He campaigned for world peace from his honeymoon bed, fought discrimination by climbing into a bag and imagined a world without possessions while living in luxury.

Since his assassination, at 40, John Lennon has attained secular sainthood – but was he a 20th century musical Messiah or a druggy dreamer with a Jesus Christ hairstyle? Belinda Beckett finds out.

“We’re trying to sell peace like a product, you know, sell it like people sell soap or soft drinks,” explained John Lennon to David Frost on his TV chat show in 1969. “It’s the only way to get people aware that peace is possible and it isn’t just inevitable to have violence.”

“Is that too simple a truth?”, the bemused broadcaster asked the soon-to-be-ex Beatle, resplendent in a pink velvet suit next to his new Japanese wife, Yoko Ono, dressed in funereal black. “What is too simple about me not killing you?” retorted Lennon, his famous dry wit triggering gales of studio laughter.

John and Yoko were rarely out of the headlines that year, with their quickie wedding in Gibraltar, their bed-ins for peace, their stark naked debut album cover (Two Virgins had to be sold in brown paper bags) and their theory of ‘bagism’ which they demonstrated by climbing into a sack together at a press conference in Vienna.

“If people did interviews for jobs in a bag they wouldn’t get turned away because they were black or green or long haired, you know, it’s total communication,” Lennon told Frost, as the interviewer’s eyebrows rose to his hairline.

That December, at the height of anti-Vietnam fervour, the couple plastered advertising hoardings in 12 major cities with posters declaring ‘WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas from John & Yoko’. The slogan inspired the hit single.

Lennon the evangelist was not Lennon the gifted songwriter. “If everybody demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace” was one of his more profound statements, dismissed by the media as ‘the politics of the infants’ school’ and ‘the sort of thing Miss World contestants say’.

But if the press painted the couple as crackpot peaceniks, President Richard Nixon took them more seriously when they settled Stateside because, as Lennon controversially remarked, The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”.

The last thing Nixon needed in an election year was someone more famous than Christ rallying the anti-Vietnam cause, and the FBI’s four-year campaign to deport him was ‘more vigorous than those used against Nazi war criminals’, according to one immigration chief.

Few artists have had that kind of impact. ‘The true measure of his greatness was that he terrified the most powerful man in the world,’ wrote Time magazine…

Words Belinda Beckett

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