March 4, 1966: John Lennon: ‘Beatles Bigger Than Jesus’ Remark

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Lennon '66

Lennon in 1966

A Beatles backlash was bound to happen sooner or later. And on March 4, 1966, John Lennon inadvertently gave his potential enemies and opposition a potent salvo to lob back his way as well as use to rile people up.

In a wide-ranging interview with the London Evening Standard, he opined: “Christianity will go, It will vanish and shrink…. We’re more popular than Jesus now.” He did not at all mean it as a boast, but rather a wry commentary on how pop culture was overtaking religious traditions in the modern world. The English thought nothing of it, being far less overly sensitive than some Americans to what might be misinterpreted as blasphemy.

It wasn’t until the following July that the quote emerged in the U.S., highlighted on the cover of the teen magazine Datebook. It was seen by a DJ in Birmingham, AL, in the buckle of the Southern Bible belt, who took umbrage at what Lennon said. He announced, “That does it for me. I am not going to play the Beatles any more.” Many of his listeners called in, equally incensed. A reporter for United Press International heard it all and filed a story that led to a New York Times article. That went whatever the 1966 equivalent of viral was, and other radio stations across the South started boycotting The Beatles and organizing bonfires where Beatles records and merchandise was burned. The protests spread worldwide. The Vatican even denounced Lennon.

The band started a U.S. tour a few days after the Times article appeared, drawing protests and death threats. Their manager Brian Epstein pushed Lennon to apologize; he was initially reluctant to do so. “When they started burning our records… that was a real shock,” Lennon later recalled. “I couldn’t go away knowing I’d created another little piece of hate in the world. So I apologized.”

Lennon tried to explain what his point was at a press conference in Chicago. “I’m not anti-God, anti-Christ or anti-religion. I was not saying we are greater or better. I believe in God, but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky. I’m sorry I said it, really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing. From what I’ve read, or observed, Christianity just seems to be shrinking, to be losing contact.”

The controversy only added to the band’s resistance to touring, which they never did again. It was the first nail in the coffin for 1960s Beatlemania.

Related: John Lennon: A “lost” interview from 1973

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