For once, the Beatles’ music didn’t do the talking on the band’s infamous final tour of the USA in 1966.
Instead it was a quote from John Lennon taken out of context that made all the headlines.
In a long and detailed interview with English journalist Maureen Cleave about his philosophy and beliefs, Lennon had remarked: ‘We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.’
The statement was buried deep in Cleave’s piece, published in full in the London Evening Standard, but American teen magazine editor Art Unger decided it would make an eye-catching front page for the August edition of his publication Datebook.
It certainly had the desired effect. The Bible Belt was horrified and conservative elements of the American media had a field day. The fact that Lennon had made the comment as part of a much wider discussion about British church attendances cut no ice on the other side of the pond.
The Beatles were bombarded with questions wherever they went in the USA and Canada in August 1966 and concerts were plagued with protests. Lennon’s remarks led the news on almost every radio and TV station.
When the protests turned to death threats, Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein seriously thought about cancelling the tour. It had been a rotten summer already for Lennon and bandmates Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr who’d already played concerts in Germany, Japan and the Philippines in July.
The band had already endured death threats in Japan and were confined to their Tokyo hotel suite for much of the time – and it wasn’t much better in Manila. After being manhandled at the capital’s airport, the Beatles accidently missed a breakfast reception for 300 children hosted by Filipino first Lady Imelda Marcos. She was not amused.
The perceived slight dogged the rest of the two-concert tour – so much so that even the band’s armed protection was removed as they made their way back to Manila airport. The Beatles vowed never to return.
In America, the furore surrounding Cleave’s article, originally part of the How Does a Beatle Live? series, broke on July 29th when Datebook magazine was published.
Christian fundamentalists were incensed. It got to the stage that radio stations organized bonfires to burn Beatle’s records and merchandise as well as refusing to play their music. The Ku Klux Klan even nailed a Beatles’ LP to a wooden cross.
A desperate Epstein flew to New York to give a press conference on August 5th but couldn’t stem the anti-Beatles reaction. He offered to cancel the shows if American promoters wanted to back out – but they all said go ahead.
So there was some trepidation when the Beatles showed up at London’s Heathrow Airport on August 11th ready to fly to the USA. To make matters worse, the flight was delayed so the Fab Four were forced to kill time visiting various parts of the aerodrome. The airport staff may have loved it but the Beatles looked far from happy.
As soon as they touched down in Chicago, Epstein and the band’s press officer Tony Barrow put Lennon in front of a press conference at the Astor Tower Hotel to explain his comments.
He said he never meant his observations to be interpreted as anti-religion and had made a mistake in comparing the Beatles’ popularity to that of Jesus Christ. Some of the record-burning bonfires were called off, but the damage had been done.
The publicity generated by the Datebook article came to a head at the Mid-South Coliseum venue in Memphis on August 19th when someone threw a lit firecracker on stage. The group were convinced someone was trying to shoot them.
The final concert of the tour took place at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29th in front of an audience of 25,000. Around 7,000 tickets were left unsold – something unheard of at Beatles’ gigs.
The Fab Four came on stage at 9.27pm and played 11 songs before being whisked off to San Francisco airport in an armoured car. They flew to Los Angeles at 12.50am.
During the flight, George Harrison made the remark: ‘That’s it, then. I’m not a Beatle anymore.’ He reckoned the band had reached the point where ‘enough was enough.’
The band had already grown tired of touring and the American debacle was the last straw. The Beatles switched to studio work and record production from then on.
After a tumultuous 20 days, the Beatles touched down at Heathrow on August 31st, relieved to back on British soil.
Following a few months off to recover, the band started work shooting the promotional film for their latest single Strawberry Fields Forever – a double A-side with Penny Lane.
Director Richard Lester, responsible for the Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night, took the band off to Knole Park in Kent at the end of January 1967 to start filming.
The result proved to be a trailblazer for music videos, featuring stop-motion animation, reverse effects and the superimposing of characters and scenes.
Lennon based the song on his memories of playing in the garden of Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army children’s home in Woolton. In response, McCartney wrote Penny Lane on a similar nostalgic theme.
Record producer George Martin thought they were two of the best songs the band had ever recorded and Lennon himself reckoned Strawberry Fields Forever was his highest achievement as a member of the Beatles.
Its dreamy melodies, played on the Mellotron keyboard and an Indian swarmandal or zither, certainly inspired the psychedelic music of the 70s.
As ground-breaking as it was, Strawberry Fields Forever only reached No. 2 in the UK charts.
It was held off the top by Engelbert Humperdinck’s ballad Release Me.