Remember When: “More Popular Than Jesus”— The Public Burning of Beatles’ Records

The Beatles were one of the most popular bands in the world in the 1960s, and their massive impact is still felt today. But even they weren’t safe from controversy. Long before there was modern-day cancel culture on social media, the Beatles experienced a similar phenomenon during the height of their fame when a comment made by John Lennon sparked outrage in America.

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It all started with an interview John Lennon did with Maureen Cleave, a British journalist who had covered the Beatles’ rise to fame and was a confidant of the band, that was published in London’s newspaper, The Evening Standard, in March 1966. At the time of the interview, Lennon was exploring different forms of religion and compared the Beatles’ impact to that of Jesus Christ.

“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink,” he said. “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.”

[RELATED: Behind the Beef: How The Beatles Breakup Caused a John Lennon/Paul McCartney Clash]

The interview eventually made its way to America in the following weeks and months and was re-printed in publications, including Newsweek, The New York Times, and teen magazine Datebook. It was the latter that stirred up the controversy, as the magazine put part of Lennon’s quote on the cover. Art Unger, the editor of Datebook, then took matters further when he sent the magazine to radio stations across the South. Lennon’s comments sparked particular ire with right-wing and religious groups in the Deep South, leading to radio bans and public burnings of their albums.

Tommy Charles and Doug Layton of WAQY radio station in Birmingham, Alabama, destroyed vinyl Beatles albums on-air, with several other stations also refusing to play their music. Stations then started organizing public burnings of Beatles records that saw many teenagers participating, with the bonfire hosted by WAYX in Waycross, Georgia, in August 1966 serving as the poster child for the outcry. The band was also receiving death threats and protests by members of the Ku Klux Klan at their shows in Washington, D.C., and Memphis, Tennessee.

Lennon later apologized for his comments in a press conference in Chicago in August 1966. “I’m sorry I opened my mouth,” he said, according to Nicholas Schaffner’s 1978 book, The Beatles Forever. “I’m not anti-God, anti-Christ, or anti-religion. I was not knocking it. I was not saying we are greater or better.”

Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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