Maureen Cleave, the female journalist from the newspaper the Evening Standard, who chronicled the rise of the Beatles passed away on November 6, at the age of 87. She was most famous for being the source of the “We are bigger than Jesus” interview with John Lennon. Speculations were ripe that she was the subject of John’s “Norwegian Wood (This bird has flown)” lyrics, but it wasn’t her.
The infamous quote was buried inside a deep interview with Lennon, and caused no stir in Europe. But when U.S. teen magazine Datebook lifted the words out from their context, it set America on fire. Eventually, it may even have resulted in the killing of Lennon, by the hands of a deranged madman. He stated that he was motivated partly by Lennon’s remarks on religion, including the “more popular than Jesus” quote.
In January 1963, Maureen Cleave was a glamorous young pop columnist on the Evening Standard, a fashionable, buzzy paper that chronicled the stirrings of Swinging London through the eyes of writers whose average age was at least a generation younger than the rest of Fleet Street.
A 28-year-old Oxford-educated former debutante, she was the first London journalist to catch on to the Beatles phenomenon, furnishing the group their first major splash in the metropolitan press in a piece headlined “Why The Beatles Create All That Frenzy”, a fortnight after the release of their second single, “Please Please Me” and their first appearance on ITV’s “Thank Your Lucky Stars“.
“They wear bell-bottomed suits of a rich burgundy colour with black velvet collars,” she noted. “Their shirts are pink and their hairstyles are French.” She quoted an unnamed Liverpool housewife as saying: “Their physical appearance inspires frenzy. They look beat-up and depraved in the nicest possible way.” This anonymous admirer was Gillian Reynolds, later a distinguished Daily Telegraph columnist, and Maureen Cleave’s best friend at Oxford. She was the one that tipped Maureen off about her hometown group.
Maureen Cleave quickly became part of the Beatles’ inner circle (her nickname: “Thingy”), and enjoyed privileged access to “the boys”, accompanying them from Liverpool to London for their first concert at the London Palladium and in 1964 on their first trip to the United States.
“For two years they were out of breath,” she recalled. “They ran to escape screaming mobs of frightening harpies. ‘Come on, Thingy,’ they’d roar at me as I pelted after them. They were smuggled in and out of food lifts. Once, in America, just like the Marx Brothers, they dashed through a Palm Court orchestra playing to ladies eating ice cream.”
Lennon, for his part, took a particular shine to Maureen Cleave, admiring her intellect as well as her looks – including her red boots by Anello & Davide which were considered rather outré for the time. She wore virtually no make-up and her hair was a natural chestnut colour; it was styled by Rose Evansky, the inventor of the “blow wave”. Lennon likened her prose, meanwhile, to that of Richmal Crompton’s “Just William” books, a compliment Maureen Cleave claimed was like being compared to Shakespeare.
But once the Beatles had become the most famous entertainers in the world, she witnessed at first hand the destructive force of modern celebrity. When she rang Lennon up at his stockbroker’s Tudor-style mansion in Weybridge, he would ask her what day it was, for the Beatles had long since lost the ability to distinguish day from night.
Whatever the true extent of her relationship with Lennon, Maureen Cleave certainly came to influence his creativity. In 1964 she happened to be interviewing him on the day the Beatles were to record the song “A Hard Day’s Night”. Arriving in a taxi with Lennon at the EMI recording studio in Abbey Road, she found the tune was already in his head and the words scribbled on the back of a birthday card a fan had sent his baby son Julian.
The lyrics included the lines: “But when I get home to you/I find my tiredness is through/And I feel all right”. Considering this rather feeble and awkward, Maureen Cleave suggested something rather more risqué: “I find the things that you do/Will make me feel all right”.
Lennon agreed the change, and kept it in, giving her the amended written lyric as a memento. After she chided Lennon for only writing songs with one-syllable words, he consciously worked “anybody”, “independence” and “appreciate” into the lyrics of the song “Help!”.
In the spring of 1966 Maureen Cleave interviewed each of the Beatles in turn for a series in the Evening Standard called “How Does A Beatle Live?” The Lennon article appeared on March 4, portraying him as a lazy, restless but reflective and thoughtful figure who was reading widely about religion, and coolly reporting him as saying: “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 – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
Four months later, on the eve of a Beatles US tour, American teen magazine Datebook picked up the article and headlined the quote in an issue published on 29 July 1966, detonating a media firestorm. The interviews were provided to Datebook by Tony Barrow, the Beatles press officer. Barrow wanted American fans to appreciate John and Paul as intellectuals, not just lightweight pop singers.
The magazine, hitherto a minor player in the teen market, unexpectedly sold around a million copies. American Christian fundamentalists were outraged, Beatles records were burned in the Bible belt of the Deep South and local radio stations banned Beatles airplay.
The Ku Klux Klan arranged anti-Beatles demonstrations, the Vatican denounced Lennon and Beatles albums were banned in South Africa. Lennon was eventually pressed into apologising at a Chicago press conference on 11 August, 1966.
Lennon’s comments did much to quell the animosity against the group, and a planned wave of Beatles bonfires were called off. However, The Beatles remained nervous throughout their final tour. In London, Maureen Cleave defended Lennon’s remarks, saying he had merely acknowledged Christianity’s decline in postwar Europe which meant that the Beatles were, to many people, better known than Jesus.
“With a PR man at his side,” Maureen Cleave recalled many years afterwards, “the quote would never have got into my notebook, let alone the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, where it ended up. As it was, the Evening Standard didn’t even put it in the headline. We were used to him sounding off like that and knew it was ironically meant. But the Americans have little sense of irony, and when the article appeared in a magazine, all hell broke loose. It was the last time the Beatles ever toured.”
The incident ended Maureen’s involvement with the Beatles. At the Evening Standard she conducted frequent interviews with other famous musicians of the 1960s, including Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Over the next 40 years she continued as a distinguished interviewer of people in all walks of life for the Telegraph and Saga magazines among many others.
In August 1992, Maureen collapsed on the platform at Tottenham Court Road tube station with symptoms later diagnosed as ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue). She was still able to work though, and in 2009 in conjunction with the then current “Nowhere Boy” film about Lennon’s youth, she wrote a piece for the Daily Mail with the headline “Did I break up the Beatles?”
She married, in 1966, Francis Nichols, an economist and farmer, whom she met at Oxford and who predeceased her in 2015. They had three children.
Maureen Cleave, born October 20 1934, died November 6 2021.