The Beatles were, and continue to be, a music phenomenon. Untouchable in their early years, something happened in 1966 that caused the first public Beatles backlash. The Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ: or at least that was what one publication printed but there was more to the story than met the eye.
Maureen Cleave was a journalist working for the London newspaper, ‘Evening Standard’. The biggest interview she did (and could have hoped to do) was with John Lennon, erstwhile leader of the Beatles. It was an interview that would cause much controversy but for reasons beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. The interview was published in the UK on the 4th of March 1966. During the interview Lennon was talking about how he was currently reading about religion.
Here is what he said:
“Christianity will go. It will vanish and sink. I needn’t argue about that.. I’m right and will be proved right. 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.”
That above quote may just be the personal opinion of someone but nothing really more than that. The interview came and went with no problems. Nothing. It all changed though 5 months later when the interview was published in the US magazine ‘Datebook’ on the 29th of July. Lennon’s previously published thoughts made the front page. Within, the title screamed that John Lennon had claimed that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ. Not only did Lennon not actually make such a claim, it was never truly implied originally. Journalistic liberties had been taken and what was to follow beggared belief.
(Journalist Maureen Cleave with the Beatles: Image Source)
The magazine sold millions and all hell broke loose. Christian fundamentalists were strongly outraged by it. The timing couldn’t have been worse. The Beatles were about to embark on a tour of the US. It was something they had done previously but this time they were to be faced with anti-Beatle demonstrations across the Bible-belt. Public burnings of all things Beatles started happening more and more frequently. Sales of their albums increased dramatically as people were buying them just to burn them.
Manager, Brian Epstein, toyed with the idea of postponing the tour until the fuss died down but thought that all would be well if Lennon just apologised. At that time, Lennon said to Epstein: “Tell them to get stuffed, I’ve got nothing to apologise for.”.
At this stage, the trouble was beginning to spread. South Africa banned all Beatles songs from the radio. Even the Vatican raised their voice on the subject. It wasn’t too long before Lennon came round to the idea of apologising; it would happen at a press conference in Chicago. Epstein criticised the magazine Datebook for misquoting Lennon.
Original interviewer Cleave stood up for Lennon when she said: “John was certainly not comparing the Beatles with Christ. He was simply observing that so weak was the state of Christianity that the Beatles were, to many people, better known.”
When the press conference came around, Lennon gave an apology. An apology of sorts. He reiterated what Maureen Cleave had said in his defence before saying it was wrong, that it had been taken wrong.
He added: “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 apologise, if that will make you happy, then okay, I’m sorry.”.
It wasn’t the most sincere apologies but it did the trick. Even though Lennon went on, at the same press conference, to criticise America’s policy on Vietnam, it seemed that America, as a country, were ready to take Lennon and the Beatles back into their hearts. The band were back in favour. There was to be no more anti-Beatles demonstrations, no more burnings of their merchandise.
It was an unfortunate event. It certainly highlighted some problems with, what can only be described as, sensationalised journalism. A previous published interview was re-published; a headline was added that hadn’t been said but was passed off as if it had. The public didn’t delve too deeply, they took the headline at face value and it cause problems. It had been the first real time that the Beatles had faced a sort of public backlash and it is interesting to consider that their career afterwards, although with many peaks still to come, changed dramatically from this point on.
(Burning the Beatles: Image Source)
Within the year, the drugs had taken over. The film Help! had been made in a cloud of smoke. They had stopped touring, they were now a studio band only. Their creativeness increased but a rot had started to set in. As the years progressed closer and closer towards 1970 the Beatles began fighting within themselves. Both Lennon and McCartney had new spouses. The end was soon in sight. By 1970, the Beatles were no more.
As an additional adage. Lennon was renowned for his bizarre perception of himself. It would make a very interesting story in itself. Under the influence of drugs, Lennon had once claimed privately to be the equal of Christ. During their time at Apple, Lennon decided he was going to announce that he was Christ returned; by the next day he decided not to, perhaps because the drugs had worn off. Lennon had another preoccupation within his mind. Adolf Hitler. Lennon had previously impersonated Hitler at the Star Club, and then again at the northern premiere of their debut film. He even wanted Hitler’s image to appear on the cover of Sgt Peppers. Lennon may have been playing the fool on those occasions, maybe it was something more serious!
The whole ‘bigger than Jesus’ thing was spoofed perfectly in the Simpsons episode ‘Barbershop Quartet’. The episode even featured a Beatle, George Harrison playing himself. The plot of the episode had Homer, Apu, Principal Skinner and Barney in a barbershop quartet. There were plenty of Beatles references in the episode. At one stage, Bart is wanting to know why they were still not singing and asked: “what did you do? screw up like the Beatles and say you were bigger than Jesus?”. To which, Homer replied: “It was the name of one our albums”.
(Even the Simpsons got on the Bigger Than Jesus train: Image Source)
P.S. This article was originally published by the same author on Triond on the 23rd of January 2010 and can be found by clicking HERE.