Photo of barrage balloon from America from the Great Depression to World War II, at the Library of Congress.
Today in Odd History
John Lennon Proclaims Beatles "More Popular than Jesus" (March 4, 1966)
Today in Odd History, The Evening Standard published a long, rambling interview with John Lennon in which he proclaimed that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus." Although there was little reaction to his statement in England, Christians elsewhere embarked upon a massive campaign to destroy Beatles albums and other paraphenalia. Lennon apologized for the remark later, and the Archbishop of Boston admitted that he was probably right, but many still refused to forgive him.
In its original context, the remark was part of a rather harmless lifestyle piece by Evening Standard reporter Maureen Cleave. She had spent the day Lennon, whom she described as "imperious, ... unpredictable, indolent, disorganised, childish, vague, charming and quick-witted." He took her on a tour of his mansion, talking about books and fame, and the gorilla suit he bought so he could drive around wearing it. When they reached the subject of religion, Lennon said, "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. ... 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 British public took the comment as what is was: An opinion voiced by an artist known as much for his hummingbird mind as for his considerable talent. In July, however, an American teen magazine called Datebook quoted the infamous Jesus statement without reprinting the original article. It appeared as part of a cover story called "The Ten Adults You Dig/Hate the Most." The American reaction was instantaneous. Radio stations across the country, but especially in the South and in the Midwest, stopped playing Beatles records. Death threats began pouring in, directed against not only John, but the other Beatles as well. Bonfires appeared, with Beatles pictures and albums providing the fuel. Maureen Cleave tried to explain that "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. He was deploring, rather than approving, this," but to no avail. In Cleveland, the Reverend Thurman H. Babbs threatened to excommunicate any member of his congregation who listened to the Beatles. In the South, the Ku Klux Klan burned the Beatles in effigy and nailed Beatles albums to burning crosses. Finally, on August 11, with a scheduled American tour fast approaching, Lennon held a press conference in Chicago, at which he attempted to make amends. "I'm not saying that we're better or greater," he said, "or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. ... I wasn't saying whatever they're saying I was saying. 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."
For most people, this was enough, but not for all. The KKK tried, unsuccessfully, to stop their show in Memphis. On August 13, KLUE, a radio station in Texas, organized another Beatles bonfire. (That same night, the station was struck by lightning, which damaged their equipment and knocked the station manager unconscious. Sometimes, justice really is poetic.) And the international reaction was just beginning. Beatles albums were banned from the airwaves in Spain and Holland. The Vatican, while recognizing that the remarks were made "off-handedly and not impiously," also said that "[T]he protest the remark raised showed that some subjects must not be dealt with lightly and in a profane way, not even in the world of beatniks." In South Africa, Piet Myer of the South African Broadcasting Corporation justified his decision to bar Beatles albums by saying, "The Beatles' arrogance has passed the ultimate limit of decency. It is clowning no longer." Even years later, after the group had broken up, John Lennon's albums were still banned from South African radio, although Paul McCartney's and George Harrison's music could be broadcast.
John Lennon returned to the subject in December, when he told LOOK magazine that "I believe Jesus was right, Buddha was right, and all of those people like that are right. They're all saying the same thing--and I believe it. I believe what Jesus actually said--the basic things he laid down about love and goodness--and not what people say he said.... If Jesus being more popular means ... more control, I don't want that. I'd sooner they'd all follow us even if it's just to dance and sing for the rest of their lives. If they took more interest in what Jesus--or any of them--said, if they did that, we'd all be there with them."
Although the Beatles would remain together for 4 more years, the American tour that followed the Jesus incident would be their last.
More about the Beatles last tour:
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