That Time John Lennon Apologized for His ‘More Popular Than Jesus’ Comment
On the precipice of a 1966 U.S. tour, the Beatles had a problem. Though throngs of devoted fans eagerly awaited the Fab Four’s August trek, many others sought to protest at scheduled shows, cancel shows or ban the group entirely.
This was the fallout from John Lennon comparing the popularity of the Beatles and Jesus Christ earlier in the year. The singer-guitarist told British journalist Maureen Cleeve, “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.”
The quote caused little irritation in the U.K., but in July, when it was reprinted without context in America (via teen magazine Datebook), the storms of controversy flared. Some folks, from Alabama DJs to church leaders, misunderstood that Lennon was claiming his band was superior to Jesus. Certain southern radio stations refused to play Beatles songs, church groups organized bonfires of Beatles records and the band received countless death threats.
The controversy quickly grew. Boycots and anti-Beatles rallies had been held in Spain, Mexico and South Africa. Even the Vatican denounced Lennon’s comments.
With the tour set to begin Aug. 12 and the band members fearing for their lives, Beatles manager Brian Epstein attempted to quell the hullabaloo at a New York press conference by sharing regret on Lennon’s behalf. When that didn’t work, Epstein considering canceling the dates. Instead, he chose to have Lennon speak at a Chicago press conference on the first day of the tour.
Attending the event at the Astor Hotel along with his bandmates, Lennon did not want to apologize, but was nudged in that direction by Epstein and press agent Tony Barrow. “I’m not anti-Christ or anti-religion or anti-God,” Lennon clarified before the media. “I’m 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 just said what I said and was wrong, or was taken wrong, and now it’s all this.”
He also joked that, “If I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it.” When a reporter asked him if he was going to formally apologize, Lennon replied, “If you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then okay, I’m sorry.”
The press conference, which was televised and shown all over the world, appeared to temper the controversy even though it didn’t soothe the Beatles’ nerves about touring. In spite of Lennon’s apology, the Memphis City Council sought to cancel both Beatles shows in the Tennessee city, but failed. Instead, the Ku Klux Klan protested.
The 19 concerts in August 1966 would comprise the Beatles’ final tour – a decision that was the result of many factors, one of them being the effects from Lennon’s provocative comments.
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