Exactly fifty year ago today – August 22, 1966 – amid a storm of public protest, the Beatles arrived in New York during their third, and final, US tour.
Two years earlier, the Beatles had been received in New York as if they were world heroes. As they stepped off the plane at the newly renamed John F. Kennedy Airport, a crowd estimated to number four-thousand screaming fans and around two-hundred journalists who, I would wager, were rather wishing they’d worn earplugs, were in attendance.
In 1966, however, Beatles records were being publicly burned, radio stations refused to play Beatles songs, press conferences were cancelled, and threats – both veiled and direct – were made. Even the Ku Klux Klan picketed concerts by the band. What had happened? What had caused the Beatles, the band that changed the face of popular music, to go from being lauded to loathed?
In March of that year, Maureen Cleave, writing for the London Evening Standard, authored a series of articles entitled, “How Does A Beatle Live?”. Cleave knew the band well. She had interviewed them extensively, and had even accompanied them on their first tour of the US in 1964. On March 4, Cleave interviewed John Lennon at his home in Weybridge, Surrey, where, she reported, she found an Aladdin’s cave of artifacts, including a full-size crucifix, a medieval suit of armour and a gorilla costume. There was also an extensive library, with works by Jonathon Swift, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Hugh J. Schonfield. The latter author’s book, “The Passover Plot”, had greatly influenced Lennon’s thoughts on Christianity. In her article, Maureen Cleave mentioned that John Lennon was reading extensively about religion and quoted a comment he made during their lengthy interview. John Lennon said, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I don’t need to 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 alright, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
When Cleave’s interview was published in the London Evening Standard, it provoked the three Zs of public reaction: zero, zilch and zippo. This was primarily due to the fact that the Church in the UK was making no secret of its effort to transform itself into something more relevant for the modern times. Three years before John Lennon’s comment, the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, John A. T. Robinson, had published a controversial, but extremely popular book, entitled “Honest to God”, in which he urged the nation to reject traditional church teachings on morality and the concept of God as a white-bearded old man in the sky, and instead focus on the universal ethic of love. Even the Reverend Ronald Gibbons, who met the band at the start of Beatlemania, said 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.”
In the US, however, it was a very different story…although it was not necessarily all John Lennon’s fault.
In late July, almost five months after the article’s publication in the UK, US teen magazine, Datebook, republished the interviews. However, rather than publishing Lennon’s words in their entirety, the magazine’s art editor, Art Unger, decided to use the line that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now” as a stand alone headline. The Beatles were instantly regarded as anti-Christian, and all hell broke loose. WAQY – a radio station in Birmingham, Alabama, immediately refused to play any Beatles records. The station asked listeners to call in and give their views on the issue. They did. And it was overwhelmingly negative. More than two dozen other stations followed WAQY’s lead in boycotting the band’s songs. Other stations went further, organising demonstrations and bonfires, issuing a rallying cry to teenagers to come and burn their singles and memorabilia.So vigorously menacing were the protests, that Brian Epstein was all set on cancelling the tour for fear that some harm may befall one or all of them. In the end, the tour did of course go ahead, but the Beatles hated it. Incessant protests outside the concert venues, combined with the oft repeated scene of rows of empty seats, not to mention the gruelling schedule of the past two years, left the band feeling somewhat disenfranchised with life on the road. The 1966 US tour culminated with a concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. It would be the last time the Beatles would ever perform a commercial concert.
John Lennon’s comments could never cause controversy today. In 1997, Oasis front-man Noel Gallagher said that his band “were bigger than God”. The reaction? Oh please! Stop copying John Lennon!