More popular than Jesus
|History of the Beatles|
The Beatles, 1965
"More popular than Jesus" (or "bigger than Jesus")[a] was a controversial remark made by the Beatles' John Lennon in 1966. During an interview, he argued that Christianity was in decline and that it may be outlived by rock music, explaining "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 comment drew no controversy when originally published in the United Kingdom, but angry reactions flared up in Christian communities when it was republished in the United States five months later.
The remark originates from an interview conducted by journalist Maureen Cleave, who included the statement in a March 1966 article for the London Evening Standard, which drew no public reaction at the time. When Datebook, a US teen magazine, quoted Lennon's comments five months later in August, extensive protests broke out in the Southern United States. Some radio stations stopped playing Beatles songs, their records were publicly burned, press conferences were cancelled, and threats were made. The controversy coincided with the group's US tour in August 1966, and Lennon and Brian Epstein attempted to quell the dispute at a series of press conferences. Some tour events experienced disruption and intimidation, including a picketing by the Ku Klux Klan.
Shortly after the controversy broke, Lennon reluctantly apologised for the comment, saying "if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it". He stressed that he was simply remarking on how other people viewed and popularised the band. The events contributed to the Beatles' lack of interest in public live performances, and the US tour was the last they undertook, after which they became a studio-only band.
In March 1966, the London Evening Standard ran a weekly series of articles entitled "How Does a Beatle Live?" which featured John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and Paul McCartney, respectively. The articles were completed by journalist Maureen Cleave, who knew the group well and had interviewed them regularly since the start of Beatlemania in the UK. Three years previously she had described them as "the darlings of Merseyside", and had accompanied them on the plane on the group's first US tour in February 1964. For her lifestyle series in March 1966, she chose to interview the group individually, rather than all together, as was the norm.
Cleave interviewed Lennon on 4 March 1966. At his home, Kenwood, in Weybridge, she found a full-size crucifix, a gorilla costume, a medieval suit of armour and a well-organised library, with works by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and The Passover Plot, by Hugh J. Schonfield, which had influenced Lennon's ideas about Christianity. Cleave's article mentioned that Lennon was "reading extensively about religion", and quoted a comment he made:
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.
Cleave's interview with Lennon was published in the Evening Standard in March 1966 and provoked no public reaction in the UK. Church attendance there was in decline and the Christian churches were making no secret of the need to transform their image into something more relevant to modern times. Music historian Jonathan Gould wrote, "The satire comedians had had a field day with the increasingly desperate attempts of the Church to make itself seem more relevant ('Don't call me vicar, call me Dick ...')." In 1963, the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, John A.T. Robinson, published a controversial but popular book, Honest to God, urging the nation to reject traditional church teachings on morality and the concept of God as an "old man in the sky", and instead embrace a universal ethic of love. Bryan R. Wilson's 1966 text Religion in Secular Society explained that increasing secularisation led to British churches being abandoned. However, in the US, churches remained popular.
Both McCartney and Harrison had been baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, but neither of them followed Christianity. At the start of Beatlemania, the group came into contact with the Revd Ronald Gibbons, who told reporters that a Beatles version of "O Come All Ye Faithful" might provide the Church of England with "the very shot in the arm it needs".
Response in the US
The day after Cleave's article appeared in the Evening Standard, Beatles press officer Tony Barrow offered Datebook, a US teen magazine, rights to all four interviews. Barrow believed the pieces were important to show fans that the Beatles were progressing beyond simple pop music and producing more intellectually challenging work. As Datebook had already run pieces on fashion designer Mary Quant and on the effects of LSD, it seemed like a suitable vehicle to carry this information.
Lennon's quote was featured in a 3 July article in The New York Times Magazine and provoked no reaction. However, in late July, when Datebook republished the interviews, art editor Art Unger chose to put Lennon's quote about Christianity on the front cover, cutting the prose before it. In Birmingham, Alabama, WAQY DJ Tommy Charles heard about the quotation from his coworker Doug Layton, and was immediately incensed, saying, "That does it for me. I am not going to play the Beatles any more". Charles and Layton asked for listeners' views on Lennon's comment and the response was overwhelmingly negative. Charles later stated, "We just felt it was so absurd and sacrilegious that something ought to be done to show them that they can't get away with this sort of thing". Al Benn, who was the bureau manager for United Press International News, heard the WAQY show and immediately filed a news report in New York City, culminating in a major news story in The New York Times on 5 August. Over twenty other stations followed WAQY's lead with similar announcements. Some stations in the Deep South went further, organising demonstrations with bonfires, drawing hordes of teenagers to publicly burn their Beatles records and other memorabilia.
Epstein was so concerned by the reaction that he considered cancelling the group's upcoming US tour, believing they would be seriously harmed in some way. He then flew to the US and held a press conference in New York City, where he publicly criticised Datebook, saying the magazine had taken Lennon's words out of context, and expressed regret on behalf of the group that "people with certain religious beliefs should have been offended in any way". Epstein's efforts had little effect, as the controversy quickly spread beyond the borders of the US. In Mexico City there were demonstrations against the group, and a number of countries, including South Africa and Spain, made the decision to ban the Beatles' music on national radio stations. The Vatican issued a public denouncement of Lennon's comments.
The Beatles left for their US tour on 11 August 1966. According to Lennon's wife, Cynthia, he was nervous and upset that he had made people angry simply by expressing his opinion. The Beatles attended a press conference in Chicago, Illinois; Lennon did not want to apologise but was advised by Epstein and Barrow that he should. Lennon said that "if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it" but stressed that he was simply remarking on how other people viewed and popularised the band. He described his own belief in God by quoting the Bishop of Woolwich, saying, "not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us." Adamant that he was not comparing himself with Christ, he tried to explain the decline of Christianity in the UK. Pressed for an apology by a reporter, he said: "if you want me to apologise, if that will make you happy, then OK, I'm sorry." Journalists gave a sympathetic response, and told Lennon that the Bible Belt were "quite notorious for their Christian attitude".
When the tour began, it was marred by protests and disturbances. Telephone threats were received, and concerts were picketed by the Ku Klux Klan. Daily Express writer Robert Pitman, responding to the US outcry, wrote, "It seems a nerve for Americans to hold up shocked hands, when week in, week out, America is exporting to us a subculture that makes the Beatles seem like four stern old churchwardens." The reaction was also criticised in the US; a Kentucky radio station announced that it would give the Beatles' music airplay to show its "contempt for hypocrisy personified", and the Jesuit magazine America wrote: "Lennon was simply stating what many a Christian educator would readily admit".
The Memphis city council, aware that a Beatles concert was scheduled at the Mid-South Coliseum during the tour, voted to cancel it rather than have "municipal facilities be used as a forum to ridicule anyone's religion", and also saying, "the Beatles are not welcome in Memphis". The Ku Klux Klan nailed a Beatles album to a wooden cross, vowing "vengeance", with conservative groups staging further public burnings of Beatles records. The Reverend Jimmy Stroad stated that a Christian rally in Memphis "would give the youth of the mid-South an opportunity to show Jesus Christ is more popular than the Beatles". The Memphis shows did take place, on 19 August; the afternoon show went as planned, but there was a minor panic when a firecracker was set off on stage during the evening performance, which led the group to believe they were the target of gunfire.
The Beatles hated the tour, partly due to the controversy and adverse reaction from Lennon's comments, and were unhappy about Epstein continuing to organise live performances that were increasingly at odds with their studio work. The controversy had also overshadowed the US release of their 1966 album Revolver, which the band considered to be their best and most mature musical statement up to that point. Following the tour, Harrison seriously contemplated leaving the group, but was persuaded to stay on the condition that the Beatles would from now on focus solely on their work as recording artists. After a break, they reconvened in November 1966 to begin recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was a major critical and commercial success when released in June 1967.
Lennon was asked about the controversy during a trip to Canada in 1969. He repeated his opinion that the Beatles were more influential on young people than Christ, adding that some ministers had agreed with him. He called the protestors in the US "fascist Christians", saying he was "very big on Christ. I've always fancied him. He was right." In 1978, he thanked Jesus for an end to the Beatles' touring, saying "if I hadn't said [that] and upset the very Christian Ku Klux Klan, well, Lord, I might still be up there with all the other performing fleas! God bless America. Thank you, Jesus."
In 1993, Michael Medved wrote in The Sunday Times that "today, comments like Lennon's could never cause controversy; a contemptuous attitude to religion is all but expected from all mainstream pop performers." In 1997, Noel Gallagher claimed that his band Oasis were "bigger than God", but reaction was minimal.
The remark by John Lennon, which triggered deep indignation, mainly in the United States, after many years sounds only like a "boast" by a young working-class Englishman faced with unexpected success, after growing up in the legend of Elvis and rock and roll. The fact remains that 38 years after breaking up, the songs of the Lennon-McCartney brand have shown an extraordinary resistance to the passage of time, becoming a source of inspiration for more than one generation of pop musicians.
In response to the statement, Starr said "Didn't the Vatican say we were possibly Satanic, and they've still forgiven us? I think the Vatican's got more to talk about than the Beatles." In its 14 April 2010 edition, L'Osservatore Romano responded to Starr's comments, stating that "John Lennon had no need of forgiveness from the Vatican, L'Osservatore Romano reprinted its 1966 article on John Lennon's comments. The 1966 L'Osservatore Romano article noted that Lennon had apologised for his comments and that fellow Beatle Paul McCartney had criticized them." In 2010, Starr said that he had now found religion, adding, "For me, God is in my life ... I think the search has been on since the 1960s."
In 2012, the Houston Press music blog compared several aspects of popular media and concluded that Jesus is more popular than the Beatles. In 2015, The Philippine Star said that almost half a century later, Lennon's statement proved half-wrong, reporting that "rock 'n roll is dead but Christianity expanded with Catholicism experiencing exceptional growth through Pope Francis' lead".
On 18 May 1968, Lennon summoned the other Beatles to a meeting at Apple Corps to announce that he was the living reincarnation of Jesus: "I have something very important to tell you all. I am Jesus Christ. I'm back again." The meeting was adjourned for lunch and Lennon never mentioned the subject again. In May 1969, Lennon and McCartney recorded "The Ballad of John and Yoko", with Lennon singing the lines, "Christ, you know it ain't easy, You know how hard it can be, The way things are going, They're gonna crucify me." In a BBC interview a few months later, Lennon called himself "One of Christ's biggest fans", talked about the Church of England, his vision of heaven, and unhappiness over being unable to marry Yoko Ono in church.
On 3 December 1969, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice asked Lennon to play the part of Jesus in the stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which he declined, although he said he would have been interested if Ono could play the part of Mary Magdalene. Lennon mentioned Jesus again in his 1970 song "God", singing, "I don't believe in Jesus", but also sang that he did not believe in the Bible, Buddha, the Gita, and the Beatles. Critics of Lennon's lyrics have also focused on the line "Imagine there's no heaven" from his 1971 song "Imagine".
Lennon was murdered on 8 December 1980 by Mark David Chapman, who had become a born-again Christian in 1970 and was incensed by Lennon's "more popular than Jesus" remark, calling it blasphemy. He later stated that he was further enraged by the songs "God" and "Imagine", even singing the latter with the altered lyric: "Imagine John Lennon dead".
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