The Beatles’ rooftop concert
The Beatles’ rooftop concert

Coordinates:

51°30′37.5″N 0°08′23.0″W / 51.510417°N 0.139722°W / 51.510417; -0.139722

On 30 January 1969, The Beatles performed an unannounced concert from the rooftop of their Apple Corps headquarters at 3 Savile Row, within central London’s office and fashion district. Joined by keyboardist Billy Preston, the band played a 42-minute set before the Metropolitan Police asked them to reduce the volume. It was the final public performance of their career.

Although the concert was conceived just days before, The Beatles were planning a return to live performances throughout the early sessions for their album Let It Be (1970). They performed nine takes of five songs as crowds of onlookers, many of whom were on their lunch break, congregated in the streets and on the roofs of local buildings. The concert ended with the conclusion of “Get Back”, with John Lennon joking, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”[2]

Footage from the performance was used in the 1970 documentary film Let It Be and the 2021 documentary series The Beatles: Get Back. The first performance of “I’ve Got a Feeling” and single takes of “One After 909” and “Dig a Pony” were also featured on the accompanying album. On 28 January 2022, the audio of the full rooftop performance was released to streaming services under the title Get Back — The Rooftop Performance.[3]

Background

Although the rooftop concert was unannounced, the original intention behind The BeatlesGet Back project was for the band to make a return as live performers.[4] The idea of a large public show was sidelined as one of George Harrison’s conditions for returning to the group, after walking out of the filmed rehearsals on 10 January.[5][6] Another of his stipulations was that they move from Twickenham Film Studios to their Apple Corps headquarters and record their new songs in the basement Apple Studio.[5][7] On 22 January, Harrison brought in keyboardist Billy Preston as an additional musician, in the hope that a talented outsider would encourage the band to be tight and focused.[8]

There was a plan to play live somewhere. We were wondering where we could go – “Oh, the Palladium or the Sahara”. But we would have had to take all the stuff, so we decided, “Let’s get up on the roof.”[9]

– Ringo Starr, 2000

Paul McCartney and Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director of the project, continued to hope that The Beatles would end the sessions with a live performance in front of an audience.[5] According to Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, it is uncertain who had the idea for a rooftop concert, but the suggestion was conceived just days before the actual event.[8] In Preston’s recollection, John Lennon thought up the idea to perform on the rooftop.[10]

In his autobiography Sound Man, audio engineer Glyn Johns says the idea for the concert was his. He recalls that it originated from a lunchtime discussion when Ringo Starr mentioned that there was a great view of London’s West End from the roof and then took Johns and Lindsay-Hogg up to see it.[11] Mal Evans, The Beatles’ road manager, recorded in his diary that the idea came about “after we’d taken a breath of fresh air on the roof after lunch” on 26 January.[10] Peter Jackson’s documentary series The Beatles: Get Back shows Johns and Lindsay-Hogg presenting McCartney with the idea and McCartney being excited about it.[12]

Starr was initially determined not to play, and Harrison was reluctant.[13] The 29 January audio tapes for Lindsay-Hogg’s production capture McCartney pleading with Lennon that a live performance was essential to maintain The Beatles’ connection with their audience, and the band members merely needed to overcome their stage fright.[14] In a group discussion at the end of that day, Harrison talked enthusiastically about the upcoming show for the first time and joked about performing for an audience of chimneys.[15] Consistent with a decision he made during the Twickenham rehearsals, however, Harrison declined to have any of his songs included in the set.[16]

Preparation

Evans organised for a stage to be built on the Apple rooftop and for the band’s equipment to be set up there.[17] The instruments used during the performance were Lennon’s stripped-back Epiphone Casino, McCartney’s signature Höfner “violin” bass, Harrison’s new, custom-made rosewood Fender Telecaster,[18] and Starr’s recently acquired Ludwig drum kit, along with an electric piano for Preston.[19] Johns and assistant engineer Alan Parsons purchased women’s stockings from a local Marks & Spencer store to protect the microphones from the winter wind.[17] Plans to hire a helicopter to capture aerial footage were abandoned.[17]

The audio was recorded onto two eight-track recorders in the basement studio at Apple[20] by Johns[21] and Parsons.[22] Lindsay-Hogg’s crew used six cameras to film several angles of the performance.[17] In addition to cameras located on the rooftop with the band, one camera was placed, without permission, on the roof of a building across the street;[23] a camera was hidden behind a two-way mirror in the reception area of the building, ready to capture any disruption caused by the loud music; and two cameras were on the street to film interviews and reactions from passers-by.[17]

Performance

3 Savile Row, London, the location of the concert (pictured in 2007)

Until the last minute, according to Lindsay-Hogg, The Beatles were still undecided about performing the concert.[24] He recalled that they had discussed it and then gone silent, until “John said in the silence, ‘Fuck it – let’s go do it.'”[25]

The four Beatles and Preston arrived on the roof at around 12:30pm.[26] When the musicians started playing, there was confusion among members of the public, many of whom were on their lunch break. As the news of the event spread, crowds began to congregate in the streets and on the roofs of nearby buildings.[27] While most responded positively to the concert, the Metropolitan Police grew concerned about noise and traffic issues,[27] having received complaints from several local businesses.[22] The film cameras captured police officers arriving at Apple to stop the performance.[22] Apple employees initially kept the officers in reception and refused to let them up to the roof, but reconsidered when threatened with arrest.[27][23]

According to Johns, the band fully expected to be interrupted by the police, since there was a police station not far along Savile Row.[28] The authorities’ intervention satisfied a suggestion made by McCartney earlier in January, that The Beatles should perform their concert “in a place we’re not allowed to do it … like we should trespass, go in, set up and then get moved … Getting forcibly ejected, still trying to play your numbers, and the police lifting you.”[17]

The officers ascended to the roof just as The Beatles began the second take of “Don’t Let Me Down”.[23] During the next number – the final version of “Get Back”[29] – McCartney improvised the lyrics to reflect the situation:[22] “You’ve been playing on the roofs again, and you know your momma doesn’t like it; she’s going to have you arrested!”[30] Acting on the police officers’ instructions,[29] Evans turned off Lennon and Harrison’s guitar amplifiers mid-song, only for Harrison to turn his amplifier back on in defiance. Evans then turned Lennon’s back on as the band continued to play.[2]

The concert came to an end with the conclusion of “Get Back”. McCartney said “Thanks Mo”, in response to applause and cheers from Maureen Starkey, Starr’s wife.[30] Lennon then said: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”[2]

Set list

The rooftop concert consisted of nine complete takes of five Beatles songs: three takes of “Get Back”; two each of “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I’ve Got a Feeling”; and one take each of “One After 909” and “Dig a Pony”.[21] On 28 January 2022, the audio of the full rooftop performance was released to streaming services as Get Back — The Rooftop Performance.[3] The album version reproduced the set list in its performance order.[31] As seen in the 2021 documentary series The Beatles: Get Back, a short take of “Get Back” was also played and filmed before takes one and two. The concert also includes a short take of the British national anthem “God Save the Queen”. Track times are taken from the streaming version released in 2022.

All tracks are written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, except where noted.

No.TitleWriter(s)Length
1.“Get Back” (Take 1) 4:43
2.“Get Back” (Take 2) 3:24
3.“Don’t Let Me Down” (Take 1) 3:22
4.“I’ve Got a Feeling” (Take 1) 4:44
5.“One After 909” 3:09
6.“Dig a Pony” 5:52
7.“God Save the Queen”Traditional, arranged by Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starkey0:26
8.“I’ve Got a Feeling” (Take 2) 5:35
9.“Don’t Let Me Down” (Take 2) 3:30
10.“Get Back” (Take 3) 3:47
Total length:38:28

The first performance of “I’ve Got a Feeling” and the recordings of “One After 909” and “Dig a Pony” were later used for the album Let It Be.[32] In 1996, the third live performance of “Get Back”, which was the last song of The Beatles’ final live performance, was included on Anthology 3.[33][34] An edit of the two takes of “Don’t Let Me Down” was included on Let It Be… Naked, [35] as was a composite of the two takes of “I’ve Got a Feeling”. There were also brief jams of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” (after the first “Get Back”) and “God Save the Queen” (after “Dig a Pony”) while Parsons changed tapes.[36] Lennon sang lines from “Danny Boy” and “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” between some of the songs.[37]

Legacy

The Beatles’ rooftop concert marked the end of an era for many fans. The group did record one more album, Abbey Road – for which work started the following month – but by September 1969 Lennon had left the band.[38] At the time, many observers believed the concert was a trial run for a return to live performances and touring, with the band re-engaging with their rock ‘n’ roll roots.[39] The concert footage provided the climax of Lindsay-Hogg’s documentary, originally planned as a TV special but released as the Let It Be film in May 1970, a month after The Beatles’ break-up.[40]

According to author James Perone, the concert achieved “iconic status” – both among fans, as The Beatles’ final live appearance, and in the history of rock music, on the level of the Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Altamont festivals.[41] He says that, although the show was “not technically a ‘concert'” due to the secrecy surrounding its presentation, and the band’s last official concert was on 29 August 1966 in San Francisco, it stood out for capturing the sort of unpredictability that became typical of live rock performances in 1969.[42]

The Rutles’ “Get Up and Go” sequence in the 1978 film All You Need Is Cash mimics the footage of the rooftop concert, and uses similar camera angles.[43] In January 2009, tribute band the Bootleg Beatles attempted to stage a 40th anniversary concert in the same location, but were refused permission by Westminster City Council due to licensing problems.[44]

In The Simpsons 1993 fifth season episode “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet”, the Be Sharps (Homer, Apu, Barney and Principal Skinner) perform a rendition of one of their previous hits, “Baby on Board”, on the rooftop of Moe’s Tavern. George Harrison, who guest-starred in the episode, is shown saying dismissively, “It’s been done!” As the song ends and the credits begin, Homer repeats John Lennon’s phrase about passing the audition and everyone laughs, including Barney until he says, “I don’t get it.”[45]

In the 2007 film Across The Universe, a musical made up entirely of Beatles’ music, Sadie’s band performs a rooftop concert in New York City which mimics the original. It is interrupted and closed down by the New York Police Department.[46]

The music video for Kazuyoshi Saito’s 2010 song “Zutto Suki Datta” faithfully recreates the rooftop performance of “Get Back” with Saito as McCartney, Lily Franky as Lennon, Hiroyuki Kobori as Harrison, and Gaku Hamada as Starr.[47] It won Best Male Video at the 2011 Space Shower Music Video Awards.[48]

U2 also referenced the concert in their video for “Where the Streets Have No Name”, which featured a similar rooftop concert in Los Angeles, 1987.[49]

Manchester indie band James performed a similar rooftop gig on the twenty-second anniversary of The Beatles’ version (30 January 1991) on top of the Piccadilly hotel. The band performed five songs, before having to end the set reputedly because Larry Gott’s fingers had become frozen to his fretboard.[50]

McCartney played a surprise mini-concert in midtown Manhattan from the top of the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater on 15 July 2009, where he was recording a performance for the Late Show with David Letterman. News of the event spread via Twitter and word of mouth, and nearby street corners were closed off to accommodate fans for the set.[51]

Personnel

The Beatles

  • John Lennon – lead and backing vocals, rhythm guitar; lead guitar on “Get Back”
  • Paul McCartney – lead and backing vocals, bass guitar
  • George Harrison – backing vocals, lead guitar; rhythm guitar on “Get Back”
  • Ringo Starr – drums

Additional musician

  • Billy Preston – electric piano

Sources

  • Babiuk, Andy (2002). Beatles Gear: All the Fab Four’s Instruments, from Stage to Studio. San Francisco, CA: Backbeat Books. ISBN 978-0-87930-731-8.
  • The Beatles (2000). The Beatles Anthology. Chronicle Books. ISBN 978-0-8118-3636-4.
  • The Beatles (2021). The Beatles: Get Back. London: Callaway Arts & Entertainment. ISBN 978-0-935112962.
  • Everett, Walter (1999). The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-512941-0.
  • Johns, Glyn (2014). Sound Man. New York, NY: Plume. ISBN 978-0-14-751657-2.
  • MacDonald, Ian (2005). Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties (3rd (2007) ed.). Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1-55652-733-3.
  • Lewisohn, Mark (2010) [1992]. The Complete Beatles Chronicle: The Definitive Day-by-Day Guide to The Beatles’ Entire Career. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1-56976-534-0.
  • Miles, Barry (2001). The Beatles Diary Volume 1: The Beatles Years. London: Omnibus Press. ISBN 0-7119-8308-9.
  • Perone, James E. (2005). Woodstock: An Encyclopedia of the Music and Art Fair. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-33057-5.
  • Sulpy, Doug; Schweighardt, Ray (1999). Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of The BeatlesLet It Be Disaster. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin. ISBN 0-312-19981-3.
  • Womack, Kenneth (2014). The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-0-313-39171-2.

  • Don’t Let Me Down from the rooftop
  • Former Apple executive Ken Mansfield’s recollections of the concert


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