It would have been highly unlikely to find the famously prim Queen Elizabeth II, who died on Sept. 8 at age 96, at a rock concert. Still, the royal matriarch could often be seen shaking hands with musical legends over the course of her seven decade reign.
One of the earliest instances of rock entering the realm of royalty happened in 1965, when the Beatles went to Buckingham Palace to receive their Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire medals from the Queen.
“For four Liverpool lads it was, ‘Wow, hey man!’ It was quite funny,” Paul McCartney later recalled in Anthology. “But she was sweet. I think she seemed a bit mumsy to us, because we were young boys and she was a bit older.” (Years prior, when McCartney was 10 years old, he’d won a school essay contest about the Queen’s busy coronation day, writing: “But after all this bother, many people will agree with me that it was well worth it.”)
Watch Footage of the Beatles Receiving Their MBEs
Since then, a long line of rock artists have had interactions with the Queen. Over the years, Her Majesty tapped a number of rock stars to receive prestigious honors. The Commander of the Order of the British Empire — or CBE, as it’s commonly called — is the highest honor someone can receive short of knighthood. It has been bestowed on a long list of legendary musicians, including Robert Plant, Sting, Rod Stewart, Roger Daltrey, the Bee Gees and famed Beatles producer George Martin.
“I’m so very pleased,” Daltrey remarked on receiving his CBE in 2004. “It’s really great to be honored by my country. I feel undeserving of such an honor.”
Meanwhile, the Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), a slightly lesser yet still impressive honor, has been given to Annie Lennox and Graham Nash, among others.
Elton John had already been named Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the time he was knighted by the Queen in 1998 for both his music and his charity work involving AIDS and the LGBTQ community. Bono was also welcomed into knighthood by the Royal Palace, earning recognition in 2007. He later interacted with the British monarch at the Royal Academy of Arts in London after being invited to speak as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee awards ceremony, which recognized young students. “I think she’s an amazing woman,” Bono said at the time. “It’s not an easy job and she works hard.”
Ringo Starr was also elevated to knight status in 2018 — the Queen’s grandson Prince William, who is now second in line to the throne, performed the ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
Watch Ringo Starr’s Knighthood Ceremony
Mick Jagger received his own knighthood in 2003, although not from the Queen herself. Rumors at the time pointed to the idea that she didn’t think the Rolling Stones singer was the most appropriate recipient of the honor. Jagger biographer Christopher Anderson claimed in Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Mick Jagger that the Queen repeatedly turned down Prime Minister Tony Blair’s request for Jagger to be knighted. (It was speculated that the Queen may have felt uncomfortable over Jagger’s friendship with her sister, Princess Margaret, who’d died in 2002 but had been the subject of previous royal scandals.) Eventually the request was approved but the Queen ended up being scheduled for minor surgery on that particular day, so the duties were handled by her son, Prince Charles.
Not every artist has embraced recognition by the Queen. In 2000, David Bowie respectfully declined receiving the CBE. Three years later, Her Majesty was ready to knight the famed rocker, but again Bowie turned the honor down. “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that,” the icon later reflected. “I seriously don’t know what it’s for. It’s not what I spent my life working for.”
Despite the Queen’s high level of prestige, there have been a few moments when artists were not afraid to have fun at the royal monarch’s expense. The Beatles’ “Her Majesty” is a tongue-in-cheek ode to the Queen, with the lyrics, “Her Majesty is a pretty nice girl / But she doesn’t have a lot to say / Her Majesty is a pretty nice girl / But she changes from day to day.” (McCartney performed the song at her 2002 Golden Jubilee.) Other Beatles songs that mention the Queen are “Penny Lane,” and “Mean Mr. Mustard.”
Watch Footage From the Sex Pistols’ Thames River Performance
A less lighthearted and considerably more famous jab at the Queen happened at her Silver Jubilee in 1977. Fresh off the release of their new single, “God Save the Queen,” which compared her reign to a fascist regime and declared that England had “no future,” the Sex Pistols made literal waves when they set sail on a rented boat and offered their own unique bit of social commentary. At the urging of manager Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols rented a party boat on June 7, 1977, sailed down the Thames River and loudly played “Anarchy in the U.K.” as the boat passed by the houses of Parliament. John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) has since clarified his position.
“It’s very anti-royalist, but it’s not antihuman,” he said of “God Save the Queen” in 2022. “I’ve got to tell the world this: You mustn’t presume that I’m completely dead against the royal family as human beings; I’m not. I’m actually really, really proud of the Queen for surviving and doing so well. I applaud her for that – that is a fantastic achievement. I’m not a curmudgeon about that. I just think that if I’m paying my tax money to support this system, I should have a say-so on how it’s spent.”
Watch Elton John’s Platinum Jubilee Performance
Other Jubilee celebrations have featured more traditional performances from rock stars. A long list of artists performed at the 2002 Golden Jubilee, celebrating the Queen’s 50th year on the throne. Among them, Phil Collins, Bryan Adams, Ozzy Osbourne, Steve Winwood and, appropriately enough, Queen. The lineup for 2012’s Diamond Jubilee was just as impressive, as McCartney, Lennox, John and Stevie Wonder were among the performers. More recently, a Platinum Jubilee was held in 2022 to mark the Queen’s 70 years on the throne, with Queen, John, Stewart and Duran Duran as part of the lineup.
In 2005, a slew of rockers including Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Brian May met the Queen at a Buckingham Palace event honoring the British music industry, and although Her Majesty didn’t seem to be all that familiar with the legendary guitarists at the time, she was cordial and at least one of them didn’t seem to mind. Clapton deflected any criticism of the Queen’s musical knowledge saying to the Associated Press at the time: “It’s great to meet her, and it doesn’t matter at all that she did not know who were are or what we do,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t expect her to.”
As for her own music tastes, the Queen did once profess to love ABBA. BBC DJ Chris Evans made the claim in 2008, recalling a posh dinner party a friend of his attended where a dance was held for guests. At that exclusive Windsor Castle banquet, a DJ allegedly played “proper disco music” and the Queen fittingly expressed that she liked ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” according to NME.
Earlier this year, British Parliament tried to connect Queen Elizabeth to another beloved British rock band, Black Sabbath. In an open letter, several members of Parliament urged her to honor the band for their contributions to music. Khalid Mahmood, a Labor Party Member representing Birmingham where Black Sabbath formed, shared the letter via Twitter after the 2022 Commonwealth Games. “For all their global fame, they have kept strong links with Birmingham,” the letter read, “demonstrated by their barnstorming surprise performance at the closing ceremony of Commonwealth Games, which was closed by His Royal Highness Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex.” (Neither Queen Elizabeth nor her reps responded to the request.)
Though an award from the Queen of England is not usually a rock star’s primary goal, it doesn’t hurt. Queen Elizabeth II, in her 70-year reign (the longest of any British monarch to date), was able to bestow that honor on many a deserving musician. “It means a lot actually,” Ringo Starr told the BBC after receiving his knighthood. “It means recognition for the things we’ve done.”
Rock’s Connections to Queen Elizabeth
Throughout her seven decade reign, many rock stars had the chance to meet — and sometimes perform for – Queen Elizabeth II.