This was the night of The Beatles’ famous appearance at the Royal Command Performance at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, in the presence of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.
They had gained notoriety in the UK, but were still months away from their iconic appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in the States, and the British foursome was invited to play the Queen’s annual Royal Variety Performance.
Little did George, Paul, and Ringo know that near the end of their four-song set, John Lennon would utter a phrase that would go down in the annals of pop history.
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, “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.”
Right before the show, a broadcaster even asked the band, “Are you going to lose some of your Liverpool dialect for the Royal show?” Paul McCartney teasingly retorted, “No, but you know we don’t all speak like BBC.”
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 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 off beat.”
Rumor had it that Lennon had originally planned to say the somewhat harsher. 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.”
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.
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 Beatles, but also for British culture. At the time, George Harrison spoke kindly of the Royal Variety show. “It was great. It was very good,” he said. “The audience was much better than we expected.”
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.
Despite being invited back to play the Royal Variety Performance again, the Beatles never returned.
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