Although nobody knew it at the time, 50 Years Ago Today The Beatles landed in Chicago for the start of what would be their final concert tour.
The focus this evening, however, was a press conference filmed by all three major networks and ultimately shown around the world ... John Lennon apologizing for his "We're more popular than Jesus" remark from a few months before.
The original comment was made to Maureen Cleave of The London Evening Standard and published in March. In a comment that went virtually unnoticed in Great Britain at the time ... Lennon was, after all, always the cheeky one, said "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that ... I am right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now." Because his comments were part of a much longer interview, it didn't draw the attention in The UK that it did here when, taken out of context, it appeared in the popular US magazine "Datebook" some four months later ... and an absolute uproar ensued.
With a headline that screamed "I don't know which will go first ... rock and roll or Christianity", radio stations throughout the US (but predominately in the south) made headlines by boycotting the playing of any more Beatles music on their station. Led by a radio station in Birmingham, Alabama, the news spread through America's Bible Belt and 22 radio stations (some of whom had never even played a Beatles record ever before) jumped on the "Ban The Beatles" bandwagon. Some even organized (and broadcast) public burning and destruction of Beatles records and memorabilia. Listeners were encouraged to throw anything to do with The Beatles ... records, books, photographs, collectible merchandise, souvenirs and anything else they might have on hand ... into the giant bonfire while television cameras documented the whole event. Even The Ku Klux Klan suddenly became music critics, holding public displays of outrage and, at one point, reportedly calling the media to say that one of The Beatles would be assassinated if they took the stage in Memphis.
There was genuine concern across the pond about The Beatles' upcoming US tour ... and even talk of cancelling the tour all-together. (1966 was not a good year for The Beatles ... between this public outcry to "Ban The Beatles" spreading across America, stoning and being roughed up at the airport trying to leave the Philippines after a perceived snub of Imelda Marcos and a furor over their "butcher cover" photo that was immediately pulled off the market due to bad taste, it was no wonder the group had decided to give up touring in favor of spending more time in the recording studio. Truthfully, it was becoming harder and harder to reproduce the much more sophisticated sounds they were recording now in concert anyway ... especially in front of thousands of screaming fans who couldn't really hear the music anyway.)
On the evening of August 11th, on the 27th floor of the Astor Towers Hotel in Chicago, Illinois, John Lennon faced the press and apologized for his remarks, stating that "it was wrong ... or it was taken wrong ... and now there's all this" ... and then The Beatles got on with their tour.
Honestly, box office for their final tour was down ... even Shea Stadium had something like 11,000 unsold seats this time around, after selling out in a matter of hours the year before when The Beatles performed to 55,000 screaming fans in what was at that time, the largest audience in history. How much of this can be attributed to this one incident is hard to speculate. (At one point, Lennon wondered "If I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have gotten away with it".)
The Beatles performed together for the very last time (save their Apple rooftop performance for the "Let It Be" sessions) a couple of weeks later on August 29th, 1966, at San Francisco's Candlestick Park. While no official announcement was made at the time ... not even amongst themselves ... The Beatles knew that their touring days were over.