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The “More popular than Jesus” controversy
In March 1966, Maureen Cleave interviewed John Lennon and the rest of the Beatles as part of a London Evening Standard cover story on the subject of “How Does a Beatle Live?“. During the Lennon interview at Kenwood, Cleave noted Lennon’s interest in Christianity and religions, to which he replied:
“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.”
Although the article went largely unnoticed in the United Kingdom, the American magazine Datebook printed the quote containing Lennon’s words on the front cover of its August issue.
Fearful of the possibility that protesters or radicals would try to kill them for their supposed “anti-Christ” stance, the group’s manager Brian Epstein contemplated canceling the tour altogether. However, during the tour’s stop in Chicago, he arranged for a press conference to address the controversy and for Lennon to explain himself. Lennon stated that he was only commenting on the decline among churchgoers, that he made a mistake in using the Beatles’ following in comparison with that of organized religion, and that he “never meant it as a lousy anti-religious thing“. Despite this explanation, Lennon continued to be asked about the topic in subsequent press conferences throughout the American tour, often visibly exasperating not only him, but his band mates as well.
The Memphis accident
Despite numerous explanations by Beatles’ press agents and Lennon’s televised apology, the Memphis city council voted to cancel the 19 August afternoon and evening concerts 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. Despite the fact that it had originally been canceled, Epstein agreed to proceed with the concert in Memphis. Various threats were made before the concerts. Although no problems took place during the afternoon show, an audience member threw a lit firecracker onstage that did not hit any of the members, but the band believed that somebody had tried to shoot them.
When the firecracker went off, the Beatles’ press agent Tony Barrow recalled that “everybody, all of us at the side of the stage, including the three Beatles on stage, all looked immediately at John Lennon. We would not at that moment have been surprised to see that guy go down. John had half-heartedly joked about the Memphis concert in an earlier press conference, and when we got there everything seemed to be controlled and calm, but underneath somehow, there was this nasty atmosphere. It was a very tense and pressured kind of day.” […]
Setlist for the concert