On March 4th, 1966, during an interview with journalist Maureen Cleave for the London Evening Standard, The Beatles founding member John Lennon made a comment that would go on to threaten the future of the band, putting each member’s life in jeopardy in the process.
Cleave, a supremely talented writer who would go on to excel in her career, grew very close to The Beatles during the 1960s and, in particular, enjoyed a strong friendship with John Lennon. Rumours of an intimate relationship between the two grew stronger and, while being interviewed for the Beatles Anthology documentary, McCartney recalled: “John used to know Maureen Cleave… quite well,” before actively moving away from the subject: “We’d gravitate to any journalists who were a little better than the average because we could talk to them. We felt we weren’t stupid rock and roll stars”.
The interview Lennon conducted with Cleave on March 4th, 1966, was no different to the hundreds he had done prior to this moment. The conversation fell part of Cleave’s weekly series titled ‘How Does a Beatle Live?’ in which she would speak to each member of the band and publish a two-page piece in the newspaper.
In preparation for the interview, Cleave arrived at Lennon’s house when The Beatles were taking a rare break from their worldwide tour and, perhaps more pertinently, battling the challenges of international fame. Lennon had spent a considerable amount of time during this period reading challenging books by the likes of Timothy Leary and Hugh J. Schonfield and began to open his mind to an alternative opinion on key subjects like religion.
In his conversation with Cleave, Lennon made the following statement: “Christianity will go,” he began almost flippantly. “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 article ‘How Does A Beatle Live? John Lennon Lives Like This’ would be published in London as usual, the content being enjoyed across the UK and nothing more was mentioned of Lennon’s musings. However, five months later, American teen Magazine Datebook picked up the quote and published it as a headline story with little context taken from Cleave’s original feature and a great furore broke out across the United States.
Christian groups began chastising The Beatles, American radio stations started banning Beatles records and Alabama DJ duo Tommy Charles and Doug Layton began cheerleading the national boycott of the Liverpool band. What ensued was a major escalation of the comment, leading to mass bonfires of all Beatles records and merchandise. Everything had gotten out of hand. “Because of their tremendous popularity throughout the world, especially with the younger set, [the Beatles] have been able to say what they wanted to without any regard for judgment, maturity, or the meaning of it, and no one has challenged them to any degree,” Charles said at the time of trying to grow his ‘Ban The Beatles’ campaign.
Following Charles’ comments encouraging people to burn and destroy Beatles records, a bulletin from the city’s Daily Gleaner read: “After going through the ‘Beatle-grinder’ borrowed from Birmingham City Council, all that will be left of the records will be fine dust. A box full of the dust will be presented to the British pop stars when they arrive in Memphis, Tennessee, not far from here, for a concert August 19.”
What ensued was swarms of banners that read, “Jesus died for you John Lennon” and “John Lennon is Satan” appearing in photographs of young people of America. At one point, a member of the Ku Klux Klan publicly spoke to claim that the Beatles had probably “been brainwashed by communists”.
In what appeared to be a perfect storm of negativity for the band, the “Jesus controversy” arrived soon after a particularly negative reaction from American DJs and retailers to the now-infamous “butcher” album photo which was used on the band’s US-only LP Yesterday and Today.
Having organised a major US tour, which was due to kick off in just two days, Beatles manager Brian Epstein was tasked with damage control of the situation and began reaching out to the media despite being ravaged with a serious case of the flu at the time. Epstein initially insisted that Lennon’s quote had been misinterpreted, publicly claiming it to be nothing more than a “storm in a teacup”. However, with the band’s new album Revolver due out the same day as their US tour, his fears grew stronger that The Beatles may have overstepped the mark, despite his public show of strength.
With the severe flu visibly affecting his appearance, Epstein flew out to America to oversee the situation. Nat Weiss, Epstein’s American business associate, told author Philip Norman: “He really cared most about the possibility that the Beatles would suffer abuse – that they might be in danger. The first question he asked me was, ‘What will it cost to cancel the tour?’ I said: ‘A million dollars.’ He said: ‘I’ll pay it. I’ll pay it out of my own pocket, because if anything were to happen to any of them, I’d never forgive myself.’”
At the time, both Epstein and The Beatles refused to pass any blame for the quote and, in an attempt to lighten the original article, Cleave came forward to clarify Lennon’s comments made in her interview: “John was certainly not comparing the Beatles to Christ,” she wrote. “He was simply observing that, so weak was the state of Christianity, the Beatles was, to many people, better known.”
Lennon didn’t back down at the time, either, saying: “I’d forgotten [all about it],” in an interview published in the aftermath. “It was that unimportant – it had been and gone.”
The band themselves remained calm among the hysterics, Paul McCartney explained to biographer Barry Miles: “I must admit we didn’t really take it too seriously at all. We just thought, ‘Yes, well, you can see what it is. It’s hysterical low-grade American thinking.'” McCartney also made the comical point that despite the record burning that was taking place, The Beatles were still cashing in on those people buying the albums: “No sweat off us, mate. Burn ’em if you like. It’s not compulsory to play ’em. So we took a balanced view of it.”
At this point Lennon was still refusing to apologise for his comments and, desperate to stop the debate ahead of the tour, Epstein prepared a statement which was sent to all major US news outlets, it read: “The quote which John Lennon made to a London columnist more than three months ago has been quoted and misrepresented entirely out of context.”
Epstein continued: “What he said, and meant, was that he was astonished that in the last 50 years, the Church of England, and therefore Christ, had suffered a decline in interest. He did not mean to boast about the Beatles’ fame. He meant to point out that the Beatles’ effect appeared to be, to him, a more immediate one upon certain of the younger generation.”
Eventually, the tour went ahead as planned. Upon arriving in America, the band had agreed to conduct a press conference as soon as they stepped off the plane to address the incident. Lennon, in a typically cheeky mood, opened his address with the quote: “If I’d said, ‘Television is more popular than Jesus,’ I might have got away with it!” while three major news cameras pointed at him and his bandmates. Lennon concluded his statement by reminding promoters that it is well within their rights to cancel their planned appearances which drew a slight chuckle from the journalists in attendance.
However, the burnings continued and the atmosphere remained an intensely aggressive one. Eventually, Beatles’ press officer Tony Barrow broke down in tears before a performance in Chicago and pleaded with Lennon to end this situation with an apology. Lennon agreed.
Remembering the incident, drummer Ringo Starr explained in the Anthology: “John had to apologise,” as if a sudden moment of realisation had dawned upon him. “Not because of what he’d said, but to save our lives because there were a lot of very heavy threats – not only to him but to the whole band,” he added.
“I didn’t want to talk because I thought they’d kill me, because they take things so seriously [in the States],” Lennon would later explain. “I mean, they shoot you and then they realise it wasn’t that important. So I didn’t want to go, but Brian and Paul and the other Beatles persuaded me to come. I was scared stiff.”
Regardless of his fear, Lennon sat in front of 30 journalists in a hotel suite and deliver a sincere apology. “I had never seen John so nervous,” McCartney said later. “He realised the full import of what he said.”
Without a pre-written speech prepared, Lennon spoke clearly to the journalists and explained himself in the best way he could. “I’m not anti-God, anti-Christ or anti-religion,” he said. “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.”
“Originally I was pointed out that fact in reference to England – that we meant more to kids than Jesus did, or religion at that time. I wasn’t knocking it or putting it down,” Lennon responded when a journalist reminded him that teenagers were likely to repeat his words. “I just said what I said and it was wrong, or it was taken wrong, and now it’s all this,” Lennon clarified.
Lennon, exhausted, closed: “I wasn’t saying what they’re saying I was saying. I’m sorry I said it—really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing. I apologise 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 apologise, if that will make you happy, then – OK, I’m sorry.”
The apology made an impact but it wasn’t enough to derail some of the hardened critics with particularly volatile crowds greeting the band in Memphis, Detroit and Texas.
For Lennon, the experience was enough to call it a day: “I didn’t want to tour again, especially after having been accused of crucifying Jesus when all I’d made was a flippant remark and having to stand with the Klan outside and firecrackers going on inside,” he said. “I couldn’t take any more.”
Lennon wasn’t lying. He and The Beatles knew that their touring days were over and, in an attempt to bring back the unfiltered fun of playing live, they decided to climb to the rooftop of Apple Studios and play a short set among friends to mark their final live public performance.