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FLETCHER: Late Beatle Lennon's words shocking in '66

Opinion column

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

I don’t believe in Hitler. I don’t believe in Jesus. I don’t believe in Kennedy. … I don’t believe in Beatles. I just believe in me. … The dream is over.

— John Lennon

I was only 10 years old at the time, 47 years ago in August of 1966, but I remember with amazing clarity the day one of the greatest artists in the history of recorded music shocked the world with remarks that would ultimately change his, mine and many other fans’ lives forever.

Certainly John Lennon, one of the Beatles and with Paul McCartney one-half of the greatest pop songwriting team ever, had no indication that his off-hand comment “We’re more popular than Jesus now” would spark an uproar that had radio stations banning his band’s music, had the Ku Klux Klan protesting outside Beatles concerts and led youngsters all over the world to burn the band’s records and merchandise.

Lennon’s comment, although taken out of context in America after being published in Britain to little fanfare five months earlier, obviously left many fans — and I count myself among them — conflicted. Still, it was a testament to his and the Beatles’ popularity at that time that the remark would create such a far-reaching furor. Some who knew my brother, who was 12, and me back in 1966 and knew of our love for the Beatles’ music encouraged us to join others in a loosely organized “Beatles Burning” at which the band’s albums, photos, magazines and what-have-you would be destroyed at a public bonfire.

When we, although frightened by the intensity of those involved, made it clear we had no intention of burning these musical treasures we had bought with the little money our parents could afford to give us, we were informed we would be “choosing long-haired, freaky musicians over the Son of God.” That’s a heavy load to lay on kids who rarely missed a service at rural Irwin County’s Pinetta Baptist Church. But we, thankfully, had parents who allowed us to think for ourselves, and even though we were duly shocked by Lennon’s statement, we did not buy into the notion that his words constituted blasphemy worthy of such outrage.

Lennon’s infamous comment, ironically, would get little more than a yawn these days from kids whose hip-hop and metal heroes regularly make profane and inflammatory anti-religion, anti-family and anti-establishment comments as a means of furthering their careers. It’s as Jane’s Addiction surmised with the title of their 1988 album: “Nothing’s Shocking.”

But in 1966 Lennon’s innocuous comment, made as part of a series of stories on the individual Beatles published in the London-based Evening Standard magazine, was denounced by the Vatican and sparked outrage and an anti-Beatles frenzy in America, Mexico, South Africa, Spain and other countries around the world, especially those with large Catholic populations. What he said at the time — and what was published in August in the American teen magazine Datebook — was: “We’re more popular than Jesus now. … Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”

In an attempt at damage control, Lennon told a news conference in Chicago a few days later, “I wasn’t knocking (religion) or putting it down. I was just saying it was a fact and it’s true more for England than here. I’m not saying we’re better or greater or comparing us to Jesus Christ as a person or God. … I just said what I said and it was wrong. Or it was taken wrong.”

Asked his own religious beliefs, Lennon said, “I believe in God not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us.”

Many were appeased. The Vatican even issued a statement years later praising the Beatles — and in particular Lennon and McCartney — as “a source of inspiration for more than a generation of pop musicians.”

One of those who never forgave Lennon, though, was a self-proclaimed “born-again Christian” named Mark David Chapman. On Dec. 8, 1980, Chapman, citing his anger over the 1966 comment, shot and killed Lennon outside his New York City apartment.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.