On March 4, 1996, John Lennon, in an interview published in the London Evening Standard, stated that his group, the Beatles, was more popular than Jesus Christ was at the time (Sullivan 313). He argued that Christianity would disappear before his rock group by blaming it on Jesus’ disciples. In addition, Lennon noted that the disciples were changing the whole concept of Christianity, thus making it unpopular with the masses. This statement sparked numerous anti-rock movements. The most remembered event, which was captured on a photograph, was the burning of rock records. This move was an event organized by WAYX, a radio station based in Waycross, Georgia, featuring school-going children in the lower levels of schooling (Sullivan 313).
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Until then, people had not taken Lennon’s statement with weight. However, when it was published in the Datebook, an American teen magazine, as a cover story, it started gaining popularity and attention all over the United States. People started having a negative perception of the Beatles. Many radio stations stopped playing the group’s music. These events spread to other parts of the world, such as Spain and South Africa. Most radio stations were from the southern region, which is known for its strong beliefs on the Bible. As such, they sponsored massive destruction of the Beatles’ music through burning. One such event caused the Beatles huge drop in fortunes in the recording company that they owned. This event featured the Ku Klux Klan burning the music recordings from the Beatles on a cross (Sullivan 313).
Several religious leaders also came up to voice their concerns regarding the incidents that were unfolding, starting with reverend Thurman Barbs. Reverend Thurman H. Babbs preached in the New Heaven Baptist church, which was based in Cleveland. He stated categorically that he would chase away any member of his church who agreed with the sentiments brought forward by John Lennon or even attended the Beatles’ United States tour. In a bid to offer a different opinion, Right Reverend Kenneth Maguire of the Anglican Church opined that Barabbas was even more popular than Jesus Christ was at one point in history. As such, the statement by John Lennon had some element of truth in it.
After being urged by Brian Epstein, Lennon eventually gave in and offered a half-apology, which was accepted by the Vatican. In his apology, he rued that if he had compared Jesus’ popularity with something else like the TV, it would not have elicited such reactions. He still insisted that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ was. The religious far-right has never accepted his apology up to date. Reverend David Noebel was one of the pioneers of the anti-rock and anti-Beatles crusades. In 1965, a year before Lennon made that controversial statement, he toured California for 21 days telling people to keep away from the Beatles and cease any association with the rock group. Noebel himself was anti-communist, and he feared that the Beatles could spearhead a communist takeover in the United States.
After his tour, Noebel published his first anti-rock book titled Communism, hypnotism, and the Beatles. In this book, he opined that the Russians, who were at that time pushing the communist agenda, were using psychological warfare. He believed that through rock music, the Russians were using young children to spread the agenda in the United States. This assertion hinged on the fact that rock music, and particularly the Beatles, had a huge following from the young generation. He insisted that the communists had even created music for all the generations in the United States.
Much as Noebel was anti-rock, he was presented with a target on which to direct his backlash. The target was Elvis Presley, who was as much famous as the Beatles. However, his rise to fame was due to a huge following from the Christians. Although he was a rock musician, Presley projected the image of a God-fearing young man. Therefore, as much as Noebel wanted, he could not attack Elvis Presley due to his Christian roots.
Up until then, the public accepted Lennon’s apology, but Noebel and his close associates continued with their anti-rock crusades. The debate was not going to end soon. It was sparked back to life when the Beatles released the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, another rock track. This song gave Noebel the push that he needed. This time, he implicated the Beatles to drug use and spreading sexual promiscuity. He still held on to his earlier beliefs that the Beatles were indeed used by the Russians to spread radicalization and communist revolution. He even quoted the red revolutionists who were using the Beatles as their role models (Sullivan 318).
One of the Noebel’s close associates of anti-rock movement was Bob Larson. He examined rock music in general while Noebel dedicated his efforts to the Beatles. In 1970, Larson published a book, Rock & Roll: The Devil’s Diversion. In this book, Larson explored several topics, including a story of African missionaries. He concluded by saying that rock music, in general, promoted cannibalism, devil-worshipping, and racism. In his trip to India, Larson came across different genres of music and attached their beats and rhythm to those played out during rock music.
From the 1970s, Noebel and Larson continued with their anti-rock movements, but this time with few people joining them. There was a considerable decline in these activities, and only the converted Christians would listen to their preaching. They did not want labor to spread their message to those who had not converted yet. Anti-rock publications gained popularity at the beginning of 1980. This aspect could be attributed to the conservative nature of the conservatism environment, which was put in place by Reagan’s administration. In these years, Christian organizations produced tons of copies of anti-rock material taking advantage of the new market conditions.
John Lennon died on December 8, 1980, after he was shot in New York City. He had just released a new album called Double fantasy, which received massive airplay and popularity following his death. In that aftermath, Noebel also released a book titled The Legacy of John Lennon: Charming or Harming a Generation, after which he realized huge sales following the popularity of Lennon’s death.
In recent times, the opposition to rock music has toned down due to generational change. The Parent Music Resource Centre (PMRC) believes that music can carry a positive image if written to present a positive social image. The majority of parents and the current old generation grew up listening to rock music. As such, even the conservatists such as Noebel and Larson have also blended into this new wave.
Sullivan, Mark. “More Popular Than Jesus’: The Beatles and the Religious Far Right.” Popular Music 6.3 (1987): 313-326. Print.