station announced that it would give the 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.”

Lennon’s apology

The Beatles left London on 11 August for their US tour. Lennon’s wife Cynthia said that he was nervous and upset because he had made people angry simply by expressing his opinion. The Beatles held a press conference in Barrow’s suite at the Astor Tower Hotel in Chicago. Lennon did not want to apologise but was advised by Epstein and Barrow that he should. Lennon was also distressed that he had potentially endangered the lives of his bandmates by speaking his mind. While preparing to meet the reporters, he broke down in tears in front of Epstein and Barrow. To present a more conservative image for the cameras, the Beatles eschewed their London fashions for dark suits, plain shirts, and neckties.

At the press conference, Lennon said: “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 stressed that he had been remarking on how other people viewed and popularised the Beatles. He described his own view of God by quoting the Bishop of Woolwich, “not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us.” He was adamant that he was not comparing himself with Christ, but attempting to explain the decline of Christianity in the UK. “If you want me to apologise,” he concluded, “if that will make you happy, then OK, I’m sorry.”

Journalists gave a sympathetic response and told Lennon that people in the Bible Belt were “quite notorious for their Christian attitude”. Placated by Lennon’s gesture, Tommy Charles cancelled WAQY’s Beatles bonfire, which had been planned for 19 August, when the Beatles were due to perform in the South. The Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano announced that the apology was sufficient, while a New York Times editorial similarly stated that the matter was over, but added, “The wonder is that such an articulate young man could have expressed himself imprecisely in the first place.”

In a private meeting with Unger, Epstein asked him to surrender his press pass for the tour, saying that it had been a “bad idea” for Unger to publish the interviews, and to avoid accusations that Datebook and the Beatles’ management had orchestrated the controversy as a publicity stunt. Epstein assured him that there would be better publishing opportunities for the magazine if he “voluntarily” withdrew from the tour. Unger refused and, in his account, received Lennon’s full support when he later discussed the meeting with him. […]

Heads Too Big – Disc Jockeys to Ban Beatles

Dozens of rock ’n’ roll disc jockeys have banned the Beatles from their turntables because of intellectual Beatle John Lennon’s comment in a teenage magazine that the mop-haired foursome is now “more popular than Jesus.”

The ‘‘Beatle boycott” was begun last week in Birmingham, Ala., by two disc jockeys who took umbrage with quotes attributed to Lennon in a “Datebook” magazine article.

“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink,” the article quoted Lennon as saying in an interview with a British reporter. ”… l’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now,” Lennon allegedly said. ”I don’t know which will go first — rock ’n’ roll or Christianity.”

A Beatles spokesman today confirmed in London that Lennon did make the remarks. Lennon was unavailable for comment.

The spokesman said, “we’ve no complaint… the remarks are quoted out of a series of articles done by Maureen Cleave of the London Evening Standard last February and March. They were part of a chat which Maureen had during a day with him.”

Lennon’s remarks, the spokesman noted, “caused no reaction here and we’ve decided to make no comment whatsoever on them now.”

Tommy Charles and Doug Layton, disc jockeys at Bir-mingham’s WAQY, have asked listeners to send in their Beatles records, pictures, souvenirs and mop-top wigs for a huge “Beatle bonfire” Aug. 19 — the night the Beatles are scheduled to appear in Memphis, Tenn.

Dozens of other disc jockeys, particularly in the South, have followed the Birmingham station’s lead and are refusing to play Beatle records. They reported hundreds of calls from listeners protesting Lennon’s remarks.

In Lawton, Okla., KSWO disc jockey B. J. Williams called for a “Beatle bonfire” within two weeks, and broke the Beatles’ lastest record while on the air. He said only three of 75 listeners who called up after the record breaking opposed his stand.

A spokesman for Capitol Records, which distributes Beatle records in the United States, rushed to Lennon’s defense, declaring the pensive Beatle was “quoted out of context and misconstrued.”

The spokesman said Lennon’s remarks were “conjectural on the topics of Christianity, rock ’n’ roll and other institutions subject to change over the years.” Lennon “only intended the broadest possible comparison between the rock ’n’ roll movement and the institution of Christianity as it relates to the trend to nonconformity among contemporary youth. He definitely intended no irreverence,” the Capitol spokesman said.

From Republican and Herald – August 4, 1966
From Republican and Herald – August 4, 1966

In early June 1966, Melody Maker already highlighted a brewing controversy in the US involving The Beatles. The band had criticized Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad Of The Green Berets”, dismissing it as “rubbish.” This song, a ballad celebrating the US Army Special Forces, held significant patriotic value. By the close of 1966, Billboard recognized “The Ballad of the Green Berets” as the top Hot 100 song of that year.

Beatles in interview row

THE Beatles have stirred up a heated controversy in America’s midwest all because of a mystery interview. The result, according to American reports, is that fans are threatening to boycott their records.

A Pittsburgh disc-jockey broadcast an alleged téléphoné interview last week in which the Beatles put down the Barry Sadler recording of “The Ballad Of The Green Berets” as “rubbish.”

Following this, a wave of anti-Beatles protests broke. Several major disc retailers are reported to have contacted Capitol Records and asked them to “have the Beatles cool it with this kind of talk.” The retailers reported that fans had threatened to boycott the stores unless Beatles discs were removed from the racks. In London, however, it was strenuously denied that the Beatles had given an interview to any American disc jockey.

Recently Brian Matthew interviewed the Beatles and the tapes will be broadcast by over 50 U.S. deejays. But the question of Barry Sadler’s record was never discussed on this interview. At press time, the mystery was still unsolved.

This week Brian Epstein flew from Madrid to New York to finalise the Beatles tour and discuss the screening of a colour TV film Cilla Black made at London’s Savoy Hotel.

The Beatles perform their new single “Paper Back Writer”, due for release on June 10, in film clips on Top Of The Pops (today and June 9), Granada’s Scene At 6.30 (13), Thank Your Lucky Stars (25) and Ready, Steady Go! (10).

On June 5 they film a segment for the Ed Sullivan American TV show, in colour.

From Melody Maker, June 4, 1966
From Melody Maker, June 4, 1966

Last updated on September 6, 2023

Going further

The Beatles Diary Volume 1: The Beatles Years

"With greatly expanded text, this is the most revealing and frank personal 30-year chronicle of the group ever written. Insider Barry Miles covers the Beatles story from childhood to the break-up of the group."

We owe a lot to Barry Miles for the creation of those pages, but you really have to buy this book to get all the details - a day to day chronology of what happened to the four Beatles during the Beatles years!

Shop on Amazon


Have you spotted an error on the page? Do you want to suggest new content? Or do you simply want to leave a comment ? Please use the form below!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *