John Lennon and Jesus

Fifty years ago on 15 August 1965, The Beatles played at Shea Stadium in Queens NY, then home of the New York Mets. It set records for both attendance and revenue: 55,600 people (mainly screaming and fainting teenagers as it happens) were there and they paid a total of $304,000 for the privelege, the greatest gross in the history of show business to that point. Tickets were $5 (plus taxes of 65c) and the Beatles’ share was £57,000 for the one night’s work – and actually only 30 minutes’ playing at that.

Fast forward a year and only 45,000 turned up at the 56,000-seater Stadium for the show on 23 August 1966. The noise was still deafening and it still grossed $292,000, of which the Beatles kept 65%, more than they had received a year earlier.But there was no rioting, only isolated cases of fans breaking through the heavy police barrier, and no mass hysteria, either.

There’s no doubt The Beatles were still insanely successful in 1966. Just about everything they released shot to Number One, including what I would argue is their finest LP, ‘Revolver’, which replaced their US-only ‘Yesterday & Today’ collection at the top of the pile. The Beatles had sold 150 million records worldwide in a little more than two years, half of them in the US. Their previous album  Rubber Soul had sold 1.2 million copies in the US during the first 9 days of its release.

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They also were doing pretty strong business on their annual money-making Summer tour of the US, 19 mainly stadium shows in the US and Canada. If you can believe it, thanks to a legendarily parsimonious record contract with EMI where they shared one old penny for each single sold in the UK (and half that for singles sold abroad) and a rotten publishing deal where Brian Epstein gave away 50% of the Beatles’ revenue to publisher Dick James (and have the nerve to keep his 20% manager’s cut of what as left, most of the Beatles income came from their live appearances. Their cut of most shows on this 1966 US tour was $100,000 a night, with the gigs at Shea and Comiskey Park in Chicago bringing in a whopping $160,000 each.

So what went wrong?

In March 1966, each of the Beatles and their manager Brian Epstein were profiled in a series of five weekly features in the London Evening Standard, entitled How a Beatle Lives. They were written by journalist Maureen Cleave, a friend of the Beatles, a writer at the heart of the Swinging London and after a possible dalliance with John, some say the inspiration for ‘Norwegian Wood’. She interviewed Lennon at his house in St Georges Hill, Weybridge and at Brian Epstein’s management company NEMS’ offices at 4 Argyll Street W1

John’s interview was published first on 4 March 1966 and was astonishingly frank. There was no PR present – imagine that today! – especially as he was beginning to bristle at the Fabs’ cuddly public image. He was keen to talk about key political issues of the time – Vietnam, taxes, Civil Rights. And religion.

“Christianity will go,” he said. “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.”

This and other comments drew almost no notice in March 1966, not even when they were eagerly reprinted in Newsweek magazine later in March. So they went off and made ‘Revolver’, shot to Number One everywhere with ‘Paperback Writer’, planned their tour and thought any more about it. There was a bit of trouble on tour in Japan and the Philippines, but nothing a few quid couldn’t solve. And then they went to America.

A US teen magazine called Datebook had bought the rights to the Evening Standard article, on the basis that they would reprint it when the tour started on 12 August in Chicago. Their July 29th edition duly republished the Lennon story but crucially its savvy publisher Al Unger, did two things. Firstly he took out the most incendiary quote  “I don’t know which will go first – Christianity or rock and roll” and put it in large type on the magazine’s cover. And secondly he sent advance copies of the mag to conservative radio stations throughout the South, the Bible Belt. Talk about light blue touchpaper and stand back.

It didn’t take long for there to be a reaction. Local papers, radio stations, the KKK and anyone else with an axe to grind against these Limeys with long hair, who made too much money, had their girlfriends in love with at least one of them and whose music suggested they liked way too many black groups, suggested a boycott. In Birmingham, Alabama, one DJ was immediately incensed and asked for listeners’ views on Lennon’s comment. They weren’t especially positive, it has to be said and he smashed their records on air. The little local outrage went national when the bureau manager for United Press International put it on the wires. The New York Times put on their front page on August 5th. Now it was national and had gone 1960s equivalent of viral.

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By August 6, 30 radio stations had banned Beatles records. Some stations in the Deep South went further, organising demonstrations with bonfires, drawing hordes of teenagers to publicly burn their Beatles records and other memorabilia. In Mexico City there were demonstrations against the group, and a number of countries, including South Africa, Holland and Spain, made the decision to ban the Beatles’ music on national radio stations. The Vatican issued a public denouncement of Lennon’s comments.

While Datebook had simply intended to sell are more copies, for the Beatles and their promoters the stakes were millions of dollars higher. Initially the plan was to get John to record a humble apology and a studio at Abbey Road was booked, but instead Epstein released a communique explaining that John’s remarks had been taken out of context.

What he said and what he meant was that he was astonished that in the last 50 years the Church in England and therefore Christ has suffered  a decline in interest. He did not boast about The Beatles fame. He meant point out that the Beatles effect appeared to be to him a more immediate one upon certain of the younger generation

That did no good so when the group arrived in Chicago on August 12th, a nervous John was forced to give a humiliating press conference. He tried to explain that he was specifically talking about the decline in church attendance in the UK and was stating  a quantifiable fact that the Beatles actually had more young fans in the UK than the number of young people who went to church (he’d to re read the article from the Standard because he had forgotten what he had said).

Many were able to accept his apology, but not the Bible Belt. On August 13, radio station KLUE in Longhorn TX – near San Antonio – organised a public burning of Beatles records and memorabilia (George was quoted a saying well they have to buy them before they can buy them). The next day though, the station went off the air when a lightning bolt struck their transmitter tower and the surge destroyed equipment and knocked out the bloke who’d organised the burning in the first place.

In Memphis on the 19th, the city council had voted to cancel both afternoon and evening concerts rather than have ‘municipal facilities be used as a forum to ridicule anyone’s religion’, but Brian Epstein  decided to go ahead anyway. During the evening show, someone threw a firecracker on stage. When it went off, the three Beatles on stage all looked immediately at John Lennon, assuming he’d been shot.

The tour finished at Candlestick Park, in San Francisco on 29 August 1966, their last ever live concert (okay, you can split hairs and say the last gig was actually on the rooftop of 3 Savile Row in January 1969). There were 25,000 in a stadium with a capacity of 45,000. The combination of the backlash, the death threats, and the fact they couldn’t hear a damn thing when they were on stage persuaded them to stop touring and become a studio band. Well, at least we got Sergeant pepper out of it.

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