The Time the Beatles Mocked the Royal Family to Their Faces

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 4 2013 4:28 PM

The Beatles Play for the Queen

131104_BTB_queenVariety

Brow Beat is following the Beatles in “real time,” 50 years later, from their first chart-topper to their final rooftop concert. Fifty years ago today, the Beatles played for the Queen of England. Andrew Jackson, author of Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles’ Solo Careers, describes the performance and the impact of John Lennon’s irreverent remark.

When John Lennon informed manager Brian Epstein that he planned to tell the audience of the Queen’s Royal Variety Performance to “rattle their fuckin’ jewelry,” Epstein worried despite himself. He knew even John Lennon would not dare curse before royalty. But then again, there was always the possibility Lennon might somehow sabotage the entire Beatle operation.

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Originated in 1912 as the Royal Command Performance, it was the biggest night in British show business, a gala variety show for charity recorded for later television broadcast. As soon as the press learned the Beatles had been invited to play, reporters harangued the foursome. They suggested the band had sold out their original fans by agreeing to play the ultimate “establishment” event and repeatedly asked if they were going to lose their Liverpool accents. “No, we don’t all speak like BBC,” McCartney scoffed.

It was the era of the Angry Young Men in British film and theater, as working-class protagonists railed against upper-class pretension, and Lennon brooded on what to say during the show. “I was fantastically nervous,” he later recalled, “but I wanted to say something to rebel a bit.”

Each year, crowds gathered early at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre to await the royals and celebrities, but on Nov. 4, 1963, policemen restrained hordes of teenage fans who chanted for the Beatles. So that the group could move back and forth without being seen, a screened passageway was built to connect the theater with the hotel next door. The arrival of stars like Marlene Dietrich went practically unnoticed—though when the Queen Mother entered with Princess Margaret and her husband, Lord Snowdon, the fans cheered respectfully. Queen Elizabeth did not attend, as she was pregnant with Prince Edward.

The Beatles were the seventh act of the evening (out of 19) and launched their set with “From Me to You.” Lennon’s voice dominated while McCartney bobbed his head with eyes wide and chin tucked. Starr beamed and shook his mane, and Harrison looked far younger than his 20 years. Afterwards, the out-of-breath McCartney got a laugh with “Good evening, how are yer—alright?” Then the powerful “yeah yeah yeah”s of “She Loves You” resonated throughout the hall.

McCartney introduced the next song, “Till There Was You” from the play The Music Man, as having also been “recorded by our favorite American group, Sophie Tucker”—an apparent joke about her size, something Tucker often joked about herself. (Tucker, a Jewish-American performer who sang ragtime and blues, had hits like “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love” and “Won’t You Be a Dear, Dear Daddy to a ’Itta Bitta Doll.”) Harrison got off a nice solo while mothers and daughters alike swooned at McCartney’s cherubic grin, little suspecting the debauchery of the band’s Hamburg club days.

The group bowed, then Lennon stepped forward to the mike, scratching his hair and assuming a deadpan expression. “For our last number, I’d like to ask your help.” He licked his lips. “The people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands.” He paused as the audience chuckled. “And the rest of you, if you’d just rattle your jewelry.” He grinned at the camera with the thumbs up, head ducked as if fearing his old headmaster’s cane. Then, as the laughter rolled in, he took another bow, beaming.

Beatles_Lennon_Royal
John Lennon tells the crowd to rattle its jewelry.

Still from YouTube

Some versions of the telecast cut to the Queen Mother smiling indulgently, raising her fingers and nodding like a good sport. One gentleman behind her smiled and another looked on as if undecided whether an impudence had been committed. Epstein must have breathed a sigh of relief. Lennon looked relieved as well, shaking his head and crying “Yeahhhhh!” as the band kicked into “Twist and Shout.” The sandpaper edge to his vocals provided the raucous flipside to McCartney’s show tune. Princess Margaret clapped and inclined toward the stage. The band nailed the ascending notes of the howling climax, McCartney’s fringe wet with sweat.

Following the show, the band chatted briefly with the Queen Mother in the receiving line. “It’s one of the best shows I’ve seen,” she was later reported to have raved. “The Beatles are most intriguing.” Starr, meanwhile, a self-proclaimed “leg-man,” recalled meeting Marlene Dietrich and eying her legs. In 1967, the band would include her on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s.

“Beatles Rock the Royals” and “Night of Triumph for Four Young Men” ran the next day’s headlines in The Daily Express and Daily Mail. The Daily Mirror’s editorial gushed, “YEAH! YEAH! YEAH! You have to be a real sour square not to love the nutty, noisy, happy, handsome Beatles.” In the week that followed, The Daily Express ran five front-page stories on the boys.

The performance earned the band their first mainstream American coverage: Time proclaimed the group “the very spirit of good clean fun” in an article headlined, “The New Madness.” Lennon’s “jewelry” joke was the lede.

With one quip, Lennon had established that there was more to the band than a gimmick haircut. When CBS aired the first in-depth profile of the group in America on Nov. 21—the day before John F. Kennedy was assassinated—reporter Alexander Kendrick commented, “Some say they are the authentic voice of the proletariat.” Capitol Records’ press release also quoted the one-liner and painted Lennon as a “determined 23-year old whose somewhat stern face gives the impression of an angry young man.”

Lennon’s irreverence crystallized both the Beatles’ rags-to-riches mystique and the working class’ moment of ascendancy in Britain. As Philip Norman wrote in his band biography Shout!, the Beatles’ image was set as “the four happy-go-lucky Liverpool lads who looked absurd, but knew it, and whose salty one-line witticisms seemed to epitomize the honesty of the working classes….”

The band kept up their cheeky irreverence toward the monarchy in 1964 when reporters asked Harrison who would be the leading lady of A Hard Day’s Night. “We’re trying to get the Queen,” he said. “She sells.”

Still, the group never did another Royal Variety Performance, despite being secretly invited each year. “Everybody’s very nervous and uptight and nobody performs well,” Lennon explained in 1970.  

That did not stop the Queen from making them Members of the Order of the British Empire in 1965, in recognition of the huge revenues they generated when they opened the U.S. market to British pop music. In 1969, Lennon sent his MBE medal back with the letter, “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’ [his then-current single] slipping down the charts. With Love, John Lennon.”

That same year, the protagonist of his song “Mean Mr. Mustard” shouted “something obscene” at the Queen on Abbey Road—just as Lennon had wanted to do six years earlier, but hadn’t dared. McCartney, however, closed their final album with a more affectionate tribute to “Her Majesty.” In the brief song, he conceded that she didn’t have a lot to say, but still he was determined to make her his. Indeed, in 1997, Queen Elizabeth II would knight him.

The band’s twin attitudes toward authority—angry rebel and reassuring showman—were at the heart of their all-encompassing appeal. But loath as Lennon may have been to admit it, there was still nothing bigger to a British boy than playing for the Queen.

Andrew Jackson is the author of Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles’ Solo Careers. He has written for RollingStone.com, Yahoo!, and other publications.