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, and often working independently of each other, rather than having 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 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 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
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, but 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 his own 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.
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, just a few feet behind them, 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.