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50 Years Ago: The Beatles Weather the "More Popular Than Jesus" Storm

(Image credit: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Getty Images)

Fifty years ago this summer—in late July and August 1966—the Beatles found themselves in a touchy situation.

On July 29 of that year, a teen magazine called Datebook published segments of a nearly 5-month-old interview with John Lennon.

Among the republished segments was this quote by Lennon: "Christianity will go. 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 quote, which originally appeared in a March 1966 London Evening Standard story by Maureen Cleave (a reporter who was friendly with Lennon and the other Beatles), didn't cause much of a stir in the U.K. or the rest of the world when it was originally published. After all, the Jesus line was just a tiny part of a lengthy piece full of tidbits like:

In the sitting room are eight little green boxes with winking red lights; (Lennon) bought them as Christmas presents but never got round to giving them away. They wink for a year; one imagines him sitting there till next Christmas, surrounded by the little winking boxes.

However, with its publication in Datebook, the quote reached a wider audience—including the American South. On Sunday, July 31, a disc jockey in Birmingham, Alabama, kicked off a drive to ban the Beatles from the airways. He said their radio station would no longer play records by the Beatles, who "grew wealthy as the music idols of the younger generation."

By early August, knuckleheads began hoisting "Ban the Beatles" signs and burning Beatles albums, even establishing pickup points where "Beatles trash" (including records, photos and other memorabilia that would've been worth a lot of money today had they not been destroyed by deranged knuckleheads) could be dropped off, stomped on—and burned, of course.

Almost exactly 50 years ago (August 8, 1966), The Daily Gleaner of Birmingham published the following notice:

"Hundreds of Beatles records are to be pulverized in a giant municipal tree-grinding machine here because of what Beatle John Lennon said about Christ, a disc jockey revealed today. '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, said local disc jockey Rex Roach."

That summer, the London Evening Standard piece and its Datebook excerpt grew more notorious as the storm of controversy escalated. Lennon was forced to apologize, which he did at a Beatles press conference during the band's final tour in August.

As you contemplate this nonsense, check out a spoof of this interesting slice of the Beatles' history. It's a scene from All You Need Is Cash, a 1978 made-for-TV film about a fictional band called the Rutles. The film was written and narrated by Eric Idle of Monty Python:

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Damian Fanelli
Damian Fanelli

Damian is Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World magazine. In past lives, he was GW’s managing editor and online managing editor, and his non-Pulitzer-Prize-winning stories have appeared in Guitar Aficionado, Vintage Guitar, Total Guitar and countless other publications, including 13.7 metric tons of daily newspapers. He's written liner notes for major-label releases, including Stevie Ray Vaughan's 'The Complete Epic Recordings Collection' (Sony Legacy) and has interviewed everyone from Yngwie Malmsteen to Kevin Bacon (with a few memorable Eric Clapton and Ty Tabor chats thrown into the mix). Damian, a former member of Brooklyn's The Gas House Gorillas, was the sole guitarist in Mister Neutron, a trio that toured the U.S. and released three albums (one of which appears in the 2015 Disney film 'Tomorrowland' starring George Clooney and Britt Robertson). He's in two NYC-area bands and plays Teles with four-way switches, B-benders and semi-snazzy aftermarket pickups. He quotes Terry-Thomas twice daily.