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When The Beatles Were Bigger Than Jesus Christ

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

September 10, 2009

In 1966 John Lennon said that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” This was an observation of secularization to some, but to others, this was sacrilege.

The Beatles have always been the subject of urban legends, from the “Paul is Dead” rumor to the claim that when played backwards, Sgt. Pepper’s reveals hidden satanic and sexual messages. However, the most contentious incident of the band’s career was the so-called “Jesus Controversy”.

This began in a rather inauspicious way. In March 1966 the interview “How Does A Beatle Live? John Lennon Lives Like This” appeared in the London Evening Standard, without incident. Nor did the article cause a stir when it was republished in the July issue of TIME magazine. However, when the following snippet appeared on the cover of the August issue of US teenage magazine Datebook, all hellfire and brimstone broke loose.

Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with 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 and roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.1

Lennon’s theological musings were taken out of context, misinterpreted and misconstrued, reduced to the sound bite, “We’re more popular than Jesus”, and then further reinterpreted as “The Beatles are bigger than Jesus”.

In response, radio stations across the United States, Mexico, Spain and South Africa banned The Beatles from their playlists. Some two dozen US radio stations boycotted Beatles’ music, although this was symbolic, because many were country music stations that never played their songs anyway…

With an upcoming 14-city tour of the US, The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein attempted damage control by appearing at a press conference in New York. He explained that Lennon’s words were taken “out of context” and he expressed regret “that people with certain religious beliefs should have been offended in any way.”2

But the public bayed for the blood of the Beatle to blame - John Lennon, “The Smart One” who made the smart ass comment. When the group arrived in the States Lennon gave the following apology at a press conference, surrounded and supported by the other Beatles.

I’m not anti-God, anti-Christ, or anti-religion. I wasn’t knocking it or putting it down. I was just saying it as a fact and it’s true more for England than here. I’m not saying that we’re better or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong. Or it was taken wrong. And now it’s all this.3

To placate his once faithful followers, Lennon reaffirmed his own belief in God, or something, “but not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us”.

But much of the damage was already done. With the same zeal in which they followed the Beatles, their fans turned on them. Concerts for the tour were canceled throughout the country, and many tickets remained unsold for shows in Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Detroit. However, nowhere was the hostility more palpable than in the “Bible Belt” states.

In the South, Lennon’s remarks were interpreted as sacrilegious.

The South wasn’t accustomed to these “Scousers”; these blunt Liverpudlian lads. Lennon’s words were a far cry from the conditioned “Yes, Ma’am,” “No, Sir,” of Elvis, remote-controlled by Colonel Tom Parker. Elvis may have sneered and gyrated his hips suggestively, but he was a Good Ol’ Boy who sang gospel and lived in “Graceland”.

In the South, some radio stations organized public protests. Anti-Beatles demonstrations were held against these supposed anti-Christs. Much to the chagrin of modern collectors, records, t-shirts, books, wigs and other memorabilia were destroyed in “Beatles Bonfires”. Several Baptist ministers threatened to excommunicate their congregation members if they dared attend the concerts. Some still did attend, if only to picket.

Extremist groups also reacted to the quote. In South Carolina, a “Grand Dragon” of the Ku Klux Klan nailed a Beatles’ album to the base of a wooden cross. Other Klan members went further than burning records and burned effigies of the band, or even issued death threats. Some Klan spokespeople made derogatory comments about the ethnicities of the band members. These fanatical acts, reminiscent of burning crosses and Nazi book burnings, soon tempered the public response. Even the most ardent protestors didn’t want to be associated with the Klan.

The “Jesus Controversy” contributed to the end of the Beatles’ touring. Receiving telephone threats before concerts, The Beatles feared an assassination attempt. A show in Memphis was halted when a firecracker exploded and was feared to be gunfire. The inflammatory quote had been published in August, and that same month the Beatles played their final tour concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

There were other contributing factors. After 1400 live concerts, the lads were tired of the travel. The band also cited the increasing complexity of their music, and the unsuitability of their newfound psychedelia to a live show format. Also, they were keen to develop their music in the studio, rather than trying to hear themselves over the screams of their adoring fans. In fact, this “fan worship” landed them in this trouble in the first place…

The mass hysteria of Beatlemania was analogous to religious ecstasy. To describe this semi-religious allure, the press invoked religious metaphors. The Beatles were “Gods”, “prophets”, “idols” and “icons”, and the fervent fans that flocked to their concerts were “pilgrims” and “disciples”. To some fans, The Beatles were sacred.

Press Agent Derek Taylor said of The Beatles’ arrival in Australia, “Cripples threw away their sticks [and] sick people rushed up to the car. It was as if some savior had arrived and all these people were happy and relieved. The only thing left for the Beatles is to go on a healing tour.”4

This was obviously facetious, but some truly saw The Beatles as musical messiahs. John, Paul, George and Ringo reported that fans would bring sick people to their concerts, in the belief that the band had a divine healing presence. The Beatles were perceived as the Peter Popoffs of pop.

In Lennon’s own write:

When we would open up, every night, instead of seeing kids there, we would see a row full of cripples along the front. When we’d be running through, people would be lying around. It seemed that we were just surrounded by cripples and blind people all the time, and when we would go through corridors they would all be touching us … They’d line them up, and I got the impression The Beatles were being treated as bloody faith healers.4

This reverence was enough for any of the members to develop a messiah complex. And Lennon did, if only for a day. His friend Pete Shotton recounts the drug-induced incident.

One night, after a few joints, a bit of LSD, we were sitting around at Kenwood playing tapes when John suddenly said: “Pete, I think I’m Jesus Christ.”

“You what?” I said.

“I’m Jesus Christ. I’m back again.”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “What are you going to do about it?”

“I’ve got to tell the world who I am.”

“But they’ll kill you.”

“That can’t be helped,” said John. “How old was Jesus when they killed him?”

“I reckon about 32.”

“Then I’ve got at least four years to go,” said John. “First thing tomorrow morning, we’ll go into Apple and tell the others.” Next morning, I contacted Apple to arrange an emergency board meeting. All four Beatles turned up, plus Neil Aspinall (Apple’s managing director) and Derek Taylor, their press officer.

“Right,” said John, sitting behind his desk. “I’ve something very important to tell you all. I am...Jesus Christ. I have come back again. This is my thing.”

The Beatles looked rather stunned, but said nothing. It was totally surreal. But nobody cross-examined him. No plans were made to announce the Messiah’s arrival. There was a bit of muttering, then silence, till somebody suggested the meeting was adjourned for lunch. “In the restaurant over lunch a man came up to John and said: “Really nice to meet you, how are you?”

“Actually,” said John, “I’m Jesus Christ.”

“Oh, really?” said the man. “Well, I liked your last record.”5

In light of Lennon’s lyrics “they’re gonna crucify me” in The Ballad of John and Yoko, and his subsequent murder in December 1980, some might ascribe meaning to the above story as a prophetic ‘vision’.

The press and public not only availed themselves of religious metaphors, but also drew parallels between The Beatles and royalty. In the infamous article, Cleave also wrote:

They are famous in the way the Queen is famous. When John Lennon’s Rolls-Royce, with its black wheels and its black windows, goes past, people say: “It’s the Queen.”

Religious or royal, these metaphors were stylistic and humorous, but they were mostly employed as comparative devices. This was how the press and public conceptualized the unprecedented fame of The Beatles.

Lennon uttered those fateful words at the height of Beatlemania. The “British Invasion” happened to also coincide with the decline of Christianity, especially in England, and especially amongst the younger generations. This was a time when Mods, Hippies, schoolgirls and the general public were more likely to buy a Beatles record than a Bible.

Today, even the Vatican has pardoned Lennon. The Holy See’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano dismissed his comments as, “showing off, bragging by a young English working-class musician who had grown up in the age of Elvis Presley and rock and roll and had enjoyed unexpected success.”6

Lennon wasn’t anti-Christ, or an Anti-Christ. In God he would later sing “I don’t believe in Jesus”, but he also said he didn’t believe in “magic”, “tarot” or even “Beatles”. He asked us to “imagine no heaven” and “no religion”, but spiritual motifs appeared frequently throughout his music. He also promoted peace, freethinking and humanism. Perhaps Lennon was a skeptic…

The “Jesus Controversy” was an uncritical interpretation of Lennon’s quote. His remarks were indeed boastful, taboo and offensive to some people; but they were also a comment on popular culture, and an observation of the slow secularization of society. As the Catholic magazine America conceded at the time, “Lennon was simply stating what many a Christian educator would readily admit.”7

When John Lennon said The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” they were.

References

  1. Cleave, M. March 4, 1966. How Does a Beatle Live? John Lennon Lives Like This. Evening Standard (London).
  2. Rock ‘n’ Roll: According to John. August 12, 1966. TIME. Retrieved August 23, 2009.
  3. Gould, J. 2007. Can’t Buy Me Love. NY: Three Rivers Press.
  4. Lennon, J., McCartney, P., Harrison, G., and Starr, R. 2002. The Beatles Anthology. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 142-143.
  5. Shotton, P., and Schaffner, N. 1994. John Lennon: In My Life. NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press.
  6. Willey, D. Vatican ‘forgives’ John Lennon. BBC News. November 22, 2008. Retrieved August, 23, 2009.
  7. America. The National Catholic Weekly. Editorial. August, 20, 1966.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.