Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say,” sang Paul McCartney in 1969, bringing his group’s magisterial final studio album, Abbey Road, to a wilfully anti-climactic close. When the group was formed nearly a decade earlier, even this throwaway piece of whimsy might have appeared a little too cheeky, almost disrespectful.
But McCartney was nothing if not talented at reading the zeitgeist. By the end of the 1960s, he was confident enough to allow an erotic frisson to enter his musings on his sovereign. “I want to 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.” We don’t know for sure if one was amused, but I like to think so.
Queen Elizabeth II and Paul McCartney were in the news this week, still entwined. The Queen was celebrating her Diamond Jubilee, and McCartney the release of a new album, the ominously titled Kisses on the Bottom. On Tuesday it was announced that the former Beatle would headline the Diamond Jubilee concert, to be held in the foreground of Buckingham Palace on June 4. Ten years ago, he also performed at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee concert where he sang, you guessed it, “Her Majesty”. One probably found that poignant.
To express admiration for the Queen or Paul McCartney is to indulge in an act of cultural nostalgia. Yet nobody better understands modern Britain than its monarch and its troubadour-in-chief. Moments of triumph – the Coronation, “Hey Jude” – and the odd lapse in judgment – the week following Diana’s death, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” – have been underpinned by dogged resilience.
Monarchs are built to last, and British monarchs have done it better than most. In the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new exhibition of Cecil Beaton’s portraits of the Queen, we observe times changing through infinitesimally variant inflections of gesture and pose. Tilts of the head matter.
Beaton understood that. His early photographs of the Queen’s mother, taken at the beginning of the second world war, hurtled back to the lavish romanticism of previous centuries, referencing Gainsborough and Fragonard. They kept the royal family remote, transcendent. But arcadian escape was not the right tone for the unfurling times, and Beaton and his gilded subjects caught on fast.
A 1943 photograph of the 16-year-old Princess Elizabeth shows her relaxed, almost jaunty, on the cover of Life magazine wearing, of all things, the uniform of Colonel of the Grenadier Guards. There is an embroidered grenade in her cap and she wears a blue enamelled and diamond brooch, a gift of the regiment on her 16th birthday. It was a look born, not from an ingenious fashion designer’s imagination, but from the necessity of events. How to set people’s minds at rest, persuade them of their common nationhood and make them believe that their royal family was with them? It was a masterstroke of image control.
By the early 1960s, the princess had become a queen and a mother, and felt grateful enough for Beaton’s deft skills to thank him personally for having depicted her and her family as “really quite nice and real people!” But abrupt social changes were on the way and unravelled fast. In 1968, Beaton embarked on his last photographic session with the Queen with trepidation, as his diary acknowledges: “The difficulties are great. Our points of view, our tastes are so different. The result is a compromise between two people, and the fates play a large part.”
At the same time, McCartney was doing his best to keep The Beatles together and the fates were giving him a hard time. Unlike monarchs, pop groups have never been built to last, but McCartney found that sour truth unpalatable. He cajoled, he pleaded, but his once-beloved comrades had had enough. They plodded through most of their late work. “I’m so tired,” sang John Lennon, hinting heavily.
And so Abbey Road was rounded off with “Her Majesty”, a kind of knockabout tribute from one ever-hopeful British institution to another. “Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she changes from day to day,” McCartney sang in the second line, in mock disapproval at his monarch’s inconstancy. But he cannot have helped being impressed. Who else could move with the times with such sureness and millimetric precision?
On Kisses on the Bottom, an album mostly consisting of American standards, McCartney expresses his affection for the music he grew up with, the cheesy ballads that were swept aside by the cultural tornado he helped create. Many of us may feel nostalgic for his tunes, but he loves dipping into his own past too. Even a pop artist understands that it is only through respecting where we came from that we understand who we are, and what we hope to be. Tradition counts.
Now I wonder who taught him that lesson?
Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton, Victoria and Albert Museum, until April 22
Peter Aspden discusses Paul McCartney’s new album ‘Kisses on the Bottom’ on the FT arts podcast
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden