Remembering the Night the Beatles Played for the Royal Family
It's hard to imagine a time when the Beatles weren't world famous, but in November of 1963, they were still on the cusp of international stardom. They had gained notoriety in the
Little did George, Paul, and Ringo
The Beatles are most intriguing.
—The Queen Mother
Queen Elizabeth II, a lifetime patron of the Royal Variety Charity, couldn't attend the concert as she was pregnant with Prince Edward, but in her place, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret would represent the monarchy. From the beginning, there was concern over the newly cleaned up mop tops playing for the royal family.
"People were talking about the fact that the Beatles had Liverpool accents, and that they would be performing for the Queen Mother," says rock and roll historian Anthony DeCurtis, a longtime contributing editor to Rolling Stone. "The class system, which is still a significant thing in England, was a far more significant thing back then. There’s this whole idea of the King’s English, and the Beatles spoke a dialect."
The Beatles rehearsing for the Royal Variety Performance at The Prince of Wales Theatre.
Right before the show, a broadcaster even asked the band, “Are you going to lose some of your Liverpool
When asked by another interviewer if they planned to clean up their language, Lennon, too, mocked the question, first in the King's English and then in an exaggerated Liverpool scouse.
Clearly, the band wasn't going to change their accents for anyone, not even the Queen Mother.
The Beatles were the seventh act out of 19—other notables that year included Marlene Dietrich and Dickie Henderson—and clad in their now-signature suits, the foursome opened their set with "From Me to You." McCartney appears somewhat anxious or perhaps just overly excited, almost tripping over his microphone as he introduces their second number, "She Loves You," before they slow it down with a cover of "'Til There Was You" from The Music Man.
What happened next became legendary. "For our last number, I'd like to ask your help," Lennon says, as he licks his lips. "The people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’d just rattle your jewelry."
The people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’d just rattle your jewelry.
The audience roared with laughter and applause. With a cheeky grin, he gave them a quick bow and thumbs up before uttering "Twist and Shout's" opening "Yeah!" Some broadcasts cut to the Queen Mother, who appeared to enjoy the joke. Princess Margaret reportedly leaned in, "clapping on the offbeat."
Rumor had it that Lennon had originally planned to say the somewhat harsher, "rattle your fuckin' jewelry." Perhaps nerves got the best of him. "I was fantastically nervous, but I wanted to say something to rebel a bit," he would later admit. "That was the best I could do."
The concert—and Lennon's now-iconic comment—won rave reviews in the U.K, and garnered the band its first bit of U.S press, a Time magazine mention on November 15, titled "Singers: The New Madness."
"'Beatlemania,' as Britons call the new madness, was striking everywhere, and last week the Queen Mother herself confronted the four young Liverpudlians responsible. There on the stage of London's Prince of Wales Theater stood a wild rhythm-and-blues quartet called the Beatles, and there across the moat of Establishment faces sat the Queen Mother. 'Those in the cheaper seats, clap,' cried the Beatles' leader. 'The rest of you rattle your jewelry.' Then the Beatles broke into [Twist and Shout], and the Queen Mother beamed."
Just a few days later on November 22, Beatlemania got its first American television mention, a five-minute segment on CBS News featuring footage from a show in Bournemouth, England. "And though musicologists say it is no different than any other rock and roll, except maybe louder, it has carried the Beatles to the top of the heap. In fact, they have met royalty, and royalty is appreciative and impressed," said London correspondent Alexander Kendrick during the clip.
Indeed, the Queen Mother reportedly loved the Royal Variety performance. "It’s one of the best shows I’ve seen," she reportedly said. "The Beatles are most intriguing."
Nineteen sixty-three represents something of a tipping point, not only for the
The feeling was apparently mutual. In October of 1965, the Queen made each of the four men Members of the Honorable Order of the British Empire, an award given for their international success, and their contribution to the British arts.
Security at Buckingham Palace attempts to hold back the crowds of Beatles fans as John, Paul, George, and Ringo receive their MBEs.
But the social and cultural revolution of the 1960s was unmistakably underway. Just a few years later, gentle teasing from the stage had given way to pointed gestures of protest. In November of 1969, Lennon returned his honorary title with a terse, controversial note, "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. With love. John Lennon of Bag"
And despite being invited back to play the Royal Variety Performance again, the Beatles never returned. The youthquake of 1963 had become an open rebellion. "As the ‘60s went on, that degree of rebellion became more of a factor in what rock and roll was," says
The Beatles' criticism of the monarchy become explicit on the 1969' album Abbey Road, which ends with the McCartney song "Her Majesty." The hidden track contains the line "Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl but she doesn't have a lot to say."
Even that seems gentle in comparison to the open hostility that was to come from bands like the Sex Pistols, who openly equated the Queen with a "fascist regime."
The cover art for the Sex Pistols’ 1977 single "God Save the Queen"
Punk rock in the U.K. was as much a political movement as a musical one, and it pitted itself against the out-of-touch gilded world of Elizabeth and her family. "In a society with a lot of people struggling very hard, the idea of tipping your hat to the Queen—certainly by the time the Sex Pistols rolled around—that wasn’t anything anybody was interested in doing," says
These days, most of those counterculture icons rockers have softened to the idea of Queen Elizabeth II, and only a few would balk at the idea of receiving an honor from the royal family as David Bowie did in 2000. "They’re thinking about their legacy, and what it’s going to represent clearly getting a knighthood puts you in a certain kind of category," says DeCurtis.
It's hard to know what John Lennon would think of the royal family had he lived to see its current iteration. But today, the rock and roll legend of the Beatles is one of the things for which England is best known—and almost as much of a tourist draw as the Queen herself. Paul McCartney is now a Sir—he was knighted on March 11, 1997.
As for that cheeky number, "Her Majesty?"
McCartney played it in the garden of Buckingham Palace for the Queen has part of her Golden Jubilee celebration in 2002: a tribute, not a taunt.
In 2012, McCartney told an interviewer that the Queen would be remembered in large part for reigning through the tumult of the 1960s. "That is one of the things her reign will be remembered for. Queen Elizabeth I, we remember Raleigh; Queen Elizabeth II it’s gonna be the Beatles," McCartney told The Telegraph.
"She is the rock ’n’ roll queen."
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.