November 11th, 2000

What If . . . John Lennon Had Never Said The Beatles Were Bigger Than Jesus?

(Part of a short series which ran in the NME speculating about the divergent course history might have taken had certain pivotal events not taken place)

MARCH 1966. A cocky John Lennon, is interviewed by a young female reporter for the Evening Standard. “So just how big are you?” she asks, false eyelashes fluttering innocently. “Oh, I’m big, love,” he retorts, roguishly. “I was thinking of The Beatles generally,” she says. “Oh, aye. We’re all big. Even Ringo,” he comes back with the Scouse wit that has made him the toast of the discotheque “scene”.

“But . . . commercially, as a pop music phenomenon, just how big are the Beatles?” “Oh. See what you mean, love. Yeah. The Beatles are big. Dead big. In fact, I’d say The Beatles are bigger than Jes -” Here, Lennon checks himself. He remembers the words of manager/counsellor Brian Epstein. (“We’ve got a good thing going here. Don’t go putting your big blundering Scouse foot in it!”)

“Sorry, what did you say?” asks the reporter.

“Bigger than cheese. We’re a bigger phenomenon than cheese. Yes. That’s right.”

“That’s good because I thought you were about to say The Beatles were bigger than Jesus.”

“Good Heavens, no,” replies John piously. Somewhere, Brian Epstein is nodding with approval. “The Beatles are big, by Gosh but of course, we’re not bigger than Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Remember kids, Jesus is gear!”

The interview goes down well, despite a minor outbreak of Beatles LP-burning by US cheese manufacturers. However, a Japanese performance artist named Yoko Ono reads the piece and, disappointed at her hero’s non-revolutionary tendencies, returns to Japan where she eventually makes a fortune marketing her brand of vegetarian Sushi.

As for Lennon, having made his pro-Jesus remarks, his Scouse working class stubbornness won’t permit him to back down. At his instigation and despite McCartney’s misgivings (“What did you have to go and say that for?”), The Beatles spearhead a new Christian tendency in rock. They visit America and come under the influence of evangelical guru Billy Graham. His message, “Turn on, tune into to the Christian Channel, WBNC-Jesus” sweeps the States. George Harrison leaves the group in 1966, his interest in Eastern cultures incompatible with the band’s new direction but nobody notices.

Lennon’s new songs immediately reflect his Christianity. A song originally called ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ is rewritten as ‘I’m Only Praying’ (“When I wake up early in the morning/Go to church/I’m not yawning”). ‘All You Need Is Church’ is broadcast worldwide and provokes a mass return to Sunday worship, with chapels bursting with young people getting off on the joys of hymn-singing and frequent genuflection.

Even The Rolling Stones are spotted at mass, though the impression is marred when Keith Richards urinates into the collection plate. The Stones’ career is over, though in the Nineties they make a comeback, playing Wembley – the Wembley Arms, just off Neasden High Street.

A newfound mood of piety and no sex sweeps the youth of Britain and America, to the dismay of their parents who find themselves in the position of being the first generation to be more interesting than their juniors. Crazed kids deliver soup to elderly people, sit in fields reading each other passages from the New Testament and swigging orange squash. The zeitgeist is captured on the Beatles’ album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lovely Salvation Army Band, featuring Lennon’s ‘A Day In The Life’ (“I went to church today, oh boy/The sermon preached there was most interesting . . .”). In the late Sixties, Lennon even releases a somewhat unconvincing solo album, One Virgin (Me).

However, while Lennon’s songs on LPs such as The Trite Album reflect his unwavering pro-Jesus stance (“You say you want a Revolution, well, you know . . .I don’t think you should, Our Lord would be cross”), doubts arise about McCartney’s contributions. Fans play his seemingly unassuming ditty ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ backwards and hear the message, “My arse is sore from this friggin’ pew”. A rift ensues after Paul McCartney speaks out on the war in Vietnam. With young people too distracted by churchgoing and hymn-singing to protest, America has won the conflict, nuking the entire area till every last “gook” is fried and, unaffected by domestic opposition to war, decided while it’s out there to nuke Russia too.

With the Red Menace obliterated but a third of the world’s surface irradiated by atomic bombs, McCartney remarks, “I can’t help thinking, like, if we pop stars had launched some sort of free-thinking peace and love movement, this might not have happened.” The Beatles split, with Lennon going on to record solo singles such as ‘Warm Turkey’ (about a Christian Christmas) and ‘Imagine’ (“Imagine there’s no Heaven – fortunately there is and we’re all going there, except Paul”)

Meanwhile, the prog-rock movement has blossomed, taking the Beatles’ experimentalism to extremes, with bands writing 587 verse-long “concept hymns”, developing elaborate genuflecting techniques and, in the case of Genesis, setting the entire bible to music across a 30LP multi-gatefold sleeve collection. Only when punk arrives with its “back to basics” message is sanity restored. Punk icons like Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer outrage Britain by only going to church once a week, with Rotten declaring in a shock TV interview to Bill Grundy, “vicars can be boring occasionally”.

However, with the rise of Oasis, led by two Manchester monks, Brother Noel and Brother Liam, comes a new mood of Beatles revivalism. They surprise journalists by holding hands in interviews. “Not that we’re a pair of fookin’ cissies – that is to say, we wish to transmit our Christian fraternity to young people everywhere”, says Brother Liam. Following the Beatles’ template closely, they release a series of albums, Definitely Definitely (God Exists), For Thine Is The Kingdom (The Power And The Glory) and Pray Here, Thou.

As for Lennon, in 1980 he was standing outside his New York apartment block when a young fan, Mark Chapman, rushed up to congratulate him on his pro-Jesus stance. Unfortunately, as he stepped forward to greet him, Lennon was caught in the crossfire from an armed New York Spiritual Control Officer, firing at a man suspected of having left Evensong early. Lennon took the bullet, died and ascended to Heaven which, he discovered, is like sitting in church 24 hours a day – true happiness.

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