As I’m teaching “Pop, Rock and PR,” one of my favorite episodes in pop music history began with a March 1966 interview in the London Evening Standard. The article mentioned that Beatle John Lennon was “reading extensively about religion,” and quoted him saying, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink…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.”
While there was no reaction to Lennon’s observations in the U.K., things were quite different five months later when it was published in U.S. teen magazine Datebook. Birmingham DJ Tommy Charles boycotted Beatles music; the New York Times covered the story. Dozens of radio stations followed. Some in the Deep South organized demonstrations with bonfires, imploring teenagers to burn Beatles records and memorabilia.
Beatles Manager Brian Epstein considered cancelling a U.S. tour as the furor built, but the group went ahead. At press conferences, Lennon seemed ill-prepared to respond. “If I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it,” he told reporters. “In reference to England, 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 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 was taken wrong and now it’s all this.” Pressed for an apology, Lennon added, “If that will make you happy, then OK, I’m sorry.”
In today’s PR environment, Lennon might have been far better prepared when responding to the controversy. Media appearances would have been controlled and public statements carefully written. The Beatles, of course, continued to prolifically create amazing, ground-breaking, timeless music–and more controversies–which ultimately added to their legacy. Your thoughts?