John Lennon: The Beatles are bigger than Jesus.
In 1966, John Lennon was interviewed by Maureen Cleave, a friend of his, for an article entitled How Does a Beatles Live? John Lennon lives like this. In the lengthy article she spoke about his reading matter, Indian music, his Siamese cats, where he bought his clothes, films, games, his family and other trivia.
The article, which was published in the Evening Standard on March 4th that year, was pretty unremarkable. It told fans a little about his domestic life and featured a few quotes – things he had said during the interview.
Neither the interviewer or the Beatle knew that one comment would have huge consequences. The article mentioned, about a quarter of the way through, that John read extensively about religions and various faiths.
Then, it quoted John as saying the following:
This is something that twenty-five-year-old John had said to others in private. He genuinely believed that Christianity was on the wane. Many of his peers were experimenting with Buddhism or other religions, as were members of the public. It is a fact that fewer and fewer people in the United Kingdom would describe themselves as ‘Christians’.
It was reported in the British press that church attendance was dwindling away. Books were written about the ‘1960s religious crisis’. For example, in 1960 only 55% of British children were baptised into the Christian faith. (This had fallen to 12% by 2010).
John Lennon’s remarks caused no problem in the UK
However, the American press picked up the story and published Lennon’s remarks four months later. To give you an example of the difference between the countries in 2000, 48% of the UK population said they belonged to any religion. The figure in the United States was 86%.
The Beatles were due to tour the States. The press didn’t print Lennon’s quote in full on most occasions, headlines read ‘John Lennon says the Beatles are bigger than Christ’. Actually he hadn’t but I’m sure that every clergyman in the UK would have loved to see his church have a tiny fraction of the attendance the Beatles concerts did. Pop music was more popular than Christianity. John’s error was the word ‘we’ – the same could have been said about the Rolling Stones or The Who.
The American backlash
Another difference between the two countries was that Americans tended to take the words of young celebrities seriously – this didn’t happen in the UK. Crowds protested. Beatles albums were burned in public and the press fanned the flames. The Beatles (all four of them not just John) received death threats. They considered cancelling their upcoming American tour.
However, they didn’t cancel but they were understandably terrified. When they arrived in Memphis,they received an anonymous phone call telling them that they would be killed during one of their two concerts in the city. During the second, firecrackers were thrown at the stage. There is footage showing that when they heard the first bang, the three other Beatles instantly looked over to John,expecting to see him shot dead.
In her book Imagine This, John’s sister says that it was this tour that was the final straw for the Beatles. Musically, they were mildly irritated that their music couldn’t be heard by the screaming audiences. She reports that in a San Francisco concert in August – the final one of the tour – they opened their mouths but didn’t sing. No-one in the audience noticed.
But the fact that they were getting death threats, which they took seriously, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The only person who wasn’t happy about this decision, in fact he was extremely upset, was the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein. When he returned to England, his doctor was alarmed by his state and arranged for a friend to temporarily live with Epstein to watch over him. Sure enough, one night Epstein couldn’t be roused and had to be rushed to hospital to have his stomach pumped.
He recovered and claimed that it had been an accidental overdose but a suicide note had been found. Less than a year later, Brian Epstein died of an overdose.
Did John Lennon’s remarks cause his own murder?
On 8th December, 1980, John Lennon was gunned down outside his home. His killer was Mark Chapman. Chapman had been a huge Beatles (and particularly Lennon) fan.
He became a born-again Christian and often raged about Lennon’s ‘blasphemous’ remarks
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