John Lennon’s advocacy for world peace is ubiquitous with his legacy as his iconic music with The Beatles and then Yoko Ono. It would be a part of his life that would see the legend return his MBE to the Queen in 1969.
50 years ago today Lennon would put himself under intense media scrutiny as he returned his MBE to the Queen in protest of the British involvement in conflicts across the world. Lennon would deliver the news with a letter that has now become recognised as a key piece of music history.
The Beatle had been given the historic award, known formally as The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, for his contributions to the arts with his music. Presented in 1965 to Lennon alongside the rest of The Beatles, the award represented the swell of pride that had nationally spread following the band’s worldwide success.
While The Beatles had taken a long time to find a place of the British establishment, the award would prove a mark of the country’s appreciation. On November 25th, 1969, Lennon would offer up the chance for that opinion to be scrutinised as he stood up for his belief in peace and his disappointment in Britain’s foreign policy. He would rattle the Royals and not for the first time.
The day would begin with Lennon’s personal chauffeur Les Anthony returning the insignia of the award to Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street to make his point loud and clear accompanied by a quite amusing letter. Arriving on notepaper headed Bag Productions, his and Ono’s recently created company, the letter is now extremely valuable as a piece of Beatles memorabilia.
The letter read:
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”
As you might imagine, Lennon’s letter was not widely accepted by the notorious British tabloid press who looked to vilify Lennon for betraying his country. But much of that noise was soon squashed for two very good reasons. The first one being the video below.
Lennon called a press conference on the day of returning his insignia, a clip of which is above, and quickly moved to not only affirm his position but reconcile it with his “patriotic” and “nationalist” views. The singer would say in the statement that he had become “embarrassed to be British” following the government’s involvement in Biafra and the continued support of America in Vietnam.
The second reason would be the reason he had called the press conference in the first place. Lennon was becoming a seasoned speaker and was keen to use his position properly. By 1969, Lennon was beginning to find his own voice away from The Beatles. With this act he moved further still from the rest of the band, admitting he hadn’t consulted them prior to returning the award, Lennon was beginning to forge his own path.
The path journeyed already had seen the ‘Imagine’ singer evolve out of his boyband persona and into a person deeply concerned with the world around him. He had transcended the role of ‘pop star’ and was now determined to be an outspoken artist and complete his evolution.
It would be exactly what he did too, as he and Yoko would go on to not only spread their message through numerous songs but use the press, which was becoming a powerful tool for Lennon, to their benevolent advantage. Arguably this is the beginning of that mission and sees Lennon taking the first steps towards his mythical messianic status.
Above all the press conferences, the photoshoots and the singles, Lennon managed to pull it off because he was authentic. In the clip above and in his words, he feels genuinely concerned with the world around him and utterly veracious in his determination to help fix it. We could use a few more artists like this right now.
In this act, Lennon, as one of the most famous men in the world at that time, used his platform to make a point about global injustice. He would put himself under the spotlight of the British government and The Crown to do so. On this day in 1969, John Lennon would stand up for what he believed in and returned his MBE to The Queen.