By David Randall and Richard Osley
Sunday, 23 November 2008
More than 40 years after John Lennon angered most of the known Christian world with his declaration that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus Christ, he has finally been forgiven. A lengthy editorial in the Vatican's daily newspaper, Osservatore Romano, has said that the statement was a mere "boast" by a young man grappling with the effects of sudden, and extreme fame.
The Pope's representative on paper has thus, albeit 28 years too late for Lennon himself to hear the good news, absolved him. Hopefully, thousands of formerly young and frighteningly pious Americans will now feel some twinge of guilt about burning Beatles records in such numbers when the fuss first broke in 1966.
The belated, but nevertheless welcome, blessing came in the Saturday edition of Osservatore Romano, which has recently had a modernising makeover. In July, it ran a story on another famous rock'n'roller, describing Elvis Presley as a "nice, sensitive young man". Now, in an article marking the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' White Album, the paper commented: "The remark by John Lennon... sounds only like a 'boast' by a young working-class Englishman faced with unexpected success, after growing up in the legend of Elvis and rock and roll."
Osservatore Romano, warming to its theme, concluded by saying: "The fact remains that 38 years after breaking up, the songs of the Lennon-McCartney brand have shown an extraordinary resistance to the passage of time, becoming a source of inspiration for more than one generation of pop musicians."
So there we have it.
The comment was made by Lennon in an interview with Maureen Cleave of the Evening Standard in March 1966. He said: "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 вЂ“ rock'n'roll or Christianity."
The storm over Lennon's quip grew when it was reprinted in an American magazine four months later. In Longview, Texas, there was a public burning of Beatles records. Radio stations across southern US states ran messages encouraging people to destroy their collections, while many banned the group from their playlists.
Even the Ku Klux Klan got in on the act, organising anti-Beatles demonstrations where the band was denounced. When the Beatles toured the US in 1966, there were death threats. There was a similar stiff reaction in South Africa, with Beatles albums banned and, some, destroyed.
Lennon held a press conference in Chicago, but did not withdraw his comments. In 1969, he tried to explain them in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He said: "It's just an expression, meaning the Beatles seem to me to have more influence over youth than Christ. Now I wasn't saying that was a good idea because I'm one of Christ's biggest fans."
Today, it seems, the feeling is at last mutual.