More from year 1966
Mar 25, 1966
Late June 1967
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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 “We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first – rock’n’roll or Christianity.“
The American teen magazine, DATEbook, had intended to republish 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.
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.
Early in August, a concerned trio — Nat Weiss, Brian Epstein’s New York business partner; Sid Bernstein from General Artists Corporation, the agency that handled The Beatles’ US bookings; and Brian’s American attorney Walter Hofer — contacted Brian. They reached out to him in Portmeirion, where he was recuperating from glandular fever. The essence of their message was clear: the backlash was intensifying in the US, and there were genuine fears that concert promoters might back out due to concerns about potential violence targeting either themselves or The Beatles.
Grasping the gravity of the situation, Brian left Portmeirion, journeyed to London, and boarded a flight to New York on August 5, 1966. That very day, The New York Times featured the Lennon “Jesus” controversy on its front page. Maureen Cleave, who had interviewed John for the London Evening Standard, was quoted:
[John] was certainly not comparing the Beatles with Christ. He was simply observing that so weak was the state of Christianity that the Beatles were, to many people, better-known than Jesus. He was deploring rather than approving this. He said things had reached a ridiculous state of affairs when human beings could be worshiped in this extraordinary way.Maureen Cleave
Brian was distressed, not just by the unfolding situation but also by the added comments from Maureen Cleave and recent remarks from other Beatles members. After returning from their Philippines tour on July 8, George Harrison had quipped to the media, “We’re taking a brief respite before facing potential assaults from the Americans.” Meanwhile, during an August 6 interview with David Frost, Paul McCartney shared:
You know, I enjoy it in America. But I think I like England much better as a place. It’s the attitude of the people generally in America that makes it not as good as place to be in as England. The kind of people we meet in America tend to be heads of corporations and publicity men and things. So I know we don’t get a good view of American life, but they all seem to believe that sort of money is it. Which is true to an extent, but not all the time. You know, they believe in it all the time.Paul McCartney – From radio interview with BBC Light Programme, August 1, 1966
On August 6, Brian finally addressed the media at the Americana Hotel in a televised press conference, stating:
The only reason I’m here, actually, is in an attempt to clarify the situation, the general furor that has arisen here, and I have prepared a statement which I will read which has had John Lennon’s absolute approval this afternoon with myself by telephone. This is as follows:
The quote which John Lennon made to a London columnist more than three months ago has been quoted and represented entirely out of context. Lennon is deeply interested in religion and was, at the time, having serious talks with Maureen Cleave, who is both a friend of the Beatles and a representative for the London Evening Standard. Their talks were concerning religion.
What he said, and meant, was that he was astonished that in the last 50 years the church in 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 him to be a more immediate one upon, certainly, the younger generation. The article, which in depth was highly complimentary to Lennon as a person, was understood by him and myself to be exclusive to the Evening Standard. It was not anticipated that it would be displayed out of context and in such a manner as it was in an American teen-age magazine.
In the circumstances, John is deeply concerned, and regrets that people with certain religious beliefs should have been offended in any way whatsoever.Brian Epstein – Press conference – From “Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year” by Steve Turner
Subsequent questions from the media revolved around the potential impact of the controversy on the forthcoming tour.
We’re wondering whether you’re going to change the itinerary of The Beatles to avoid areas where the radio stations are now burning their records and their pictures?
This is highly unlikely. I’ve spoken to many of the promoters this morning. When I leave here, I have a meeting with several of the promoters who are anxious that the concerts should not be cancelled, at all. Actually, if any of the promoters were so concerned and wish that the concerts be cancelled, I wouldn’t, in fact, stand in their way.Brian Epstein – Press conference – From “Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year” by Steve Turner
One further thing, the Beatles made the Queen’s honours list, will the Queen come to the help of her honourable friends in a situation like this?
I’ve not asked her yet!From Mr Brian Epstein (tumblr.com)
Ultimately, The Beatles made their way from London to Chicago on August 11, 1966. At a press conference there, John tried to explain his reasoning behind the comments, that he didn’t want to create controversy and offered an apology.
I couldn’t get Brian on the telephone and the news from America was terrible. The Bible Belt was up in arms, the Ku Klux Klan were involved and the whole thing was a step away from a full diplomatic incident. I couldn’t cope with this. It was a week before the Beatles’ fourth American tour and I was getting panic phone calls to say that the boys would be lynched if they turned up. Television news bulletins were full of coverage from the Southern states with people hurling records on to huge bonfires and politicians and priests delivering threats of divine retribution. It was Beatlemania in reverse and all the more frightening. Brian finally rang me and I had to arrange to get him back from North Wales to London and over to America as quickly as possible.Alistair Taylor – From “With the Beatles: A Stunning Insight by The Man who was with the Band Every Step of the Way“, 2011
He went to America to try to save the situation. He offered to cancel the tour but nobody really wanted that. Brian left me at Heathrow saying, ‘Look after the boys. Tell them it will be all right. I’ll sort it out.’ I went back into town and we had a meeting. I have never seen them so scared. There had been loads of death threats before but they had never seemed that serious. All of a sudden, the four of them realised what massive targets they were for any loony with a gun. And America is not exactly short of those. Lennon was absolutely shit-scared. They all were. I remember the way they made it clear they were totally together on this. They didn’t blame John at all because he had been completely misinterpreted. At that meeting, they were all for pulling out of the tour. John said, ‘Does Brian really want the tour to go ahead with all these nutters promising death and destruction? It’s our fucking lives on the line. We don’t want to go to America.’Alistair Taylor – From “With the Beatles: A Stunning Insight by The Man who was with the Band Every Step of the Way“, 2011
Beatles’ Manager Flies to U.S. as Furor Over Slur Mounts
NEW YORK—Beatles manager Brian Epstein cut short his vacation in Europe and flew to New York Thursday to quell the furor aroused in the United States by Beatle John Lennon’s statement that the singing group was “more popular than Jesus.” Epstein said Lennon had been misinterpreted.
Epstein told newsmen at Kennedy International Airport that the current uproar was “the normal sort of Beatle furor.” Epstein was asked if he thought the Beatles had lost face because of the remark. “I don’t know,” Epstein said. “This is why I’ve come. I want to avoid any further misinterpretation.”
The Beatles are scheduled to begin a 14-city, four-week tour of the United States on Aug. 11, the only sell-out so far being their Aug. 18 date in Boston.
Epstein was asked if there was a chance the tour might be canceled. “No,” he said, “not at this stage.”
Epstein did not deny that Lennon made the remark attributed to him. But when a newsman asked Epstein if he actually believed the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, he snapped: “Of course not.”
Keith Howell, a spokesman for the singing group in London, had said earlier that Epstein cut short a vacation to fly to the United States and “assess the situation.”
Epstein said he planned to meet today with officials of the General Artists Corp., the firm that represents the Beatles in the United States, and issue a statement later. “To avoid further confusion and misinterpretation, neither John nor the other Beatles are commenting immediately,” Howell had said in London.
A rising number of American radio stations that have banned the group’s records because of the remarks by Lennon got big play in London’s newspapers Thursday. The Evening Standard headlined the story: “America’s Love Affair With Beatles Sours.” The Evening News said: “Ban the Beatles Wave Sweeps U.S.”
Earlier, Howell confirmed that Lennon indeed did make the remarks attributed to him in an American magazine (Datebook) article.
“We’ve no complaint about that,” he said. “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 Maureen had during the day with him.”
The “Beatle boycott” was begun last week in Birmingham, Ala., by two disc jockeys who took offense at the statements attributed to Lennon in the article. In the interview, Lennon said: “Christianity will go. It will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right and I will be proved right. We are more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first — rock ’n’ roll or Christianity.”
The Beatles’ spokesman said there has been very little reaction in London over the remarks. He said, however, that the Beatles office Thursday was besieged with overseas telephone calls from American and Canadian radio stations.
“They wanted to know if John had really said those things, and they wanted to know how he felt about the whole matter. I told them that John was making no comment at the moment,” he said.
An estimated 35 stations in 15 states and one in Manitoba, Canada, announced they would no longer play Beatles records.From The Boston Globe – August 5, 1966
Epstein checks on U.S. “holy war ” against Beatles
The Beatles’ manager, Mr. Brian Epstein, today weighed the prospects of a U.S. tour by his mophaired quartet in the face of a “holy war” against them in America.
The furore was caused by Beatle John Lennon’s reported remark that the Beatles are more popular than Jesus Christ.
As a result, fans in several U.S. cities have been urged to make bonfires of their Beatle records, and radio stations across the nation have banned Beatles records.
Mr. Epstein, who cut short a holiday to fly to New York last night from London, said he hoped that the Beatles’ four-week tour would go ahead. It was to start on August 12.
He said no decision would be made until he had talked with the General Artists’ Corporation, the agency which booked the Beatles for their 14-city tour.
The “holy war” against the Beatles started in America’s “Bible Belt” and quickly spread across the nation. In Mississippi an imperial wizard of a Ku Klux Klan group said be believed the Beatles had been “brainwashed by the Communist Party.”
On arrival in New York Mr. Epstein was asked whether he thought the Beatles were more popular than Christianity. ”Of course not,” he said.
He said: “John Lennon’s views have been misinterpreted,” but he declined to say whether he meant that he had been misreported. “The whole thing” he added, “is a typical Beatles furore.”
Mr. Epstein, who has managed the Beatles since their earliest days, will be keeping a close watch on the pop record charts for any reaction by the buying public.
A radio station which has never before played a Beatles record started playing one every 30 minutes last night, preceding the records with a statement denouncing the “hypocrisy” of banning the group’s music.
Station W.S.A.C. said in a commentary: “Here is the best way we can think of to show our contempt for hypocrisy personified.”
Some of the stations which have banned the Beatles records play other songs that are “the most pornographic melodies since Elizabethan times,” the station said.
“Perhaps the Beatles could become more popular than Jesus,” as Beatle John Lennon allegedly said.
“Perhaps that is what is wrong with society, and there they are, dear friend. You made them so, not Jesus, not John Lennon, and not the Beatles.“
W.S.A.C. plans to continue broadcasting the commentary and playing a Beatles record indefinitely, a spokesman said.From Liverpool Echo – August 5, 1966
Beatles Manager Here to Quell Storm Over Remark on Jesus
Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles, flew here late Thursday hoping to quell a storm. The storm blew up from a remark by the quartet’s leader, John Lennon, who was quoted as saying that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.
Mr. Epstein also gave assurances at a news conference yesterday afternoon in the Americana Hotel that the Beatles would not cancel their 19-day American tour scheduled to start Friday in Chicago.
He said he was here simply to clarify the statement made in an interview five months ago that has led to a ban-the-Beatles campaign on radio stations throughout this country.
Mr. Epstein said that Mr. Lennon had been “represented entirely out of context” by Datebook, a teen-age magazine that reprinted an interview by Maureen Cleave from London’s Evening Standard. The manager stated that Mr. Lennon “said and meant” that he was “astonished” by a “decline in interest” during the last 50 years in the Church of England and therefore in Christ.
The offending statement follows:
“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that: I’m right and I 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.”
The interviewer, Miss Cleave, explained today that Mr. Lennon had been reading extensively about religion. She said:
“He was certainly not comparing the Beatles with Christ. He was simply observing that so weak was the state of Christianity that the Beatles were, to many people, better-known.”
Meanwhile, the storm has been circling the globe.
In Pamplona, Spain, Radio Requete said it would play no more Beatles music until the statement was withdrawn.
In Hong Kong, radio stations said they would continue playing Beatles records as long as listeners continue to like Beatles music. A spokesman said, “Any religious belief has nothing to do with an artist’s performance, and the Beatles are artists.” Most of Radio Hong Kong’s listeners are Buddhists.
In Johannesburg, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, the state monopoly, also announced it had banned Beatles records.
Of the quartet, only Paul McCartney has commented, “People should not take all our interviews seriously.” The other Beatles are Ringo Starr and George Harrison.
The United Press International reported the following signs of the storm yesterday:
“Boycotts of Beatles records were announced by radio stations in Ashland and Hopkinsville, Ky.; Dayton, Bryan and Akron, Ohio; Dublin, Ga.; Jackson, Miss.; Barmwell, S.C., and Corning, N.Y., joining stations in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Michigan and other states that reacted Thursday. Station WSAC in Fort Knox, Ky., began playing Beatles records for the first time “to show our contempt for hypocrisy personified. In Reno, station KCBN broadcast an anti-Beatles editorial every hour and announced a rally to burn Beatles albums today.
“Tommy Charles and Doug Layton, disk jockeys in Birmingham, Ala., announced that they were calling off a Beatles bonfire they had planned because it was no longer necessary to publicize Mr. Lennon’s remarks in view of the widespread publicity.
“The Rev. Prichard Pritchard of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Madison, Wis., said that those outraged by the remarks should start blaming themselves and stop blaming the Beatles. They should, he said, “take a look at their own standards and values. There is much validity in what Lennon said. To many people today, the golf course is also more popular than Jesus Christ.”
There was no indication yesterday that any station in New York planned to ban Beatles records.From The New York Times – August 6, 1966
[…] to people with certain religious beliefs.”
Most of the criticism, Epstein went on, “came from the southern American Bible Belt” where Methodist and Baptist churches predominate in influence.
Radio stations in two cities — Birmingham, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee — were credited with having started the so-called anti-Beatle movement At the latest count, on Friday, a total of 22 radio stations in a nation where there are about 4,000 operating stations, were known to have thrown in their lot with the anti-Beatle forces.
One facet of the developments which escaped the attention of most of the press was the fact that when the Beatles had planned a secret visit to Memphis earlier this year to record there, a radio station got wind of the plan and exposed it to the public.
So frantic was the furore created by the news reports that Epstein cancelled the visit and took a dim view of the station’s action as well. Some observers believe this was one way Memphis radio took to obtain revenge against the Beatles’ establishment.
In his statement to the press, Epstein said that in his wide-ranging telephone calls to Beatles’ concert promoters, none seemed anxious to cancel the dates. He added: “If any promoter wants to cancel, I would not stand in his way.” He added that the Memphis concert promoters experienced a bigger surge of ticket sales yesterday, after news of the quotes broke, than on any other day since the tickets first went on sale.
The initial date on the tour in Chicago on Friday is already sold out.From Melody Maker – August 13, 1966
Last updated on November 22, 2023
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