By 1966, The Beatles were proving themselves to be the most successful rock ‘n’ roll band and as well-known as Elvis Presley, the first big star of the rock era, but by the Summer of that year, American teens were burning their albums, radio stations were refusing to play their music, and the KKK threatened their appearance in Memphis. As usual, John Lennon, the outspoken one, was the crux of the brouhaha, but this was worse than anything he had done before. Just what did he say? How did he handle it? What was the denouement? I’ll tell you this and more!
“We’re more popular than Jesus now.” With those six words, John Lennon set off a firestorm in the United States. He was speaking to a reporter he trusted, Maureen Cleave, and as Bob Spitz relates in his book, The Beatles, once the article reached the U.S.:
The reaction was swift and predictable. Southern fundamentalists went apeshit [sic] over the remarks, labeling them blasphemous. A pair of Bible-thumping disc jockeys at WAQY immediately banned the playing of all Beatles records and sponsored a community bonfire fueled by the offending LPs…
The strange thing is that at the same time, “Paul’s equally inflammatory indictment of American racism stirred nary a ripple,” according to Stuart Shea and Robert Rodriguez. Spitz quotes Tony Barrow, a press relations manager for the group as saying, “We were being told that there were now religious zealots who were actually threatening to assassinate John Lennon if the Beatles came to Memphis.” With a summer tour coming up, something had to be done.
“…it’s no sweat off of us, mate, burn ‘em [sic] if you like,” is what Bob Spitz says the group thought of the bonfires, surmising that people had to buy the records first in order to burn them. But this response was in private and something had to be done publicly. Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, tried to assuage the American press with a statement that according to Spitz:
… sounded like a fairly liberal rewrite of John’s remarks…Yet at the same time, it served to mollify them. Most of the papers that covered the event [Epstein’s verbal statement of apology] treated it like a news items, without comment. But it was clear to everyone, including Brian that is wasn’t the last word on this subject –not by a long shot.
And John Lennon was not the type to apologize or appease the public. From Spitz again:
By the time John was ready to leave for the States, he was fuming. He had glanced at the first reports of the backlash with mild amusement. Then his anger grew steadily as demands for an apology mounted until, by departure, he was incensed. He told Brian that not only did he refuse to apologize for his statement but had no intention of saying anything to the press – about Christianity, or music, or anything.
Of course, the rest of the group, as well as Brian, were not happy about this stance. They were all a bit scared of what might happen in the states, and the plan was for John to “face the press before the first performance in Chicago.” On that day, John was still insisting he would not and it took Brian emphasizing his fears that “the Beatles might be assassinated during the tour.” He and the other members of the group, along with Brian, left their floor of the hotel and went to the press conference. Once there, John Lennon tried to undo what he had done. He said:
If I had said, ‘Television is more popular than Jesus,’ I might have got away with it. I’m sorry I opened my mouth. I’m not anti-God, anti-Christ, or antireligion. I was not knocking it. I was not saying we are greater or better…I just said what I said and it was wrong…And now it’s all this… I apologize if that will make you happy.
Once John had paused, a reporter meekly asked if he could repeat all that and say it into the camera. As Spitz says,” The press was quite prepared to let the Lennon affair die a natural death to preserve the spirit of Beatlemania.”
“Send John out first – he’s the one they want,” said George Harrison, as their plane descended into Memphis. The true test was how the public in the Bible belt was going to react. Had they even heard John’s apology and if they did, what did they think? “I was totally paranoid the whole time…I was just waiting for something dreadful to happen. I was so conscious of all the hatred and threats that I couldn’t relax for one minute,” said John to his friend Pete Shotten. Perhaps John was right to be scared. Mark Lewisohn writes:
On 19 August the Beatles received an anonymous phone call that one or all of them would be assassinated at some point during the group’s two shows that day in Memphis. Midway through the second show somebody threw a firecracker onto the stage which exploded. Each of the Beatles looked to the others to see who had been shot.
But that was the worst that happened. Lewisohn explains “The Beatles were playing these huge open-air stadiums in order to satisfy as many fans as possible with the minimum of effort and maximum income.”
“Well, that’s it, I’m not a Beatle anymore,” said George Harrison as their plane ascended from San Francisco. With all the worries, all the fuss, and over 1,400 live performances, all four men had come to the same decision that George had voiced – it was time to stop live performances and focus on the music. And for John Lennon, he was free to continue to voice his opinions without the worry of how it might affect a tour. As Larry Kane writes:
Lennon’s maligned quotes about religion once again reaffirmed the core traits of his being – determination, resolve, intellectual curiosity, and an uncompromising commitment to free expression. These traits often led him to a lot of controversy and danger But in the context of the sixties, they also provided many young people with a refreshing alternative to the age’s vapid celebrities and callow political leaders. Those traits allowed John Lennon – artist, songwriter, singer, and poet – to become the voice of his generation.
Kane, Larry. Lennon Revealed. Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers, 2005.
Lennon, Cynthia. John. New York: Crown Publishers, 2005.
Lewisohn, Mark. The Complete Beatles Chronicle. New York: Harmony Books, 1992.
Shea, Stuart and Robert Rodriguez. Fab Four FAQ. New York: Hal Leonard Books, 2007.
Spitz, Bob. The Beatles. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005.
Shotton, Pete and Nicholas Schaffner. John Lennon: In My Life. New York: Stein and Day, 1983.