Elizabeth II was still a newborn when she earned her first book dedication (from Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne) and only three years old when she landed a 1929 Newsweek cover, where she was introduced to the world as a cherub-faced “Princess Lilybet.” By the time of her death on September 8 at the age of 96, Elizabeth was likely the most famous person on the planet—an iconic totem instantly recognizable across generations and continents. And because her years on the throne spanned the development of modern mediums like TV and a voracious interest in “celebrity” and “royals,” Queen Elizabeth—the steady, sphinx-like symbol of Britain—has been referenced in pop culture seemingly more than anyone in her lifetime, with many homages that indicate how society feels about the monarchy at any given moment.
Ahead, let’s journey through the queen’s more major (and peculiar) pop-culture milestones across the years.
1969: A Beatles Tribute
The 26-second song “Her Majesty,” written by Paul McCartney, is included as a hidden track on the Beatles’ album Abbey Road. The year the album was released, McCartney told a journalist that he wrote the “little tune” in Scotland. “I can never tell, like, how tunes come out. I just wrote it as a joke, you know.”
Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl / But she doesn’t have a lot to say / Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl / But she changes from day to day / I wanna tell her that I love her a lot / But I gotta get a bellyful of wine / Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl / Someday I’m going to make her mine, oh, yeah / Someday I’m going to make her mine /
But in a 2015 interview with Esquire, McCartney confessed that, when he was younger, he had a schoolboy crush on the queen. “When we grew up she was a babe…We were like 11, she was 21 and good looking. And she had a figure on her…I shouldn’t say this about Her Majesty but we, as schoolboys, we said, ‘Look at the fuckin’ heave on her!’”
In 2002, McCartney came full circle with his tribute when he performed the song at Buckingham Palace Gardens for the queen’s Golden Jubilee concert. After performances from Elton John, Brian Wilson, and Eric Clapton, among others, McCartney took to the stage, opening with “Her Majesty.” Afterward, he shrugged, “I had to do it.”
The queen would appear elsewhere in Beatles discography over the years—there are references to her in the tracks “Penny Lane,” “For You Blue,” and “Mean Mr Mustard.” And, for the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, both Paul and George reportedly wore the MBE medals the queen had given them in 1965.
1969: The Royal Family Fiasco
The Windsors’ attempt to insert themselves into pop culture was not so successful. In 1969, the family released a documentary featuring footage of them barbecuing, having tea, and spending time together. But the film backfired in epic fashion, with critics decrying the royals’ privilege and out-of-touch sensibility so much that Queen Elizabeth reportedly banned the documentary after its initial airing. The Crown creator Peter Morgan brought this disastrous chapter full-circle pop-culture-wise 50 years later in 2019, with a dramatic story line in the brilliant season three episode “Bubbikins” that made the royal family seem sympathetic in respect to the documentary and established Princess Anne as the all-knowing royal family member who hated the idea of the documentary from the jump. (“I always thought it was a rotten idea,” she said.)
1977: “God Save the Queen”
The Sex Pistols have denied that their controversial 1977 track and anti-monarchy anthem (on the album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols) was specifically written about and titled for Queen Elizabeth, but the cover and memorable release stunt, staged aboard a boat called the Queen Elizabeth during the queen’s Silver Jubilee, suggest otherwise.
The single’s record cover appeared to be a portrait of the queen herself—with her eyes and mouth covered by the band name and song track written out in ransom-note font. The band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren, devised a provocative press stunt—booking a boat named for the monarch and coordinating a trip down the Thames two days before the queen was supposed to make a similar procession. The band members drank beer, blared “Anarchy in the UK” from speakers as the boat passed the House of Parliament, and were eventually swarmed by police boats that brought the concert-at-sea to a dramatic halt. Later that year, the BBC banned the song entirely—calling lyrics like “God save the queen / she ain’t no human being” a display of “gross bad taste.”
But John Lydon—stage name: Johnny Rotten—has said that he has nothing against Queen Elizabeth personally, and hopes the anthem won’t be used inappropriately when the monarch dies. In 2017, Lydon said of the song, “That’s about a political situation and the demand for obedience to a monarchy I don’t believe in. But she’s a human being and I will sorely miss her as a human being on planet Earth.”