Things had got out of hand - for a range of reasons - but exacerbated by John Lennon's infamous quote which led to death threats, tussles with the Klu Klux Clan and disillusionment among the Beatles
"Christianity will go" "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."
The story was written by a Friend of the Beatles, Maureen Cleaves. Her interview in the video we watched suggested she had no idea what would happen. In the UK, it attracted little attention but when it was run in the USA on the cover of Datebook the story was seized upon. A hate campaign began in the States with worries that there might be assassination attempts on John Lennon.
I have spent years dealing with the media through my previous job. I know how difficult it is to draft press releases in a way that prevents people making mischief. Sometimes you need to draft in a way that gives wriggle room - sometimes you need to be completely accurate. There is a lot of thought that goes into presentational strategies nowadays, whether you are the Government, large companies, or bands. Media management is an essential skill.
I guess in those days though, they were at the cutting edge of music - with no instruction manila or previous experience to draw on - either within the band - or the management. No one had toured on that scale before, Venues grew exponentially, but security and sound technology weren't up to the task. Neither was the media management in my view.
The Beatles were young and inexperienced. John Lennon no doubt made the comment to a friend who was a journalist interviewing him about life as a Beatle. Did he have any idea what would happen? No I don't think so. That is evidenced by the stress he felt at the reaction (head in hands crying) and fast backtracking he attempted to do.
In an interview, he did to attempt to apologise he said:
"I suppose if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I would have gotten away with it, but I just happened to be talking to a friend and I used the word 'Beatles' as a remote thing, not as what I think -- as Beatles, as those other Beatles like other people see us. I just said "they" are having more influence on kids and things than anything else, including Jesus. But I said it in that way which is the wrong way...
"Originally I pointed out that fact in reference to England, that we meant more to kids than Jesus did, or religion at that time. I wasn't knocking it or putting it down. I was just saying it as a fact and it's true more for England than here. I'm not saying that we're better or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong. Or it was taken wrong. And now it's all this...
"I wasn't saying whatever they're saying I was saying. I'm sorry I said it really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing. I apologize if that will make you happy. I still don't know quite what I've done. I've tried to tell you what I did do but if you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then OK, I'm sorry."
Not very convincing really. I think he was simply operating within his understanding of his own culture and environment where his irony was understood. But if you are on the world stage (as politician, or band member) you can't afford to make unguarded statements and expect these to play in other countries as they do here.
I believe he was inexperienced and rather naive. Nothing wrong with that at his age at the time. And no doubt he was playing to the youth in this country. But as part of their strategy (or perhaps their only strategy) was world touring and particularly touring in the states) they should have been thinking about the cultures that exist there too. Boring? Maybe - but there are probably better ways of playing to youth culture and keeping up an irreverent image - if that is what they wanted to do - other than choosing a topic that would spli America and make them the target of the hate campaign that followed. Nevertheless they did spark a more outspoken style among the young, which continued and changed the face of youth culture. He, and others, provided the impetus for the young to speak out and ask questions.
As it was, their records were banned by loads of radio stations right across America and in many areas their records were burned in protest. The Vatican denounced them and not surprisingly there were then bans in lots of countries closely associated with the Vatican e.g. Italy, Mexico etc. The Ku Klux Klan campaigned against them in the south. It was pretty serious stuff.
The reaction seemed hysterical and very unattractive for a nation where free speech has always been a strongly held value.
Its interesting that on the same magazine cover, Paul McCartney also made a pretty controversial statement of the USA "It's a lousy country where anyone black is a dirty n*****!" Of course, it would be harder for Americans to openly criticise the Beatles for that comment because to do so would be openly racist. But perhaps that is part of the real reason why the Ku Klax Klan were involved in briefing against them.
With time, things usually work out for the best because you make them. As one path closes another one opens up. In 1978, John Lennon wrote "I always remember to thank Jesus for the end of my touring days; if I hadn't said that the Beatles were 'bigger than Jesus' and upset the very Christian Ku Klux Klan, well, Lord, I might still be up there with all the other performing fleas! God bless America. Thank you, Jesus."
Controversial or what? Was he still hurt by it all?
If you want to read more about this see About.com Oldies music which is fascinating on the subject and the source of these quotes and photos.
Do comment with your thoughts.