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The popularity of the Beatles throughout the 60s was indescribable. Thousands of teenagers would show up at airports around the world to catch a glimpse of them and queue in line for hours for the slim possibility that they would get tickets. The Beatles became a pop culture phenomenon that transcended to new heights. Nobody had seen anything quite like “Beatlemania” before.
Beatlemania is the only way to explain the mass hysteria that four guys from Liverpool carried with them wherever they went. And it was not just the kids that fell for their charm, but the press instantly ate them up. There was not a day they were not in the papers throughout England. As soon as their plane landed in New York City for their much-anticipated performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, it was game over: the Beatles had won over the country.
From the Beatles' very first American press conference in 1964, they exercise their quick wit and dry humour. Answering numerous questions about their hair, similarities to Elvis Presley, and how their music excites fans in which John responded with, “If we knew we’d form a new band and be managers.” The madness followed them to almost every country they visited. When travelling to Australia for the first time, the Brits were met with over 300,000 fans (a third of the population at the time) in Adelaide. Fans and people out of genuine curiosity waited at the airport and lined the streets for them to make an appearance. The Beatles were only in Australia for 13 days to tour in June 1964 and never returned.
One of the most unacknowledged facts about the Beatles is their refusal to play segregated audiences. In a time that was filled with race riots to have one of the biggest bands in the world acknowledge that segregation is wrong and take it a step further by including it in their U.S. touring contracts was necessary. Larry Kane was a journalist who toured with the group said, “The four of them [...] started to act up and blowback on this very, very hot and sensitive issue, knowing that it would really irritate a lot of Americans.” This pushback caused places like Jacksonville and Memphis to conform against their views and allow a mixed audience.
Of course, as time progressed and more people wanted to see the Beatles live, venues needed to be upgraded. For their 1965 U.S. tour the Beatles began to play arenas and stadiums filled with over 40,000 screaming fans, all while not being able to hear a thing. When describing what it was like to play to such large crowds Ringo summed it up best, “I could not hear anything. I'd be watching John's ass or Paul's ass, his foot tapping, his head nodding, to see where we were in the song.” The Beatles became the first band to make the jump to stadiums, establishing what we now know as stadium rock. Most notably was Shea Stadium where the Beatles played to over 55,000 people in August 1965. The main profit for bands was touring at the time and playing stadiums proved that concerts on such a large scale could be both profitable and popular.
With the huge success of the 1965 American tour brought an even bigger tour the following summer, including more cities with larger audiences. Backlash and death threats due to a quote that was taken out of context almost led manager Brian Epstein to cancel the upcoming tour. The quote was taken from an article published by Maureen Cleave on March 4, 1966, entitled “How Does a Beatle Live? John Lennon Lives Like This.” The article listed out hobbies John would get up to in his Weybridge home during his free time and his interests. However, the article is famous for a different reason. John remarked that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.
“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.”
A quote that didn’t even make the front page of the newspapers in England became an entire spectacle itself in the United States. People were furious about such an allegation that they started protests to burn Beatles albums and merchandise. Only shortly after the article was published, the Beatles began touring the United States. They were met with extreme outrage, especially in the “Bible Belt” states throughout the South and Midwest. Threats and protests were held at their shows from the Ku Klux Klan. John did apologize in Chicago for his remarks saying,
“If it is said that television is more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it. I just happened to be talking to a friend. I used the word “Beatles” as a remote thing not as what I think. As Beatles as those other Beatles like other people see us. I just said they are having more influence on kids and things then anything else, including Jesus. But I said it in that way, which is the wrong way [...]. I was pointed out that fact in reference to England that 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 sort of is true more for England than here. But 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.”
The Beatles 1966 U.S. tour did see attendance numbers drop, but the quote hardly had any significant effect on their popularity. The bigger-than-Jesus fiasco was just one of the multiple reasons the Beatles decided to quit touring. The band would go on to play one more live show after Candlestick Park, the Apple Corps Ltd. rooftop. Fans stuck with the Beatles through their decision to become a studio band and passed their love of the band down generations in order to make them the most popular band of all time. They were some of the most dedicated people and were the ones who gave the Beatles their boost into superstardom.
If you have not already read part one, it can be viewed here: