Since the mid-1960s, much has been made in the popular press about the Beatles’ ostensible godless nihilism. This notion clearly finds its origins in March 1966, when the London Evening Standard published journalist Maureen Cleave’s wide-ranging interview with John Lennon. Having recently read Hugh J. Schonfield’s bestseller The Passover Plot (1965), Lennon was anxious to share his views regarding the plight of contemporary religion. During their discussion, Lennon remarked that “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink… We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first — rock and roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
Lennon’s comments passed without notice in the British press, but on July 31, the American magazine Datebook republished the interview. Within days, radio stations across the nation’s Bible Belt were sponsoring “Beatle-burnings” in which they invited the public to torch their Beatles records. As the group prepared to travel to the United States, Lennon took to calling their upcoming spate of American concerts the “Jesus Christ Tour.” He had no idea how accurate his words would prove to be. By the time the Beatles alighted on American shores, Lennon’s remarks to Cleave had set off a public-relations controversy that the Beatles and their manager, Brian Epstein, could scarcely have imagined. At a press conference in Chicago, Lennon attempted to quell the storm: “I wasn’t saying whatever they’re saying I was saying,” he told the media. “I’m sorry I said it really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing. I apologize if that will make you happy. I still don’t know quite what I’ve done. I’ve tried to tell you what I did do, but if you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then okay, I’m sorry.”
For more than a half-century, Lennon’s words have resonated as a kind of wholesale redaction of organized religion — buttressed, no doubt, by the lyrics of “Imagine,” the composer’s most enduring peace anthem in which he extols his listeners to look beyond their corporeal, socially constructed selves and “Imagine there’s no heaven. / It’s easy if you try. / No hell below us, / Above us only sky.” Yet this notion of the Beatles as anti-religious exists in stark contrast to their prevailing belief, as espoused in their lives and works, in a unifying moral center that dares us to awake from our golden slumbers, bask in the glory of the morning sun, and simply let it all be. In their music — both as a collective unit and as solo artists — the Beatles invite us, time and time again, to revisit the quasi-utopian visions of love, hope, and community that live in the heart of their artistry.
While the Beatles’ belief in a moral center acts as the central touchstone in their philosophy — see “We Can Work It Out” and “All You Need Is Love” for obvious examples of their zeal for the unifying power of community — they never shy away from providing an ongoing critique of what they perceive to be the institutional failures of organized religion. There are no more prescient examples of this ideology than “Eleanor Rigby” and “Lady Madonna” — songs authored primarily by Paul McCartney in which the Beatles question religion’s capacity for carrying out its charitable mission in a contemporary world beset by self-interest, selfishness, and groupthink.
With Revolver’s “Eleanor Rigby,” the band creates vivid memorial images that ask pointed questions about the failure of organized religion’s impetus for communal behavior as a tonic for healing the soul. McCartney’s timeless elegy depicts Eleanor as an aging spinster. Loneliness consumes his protagonist, whom society has ignored — even deplored for her inability to conform. Waiting at the window, she camouflages her despair by “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door.” She “lives in a dream,” the narrator reports, with her public and private selves in ceaseless contradiction. In the song, McCartney juxtaposes her impoverished persona with that of Father McKenzie, who busies himself “writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear.” The congregation cannot heed Father McKenzie’s homily because they’re not really listening to him — or to anyone or anything else, for that matter — having become insensate themselves. After Eleanor pointedly dies alone (and in the church, no less), Father McKenzie buries his parishioner, forgotten along with her name, in the churchyard. “Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from her grave,” he realizes the awful truth of Eleanor’s predicament — and, indeed, of his own. In the end, the narrator reports, “no one was saved” — not Eleanor, not society, not even ourselves. As the song comes to fruition, the chorus resurrects its prevailing, rhetorical, and seemingly unanswerable questions:
“All the lonely people, where do they all come from? / All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”
“Lady Madonna” exacts a similar critique of organized religion’s failure to serve society’s most downtrodden and vulnerable souls. As with “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lady Madonna” posits the image of a lonely heroine whom society has neglected — and, even more significantly, for whom organized religion remains conspicuously silent:
“Lady Madonna, children at your feet. / Wonder how you manage to make ends meet. / Who finds the money, when you pay the rent? / Did you think that money was heaven sent?”
McCartney employs the days of the week as the song’s structure, pointedly excluding Saturday — there is no Sabbath, no day of rest for Lady Madonna, whose children grow up in spite of her. “See how they run,” the narrator laments, while the unwed mother sells her soul — not to mention her body — in order to make ends meet by any means necessary: “Lady Madonna, lying on the bed, / Listen to the music playing in your head.” As she plies her loveless trade, the music washes across her being, transporting Lady Madonna to another world beyond the stale bedroom, beyond her hopelessly expanding ménage. With its explicitly holy antecedent, Lady Madonna’s name paradoxically elevates the status of McCartney’s heroine, while calling the church’s capacity for engendering charity into question at the same time. As with “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lady Madonna” portrays a world in which, time and time again, an insensate society turns a blind eye to the suffering.
In many ways, the Beatles’ stark depiction of organized religion’s inability to sustain its charitable endeavors exists in glaring contrast with the utopian philosophy that draws their career to a close on Abbey Road’s “The End.” The song pointedly concludes the band’s musical fusion with a quasi-Shakespearean couplet — “a cosmic, philosophical line,” in Lennon’s words:
“And in the end the love you take / Is equal to the love you make.”
Interestingly, “The End” finds the group working very different terrain from their more critical work about organized religion’s shortcomings. With “Eleanor Rigby” and “Lady Madonna,” we observe them in their more thoughtful, exacting critical guises, while “All You Need Is Love” and “The End” present a vastly more communal, life-affirming posture. These feel-good anthems for the ages — powerful and ethereal in their own way — only serve to convolute their larger insights about humankind’s inability (and sometimes its outright refusal) to help the most vulnerable and needy among our number. No one is saved, indeed.
This essay originally appeared in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up for their email newsletter. Parts of this essay have been adapted from Kenneth Womack’s book Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles.