Maureen Cleave, Pop Journalist and Beatles Confidante, Dies at 87


Maureen Cleave, a British journalist who was one of the first music writers to introduce readers to the Beatles, and who recorded John Lennon’s famous observation that the band was “more popular than Jesus,” died on Nov. 6 at her home in Aldeburgh, England. She was 87.

Her daughter Dora Nichols confirmed her death. She did not give a cause but said Ms. Cleave had Alzheimer’s disease.

When Ms. Cleave began writing the column “Disc Date” for The London Evening Standard in 1961, serious writing about pop music was in its infancy. She helped raise its profile, in columns that featured conversations with luminaries including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Rolling Stones. She became a marquee byline; in 1976, The Standard called her “the writer who gets people to talk about themselves in the way no other writer can match.”

But she was best known for her regular reporting on the Beatles, with whom she had a warm relationship, and whom she described affectionately in the newspaper’s pages. Her piece headlined “The Year of the Beatles,” published in The Standard in 1963, was one of the first major newspaper articles about the band.

“Their behavior ranges from the preposterous, farcical and impossible to the kindly, thoughtful and polite,” Ms. Cleave wrote. “You are outraged, diverted and charmed. You are never, ever bored.”

Her biggest moment stemmed from an interview with Lennon published in March 1966, in which she delved into his thoughts on organized religion. “Christianity will go,” he said. “It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I know 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.”

Readers, and the rest of the British press, paid little notice. But in July, a month before the Beatles began a tour of the United States, the American magazine Datebook reprinted the interview and provoked a frenzy.

Lennon’s remark, which came to be widely known as a claim that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus,” prompted demonstrations and drew the ire of many American Christians. Lennon was accused of blasphemy — as, by extension, was Ms. Cleave.

A Baptist pastor in Cleveland threatened excommunication for members of his parish who attended a Beatles concert. The Ku Klux Klan protested Lennon’s remarks. The Vatican issued a statement condemning the comparison.

Lennon apologized — albeit reluctantly — at a news conference during the American tour, under pressure from the band’s manager, Brian Epstein.

Paul McCartney said in the multimedia release “The Beatles Anthology” that Ms. Cleave was one of the band’s go-to journalists. “Maureen was interesting and easy to talk to,” he said. Lennon, he added, “made the unfortunate mistake of talking very freely because Maureen was someone we knew very well, to whom we would just talk straight from the shoulder.”

Lennon’s line made it into The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

The 1966 American tour, fraught with protests and the lingering fear of violence, was the Beatles’ last.

Maureen Diana Cleave was born on Oct. 20, 1934, in India, which was part of the British Empire at the time.

Her father, Maj. John Cleave, was a British officer stationed in India. Her mother, Isabella Mary Fraser Browne, was a homemaker. She had two sisters.

Ms. Cleave attended high school in her mother’s native Ireland after the family returned there.

After graduating from St. Anne’s College at Oxford in 1957, Ms. Cleave found a job at The Evening Standard as a secretary.

An avid fan of pop music, she pitched a column on the subject to the paper’s editors. That idea became “Disc Date.” She traveled to Liverpool in 1963 to see the Beatles in person.

She married Francis Nichols, an Oxford classmate, in 1966, and they later moved to his ancestral home at Lawford Hall in Essex. He died in 2015. Her survivors include their daughters, Dora and Sadie Nichols; their son, Bertie Nichols; and three grandchildren.

After the Beatles broke up in 1970, Ms. Cleave continued covering the music scene for The Evening Standard. In a series of articles in the 1970s under the rubric “Maureen Cleave’s Guide to the Young,” she explained the hippie movement to Standard readers and explored the Hells Angels, among other topics.

Ms. Cleave was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome, after collapsing on a London Underground platform in 1992. She documented her experience with the ailment in The Standard the next year. “The medical profession lagged behind in M.E. awareness,” she wrote; “because there is no test, ergo it doesn’t exist.”

“Apart from having it, I knew little about it myself,” she added. She saw homeopathic doctors as well as traditional practitioners in an effort to manage her condition.

Among the other topics she explored was women’s fitness. She also wrote profiles of painters, writers and philanthropists.

But she also continued publishing reflections on her time with the Beatles. In 2005, she wrote a piece for The Daily Telegraph tied to what would have been John Lennon’s 65th birthday.

“Charisma rarely survives the aging process,” she wrote, “but, killed in the prime of life, Lennon remains a very powerful absence.”

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