Given that The Beatles were the world’s biggest group, a cultural phenomenon of the like that the world had never seen before, it is perhaps predictable that they would draw the fury of many. Very much a product of the mindset of the era’s youth, now known as ‘Baby-Boomers’, The Beatles encapsulated the unchained and somewhat forward-thinking ethos of that generation.
The Fab Four would go through many different chapters in their career musically, personally and aesthetically, but one thing always remained the same. After the release of 1965’s Rubber Soul, their first proper long-playing foray into the more experimental realms, the band became steadfast in their commitment to pushing the boundaries within what music could do.
It was after 1965 that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr would really make their most iconic and divergent strides. This is not to discount the first chapter of their celebrated career, however. Instead, pointing out that the first part was rather one dimensional in comparison to what followed, with its songs about love that contained rudimentary compositional techniques. In short, the pre-1965 Beatles can be hailed as very much a product of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. Regardless, after 1965, their drug use, conceptual ideas and countercultural spirit all really helped to make The Beatles the world’s most impactful band, and in the process, all four members became hailed as Godlike figures to their fans.
Known to embody the antithesis to the old, conservative order, Liverpool’s favourite sons were so huge that in March 1966, frontman John Lennon made a quip to London’s Evening Standard that would change the course of the band’s career, his life, and in their immediate future. It was a comment that brought them into contact with one of the world’s most unsavoury groups.
Lennon opined: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t 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 all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
This quote outraged the white, conservative Christians of the western world, and it led to the band being banned ad infinitum from apartheid-era South Africa, protests and community record burnings. More significantly, though, it brought them into direct contact with the era’s most passionate group of murderous hicks, the Ku Klux Klan.
On August 11th that year, the band gave a press conference at the Astor Tower Hotel in Chicago before embarking on a mammoth US tour in support of their new album Revolver. Given the furore his comments had sparked, Lennon had become emotionally affected by the thought that he had put his family and bandmates in danger. Thus, this led to him delivering a speech at the press conference in which he apologised. He said: “I suppose if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I would have got away with it. I’m sorry I opened my mouth. I’m not anti-God, anti-Christ, or anti-religion. I was not knocking it. I was not saying we are greater or better.”
This apology went someway in smoothing things over, and some who had felt enraged by Lennon’s comments now felt placated. For instance, WAQY, the Alabama-based radio station, planned a bonfire of Beatles records, but it was subsequently cancelled. The Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano announced that the apology was sufficient, and the New York Times even wrote: “The wonder is that such an articulate young man could have expressed himself imprecisely in the first place.”
Given that religious extremists are, well, extreme in their views, Lennon’s comments did not even touch the sides with many, including our pointy hatted weirdos from the deep south. During parts of their tour across the country, The Beatles’ concerts were met with protests and disturbances, and the excitement had given way to tension. This led to the band quickly hating the tour, something that would have far-reaching consequences for their career.
When the band played in Detroit on August 13th, images were published in newspapers showing members of a South Carolina chapter of the Klan “crucifying” an unidentified Beatles record on a large wooden cross, which they then proceeded to burn. This set a precedent for The Beatles’ relationship with the Klan.
Luckily for the band, they only had one stop in the deep south, and that was in Memphis, Tennessee. Prior to the show, the overtly religious demons had already sent telephone threats to the band. Our caped madmen also picketed the band’s performances in Washington, D.C., so when the time came to the band pulling into Memphis, they knew it was going to be an interesting experience, to say the least.
The band played two shows at the Mid-South Coliseum on August 19th, ignoring the city council’s ruling that had voted to cancel them rather than “municipal facilities be used as a forum to ridicule anyone’s religion”. The local council even definitively that “The Beatles are not welcome in Memphis”. This all seems rather futile and very of its time. However, the most chilling moment came when a TV reporter interviewed a young Klansman outside the venue. This young fanatic told the reporter that the Klan were indeed a “terror organisation” and would use their “ways and means” to stop The Beatles from performing.
To put this into context, this was the era where the second wave of the Klan was at its height of activity. Murderously racist, anti-communist, and anti-anyone that wasn’t a ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’. The group committed hundreds of violent atrocities that marked the south out as somewhere you didn’t want to go as anyone who differed from their deluded ideal of the ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’.
One of the most heavily publicised instances of their evil was the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in 1964. These murders were so horrific that they provided the basis for 1988’s Mississippi Burning.
Along with the young Klansman’s inference of violence, local Memphis preacher Jimmy Stroad held a Christian rally in order to “give the youth of the mid-South an opportunity to show Jesus Christ is more popular than the Beatles”. An audience member threw a firecracker onto the stage, which led the band to briefly believe that they were under gunfire. They really showed The Beatles.
Given that the Klan always had a sick penchant for toying with people, it is impossible to tell what their end goal was, or if there even was one, apart from blocking the band’s performances. However, in an ITN interview with Robert Shelton, the Klan’s ‘Imperial Wizard’, he condemned the band for supporting civil rights and even claimed that they were communists. Given what happened back in 1964, it’s probably a good thing Liverpool’s favourite sons stayed out of the south.
Interestingly, the events of the tour would have a game-changing effect on the band. Not only were the live dates starting to impede their studio work, but the fraught tour massively overshadowed the release of Revolver, which the group felt was their most complete yet. This led them to believe that touring really was a long and pointless exercise, particularly in the climate of so much hatred. Guitarist George Harrison even discussed leaving the group but was convinced to stay on the proviso that the band concentrate solely on recording music.
Ultimately, the tour was the final nail in the coffin for The Beatles’ relationship with touring, and after it, they would never tour again. Ironically, this was to properly kick off their most illustrious and pioneering chapter, one where they would become true icons of music.
Watch the interview with the young Klansman below.