The Beatle Breaker
What broke up The Beatles?
It’s really a long list of things: Yoko, Linda, Apple, Allen Klein, artistic differences….
But what planted those seeds? How was Yoko able to come in and screw up what was once a “boy’s only club”?
So follow this for a second. Just…stay with me here.
John Lennon said the Beatles really “fell apart” as a group when they quit touring in 1966. Even though after they stopped they made some of the greatest music of their career, they began to drift apart. They were not a “gang” anymore. They weren’t living together on the road, playing as a band. Sgt Pepper is a classic, so is The White album and Abbey Road, but you can see and hear the splintering of the band as a unit more and more each album.
John Lennon as well as other members of the group cited the “more popular than Jesus” controversy as probably the biggest reason they quit touring.
You remember that, right?
On March 4th, 1966 the ‘Evening Standard’ published an interview between Maureen Cleave and John Lennon entitled ‘How Does A Beatle Live? ‘ In the course of a description of the Beatle’s everyday life in Weybridge, Cleave quoted Lennon as saying:
“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”
The interview caused little controversy on publication in England, where it was regarded as just another example of the waning relevance of the church for the younger generation. But when it was reprinted in an American magazine four months later on the eve of a Beatles tour of the States, it caused an outrage.
An outrage basically started at WAQY radio station in Birmingham, Alabama.
By a fairly young morning show disc jockey by the name of Tommy Charles.
Tommy Charles came in to the station one morning looking for fodder to talk about on his morning show, like he did every morning. It was usually the local mayor, or a street that needed fixing or something he could rant on to get a few calls and move on to the next top 40 record.
He found it. John Lennon said he was “bigger than Jesus”. So, that was his show that day.
He declared that WAQY would not only no longer play Beatle records (which infuriated program director Frank Lewis since The Beatle had about 8 songs in their top twenty playlist) but they would hold a bonfire to burn Beatle records and everybody was invited.
Just another day in a radio personalities life trying to stir up some phone calls and press.
And press he got.
An AP writer just happened to be in town and wrote a small story to go out on the wire about the Beatle Boycott.
It exploded. Radio stations all over the country (but mainly the southeast and Texas) jumped on board. It was a scandal. This (kids) was long before the internet. This went viral before that was a term. And when something went viral back the, it was just about the ONLY story anybody was talking about anywhere.
The Beatles arrived n Chicago for what would be their last American tour.
Although Lennon expressed regret for any offence caused by his remarks at an uneasy press conference, he wouldn’t withdraw them. The traditionally asinine encounter between press and pop star had been replaced by a crackling confrontation. As much as Lennon said he was “deploring” the lack of importance of religion to kids, it didn’t seem to stop the questions.
The Beatles’ American tour of 1966 took place against a background of death threats and real fear. They played their last ever concert on August 29th at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.
All because a radio guy was looking for something to talk about.
So….in essence, Tommy Charles had more to do with the break up of The Beatles than Yoko Ono.
And I knew Tommy.
Tommy Charles never even really knew what Lennon said. Of course he rolled with the attention and press he got, that’s what radio guys do, but he never even knew or read the entire interview. He simply grabbed on to the line “more popular than Jesus”.
It’s an amazing example of the “butterfly effect” or more aptly “chaos theory”, the concept that a small change at one place in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere.
Now Tommy is forever in Beatle lore. He’s in the Anthology. He’s in ‘The Beatles Story’ museum in Liverpool.
Granted, there are a litany of things that added up to the demise of the band. But if you are looking for the first source….
It may be Tommy Charles on a small AM station in Birmingham Alabama.