The Beatles had received their MBEs — which stands for “Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” — back on October 26, 1965. If I may quote The Wikipedia,

The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is a British order of chivalry, rewarding contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organisations, and public service outside the civil service.

There are actually five levels of the Most Excellent Order, of which a mere Member is the lowest. Above it are Officer, Commander, Knight/Dame Commander, and finally Knight/Dame Grand Cross.

The decision to honor four mop-topped pop musicians with even the lowest level of membership had not been without controversy. The Beatles Encyclopedia notes:

The announcement that the group would be awarded the MBE was issued in [sic] 11 June 1965, and The Beatles held a press conference the following day at Twickenham Film Studios to discuss it. George was to comment: “I didn’t think you got that sort of thing, just for playing rock’n’roll music.”

The following day the first of many awards by disgruntled previous recipients was returned to the Palace. Over the next few days the irate former recipients making their protest included Hector Dupuis, a former Canadian MP; anti-aircraft expert James Berg; ex-Naval officer David Evans-Rees; retired squadron leader Douglas Moffit — and a Colonel Frederick Wragg returned no less than twelve medals. Dupuis commented: “The British House of Royalty had put me on the same level as a bunch of vulgar numbskulls.”

One wonders what all these people thought on this day in 1969, when John Lennon had his chauffeur drive his MBE medal over to Buckingham Palace with a note saying:

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

When the British public and media reacted, predictably, with polite hysteria, John told the BBC he’d been “mulling it over for a few years” and mentioned the My Lai massacre by way of motivation. Then, according to Bob Spitz’s The Beatles,

In an eerily delivered rejoinder, he muttered: “Really shouldn’t have taken it. 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 it by 1970 anyway.”

Lennon seemed determined to burn all bridges ahead of the change of decade, heedless of the collateral damage — such as the Apple Press Office, which had to deal with the fallout. In The Longest Cocktail Party, Richard DiLello describes that day at Apple HQ this way:

“John’s giving me the statement within the hour,” The Press Officer [Derek Taylor] told his staff. “It’s been coming for a long time.” He covered his face with his hands and sighed into the darkness, turning silent thoughts in his head. He was looking very ill these days. The accumulation of the past two years was showing in his face….

He had held it all together; he had harnessed all the madness and kept the split worlds of the square and the straight satisfied, coping with their requests, their demands and their deals. But he was not so blinded by love or sentiment that he couldn’t see what had once been a nice, stoned idea dreamed up on a warm, quiet afternoon had altered irrevocably. And right now, the only music he could hear was the sound of a burned-out record with the needle stuck in the last grooves, repeating itself over and over again.

“John says he’s ready now, Derek….”

Within the hour the calls would start coming in.

Later in the afternoon John appeared on camera to explain himself (ignore the incorrect title card, which says Sept. 1 for some reason):

Lennon’s return of the medal, it should be noted, was purely symbolic; technically one cannot renounce one’s membership in the Most Excellent Order. The only was to avoid it is to refuse it in the first place — as David Bowie did, for one.

And that’s all the time we have for today. For extra credit, please study the history of Biafra and then explain it to me.

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