The Rooftop Concert – 50 years later

Is it possible that the Beatles’ legendary rooftop concert, atop the 3 Saville Row building housing their Apple Records studio, took place 50 years ago? Somehow, it’s true. The date was January 30, 1969. Yet, 50 is only a number, considering how fresh and energetic their performance still sounds today. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the concert  gave us the Beatles–as a rock quartet, with no fancy studio overdubs or backwards tape loops–at the peak of their powers, even as it took place during the final stretch of their time together.

I’ve often argued–both in print and vocally–against the common label of Let It Be as the Beatles’ “swansong” as a group, and how the film documented their break-up as the cameras rolled. This is, to my eyes and ears, an exaggeration, with a number of inaccuracies. Remember Abbey Road, kids? It was recorded after the band’s supposed Let It Be “swansong,” and is arguably the greatest rock album ever made.

True, the group’s White Album sessions marked a turning point, during which they recorded over two dozen songs they’d written in India, many as basically solo tracks. They often worked independently of each other, rather than all four being present for each recording. Some tensions were growing, boredom had begun setting in, Yoko was…there.  And, the foursome was no doubt becoming mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted from all they’ve experienced in just the previous five or six years. Still, you can hear at least most Beatles playing and singing on most songs throughout the White Album. Listen for yourself.

The Twickenham soundstage.

The overall mood hadn’t improved much as the White Album sessions dovetailed into those for Let It Be. But remember: Let It Be was not conceived as an album per se. The vague idea of the group performing live before an audience once again, probably as a television special, had kick-started the rehearsal sessions we see in the film, beginning production on a soundstage at the famous Twickenham Studios. Is a brief squabble between George and Paul about how to play backing guitar for one or two of Paul’s songs supposed to be the shocking evidence of hopeless disharmony? It’s just as easy to find audio tapes of the boys having fun, helping each other write songs, and making musical suggestions during the sessions. So, which is the more accurate picture of January, 1969? Obviously, a mix of both.

After a dreary two weeks on the Twickenham soundstage, their collective mood brightened somewhat once they continued rehearsing at Apple. But the idea of “putting on a show” for TV had fallen by the wayside. Let It Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg still needed some sort of climactic sequence to end the film (assuming a film of the sessions would still be released), so he suggested a compromise of sorts, and a different kind of live concert performance: the Beatles would play on the roof, not so much in front of an audience, but above the crowds going about their daily activities on the streets below.

January 30 was a bitter cold day, and the group, accompanied on keyboards by friend Billy Preston, stepped onto the wooden planks of the roof to see the film crew, assorted wives, friends, and Apple employees, without anyone knowing how this would all work out.

They kicked off with Paul’s “Get Back,” a rocker that, as it echoed down through the narrow streets, caused those in the area to take notice that something was going on (the group ran through some songs twice, but these are the versions included in the Let It Be film and album). No doubt most who shopped and/or worked there knew of the group’s studio on Saville Row–a street which was, and still is, home to many upscale tailor

The crowded Apple roof at mid-concert.

shops and men’s clothing boutiques. But even Apple’s conservative neighbors, who presumably tolerated the group’s well-documented comings and goings, often cheered on by their “Apple Scruffs” (fans who would linger by the studio entrance to catch a glimpse of them arriving or departing), were not prepared for such a disturbance that day.

The Beatles continued with John’s “Don’t Let Me Down,” his latest tribute to Yoko. He blew one of his lines, turning it into gibberish, with smiles from the others, and himself.

Down below, the crowds grew bigger as people strained to find the source of the live music, and traffic grew thicker, as more and more pedestrians scurried to become part of whatever Beatles event was taking place, even in that unlikeliest of places. On the upper floors of the adjoining buildings, observers looked through their windows, and took to their own roofs to catch sight of the performance.

Paul then launched into “I’ve Got a Feeling,” a slower-paced rocker (a precursor of sorts to the throat-ripping “Oh! Darling”) in which John adds his own counterpoint lyrics before the band reaches its pounding  crescendo. Most people interviewed on the street were excited about the event, but someone was not taking kindly to all of the commotion and noise, and the police were called to investigate. At the risk of being a cynic, some of the Let It Be footage of the constables knock-knock-knocking on Apple’s door, with a full-size paddy wagon at the ready, looks a tad set-up. Would the most successful rock group in the world be arrested in mid-performance, on camera, for disturbing the peace? Not very likely.

Next came what is undoubtedly the peak of the show, as the group launched into a rollicking version of “One After 909,” which John and Paul wrote as teens, and which the Beatles recorded in 1963, but did not release (Paul is heard mocking the corny lyrics earlier in the Let it Be film). On the rooftop, they went all-out on this one, singing and playing to perfection–with George hitting some screaming notes during his solo–and with a collective energy their fans hadn’t seen or heard in years.

The curious crowds fill the sidewalks of Saville Row.

Following that euphoric moment, John’s “I Dig A Pony” came next, as police and Apple staff conferred about the noise complaint, and what was to be done about it. The coppers were escorted to the roof to see for themselves, as the group played on.

Once “I Dig A Pony” was done, a bit of defiance prompted Paul and his fellow Beatles to reprise “Get Back,” as their trusted assistant Mal Evans assured the cops, standing just a few feet behind the group, that the music would soon be over. The song almost broke down at one point, as John and George stood unsure if they should continue playing. As the police left, Paul ad-libbed his warning to the song’s character Loretta, not to play on the roofs

again, or her mother’s “gonna have you arrested!” Once the song was over, John concluded the 42-minute set with his classic line, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.”

Did they ever.

“We’re Going to See the Beatles!” 10th Anniversary

This month marks ten years since the release of my book “We’re Going to See the Beatles!” (Santa Monica Press). It’s an oral history of Beatlemania, as told by over forty fans from across the country whom I had the pleasure to interview, and hear their stories. I’ve always felt a little odd referring to myself as the “author” of this book, since most of the words are those of the interviewees, who told me of their first-hand experiences as teens during the Beatlemania era and the years beyond. They are the true stars of the book.

It’s not easy to come to grips with the fact that our collective, personal memories of the Beatles have surpassed the fifty-year mark. Ringo joined the group in 1962, Beatlemania hit the U.S. in early ’64, and the group’s astonishing evolution took place over the next six years. We’re even fast-approaching the 50th anniversary of Apple, the Beatles’ own recording label and studio. The famous address at 3 Savile Row in London  attracted loyal fans known as “Apple scruffs,” who lingered on the steps of the building to await the Beatles’ arrivals and departures–and who have been immortalized in a song by George.

I managed to find the contributors to “We’re Going to See the Beatles!” through a variety of means, and had a wonderful time hearing them relate their memories of what it was like to be young and delirious with excitement over the Beatles at that time. Some told me about the record parties they held in their basements, others recalled going to great lengths just to catch a glimpse of the group at airport terminals, hotel lobbies, or press conferences, or remembering they were and what they were doing when they heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the radio.  And, of course, there were stories of the concerts themselves that Beatles performed across the country between 1964 and ’66. Those young fans, who were lucky enough to attend a Beatles concert, still consider it a highlight of their lives to this day.

The book was born out of an article I wrote for Beatlefan magazine in 2005, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the legendary Shea Stadium concert in New York. After finding a few attendees of that historic event in music history, I decided to keep going, with the hope of turning this into some sort of book, and I continued my search for others who had similar memories of being Beatles fans throughout the group’s existence. It wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet, that’s for sure. Web sites and message boards about the Beatles led me to many fascinating stories.

Displaying the scrapbook on TV for the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, 2014.

I also found people by examining original newspaper articles from the height of Beatlemania, and managed to track down some the very same people who were who were interviewed and/or pictured at the time. I also have a “famous” scrapbook, kept by a teenage girl in the Boston area throughout the Beatlemania years. She managed cut and paste (the old-fashioned way) just about every newspaper and magazine clipping about the Beatles from the Boston and New York newspapers, and lovingly set them onto black construction paper pages. Sometime in the 1980s, my parents bought the scrapbook in an antique store in New York State, or Massachusetts, and brought it home.

Discussing the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

As I searched through the pages and pages of articles, I noticed that, in many instances, the stories in which the fans were interviewed actually included their full names and home addresses! I’ll never forget having the scrapbook sitting open on my lap, with the online white pages on my computer screen. More than once, I entered in the family name and address mentioned in the article, and found the same name at the same address in an online white pages listing, forty years after the fact. I sent out letters, asking the whereabouts of the person in the article, and managed to get in touch with one or two that way.

With hours and hours of phone interviews recorded, I transcribed each conversation virtually intact, and assembled them in the chronological order of the events and stories each participant had related to me.  The finished work, then, tells the story of the Beatles from the fans’ point of view, beginning with the first word about them reaching America, to their break-up, and the years afterward. Many of the participants sent me photos of themselves as teens, in the stands at the concerts, and/or beside their own beloved Beatles collections. Those are, of course, included in the book.

“We’re Going to See the Beatles!” had its debut of sorts at the 2008 Beatlefest in March of that year. I also arranged, with Fest promoter Mark Lapidos, to invite the contributors to the book to attend and take part in panel discussions, during which they could tell their stories in person to an audience. About a dozen of the contributors were able to make the journey from near and far, and took part

in two panels throughout the weekend. Even though they hadn’t met each other before, their common love for the Beatles, and the accompanying memories of the Fab Four, made them fast friends. And, a decade later, I still keep in touch with several of them fairly regularly.

There have been times in the past ten years when I’d try to think of a possible new book I might be able to write about the Beatles, only to see an ongoing flow of Beatles-related books continuing to land on the bookstore shelves and online retailers, focusing on just about every possible aspect of the group’s existence, no matter how narrow the topic as it might relate to their career. Obviously, the well has yet to run dry, but to me, it’s getting pretty close. I’m glad I managed to find the right approach to the Beatles’ unique career in a way that suited me, and, it seems, a good number of their lifelong fans.

If you’d like a chance to win a signed copy of We’re Going to See the Beatles! just leave your favorite Beatles memory in the comment section here. One entry per person. Contest ends at 11:59 p.m. on March 11. Winners will be announced in next Monday’s blog!

35 Years with Marshall Crenshaw

I enjoy marking certain pop culture milestones and anniversaries. It helps bring largely forgotten creative achievements back into the light, years or decades after they first made a splash. In keeping with that spirit, this summer marks thirty-five years since I first heard the just-released debut album by a rather unassuming rock singer/songwriter from Detroit named Marshall Crenshaw (the album’s title being, appropriately enough, Marshall Crenshaw). In 2017, it remains one of the finest pop-rock albums of its kind ever made.

Crenshaw’s band on this debut consists of himself on guitar, his brother Robert on drums, and Chris Donato on bass–a small combo playing Crenshaw’s songs in a pop style positively oozing with the influences of Buddy Holly and other late-’50s rockers, and, of course, the early Beatles (with a little rockabilly thrown in for good measure).

Crenshaw as Buddy Holly, with Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens.

In fact, Crenshaw had once portrayed John Lennon in the touring company of the ’70s stage show Beatlemania (well, nobody’s perfect), and had a small role as Holly in the 1987 feature film La Bamba.

The sound on the Marshall Crenshaw album is free of frills and clutter–just the trio, with a few vocal and guitar overdubs to enhance the overall sound. But oh, those songs! Crenshaw is an intelligent, clever, and straightforward lyricist, able to give age-old themes of love found and/or lost a fresh look, without clouding the picture with time worn clichés, pesky metaphors, or obscure meanings. This becomes evident in the first few bars of the brilliant opening track, “There She Goes Again,” which sets mood for the rest of the album. The tempo is upbeat, and the melody ridiculously catchy, but Crenshaw sings of how he often catches sight of his ex-girlfriend driving past his home with her new guy in tow. Even though he had convinced himself he’s over her, he admits:

“…It makes no difference how I’ve tried,
I get that feeling when she drives on by,
And there she goes again with another guy…”

He would continue to write a truckload of incisive and frighteningly relatable songs about the ups and downs of romance, both recent and long past. Listening to them, you don’t have to suffer from paranoia to suspect Crenshaw has been spying on you during some of the most joyous and heartbreaking moments of your life. Many of his songs seem to say, “I’ve been there, pal. I know what’s going through your mind.”

Robert Crenshaw, Marshall, and Chris Donato.

The best known track on this debut album is perhaps “Someday, Someway,” which was released as a single and became Crenshaw’s only Top 40 hit.  As bouncy and fun as it is, though, it’s not even the strongest song on the album; that’s how good this debut collection is. Crenshaw and his band retain an amazing consistency throughout. Other highlights here include the sock-hop energy of “She Can’t Dance,” the mini-classic “Cynical Girl,” the lovely “Mary Anne”–oh, hell, it would make more sense just to list all of them (but I won’t). He also throws in his cover of the 1962 Arthur Alexander hit “Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)” which fits in well among the originals.

Crenshaw has never been one to crave superstardom, even during the heady days of this first album. At that time, MTV was only a year old, but had already become a pop culture sensation. Record companies quickly learned the promotional value of music videos, and got busy cranking them out for their artists. The New Wave of British acts, with their techno-pop sounds, quirky clothing, make-up, and dyed hair (and that was just the guys) was especially perfect for MTV. Alas, Crenshaw wasn’t.

He didn’t seem to want any part of it. His sole “concept” video–as opposed to an excerpt from a live stage performance–was for the single “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” off his follow-up album, Field Day. In it, he doesn’t look particularly comfortable or happy, which no doubt led to it becoming his only such promotional clip. He also wasn’t the best interviewee, being a man of few words and frustratingly brief answers (even Dick Clark wasn’t able to get much out of him during their chat on American Bandstand). But, as the cliché goes, he’s always preferred his songs to do the speaking for him. You can, however, catch an interview or two with him on YouTube.

From Field Day onward, Crenshaw experimented with production techniques, additional instruments, and tunes that needed a few listens for them to sink in. Field Day pretty much picks up where Marshall Crenshaw leaves off, but with a muddier sound that many listeners weren’t crazy about (including me). The songs, however, continue to make memorably pointed comments and observations about life and love.

As much as his resistance of crass commercialism may have affected his record sales, Crenshaw continued to release several superb albums throughout the ’80s and ’90s, all chock full of his recognizable, jangly guitar sounds and catchy riffs. And, again, the Beatlesque quality of his songwriting remained top-notch from one album to the next, although he began to collaborate more often, and include a higher number of cover versions with each successive album.

His most consistent albums include Mary Jean and 9 Others (1987), Life’s Too Short (1991), and #447 (1999). There are just too many impressive songs to give the attention here that they deserve, ranging from slaphappy romps (“Wild Abandon” on Mary Jean and 9 Others, “Fantastic Planet of Love” on Life’s Too Short) to melancholy break-up songs (“All I Know Right Now” on Field Day, and perhaps his most remarkable composition, “Walkin’ Around,” on Life’s Too Short).

This excellent “Best of” album is probably the most convenient way to hear a well-chosen sampling of twenty-two of his best songs, including his first single, “Something’s Gonna Happen,” a blast of pure pop-rock energy from 1981.

In recent years, Crenshaw  has given up releasing full-length albums in favor of EPs, a form popularized in the 1960s as 45 singles that contained three or four songs instead of just one on each side. Today, he still performs in smaller venues, often as a guest performer with other bands, just to let us know that his genius is still alive and kicking.

Now that you’ve reached the end of this week’s post, do yourself a favor and hop on over to YouTube, find “There She Goes Again” and give it a listen. If it hits you the way it hit me back in ’82, you’ll probably want to sit back and enjoy more of Marshall Crenshaw. If not…well…better check your pulse!

Until next week…