By 1965, The Beatles were already one of the biggest and most successful groups in popular music, culminating in the phenomenon known as Beatlemania. Whether you like them or not, you can’t deny this fact; to this day, they remain the best-selling musical act to have ever existed. It didn’t take long for the Fab Four to experience this kind of success; their first album, Please Please Me, peaked at number one and remained there for a whopping 30 weeks.
Their astronomical commercial success didn’t end with the first album either – Please Please Me started the run in which 11 of 12 albums they released all reached number one on the British charts – and it seemed as though everything they did became instant best-sellers.
The Fab Four became such a cultural force that the upper-echelons of society were forced to recognise their successes. So, in October of 1965, the Fab Four headed to Buckingham Palace to be awarded MBEs by Queen Elizabeth II during her traditional Birthday honours.
Perhaps it was naivety or giddiness at the time, but each member of the Beatles received their MBE with a smile and didn’t think anything of it. In fact, according to Lennon, their giddiness was due to chemical interference: “We were giggling like crazy because we had just smoked a joint in the loos of Buckingham Palace. We were so nervous,” he said. George Harrison, however, denied this detail later on.
From the very beginning, Lennon was uneasy about accepting this award and only did so after Epstein convinced him. Ringo Starr recalled the day the Liverpool lads were at Twickenham Film Studios where they found out from their manager about being nominated by Prime Minister Harold Wilson at the time: “He (Epstein) said, ‘What do you think, boys?’ I had no problem with it- none of us had any problems with it in the beginning. We all thought it was really thrilling. We’re going to meet the Queen and she’s going to give us a badge. I thought, ‘This is cool!'”
During the press conference that announced that the Fab Four would be receiving the award – to which Lennon arrived 70 minutes late – Lennon cheekily stated to a reporter: “I think I’ll have mine made into a bell push so that people have to press it when they come to the house or I’ll take it to an antique dealer and find out what it is.”
It was clear that Lennon never really took it seriously, but it would take a serious event that finally pushed Lennon to eventually return his medal back in an act of defiance.
So, the question remains, why did Lennon send his back four years later?
Why did John Lennon return his MBE?
John Lennon’s act of protest was not uncharacteristic of his behaviour and wasn’t exactly shocking. According to The New York Times, Lennon had said that he “really shouldn’t have taken it,” before adding he “felt I had sold out. I must get rid of it, I kept saying, I must get rid of it. So I did. Wanted to get rid of by 1970 anyway.”
So what prompted him to finally return the medal? Lennon said that he was “beginning to be ashamed of being British,” and that he was waiting for “an event to tie up with it.”
On November 25th, 1969, Lennon decided to retrieve his MBE medal from his Aunt Mimi’s bungalow in Bournemouth where it stood on her mantelpiece. He then returned to the Apple HQ on Saville Row in London and wrote a letter. Three copies were dispatched: one to Queen Elizabeth, one to PM Harold Wilson, and the other to the secretary of the Central Chancery. Lennon’s chauffeur, Les Anthony, according to The Beatles Bible, personally delivered the medal back to the Queen along with her copy of the letter.
The letter read: “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”
Signing off: “With love. John Lennon of Bag.”
The ‘bag’ part referenced Yoko Ono and Lennon’s company they had recently set up: Bag Productions. The press predictably soaked this up. Lennon gave a few interviews afterwards, where he elaborated on his reasons for returning the medal.
“As a protest against violence and war, especially Britain’s involvement in Biafra which most of the British public are unaware of,” Lennon began. Adding, “I began being ashamed of being British, and I’m a patriotic nationalist. That’s the truth, Yoko can vouch for that.”
Continuing: “I’m also fighting about what Britain invented – radar and all the different things we’ve done. But every day I just feel a need to worry a bit more about it. I was going to send the MBE back anyway. I could have done it privately, the press would have found out anyway. You would have been here a week later instead – less impact.”
Did John Lennon denounce his order of the British Empire?
It would certainly seem like Lennon had fully intended to denounce his order of the British Empire, however, it is not that simple.
When Lennon passed away in 1980, his official name was still John Winston Ono Lennon MBE. Although he returned his medal, only the Queen has the power to revoke the honour.
“An individual may decide to renounce their honour voluntarily” and that they “would still hold the honour unless or until HM Queen annulled it,” according to Radio X.
The impact of The Beatles being awarded MBEs:
When the Beatles were originally awarded their MBEs, many who had already been awarded medals were furious that a pop group should be awarded this honour as they felt that it had somewhat trivialised the tradition.
Many who had received the honour for military services had ironically sent theirs back. In response to this, Lennon, in his usual way, quipped: “They got them for killing people. We got ours for entertaining. I’d say we deserve ours more.”
One of such recipients includes Hector Dupuis, a Canadian MP, who didn’t want to be “on the same level as vulgar nincompoops,” according to the Beatles Bible.
Why were The Beatles awarded MBEs?
The Beatles were awarded this honour for their outstanding achievements within the music industry and popular entertainment.
Ringo Starr humorously recalled: “‘Well, how long have you been together as a band?’ The Queen asked, to which Paul and I said, ‘We’ve been together now for forty years doesn’t don’t seem a day too much.’ She had this strange, quizzical look on her face, like either she wanted to laugh or she was thinking ‘Off with their heads!'”
According to the Beatles Bible, it has been postulated that Labour Prime Minister at the time, Harold Wilson, nominated the Beatles in an attempt to gain popularity with the younger voters.
Currently, the remaining Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr have since had an upgrade and are now ‘Knights of the British Empire’.
Here’s an article about how David Bowie outright refused the British Empire’s award, not once but twice.