When John Lennon's 'More Popular Than Jesus' Controversy Turned Ugly

When John Lennon's 'More Popular Than Jesus' Controversy Turned Ugly

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"If I'd said, 'Television is more poplar than Jesus,' I might have got away with it!" John Lennon lamented as cameras rolled from each of the three major American TV networks. The cheeky remark drew a laugh from the assembled crowd of journalists, but recently Lennon hadn't been so lucky. It was August 11th, 1966, and he was being called to task for an offhand comment made during an interview nearly five months prior.

"Christianity will go," he had said. "It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I know 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 & roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."

Lennon himself barely remembered saying it. The interview had been published in the London Evening Standard that March without controversy. But when it was reprinted in the American teen magazine Datebook on July 29th, the quote set off an international furor that threatened the Beatles' future – and their lives.

Lennon had been speaking to Maureen Cleave, a talented and insightful journalist whose youth and style elevated her to the level of a peer. Close to all of the Beatles, she was on particularly good terms with Lennon. While rumors that they had an affair have never been confirmed, they certainly shared a strong intellectual intimacy. "John used to know Maureen Cleave … quite well," recalled McCartney while being interviewed for the Beatles Anthology documentary. "We'd gravitate to any journalists who were a little better than the average because we could talk to them. We felt we weren't stupid rock & roll stars."

The band's manager, Brian Epstein, also appreciated her quality work. Dispensing with the usual PR restrictions, he granted Cleave extensive access to the Beatles for a series of in-depth profiles devoted to each member. Lennon's interview took place at the leafy estate that he shared with his wife, Cynthia, and young son, Julian, in the London suburb of Weybridge.

Despite Lennon's obvious wealth and fame, Cleave found a man deeply dissatisfied by the trappings of domesticity and social status. "I'm just stopping [here] like a bus stop. I'll get my real house when I know what I want," Lennon said as he gave her a tour of his mansion littered with expensive children's toys. "You see, there's something else I'm going to do – only I don't know what it is. All I know is this isn't it for me." 

His malaise had been triggered by an extended spell of self-reflection. The early months of 1966 were unusually free of Beatle commitments, giving Lennon his first substantial break since achieving worldwide fame. A habitual homebody, he spent the time expanding his mind with a regimen of psychedelic drugs, newspapers and books. He read extensively about world religion during this period, from acid guru Timothy Leary's take on The Tibetan Book of the Dead to Hugh J. Schonfield's best seller The Passover Plot, which outlined the controversial theory that Jesus Christ was a mortal man who faked his miracles with the unwitting help of his disciples.

With Schonfield's book on his mind, and his tongue loosened by friendship, the man who would later challenge the world to imagine no religions spoke with notable candor.

Cleave's article, "How Does A Beatle Live? John Lennon Lives Like This," arrived on March 4th, 1966. If the Jesus comment was regarded at all in the 2000-word profile, it was mostly met with bemusement. "In England, nobody took any notice," Lennon reflected in 1974. "They know this guy's blabbing off – who is he?" For many, it was just a flippant remark made by a 25-year-old pop star.

Besides, Lennon was not making a particularly revolutionary point. Though few would have the gall to cite their personal popularity as a barometer, no one could deny that church attendance was in steep decline. Religious advocates had recently made similar arguments with op-eds run in the Daily Mail and the Church Times. The term "Christianity" in Britain had become synonymous with the Church of England, an organization felt by many to be toothless and laughably out of touch. Rather than respected and revered, it was a frequent punching bag for popular satirists like Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Peter Sellers. The clergy, aware they had been reduced to joke fodder, were desperate to correct their image problem.

"They themselves had been complaining about lack of congregations," McCartney continued for the Anthology series. "We used to get a number of Catholic priests showing up at our gigs, and we'd do a lot of debating backstage. … We'd say, 'You should have gospel singing – that'll pull them in. You should be more lively, instead of singing hackneyed old hymns. Everyone's heard them and they're not getting off on them any more.' So we felt quite strongly that the church should get its act together. We were actually very pro-church; it wasn't any sort of demonic, anti-religion point of view that John was trying to express."

Editorial staff for the Evening Standard didn't deem the "Jesus" quote worthy of a headline, or even a highlight in the copy layout. The rest of the British press, always ready to pounce on anything noteworthy from the Fab Four, ignored it as well. The quote didn't garner a single news bulletin or comment from any columnist or editorialist. When the article was syndicated for other global publications – including The New York Times – it also passed without comment.

The quote lay dormant for months, until Cleave's profiles landed on the desk of Arthur Unger, editor-in-chief of Datebook magazine. Despite later claims that the publication was little more than inconsequential teenybopper fluff, Datebook was actually a boundary-pushing magazine for its day, covering serious social and political topics as well as standard entertainment fare. Unger, a gay man in an unwelcoming culture, saw firsthand how minority groups could be oppressed and ridiculed. This had a marked effect on his editorial vision, steering him towards social justice. Though rock history would portray Unger as an opportunist who traded on sensationalism, his goals were much more altruistic. "The magazine … was a serious attempt to help kids," he explained in later years. 

For a managing editor, he employed Danny Fields, the future punk architect responsible for the discovery and development of the Ramones, MC5 and Iggy Pop. Together they published articles about John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps, essays railing against a patriarchal society, damning critiques of Jim Crow laws, features on the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project to register black voters, and registration information for SNCC, NAACP and Congress of Racial Equality. This was radical stuff for a teen mag in the mid-Sixties.  

Unger's work attracted positive attention from the Beatles' camp, and Datebook was occasionally given exclusive quotes and minor scoops. Unger accompanied the band on their future American trips, and a friendly relationship developed. For his coverage of their 1965 tour, Unger touched on Ringo Starr's pro-integration stance in the American South. "Segregation is a lot of rubbish," he quoted Starr as saying. "As far as we're concerned, people are people, no different from each other. We'd never play South Africa if it means a segregated audience. What a lot of rubbish." 

As they had with Cleave, the Beatles appreciated being portrayed as more than just lovable mop-tops and continued to send Unger material. "By 1966 [Datebook] was buying exclusive Beatles stuff from England and seeing its circulation rise dramatically," said Fields years later. So after Cleave's profiles on the band were published in the Evening Standard, Beatles' press officer Tony Barrow sent them to Unger with a note: "I think the style and content is very much in line with the sort of thing Datebook likes to use." 

Barrow was right. September's "Shout-Out" issue, which also featured an article supporting interracial dating, seemed tailor-made to rankle bigoted Southern values. Unger used two of Cleave's quotes on the cover spread to attack the twin pillars of racism and religion. The first remark, "It's a lousy country where anyone black is a dirty n—-r " came from Paul McCartney. But it was the line from Lennon that lit the fuse: "I don't know which will go first—rock & roll or Christianity." The issue of Datebook hit newsstands on July 29th, and it was only a matter of time until the bomb detonated.

The magazine attracted the attention of Tommy Charles, a DJ for Birmingham, Alabama's WAQY ("Wacky Radio") station. A forerunner of today's shock jocks, Charles began each day scanning periodicals for topics to incorporate into his morning Top 40 show. The inflammatory Lennon quote seemed like an easy way to inject some color into the program. The fact that the outspoken Beatle was actually complaining about the sorry state of spiritual affairs seemed of little consequence to him. Together with partner Doug Layton, Charles launched an impromptu "Ban the Beatles" campaign, refusing to play any of the band's music on the network in retaliation for Lennon's "blasphemous" remarks. 

Though the stunt was likely motivated by publicity rather than piety, Charles did his best to position himself as moral arbiter taking a stand against godless foreign longhairs who sought to corrupt the American youth. "Because of their tremendous popularity throughout the world, especially with the younger set, [the Beatles] have been able to say what they wanted to without any regard for judgment, maturity, or the meaning of it, and no one has challenged them to any degree," he crowed.

It might have ended there were it not for Al Benn, manager of the Birmingham office of United Press International. He happened to listening to WAQY on his way to work and heard Charles announce his crusade on air. Benn filed a story about the Beatle Boycott, and it immediately went the Sixties equivalent of viral. While the English were able to laugh off Lennon's quote, literal-minded Fundamentalist Christians in the Southern United States were appalled to hear the Lord and Savior equated to a pop group. In the heart of Dixie, even the biggest Beatlemaniac had to side with Jesus.

"The repercussions were big, especially in the Bible Belt," recalled George Harrison for the Anthology series. "In the South, they were having a field day." Several dozen radio stations – stretching from Ogdensburg, New York, to Salt Lake City, Utah – instantly followed WAQY's lead and banned the Beatles' music. Some DJs went so far as to actually smash their records live on the air, and Reno's KCBN broadcast an anti-Beatle editorial each hour. Not to be outdone, Charles and Layton, the unofficial spokesmen of the movement, urged listeners to send their Beatles records and paraphernalia to the station to be destroyed with an industrial grade tree-grinding machine. "After going through the 'Beatle-grinder' borrowed from Birmingham City Council, all that will be left of the records will be fine dust," read a bulletin in the city's Daily Gleaner. "A box full of the dust will be presented to the British pop stars when they arrive in Memphis, Tennessee, not far from here, for a concert August 19."

The destruction soon escalated to a series of mass burnings uncomfortably reminiscent of the Third Reich as stations publicly torched their entire stocks of Beatles' music. South Carolina's Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan nailed several Beatles albums to a cross and set it aflame at a 'Beatle Bonfire' in Chester, while Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton of the Klan's Alabama chapter declared the Beatles brainwashed by the Communist party and criticized them for supporting civil rights.

Pastor Thurmond Babbs of Cleveland, Ohio, threatened to excommunicate any member of his congregation who dared attend a Beatles' concert, and KZEE in Weatherford, Texas, "damned their songs eternally." The outcry reached all the way to the Pope, who denounced Lennon's words in a statement to the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano: "Some subjects must not be dealt with profanely, even in the world of Beatniks." The governments of South Africa (where apartheid was still enforced) and Spain (ruled by General Franco's dictatorial regime) also issued official condemnations.

For Brian Epstein, already ill with a severe flu, news of the boycott couldn't have come at a worse time. The Beatles' latest album, Revolver, was due out days later on August 5th, the same day as their new single, "Eleanor Rigby." Even more frightening than lost sales, their impending U.S. tour would take them through the South, directly into harm's way. Although he dismissed the controversy as "a storm in a teacup" in the NME, privately he was extremely fearful that the band could be maimed or worse.

Covered in hives and still groggy with the flu, Epstein flew to New York City to personally supervise the damage control. "He really cared most about the possibility that the Beatles would suffer abuse – that they might be in danger," Nat Weiss, Epstein's confidant and American business associate, told author Philip Norman. "The first question he asked me was, 'What will it cost to cancel the tour?' I said: 'A million dollars.' He said: 'I'll pay it. I'll pay it out of my own pocket, because if anything were to happen to any of them, I'd never forgive myself.'"

Admirably, the Beatles' organization did not attempt to place the blame on Cleave by claiming Lennon was misquoted or had made the statements off the record. She did her best to smooth over the situation, issuing an unprompted clarification: "John was certainly not comparing the Beatles to Christ. He was simply observing that, so weak was the state of Christianity, the Beatles was, to many people, better known." Even Datebook's Arthur Unger released a comment insisting Lennon "had a perfect right to make his statements – just as others have a perfect right to disagree with him. … Our teenagers show a lot more maturity than many adults give them credit for and they are quite capable of reading what John has to say, weighing the points he has to make and then deciding for themselves where they stand."

The one person who refused to comment – much less apologize – was Lennon himself. "I'd forgotten [all about it]," he said later. "It was that unimportant – it had been and gone."

All four of the Beatles observed the initial firestorm with a touch of amusement. "I must admit we didn't really take it too seriously at all," McCartney told biographer Barry Miles. "We just thought, 'Yes, well, you can see what it is. It's hysterical low-grade American thinking.'" They were quick to point out that one had to purchase their albums in order to burn them. "No sweat off us, mate. Burn 'em if you like. It's not compulsory to play 'em. So we took a balanced view of it."

Unable to persuade the stubborn Beatle to so much as tape an apology, Epstein was forced to do the dirty work himself. He called a press conference on August 6th at New York's Americana Hotel and invited eager members of the global press. Always the gentleman, Epstein waited until after drinks and hors d'oeuvres were served to read a prepared statement that had been begrudgingly approved by Lennon.

"The quote which John Lennon made to a London columnist more than three months ago has been quoted and misrepresented entirely out of context," it began. "What he said, and meant, was that he was astonished that in the last 50 years, the Church of 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 be, to him, a more immediate one upon certain of the younger generation."

He concluded by reminding promoters that they were free to cancel their bookings in light of the controversy. Predictably, the almighty dollar won out and nobody did. The Beatles departed London on August 11th as planned to begin their tour in Chicago. But as the burnings continued and the situation remained volatile, it became clear that a statement would have to be made by Lennon himself. "John had to apologize," recalled Starr in the Anthology, "Not because of what he'd said, but to save our lives because there were a lot of very heavy threats – not only to him but to the whole band."

A press conference was called after the party arrived at Chicago's Astor Towers hotel. Epstein and press officer Barrow took Lennon aside to impress on him the severity of the situation. "We were nervous he was going to wiseguy it up," Barrow later told Philip Norman. They needn't have worried. Faced with the realization that both the tour and his life hung in the balance, Lennon finally cracked. "He actually put his head in his hands and sobbed," Barrow maintains. "He was saying, 'I'll do anything … whatever you say. How am I to face the others if this whole tour is called off just because of something I've said?'"

Head bowed like a man condemned, Lennon led the way into Barrow's 27th floor suite a short time later to face 30 members of the world press. "I didn't want to talk because I thought they'd kill me, because they take things so seriously [in the States]," he remembered. "I mean, they shoot you and then they realize it wasn't that important. So I didn't want to go, but Brian and Paul and the other Beatles persuaded me to come. I was scared stiff."

It showed. Beatle press conferences were traditionally jovial affairs, but this one had a distinctly gloomy air. Lennon, hands clasped tight to keep them from shaking, looked supremely uncomfortable as he squirmed in his chair. "I had never seen John so nervous," said McCartney. "He realized the full import of what he said."

Rather than read from a prepared statement, he gamely faced the volley of hostile questions head on, clambering to clarify his thoughts. "I'm not anti-God, anti-Christ or anti-religion," he said. "I was not knocking it. I was not saying we're better or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I happened to be talking to a friend and I used the word 'Beatles' as a remote thing – 'Beatles' like other people see us. I said they are having more influence on kids and things than anything else, including Jesus. I said it in that way, which was the wrong way."

A reporter piped up. "Some teenagers have repeated your statements – 'I like the Beatles more than Jesus Christ.' What do you think about that?"

Sensing a minefield, Lennon paused to consider his words carefully. "Well, originally I was pointed out that fact in reference to England – that we meant more to kids than Jesus did, or religion at that time. I wasn't knocking it or putting it down. … I just said what I said and it was wrong, or it was taken wrong, and now it's all this."

"But are you prepared to apologize?" came another voice.

Clearly exhausted from stress and jet lag, Lennon just wanted it end. "I wasn't saying what 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."

The sight of a contrite Beatle did much to extinguish the damning hellfire raging across the country. WAQY DJs Charles and Layton cancelled their massive "Beatle Bonfire" scheduled for August 19th, although officially they cited permit problems. A public burning organized by radio station KLUE did take place in Longview, Texas, on August 13th – but the following day the station's transmission tower was struck by lightning, destroying broadcasting equipment and rendering the news director unconscious. Divine intervention or not, the incident surely amused Lennon to no end.

Even so, an undeniable pall hung over the tour, a grueling series of 19 shows spread over 17 days in 14 different cities. Protestors waving homemade signs bearing slogans like "Beatles Go Home" and "Jesus Died For You, John Lennon" regularly greeted them in each new town. Members of the Prince George's County Ku Klux Klan, led by the Imperial Grand Wizard of Maryland, demonstrated outside the band's show in Washington, D.C., on August 15th, but the parade failed to put a dent in the performance. "It turned out to be six guys in white sheets and conical hats walking round with a placard," remembered Neil Aspinall, the Beatles' road manager. "It didn't really amount to much."

This was all just a prelude to the tour's arrival in Memphis on August 19th. Their only date in the Deep South, Epstein was profoundly fearful – for good reason. "We were being told that there were now religious zealots who were actually threatening to assassinate John Lennon if the Beatles came to Memphis," Barrow told author Bob Spitz. Less than three years since the killing of President John F. Kennedy, the threat of a rifle-wielding assassin lurking in the audience seemed very real. "There was always that edge in America – we knew they did have guns," Starr admitted. The danger was not abstract: several bullet holes had been discovered in the fuselage of their airplane.

The mayor and board of commissioners had passed a unanimous resolution expressing their "official disapproval" of the concerts and "advised the Beatles that they are not welcome in the City of Memphis." Epstein strenuously lobbied to cancel the back-to-back performances rather than risk disaster, but the band insisted on appearing. "If we cancel one, you might as well cancel all of them," McCartney told him. The show would go on, with additional precautions in place.

The chartered flight to Memphis was quieter than usual as the band collected their thoughts. On any other occasion, Lennon would have been thrilled to visit the hometown of his hero, Elvis Presley. But on this day he glumly stared out the window to the ground below. "So this is where all the Christians come from," he muttered to McCartney. Usually the most upbeat Beatle, McCartney struggled to find words to comfort his terrified bandmate. "You're a very controversial person," was the best he could manage.

Upon landing at Memphis International Airport, their airplane taxied away from awaiting crowds to a deserted part of the tarmac used only by the National Guard. "Send John out first," joked Harrison. "He's the one they want." Lennon was less amused. "You might just as well paint a target on me." The beefed up security detail – some 80 policemen – had the opposite effect on their collective mood. "Everything seemed to be controlled and calm, but underneath somehow, there was this nasty atmosphere," said Barrow. Decoy limousines were sent ahead, while the band rode in a specially outfitted bus, crouched on the floor to protect themselves from potential snipers.

Protesters lined the route leading into the city. One of them would haunt McCartney for the rest of his life. "We pulled in there in the coach and there was this little blond-haired kid, he could have been no older than 11 or 12, who barely came up to the window, screaming at me through the plate glass, banging the window with such vehemence. I thought, 'Gosh, I wonder how much he knows about God? He's only a young boy. It can only be what he's been fed, but he's been fed that we are the anti-Christ or something. This was the face of a zealot!'"

Another zealot, an imposing young Klansman, appeared on a local television news report making blatant threats against the Beatles. After chastising the band for claiming to be "more better than Jesus Christ," he emphasized the Klan's reputation as "a terror organization." The exchange became even more chilling when he promised that the Klan have "ways and means" to ensure that the concert came to a premature end.

The afternoon show went off with minimal difficulties, though a competing religious revival meeting ensured that attendance was slightly more sparse than usual. "It appeared to be just the type of unrestrained welcome they are used to," reported the Commercial Appeal. A smattering of Klan members picketed outside the Mid-South Coliseum, but this was par for the course on this tumultuous trek.

Confidence restored, they attacked their evening show with renewed vigor – until the third song, George Harrison's "If I Needed Someone." A blast, loud enough to be heard over the shrieking fans and amped-up rock music, suddenly ripped through the auditorium. Screams of delight turned to shouts of terror over what distinctly sounded like a rifle shot.

"Every one of us … look[ed] at each other," Lennon remembered, "because each of us thought the other had been shot. It was that bad." Barrow, watching in the wings with the rest of the Beatles' entourage, echoed the sentiment. "Every one of us and the other three Beatles looked at John, half-expecting to see the guy sinking down."

But it was not a gunshot. Instead it was a cherry bomb, lobbed from the balcony by mischievous kids. Though it reportedly caused minor injuries to four fans, the Fabs themselves were unscathed – physically, at least. They continued the song in double-time, understandably anxious to get it all over with. The fun was over.

Thus, the Beatles' touring life ended with a bang. Though their last performance before a paying audience would take place 10 days later at San Francisco's Candlestick Park, for Lennon the Memphis experience was the final straw. "I didn't want to tour again, especially after having been accused of crucifying Jesus when all I'd made was a flippant remark, and having to stand with the Klan outside and firecrackers going on inside. I couldn't take any more." Save for the rare television performances, and their iconic rooftop concert, the Beatles would exist solely as a studio unit for the remainder of their career.

Even after their breakup in 1970, Lennon's "more popular than Jesus" line continued to ruffle the feathers of the faithful. Particularly dismayed was Mark David Chapman, a young born-again Christian who had previously idolized the Beatle. Upon learning of the statement, Chapman's admiration turned to feelings of bitter betrayal and he angrily destroyed his Beatles albums. This fury escalated into full-blown psychotic obsession and mental illness. As Chapman waited outside New York City's Dakota building with a loaded gun on December 8th, 1980, Lennon's fears in Memphis all those years ago were finally about to be realized.

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