There was a sound like a shot being fired. Each member of the Beatles looked at each other, wondering which of them had been hit. It was August 1966, and a wave of protests had erupted in
response to an interview in which the group’s singer and guitarist, John Lennon, had claimed they were “bigger than Jesus”. The comment had not gone down at all well in the Bible belt, comprising much of the southern US, in which conservative evangelical Protestantism plays a strong role. There had been warnings and threats from groups including the Ku Klux Klan. Now, on stage at the Memphis Coliseum, in the heart of the southern states, it seemed that their worst nightmare had come true.
But the sound was only from a firecracker and, as it turned out, was far from the most dangerous thing to happen to the band on what would be their final tour of the US: they narrowly avoided being electrocuted in Cincinnati when a thunderstorm threatened to strike the open-air baseball stadium while they were performing. Every night was a battle to get to and from each venue, pursued by legions of fans – Beatlemaniacs. On the way to the final gig at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, the band’s members – Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – resolved it was time to stop touring.
Key among the factors that led to the decision were the three crises that hit the Beatles in 1966, of which the ‘bigger than
Jesus’ controversy was one. For the Fab Four (as they were nicknamed), already jaded by almost constant touring since the late 1950s, these events were the last straw.
‘The long and winding road’
It should have been a straightforward world tour, another chance to showcase to the world the greatest pop music act on the planet. It was to start in Germany, then on to Japan; after three days in Tokyo, the band would head to Manila in the Philippines. Rest in India and England would follow, before the group headed to North America for a two-week tour culminating in the concert at Candlestick Park on 29 August 1966.
Yet almost immediately the far eastern leg of the tour began to look troublesome. July is one of the rainiest months of the year in Japan, and the tour promoter had to find an indoor venue that was large enough for the estimated demand of 150,000 tickets. The only venue that could support such requirements was the Nippon Budokan, built for the 1964 Olympic games in Tokyo to house the judo competition.
More than just a martial art, judo is a sacred activity in
Japan. Its practices and rituals are enmeshed in the tradition of Shinto, the country’s dominant religion. And that’s not all: the Budokan is situated at the heart of imperial and religious
Tokyo, next to the emperor’s palace and the Shinto Yasukuni shrine. The ground on which the hall rests was the former site of the plaza where Japanese soldiers swore allegiance to the emperor before leaving to fight in the Second World War.
All of this meant that the decision to hire the venue for a Beatles concert created a major backlash. There was disquiet at such a sacred venue being used by a lowly pop group; no less a figure than the Japanese prime minister Eisaku Sat¯o expressed discomfort. He was joined by Hosokawa Ryugen, a journalist for the national newspaper Asahi Shimbun; Matastaro Shoriki, founder of the influential Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper; and Tatsuji Nagashima, erstwhile promoter of the concerts. Four pillars of the Japanese establishment – or, as the Japan Times dubbed them, the ‘drab four’ – found themselves united by their opposition to the plan.
Such responses are, perhaps, unsurprising. In 1966 Japan was only a decade and a half removed from recovering its sovereignty (after the Allied occupation that had followed the
Second World War) through the 1951 Peace Treaty and the US-Japan Security Treaty, known as Anpo. Politically, the country had effectively been a one-party state since 1955, with the Liberal Democratic Party unchallenged in power. During this period, Japan’s population grew rapidly, from 89 million in 1955 to 98 million in 1965.
Japan’s holy ground: Overcoming powerful opposition from the establishment, the Beatles perform at Tokyo’s Budokan hall in early July 1966. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
These rapid changes took place in the midst of seeming political and social continuity. Yet powerful forces on the left and right of the Japanese political spectrum had the potential to cause serious disruption. In 1960, the disorder caused by a radical leftist student group had managed to stop a planned visit of US president Eisenhower to sign a revised version of the Anpo treaty. That same year, an ultra-nationalist assassinated the leader of the Japanese Socialist Party, Inejir¯o Asanuma. Such powerful political and media interests, and the fraught political environment, seriously threatened the concerts. However, when it was pointed out to the Japanese government that the Beatles had recently been awarded MBEs (an honour granted by the British monarch) the ‘drab four’ acquiesced in deference to this royal seal of approval. The concerts had the go-ahead.
But that wasn’t the end of the controversy. Extremists from the Greater Japanese Patriotic Party threatened to “give the Beatles proper haircuts”; the Tokyo education authority banned students from attending the gigs; and police remained worried about the potential for disorder having heard all about the wild scenes of Beatlemania. The draconian organisation extended to the Beatles’ schedule. Everything was timed to the second, from the time it took for the lift to descend to the ground floor of their hotel to their arrival and departure on stage.
Despite the concerns, the concerts passed off without
incident. Fans’ reception was polite; George Harrison would describe it as a bit too clinical. Yet the Beatles would be instrumental in inspiring a new generation of Japanese musicians.
Japan itself would be further rehabilitated in the eyes of its former enemies: in 1967, that other global symbol of British pop culture, James Bond, would further the interest in all things Japanese when the character visited the country in the film
You Only Live Twice.
Unlike in Japan, there was no anticipation of the trouble that would greet the Beatles in the Philippines. Yet “from the
moment, we landed it was bad news”, as Harrison would later recall. The band members were hustled off their plane by president Ferdinand Marcos’s men and driven to a yacht in the
harbour at Manila, the capital city. Their personal belongings, including four diplomatic bags that contained their marijuana, were dumped on the tarmac at the airport. Harrison feared they were about to be busted for possession. They managed to escape this jam, but that was only the start of their ordeal.
‘Crying, waiting, hoping’
As in Japan, the Philippines, a country comprising thousands
of islands, was undergoing considerable change in 1966. It
had gained its full independence in 1946, ending 50 years of
a pseudo-colonial domination by the US. By the mid-1960s, it was the second-fastest growing economy in south Asia. Yet considerable problems remained, notably poverty and the enormous sway that foreign companies exerted over the country’s wealth and resources. The political system was also notoriously corrupt, with the previous president emptying the national treasury to pay for his failed election campaign. President Marcos had come to power pledging to modernise the nation and, at least initially, he and his wife, Imelda, were regarded favourably by the US and other western powers.
During the build-up to the visit by the Beatles, Imelda had given manager Brian Epstein an invitation for the group to attend a party at the presidential palace. From the early days of global fame, the band had been wary of diplomatic events. This was the
result of a row at the British embassy in Washington in 1964 when a member of the diplomatic staff had cut off some of Ringo Starr’s hair with scissors. Epstein’s naivety about diplomacy was much in evidence in Manila: he sent a telegram refusing the offer. He did not realise that it was, in effect, a summons.
The Beatles found out about the diplomatic slight while, when watching TV in their hotel rooms, they saw the main Philippine broadcaster showing the Fab Four’s non-appearance. After a number of hours showing empty tables and crying children, Imelda flounced off – declaring that, in any case, her children preferred the Rolling Stones.
Almost immediately, the group faced a backlash. Attempts to order room service were ignored; when they were served, they were given sour milk. The scheduled gigs went ahead in front of around 100,000 fans, but this only served to emphasise an odd aspect of the experience: on the one hand, it was classic Beatlemania, but on the other, a growing campaign of intimidation.
Events reached a peak as they tried to leave the country. No one came to collect them; no one helped them pack up their gear. Authorities even shut down airport escalators, forcing the band and their small entourage to carry their equipment up flights of stairs. In the departure lounge, President Marcos’s men arrived and began to push members of the band around. John Lennon and Ringo Starr tried to find protection behind some nuns, figuring that, because the Philippines was Catholic, they might be considered inappropriate targets. Even when they got to the sanctuary of their flight, the ordeal was not over. Philippine government officials boarded and demanded the Beatles pay a ‘departure tax’ of $17,000 – coincidently, exactly how much they had earned from the gigs.
Although it was unlikely that band members would have come to any real harm, the incident was an early indicator of the character of Ferdinand and Imelda’s conjugal dictatorship. In inadvertently snubbing the party at the presidential palace, the band highlighted the regime’s capricious, sensitive and violent nature. Even a modest slight was to be punished, as the people of the Philippines were to discover over the next 20 years.
The Beatles are jostled in Manila. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)
‘I should have known better’
In March 1966, the Evening Standard conducted interviews with each of the band for a series. The interview with John Lennon was, in the main, a portrait of a bored, directionless artist. Yet it did contain one rather profound statement: “Christianity will go, it will vanish and shrink. We’re more popular than Jesus now.” A few weeks after publication, Epstein wrote to the newspaper to thank it for the articles. At this point, there had not been a single word of protest about Lennon’s statement.
All of this changed when the US teen magazine Datebook reproduced the interview in early August 1966, just before the group was due to arrive in the country. Starting in Mississippi, then across the American South, opportunistic DJs, clergy and others began organising boycotts of Beatles music and events for locals to burn “Beatle trash”. Epstein initially considered postponing parts of the tour in places such as Memphis and
St Louis, but the band eventually agreed to aim for damage limitation. Epstein flew to New York to try and row back on what Lennon said. When the band arrived in the US in mid-August, two press conferences were arranged for apologies by Lennon.
Some fans’ frenzied behaviour made it difficult for the Beatles to get from venue to venue. Some US critics linked the band with Communism, or feared its influence would lead young people to riot. (Photo by Hyman Rothman/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Lennon said that he was “sorry for the mess that he had made” and that he was “not anti-God, anti-Christ or anti-
religion”. He concluded that he had forgotten the influence that came with being a Beatle, and that his words would resonate in ways other people’s would not. This appeased some critics, but there was still some hostility and the band were constantly on edge – as the Memphis firecracker incident demonstrated.
Some elements of the Christian fundamentalist community had been gunning for the Beatles even before the ‘bigger than Jesus’ outburst. Perhaps most famous among these figures was David Noebel, dean of the Christian Crusade Anti-Communist Youth University in Colorado, who had been warning of the dangers of the group since early 1965. Noebel’s concern was that the band’s mesmeric effect on young people could pave the way for “riot and revolt”. He extrapolated on this theory in two anti-
Beatles treatises, Communism, Hypnotism and the Beatles (1965) and The Beatles: A Study in Drugs, Sex and Revolution (1969).
It is possible to see the controversy as simply a manifestation of Bible-belt reactionary attitudes. Yet, as with Japan and the Philippines, it is also important to consider the larger context, and 1966 was a crucial moment in the developing relationship between faith and politics in the US. Since the end of the reconstruction that had followed the American Civil War (1861–65), the American South had solidly supported the Democrats, and an important element of this was provided by the support of southern white churches. This relationship started to fragment with the advent of the civil rights movement, and the growing influence of African Americans in the north of the country as they became more and more empowered.
This meant that, for the first time in a century, the American South was politically up for grabs. Republicans had started to make overtures in 1964, when its presidential candidate sought to make an electoral virtue out of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. Republicans knew they could not make an overt appeal based on segregation or race, so instead chose to identify with southern churches over issues of modernity, sexuality and traditional patriotism.
Building bridges in the US: John Lennon’s remark that “we’re more popular than Jesus” enraged Christians in the US. The band, seen here at a press conference, were forced to apologise and even considered cutting the tour short. (Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images)
At the same time, in places such as California, conservative Republicans including Ronald Reagan were helping to rebrand the party with an explicit appeal to Christian activists. The growing culture wars of the 1960s over gender, sexuality, drugs and Vietnam would empower Christian conservatives, making their states – including many that took part in the Beatles
boycotts – enormously influential in shaping American politics.
The three crises of the band in 1966 were part of the dramatic story of the most important popular music group in history. Yet they also give insight into some of the most important global economic, political and social changes of an extraordinary period in world history.
Dr Clifford Williamson is senior lecturer in contemporary British and American history at Bath Spa University.
Sgt Pepper’s Musical Revolution with Howard Goodall is on BBC Two, Saturday 3 June, 9pm.
This article first appeared in issue 1 of BBC World Histories magazine