“John, please don’t go. They’ll kill you,” screamed one of the 500 young Beatlemaniacs who braved the London rain to watch John, Paul, George and Ringo board a Pan Am clipper for the US and their third annual American summer tour, a 14-city jaunt winding up in San Francisco on 29 August 1966.
Plans for the tour were jeopardised in late July by the reaction to Lennon’s comments that The Beatles had become “more popular than Jesus” to Maureen Cleave of the London Evening Standard during an interview for the newspaper in February.
On 29 July, the US teen magazine Datebook had reproduced Cleave’s article, with the “I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity!” remark placed prominently on the cover,
The reaction was swift: a Massachusetts legislator denounced The Beatles, disc jockeys around the US banned their records, the South Carolina ‘Grand Dragon’ of the Ku Klux Klan burned a Beatles record on a cross.
While Lennon didn’t fear for his life, he admitted: “We’ve never left for America with this sort of feeling before. Frankly, I’m worried”.
To add to The Beatles‘ woes, Mayor William Ingram Jr. of Memphis announced that the 14-city tour would be a 13-city tour, citing his “duty to protect Memphians against the Beatles’ use of the public Coliseum to ridicule anyone’s religion.”
On the secular front, reports that The Beatles‘ 23 August date at New York’s Shea Stadium (capacity 56,000) was only 80% booked suggested that the era of sure-fire sellouts for the group had passed.
At a Chicago news conference on 11 August – arranged so an obviously nervous and pale Lennon could apologise – John tried to smooth the way for the upcoming tour. “I do believe Christianity is shrinking . . . that doesn’t mean that I have un-Christian thoughts,” he told sympathetic reporters. “I could have said TV, cinema or big cars were more popular than Jesus. Sometimes we forget we are Beatles and say things we’d say to a friend across a bar. I am sorry I opened my mouth”.
Parts of the press conference were broadcast on all the major US television networks and by ITV in the UK.
But the publicity didn’t hurt in Chicago where sellout crowds packed two shows at the International Amphitheatre. “Lennon forgiven,” summed up The Chicago Daily News. “Beatles mosey on, richer than ever”.
The apology placated many of those offended by the Datebook article; WAQY called off its Beatle bonfire, planned for 19 August and some stations lifted their radio bans. The controversy nevertheless hung over the entire tour.
John Lennon caused further controversy during the band’s press conference in Toronto on 17 August when he stated his support for American draft-dodgers escaping to Canada rather than going to fight in Vietnam.
When the band arrived in New York on 22 August, Lennon again criticised US participation in the war. All four Beatles publicly denounced the war as “wrong” and at Shea Stadium the following day, the pre-show press conference descended into an argument between members of the media over the Beatles’ opposition to the war.
At 9:27 pm on 29 August, The Beatles took to the stage at Candlestick Park in San Francisco and proceeded to play their eleven-song set. It was to be the final paid concert of their career together.
George Harrison later said of the group’s decision to quit touring: “We’d been through every race riot, and every city we went to there was some kind of a jam going on, and police control, and people threatening to do this and that . . . and [us] being confined to a little room or a plane or a car . . . there was a point where enough was enough.”