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Burn The Beatles
The "More Popular Than Jesus" Controversy

Burn The Beatles
The "More Popular Than Jesus" Controversy

Burn your draft card ... burn your bra ... burn baby burn ... all OK with me. Burn your Beatles records ... wait a minute ... burn your Beatles' records??? What the ...???

In the summer of 1966, that's exactly what took place across the southern United States. Young and old spilled into the streets of cities like Birmingham, Alabama, and carrying signs that both insisted the world "Ban The Beatles" and depicted the Fab Four as the Fab Foul of Satan's army, they set hundred of Beatles' albums ablaze in giant bonfires.

The Infamous
Datebook Cover

This antipathy for The Beatles began on July 29th, 1966, when a teen magazine called Datebook published segments of an article by Maureen Cleave published in a March, 1966 London Evening Standard column. In her article, Cleave included John's thoughts on religion as part of her interview with the Beatle. John was quoted as saying:

Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that; 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 '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 line "We're more popular than Jesus" set the wheels of fundamentalist Christian paranoia in motion, and the eleventh plague of Egypt was upon us.

The London Evening Standard piece and the Datebook excerpt grew more and more notorious, and the storm of controversy surrounding The Beatles escalated. Cries of "blasphemy" and "heresy" filled the air waves, and to some, this swell of outrage heralded the end of The Beatles' career.

Radio stations in Alabama and Texas announced that they had banned Beatles' music from their playlists. As WAQY (pronounced, perhaps fittingly, as "Wacky") DJ Tommy Charles 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."

Around two dozen other stations followed suit with similar announcements. Some stations in the south went further, organising demonstrations, marches, and specially televised protests encouraging hordes of teenagers to publicly burn their Beatles' records and other memorabilia in giant bonfires specifically designed to torch that Beatles wax. OK, a couple of lunkheads may have brought hot dogs and marshmallows. After all, who can really pass up an opportunity for a good "weenie roast"?

In Memphis, Tennessee, the city council, aware that two Beatles' concerts were scheduled at the Mid-South Coliseum during the group's imminent US tour, voted to cancel the concerts rather than have "municipal facilities be used as a forum to ridicule anyone's religion," and went further to condemn, categorically, the band with a resolution that warned, "the Beatles are not welcome in Memphis."

Even the Klu Klux Klan became involved, when in South Carolina, the Klan Grand Dragon Bob Scoggins nailed a Beatles record, probably Rubber Soul, to a large cross and set it on fire.

Brian Epstein, the band's manager, was so concerned by the US reaction that he considered cancelling the tour, believing the group would be seriously harmed in some way. He flew to the US and held a press conference in New York City, where he publicly criticised Datebook, by saying that 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."

Although Memphis decided to go ahead with two concerts on August 19th, Epstein's efforts at damage control had little effect, as the controversy quickly spread beyond the borders of the United States. In Mexico City there were demonstrations against the group, and a number of countries, including Japan, South Africa and Spain, made the decision to ban Beatles' music from national radio stations. Even the Vatican became involved; issuing a public denouncement of Lennon's comments. Faced with a growing mass hysteria, all four Beatles held a press conference on August 11th, 1966, in Chicago, Illinois, to address the growing furore. At that press conference, John did his best to explain and to apologize for his comments.

The 1966 summer tour went ahead as planned. For the most part, the tour was without incident, although someone threw a lit firecracker onto the stage during the evening performance in Memphis. The firecracker did not hit anyone onstage, but the effect was ominous. The band and The Beatles entourage believed, for a moment, that somebody had tried to shoot them.

The Beatles' press agent, Tony Barrow, would later recall the incident:

"Everybody, all of us at the side of the stage, including the three Beatles on stage, all looked immediately at John Lennon. We would not at that moment have been surprised to see that guy go down. John had halfheartedly joked about the Memphis concert in an earlier press conference, and when we got there everything seemed to be controlled and calm, but underneath somehow, there was this nasty atmosphere. It was a very tense and pressured kind of day."

The 1966 tour would be The Beatles' last.

John or Jesus? Well, I'm not sure anyone should ever have to decide between the two. Both were very popular guys. Both have always had an enormous fan base and an enduring following. Both also died prematurely, maybe long before their time. There the comparison ends. John was a musician. Jesus was, in the eyes of millions of devout Christians, the messiah. Apples and oranges, if you get my drift.

There is a context to everything we say or do, and still, the world is quick to take our words and actions out of context. Why you ask? Oh, I suppose in a world that is bored with itself, we crave a little drama, a chance to get on television, an opportunity for our 15 minutes of fame — that ever-so-fleeting dance with the devil and flash-in-the-pan notoriety.

More popular than Jesus? Maybe we all want a little of that, a little "instant karma" instead of the same-old, same-old instant oatmeal in our breakfast bowls every morning.

But, hey, the bra survived. And so did The Beatles.

© The Beatles On Abbey Road — Posted here on April 9th, 2014.

More On John Lennon's Life

Looking for more on the life of John Lennon? Check out a number of great books, including biographies, available at Amazon.

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