Maureen Cleave – journalist
Born October 20, 1934; died November 6, 2021
Maureen Cleave, who has died aged 87, was a writer and journalist who will forever be remembered for a 1966 interview with John Lennon for the London Evening Standard, in which Lennon declared his band “more popular than Jesus”. With The Beatles at the height of their international fame, this off the cuff remark was typical of Lennon in terms of irreverent bravado, yet was fired with a thoughtfulness that questioned the entire construct of pop superstardom.
“Christianity will go,” Lennon said. “It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first, rock’n’roll or Christianity”.
Lennon’s words went unremarked on when originally published, but later caused uproar when headlined by an American teen magazine as The Beatles toured the country with Cleave in tow. Some Christian groups called Lennon’s words blasphemous, radio stations refused to play Beatles records, while the Ku Klux Klan picketed their concerts.
Cleave later explained that Lennon was “certainly not” comparing the Beatles with Christ. “He was,” she noted, “simply observing that so weak was the state of Christianity that the Beatles were, to many people, better known. He was deploring, rather than approving this.”
Cleave’s interview with Lennon was part of a weekly series titled How Does a Beatle Live? Each article saw Cleave profile each member of the group, with whom she had struck up friendships with three years earlier after her university friend, future journalist Gillian Reynolds, invited her to Liverpool to watch them play. With the band taken with Cleave’s swinging sartorial style of bobbed hair-do and red boots, this resulted in a piece for the Standard headlined Why the Beatles Create All That Frenzy.
Cleave’s increasing standing as a writer of questioning insight came at a time when pop was rarely looked at in print beyond teen magazines. She accompanied The Beatles on their first trip to America in 1964, when their appearance on the Ed Sullivan `show took the country by storm. The Standard’s poster showing the Fab Four gazing down art her was pilfered from billboards across London.
Cleave had a hand in penning a line for Lennon’s song, A Hard Day’s Night, while in a taxi with him en route to Abbey Road studios. Writing in the Daily Mail in 2009, Cleave told how Lennon’s words were scrawled on a birthday card from a fan to his son, Julian, and included the original line, ‘When I get home to you/I find my tiredness is through’. After Cleave suggested the line about tiredness was rather feeble, Lennon changed it to the more suggestive ‘When I get home to you/I find the things that you do/Will make me feel alright’.
After Lennon split with his first wife Cynthia, he hid out for a time in Cleave’s Maida Vale flat. He once suggested his song Norwegian Wood was about her following a dalliance. Cleave denied it, and Lennon later recanted.
While Cleave’s interview with Lennon got all the attention, it was far from the only string to her bow. At a time when pop was still considered trivial in highbrow broadsheets, she wrote seriously and critically about its stars long before music journalism became colonised by a boys club of ‘progressive’ writers.
In 1962 she interviewed Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers, and spoke with Brill Building songwriter Mort Shuman two years later. For the Evening Standard, she interviewed Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones in 1964, and a pre T Rex Marc Bolan in 1965. The same year, she profiled Petula Clark and Joan Baez, and would go on to profile Little Richard and others.
There were also the inevitable retrospective pieces on Lennon. These recalled her time at the epicentre of a scene based around what was then the biggest band in the world, and writing what went on to become one of the most often quoted pieces of music journalism of its era.
Maureen Cleave was born in India, the eldest of three daughters to her Irish mother Isabella (nee Browne) and English father, Major John Cleave. After the ship taking Cleave, her mother and younger sister to join their father in India was torpedoed in 1940, the family spent the rest of World War Two in Co Sligo, Ireland. After her father’s death in 1944, she and her two sisters were raised by her mother.
After boarding school at Rosleven, Cleave worked as an au pair in Paris before reading history at St Anne’s College Oxford, where she became the first woman to speak at the otherwise men only Oxford Union.
After graduating, she joined the Evening Standard as a secretary, before persuading the paper’s then editor, Charles Wintour, to let her write a pop column. In the fab-gear sprit of the times, this was titled Disc Date, before being upgraded as The Maureen Cleave Interview. Cleave also appeared as a panellist on pop TV show, Juke Box Jury.
After all the excitement in America, later in 1966 Cleave married Francis Nichols, and lived at Lawford Hall in Essex, before moving to Peru for a time. On returning to the UK, Cleave wrote for The Observer and Telegraph magazines, interviewing cultural figures of the day. However famous her subjects, Cleave retained her critical faculties honed in the heady days of the 1960s pop scene she charted and helped shape.
She is survived by her three children, Sadie, Dora and Bertie, all with her late husband Francis Nichols, who predeceased her in 2015.
The Herald, November 16th 2021