What seems like a tweet from Kanye West was actually a real quotation, published on March 4th, 1966, as spoken in an interview with Beatles legend John Lennon. Known as the “bigger than Jesus” controversy, Lennon’s interview snowballed from an observation to a scandal, ultimately influencing the band’s decision to never tour again.
The “more popular than Jesus” line came in a four-part interview with The Beatles in the British publication London Evening Standard, featuring individual profiles of each member. Conducted by Maureen Cleave, who was friendly with the band and had covered them in the past, the quote interestingly elicited no public reaction in the UK. The church had openly admitted declining numbers, and were in the process of rebranding their image to appeal to a youthful demographic.
The full quote, for reference: 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.
It wasn’t until that quote was reprinted in the United States, unsurprisingly, that the scandal began. Beatles’ publicist Tony Barrow offered the interview rights to Datebook, who wanted to profile the Beatles in light of their newfound mature approach to music making. With LSD in the forefront of the new cycle, The Beatles’ new psychedelic approach was on the minds of all Americans.
Completely out of the context of the British church, Datebook put Lennon’s quote right on the cover.
This drew ire from the Christian community in America, with radio DJs boycotting The Beatles nationwide. The timing couldn’t have been worse, as The Beatles had a scheduled tour in the US throughout the month of August, 1966, and the interview was published, in America, on July 29th. Their concerts were picketed by the KKK. It would be the last time that The Beatles ever toured, agreeing to be a studio-only band from that point forward.
Of course, the overall complexity and maturity of the band’s music was another major driving factor for their decision to stop touring, but KKK protests and death threats certainly didn’t help any. George Harrison was reportedly so shaken that he almost quit the band.
Interestingly, a publication put out by the Vatican in 2008 contextualizes the whole situation well. They wrote, “The remark by John Lennon, which triggered deep indignation, mainly in the United States, after many years sounds only like a ‘boast’ by a young working-class Englishman faced with unexpected success, after growing up in the legend of Elvis and rock and roll. The fact remains that 38 years after breaking up, the songs of the Lennon-McCartney brand have shown an extraordinary resistance to the passage of time, becoming a source of inspiration for more than one generation of pop musicians.”
And that’s what you get for comparing yourself to Jesus.