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Beatles 'More Popular Than Jesus' -- Really? Meaning Of Lennon's Infamous Quote

Music | March 4, 2021

Teenagers gather at a "Beatles Burning," staged by WAYX-AM (Georgia), where records, books, and wigs are burned in a bonfire in response to John Lennon's comment that the Beatles are more popular than Jesus Christ. Bettmann / Contributor

We’re more popular than Jesus now.

John Lennon of The Beatles did not realize the severe impact this statement would have on his entire career and life when he said those words in a 1966 interview. By the mid-1960s, The Beatles were sweeping the world by storm in terms of popularity. The Beatlemania that began around 1964 was rapidly growing to the point where the moptops were idolized beyond comprehension. In an everyday sense, their importance to music fans (particularly teenagers) rivaled that of any religious deity, and John Lennon agreed. However, America did not let him get away with what seemed to be an innocent observation.

London Wasn’t Even Fazed By John Lennon’s Comment

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Maureen Cleave was a journalist highly respected by The Beatles because of her professionalism, so they always felt comfortable to open up truthfully. Cleave was writing a profile on the band in 1966 that would consist of in-depth interviews revealing what their lives were truly like behind the perfect perception the world had of them. Lennon’s interview took place at his London estate and Cleave was able to expose a man displeased with the consequences of fame and fortune who longed for more simplicity. For the first time in a while, Lennon’s life wasn’t consumed by The Beatles so he was able to reflect on his own life as he dove deep into books, many about world religion, and psychedelic drugs to form his own opinions. The article “How Does A Beatle Live? John Lennon Lives Like This” was published in the London Evening Standard on March 4th, 1966 with this quote from Lennon:

Christianity will go. 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.

Throughout England, the article was just another of the hundreds published about the Fab Four. Nobody thought twice about Lennon’s remark and it didn’t even make the headline.

The Infamous Quote Reached America Months Later

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Months after its initial publication, Cleave’s profile was sent to DATEbook magazine’s editor-in-chief Arthur Unger. DATEbook was a liberal magazine that pushed limits as it covered seemingly controversial topics and focused heavily on the evils of oppression and discrimination (Unger himself was gay). Unger published the issue on July 29th using two quotes from the profile for the cover: Paul McCartney’s comment that America is “a lousy country where anyone black is a dirty n****r,” and Lennon’s, “I don’t know which will go first—rock & roll or Christianity.” And that is where the mania began, but this time it was not the typical Beatlemania

The Outrage May Have Begun Just As A Publicity Stunt

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Radio DJ Tommy Charles of Birmingham, Alabama’s WAQY (Wacky Radio) was so appalled by Lennon’s comment (and may have been in need of a publicity stunt) that he sparked a wave of Beatles hatred. Charles launched the “Ban The Beatles” campaign, ceasing to play their music entirely, even at the height of their popularity, because of Lennon’s “blasphemous” comments. The madness might not have gained much traction, but Al Benn, manager of the Birmingham office of United Press International, caught a snippet of Charles’ radio show denouncing The Beatles and wrote a story about the boycott. This article spread like wildfire and sent America into mass hysteria, especially in the extremely right-wing Bible Belt of the deep south. Masses of radio stations banned the band's music, broke their records on air, and went as far as asking listeners to mail in their own Beatles’ records and memorabilia for them to destroy in a wood chipper. The resulting dust was planned to be sent to the band when they arrived in Memphis for their concert scheduled for the next month.

'Revolver' Was Released At A Bad Time

Source: Rolling Stone

Massive bonfires were in place that consisted of burning Beatles’ albums set up by the public, radio stations, and even the Ku Klux Klan, who nailed Beatles’ records to burning crosses. Church members were in danger of being expelled from their congregation if they attended a Beatles concert. It certainly didn’t help that this all took place shortly after the controversy of the Beatles' infamous “Butcher” cover for their album Yesterday & Today, which also caused a series of Beatles’ bonfires and was quickly replaced with less controversial art. Unfortunately, the outrage overshadowed the release of their upcoming album Revolver, which was hitting stores the next month. The band considered the new record their finest work to date, but the Jesus comment caused a steep decline in sales for the fab four.

Did Lennon Really Think The Beatles Were 'Better' Than Jesus?

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In reality, Lennon’s comment made sense, as many people in the world -- even Christians -- were clearly more excited about The Beatles than they were about Jesus. Lennon genuinely wasn’t trying to suggest they actually were better than God -- the specific words he used were "more popular" -- but that’s how certain outrage-prone members of the public perceived his observation. 

The fact is, The Beatles drew such adoration and fanaticism that they were becoming like gods to the world; the fervor at a Beatles concert or appearance was comparable to that of an old-timey religious revival, with members of the congregation (mainly girls) losing themselves in the moment, shrieking in ecstasy, and even passing out. 

But that wasn't even Lennon's point -- he was arguing more that the spiritual world was unfortunately declining, and because of the intense Beatlemania, people were placing too much faith in the band and causing great pressure for them. Many religious leaders had stated similar opinions in numerous op-eds in the Daily Mail and the Church Times. Although you might not find them sitting in a church pew, The Beatles considered themselves pro-church and tried to impress any ministers who would attend their concerts. McCartney stated,

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.

Lennon Apologized To The Masses

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While The Beatles initially reacted to the harsh critics of the states with laughter and bemusement, Brian Epstein gave them a reality check. He was even tempted to cancel their United States tour, though it would cost millions, because he feared The Beatles’ lives were at stake. Both Clave and Unger stood up for Lennon, releasing statements that his quote was completely taken out of context and misunderstood. To try to appease the public, Epstein held a press conference prior to their U.S. tour at Chicago’s Astor Towers hotel, where Lennon finally seemed to grasp the severity of the situation and broke down crying in remorse. The somber atmosphere was so different from the typical upbeat, light-hearted Beatles pressers everyone was used to, and Lennon was actually nervous that he could be shot. He gave the following apology.

I’m not anti-God, anti-Christ or anti-religion. 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.

He continued,

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 U.S. Tour From Hell

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Surprisingly, Lennon’s lukewarm apology was widely accepted for the most part, and people gained an understanding of what he really meant. WAQY’s massive “Beatle Bonfire” was cancelled along with several other public burnings. Longview, Texas’s KLUE did continue with their bonfire on August 13th, but coincidentally (or not) lightning struck their transmission tower the next day damaging their broadcasting equipment and knocking their news director unconscious. Of course, the band got a kick out of this situation. The U.S. tour ensued and they were still met with many protestors with signs such as “Beatles Go Home” and “Jesus Died For You, John Lennon.” The Ku Klux Klan even led a demonstration outside their Washington D.C. concert on August 15th. During their concert in Memphis (the most "Southern" stop of the tour), herds of protestors surrounded and taunted them when they arrived in the airport and a firecracker was thrown on stage at the show. Terror and screams filled the venue as attendees, along with the band, assumed it was gunfire.

Lennon’s Greatest Fear Came True

Source: Rolling Stone

The entire experience that developed from the Jesus controversy left an uneasy feeling to the band and made them realize the fun was all over. George Harrison almost left the band at a point, until they agreed they would give up touring and only work in the studio. Sadly, Lennon’s fear of being killed over the remark came to pass more than a decade later. Mark David Chapman was a born-again Christian who was completely obsessed with The Beatles. But when he learned of Lennon’s statement he went on an album-destroying spree and spiraled into mental illness. On March 8th, 1980 he murdered Lennon, shooting and killing the beloved singer outside of his apartment building, The Dakota, in New York City. The tragedy's origins can be traced back to that day in 1966, when Lennon said that The Beatles had become more popular than Jesus.  

Tags: Christianity | John Lennon | Religion | The Beatles

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.