What’s an MBE, anyway? Why did John Lennon give his back?

The M.B.E. (Member of the Order of the British Empire) was an award invented by King George V in 1917 to commemorate services to the war effort by people who weren’t at the frontlines. All the Beatles received the medal in 1965, which entitled them to a payment of forty pounds a year and free admission to the Whispering Gallery at St. Paul’s Cathedral (ordinarily about a shilling). The Beatles were somewhat mystified as to why the Queen was honoring them, but generally cheerful about the notion. As Ringo Starr put it, “We’re going to meet the Queen and she’s going to give us a badge. I thought, ‘This is cool.'” Lennon later said that the Beatles had gotten stoned at Buckingham Palace before the ceremony, smoking a joint in the bathroom; George Harrison said it was just tobacco. When the Beatles finally met Queen Elizabeth II, they thought that her majesty was a pretty nice girl, but she didn’t have a lot to say. (Really.)

The Beatles’ parents were pleased; the group largely forgot about their medals, although Harrison and Paul McCartney later used theirs as jacket decorations at the Sgt. Pepper photo shoot. Lennon gave his to his beloved Aunt Mimi, who hung it over her mantelpiece. But as the years went by, he had second thoughts about his implied endorsement of the British government and royal family, so on November 25, 1969, he sent the medal back to the queen, seizing on whatever excuse seemed handy. His accompanying note read, “Your majesty, I am returning this MBE in 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.” (When the region of Biafra attempted to break away from Nigeria in the late ’60s and a civil war ensued, Great Britain provided the ruling party with air support. Lennon’s solo single “Cold Turkey” peaked on the UK charts at just #14.) Lennon said at the time, “The Queen’s intelligent. It won’t spoil her cornflakes.”

(Excerpted from the 2006 book Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton’s Little John?: Music’s Most Enduring Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed, published by Three Rivers Press, written by Gavin Edwards.)