In 2012, on the eve of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, Paul McCartney described her as “the rock ’n’ roll queen.” He reflected (out of justifiable pride and historical perspective rather than egotism) that The Beatles will come to be seen as one of the great products of Britain’s second Elizabethan Age – in much the same way as, say, William Shakespeare was for the first. It’s hard to argue against that view. Indeed, BBC News bulletins recapping Her Majesty The Queen’s reign on the day of her death made reference to how the monarchy came to be seen in some quarters as stuffy and out of touch during “the swinging ‘60s of The Beatles”, showing old newsreels of Buckingham Palace under siege from fans when the Fabs received their MBEs in 1965. The band members themselves, of course, had different – and fluctuating – views on the royal family but, like everyone else here, their sense of national identity was inextricably linked to it. Even as they ushered in that period of sweeping social change which caused such institutions to be questioned as never before, the monarch remained a keystone in their lives (remember Ed Sullivan’s introduction to their epochal appearance at New York’s Shea Stadium: “…honoured by their Queen…”). And she popped up in the lives of four of her most famous subjects on a number of occasions, always adding a little grandeur to their legacy along the way.
Of course, the Fabs initially grew up with an altogether different monarch, with King George VI reigning throughout their primary school years. But when Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, her coronation led to the first public appearance onstage by a young James Paul McCartney. Fittingly, for the Beatle most supportive of tradition, ten-year-old Macca won a Liverpool Public Libraries writing competition (under-11s category) with a school essay heralding the coronation in June 1953. Called up on stage by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool to collect his award at the historic Picton Hall in the city centre, Paul had his first serious bout of nerves (“I stumbled up with legs of jelly”), something that would trouble him into the Beatles era. The essay refers to “our lovely young Queen”, and he would take a more particular interest in her loveliness in the years which followed, later revealing that he and George had both lusted over Her Majesty during their early teens. “There was always something going on about her – teenage fantasies,” he told Q magazine in 1997.
As a group, The Beatles had their first regal encounter at the 1963 Royal Variety Show in London, meeting the Queen Mother in the wake of John’s famous “rattle your jewellery” quip. The following year, Princess Margaret (the Queen’s sister) attended the world premiere of A Hard Day’s Night at the London Pavilion, and pressed flesh with the Fabs once more in July 1965 when Help! debuted at the same venue. The latter film included a sequence which pretended the band had taken refuge at Buckingham Palace, but the band’s first – and only – collective meeting with their sovereign took place in November 1965 when they famously ventured to the Palace for real to receive their MBE medals. Its pretty routine for pop musicians to receive royal honours today but back then it was something akin to a national scandal in some quarters, with a number of war veterans returning their own empire medals in protest in what they saw as the frivolous nature of those four particular awards. While the honours system is managed by politicians, not the royal family, The Queen herself seemed to have no problem decorating the Fabs. Paul later described her as “very sweet” during the ceremony, and – his teen ardour for her presumably having cooled by that point – “a bit mumsy”. John later said the band members smoked pot in the Palace toilets to calm their nerves, a typically provocative Lennon claim later debunked by George in the Beatles Anthology TV series.
Maybe as a little nod of appreciation, The Beatles arranged for a box containing the four singles (including ‘Hey Jude’) which launched their Apple label in 1968 to be hand delivered to Buckingham Palace. And they repeated the gesture the following year on the release of Abbey Road, an album which featured two references to The Queen – firstly in the lyrics of ‘Mean Mr Mustard’ and more pointedly in ‘Her Majesty’, the 23-second acoustic ditty which closed the album. But John, perhaps still feeling that accepting the MBE had undermined his rebel image, did not curry royal favour for long. In December 1969, he retrieved his medal from pride of place on his Aunt Mimi’s mantelpiece and returned it to The Queen in a blaze of publicity, writing: “Your Majesty, I am returning my MBE as a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.” It was very redolent of a period when – amid drug charges, long hair, appearing naked on album covers and giving interviews from the inside of a bag – many in the UK believed he had gone completely barmy. But he did at least sign it “with love” and, interestingly, he often asked what was going on with the royal family when interviewed by UK journalists during his time in the States over the course of the 1970s. And, as we shall see, The Queen certainly didn’t bear him a grudge.
Over the next two decades or so, regal interactions with the Fabs were pretty scarce. Paul and Linda met The Queen and Prince Philip at the end of 1982 at London’s Royal Albert Hall, during a concert in aid of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds which featured classical re-workings of Beatles tunes. They chatted with the royal couple during the interval and, though not mentioned in Paul’s recent Facebook recollections of meeting Her Majesty, apparently gently chided the Windsors over their love of hunting – though Linda did find common ground over their shared affection for horses. Phew. Again, The Queen can’t have been too fussed about their difference of opinion, as in 1996 she not only gave a donation towards the creation of Paul’s passion project, the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, but also agreed to formally open the building in June of that year. And less than 12 months later, Paul was back to Buckingham Palace for what he described as “one of the best days ever”, when he was knighted by The Queen herself. “When The Queen put the old Edward the Confessor’s sword on my shoulder….one of my kids cried. That brought home what a big deal it was,” he said.
When The Queen’s Golden Jubilee rolled around in 2002, it was kind of inevitable The Beatles would have a big part to play. ‘All You Need Is Love’ was chosen as the official anthem of the 50th anniversary celebrations, and was the climatic song of the all-star ‘Party at the Palace’ concert that summer – headlined, of course, by Paul McCartney. He cheekily included a rendition of ‘Her Majesty’ in his set (his one and only live performance of it, as far as I’m aware) and, I would imagine, must’ve reflected on that award-winning essay he had penned half a century earlier. He also joined Eric Clapton on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, a tribute to George who had died just six months earlier. On that occasion, Buckingham Palace had announced The Queen was “very sad” to learn of Harrison’s passing, a rare statement by the monarch about a celebrity’s death. And in 2008, she made a point of seeking out the garden created in memory of George during her visit to the Chelsea Flower Show. George’s widow Olivia, meeting her for the first time, said: “It was nice of her to visit. I really feel honoured, truly honoured.” And despite the medal-returning shenanigans of 1969, Her Majesty didn’t forget John, either, joining Yoko to officially open Liverpool John Lennon Airport during that Beatles-flavoured Golden Jubilee year of 2002.
Curiously, Ringo is the Beatle who’s voiced a slightly conflicted view of the monarchy. He always had positive things to say about his one encounter with The Queen in 1965, and – inspired by the Golden Jubilee and the recent death of the Queen Mother – co-wrote a cracking song for 2003’s Ringo Rama album entitled ‘Elizabeth Reigns’. But while raising a glass to Her Majesty in the lyrics (“she’s head of the family”), he also sings: “We don’t really need a king.” At the end of the tune he murmurs, “well, there goes the knighthood,” and interviews in support of the album reiterated his view that the monarchy was something of an outmoded institution. His vaguely republican stance clearly didn’t perturb the royal household though (or, more likely, the song was never heard by anyone there) as no objections were made when the UK Government finally awarded him that knighthood in 2017. And Ringo? He was reported to be “chuffed to bits”, and later confirmed after his investiture at the Palace in March 2018: “It means a lot, actually.” Though ironically it was future king Prince William, rather than Queen Elizabeth, who tapped the knighting sword over his shoulders.
Macca, however, felt no such ambivalence and continued to be a staunch advocate of his former teenage crush during her final decade. Once again, he topped the bill at the star-studded Diamond Jubilee concert (this time outside the gates of Buckingham Palace) in 2012, and was able to introduce his third wife Nancy to The Queen at London’s Royal Academy of Arts that same year (she’d also encountered the second Lady McCartney, Heather Mills, during an exhibition of Paul’s paintings at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool a decade earlier, but we don’t talk about that). And there was a very special final meeting of pop royalty and actual royalty in 2018, when Her Majesty bestowed the prestigious Companion of Honour medal on Paul during a ceremony at the Palace. “We have got to stop meeting like this,” he said. The Queen giggled.
While he didn’t perform at this year’s Platinium Jubilee celebrations (perhaps wary of overdoing it), Paul did record a brief video message played at the event, passing on his congratulations and stressing that “we love you.” And he echoed this feeling during a lengthy Facebook post reflecting on his meetings with the monarch posted soon after her death. And it seems the admiration was mutual. Ex-French President Francois Hollande has recalled how, during a state visit in 2014, she asked if the Republican Guards orchestra playing in her honour could perform some Beatles songs. And I’ve read a quote from her (though despite sifting through the mountain of coverage in recent days, I’m darned if I can find it), reflecting on the country’s artistic achievements during her reign, where she said something like: “Imagine a world where we had never heard the music of The Beatles.” So, on top of everything else, Queen Elizabeth II was a lady of taste. Truly, a rock ‘n’ roll queen.