Setting off a chain of events that would culminate in public bonfires of The Beatles’ records and a public backlash that at times made the group fearful for their lives, the US teen magazine Datebook on this day republished John Lennon’s remarks that “The Beatles are more popular than Jesus”.
Lennon’s remarks had first appeared in England in March 1966, in an interview for the Evening Standard newspaper by journalist Maureen Cleave.
Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about 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.
Although the remarks were barely noticed in the UK, they were featured in Datebook in a cover story titled “The Ten Adults You Dig/Hate The Most.” The article contained a section on Lennon, which republished the Jesus quote out of its original context.
The magazine, hitherto a minor player in the teen market, unexpectedly sold around a million copies. American Christian fundamentalists were outraged, and angry hordes, concentrated in the southern states, organised bonfires of Beatles records and memorabilia.
The group’s music was banned by a number of radio stations in the south, and The Beatles were forced to attempt to limit the damage. Their manager Brian Epstein attempted to explain that Lennon had merely expressed surprise at his level of fame.
With The Beatles’ US tour looming, and with death threats being made against the group and their families, Lennon was eventually pressed into apologising at a Chicago press conference on 11 August.
Lennon’s comments did much to quell the animosity against the group, and a planned wave of Beatles bonfires were called off. However, The Beatles remained nervous throughout their final tour.