Fourty-eight years ago on January 30, 1969, The Beatles held their last public concert on the rooftop of Apple Records, the London headquarters of their record label, film company, and recording studio.
In 1969, The Beatles were tired; tired of being Beatles, tired of each other, and tired of all the public fuss that had made their private lives a constant struggle for peace and quiet--and at times survival--since late 1963. Though the fab four were still on top of the pop charts, they had little freedom to enjoy it.
In the space of a year, both Ringo Starr and George Harrison had quit the world's #1 pop group--quietly--only to be coaxed back. Harrison was especially fed up. After the "The White Album" (which also had its contentious moments behind the scenes) The Beatles had the good idea of making a film about the creative process with a grand finish: a special concert featuring only new songs played to an unsuspecting audience. As good as the idea was, the lads found it quite hard to feel creative in the cavernous Twickenham Film Studios during a wet English winter, where rehearsals and filming were scheduled Monday through Friday starting at 9am. Like most rockers, John, Paul, George, and Ringo were not "morning people" when it came to making rock 'n' roll and the whole endeavor quickly became a drag. If you can find a bootleg copy of the film Let It Be (it remains officially out of print) you can watch perhaps the very moment when George decided to quit after a desperately quiet argument with Paul McCartney about how to properly play guitar on "Hey Jude."
But whatever really happened, it was a long time brewing. George had recently returned from visiting America where he observed laid back sessions with The Band and Bob Dylan. In comparison, The Beatles were in their "winter of discontent" as Harrison described it in The Beatles Anthology--ready for something new but unsure how to make it happen. After a few days, George agreed to return but on one condition: abandon filming the long practice sessions at Twickenham and instead move the operation to The Beatles' basement studio at Apple Records in the center of the banking district in London.
George also invited piano and organ prodigy Billy Preston--who was in London for a session--to come join The Beatles on electric piano. The Beatles had met Preston in Liverpool in the early 60s, and now his sunny presence helped to put the band on their best behavior. But as for the direction of The Beatles and the new songs they were writing, nothing was settled except that they still intended to make a raw album of new material in front of a crowd with no overdubs and no production.
When word went through the Apple Records staff that The Beatles wanted to go up on the roof for an impromptu concert, a sense of panic quickly set in.
Whose idea was it, anyway? Ringo's--naturally.
In one of the least talked about but most revealing moments of Let It Be, Paul McCartney is seen having a quiet conversation with John Lennon, passionately making the case that The Beatles should ease back into live performances on their own terms, just as they did when they returned to Liverpool after being deported from Germany in 1961. "When we went back to Liverpool we were nervous, that first show was terrible. But then we kept at it and then we had them…if someone could have taped those performances..they were fantastic." It was understood, said Paul, that there would be no more films like Help or A Hard Day's Night. But what about playing a small show? In response, John only nods. We now know he had already--or was about to--announce he was leaving the group. But the idea of an off-the-cuff performance was too good to pass up. Ringo, always the pragmatist, suggested they just go up on the roof and get it over with. But what was first intended to be a platform for The Beatles to 'get back' as a performing band instead turned out to be their public swan song.
Since their new recording studio was in the basement of the building, hosting a rooftop concert meant bringing all of The Beatles' instruments, along with staging, a PA system, microphones, and microphone cables, up four flights of stairs, through a tiny access door, and onto the roof in the middle of winter along with a camera crew and--naturally--a few friends in attendance to cheer the boys on.
And though The Beatles had their own studio, they still needed all of the expert technical help that EMI/ Abbey Road had to offer to make their whimsical concert--and sometimes hysterical sessions--come off professionally. It was left to longtime Beatle engineers Keith Slaughter and Dave Harries to make the impossible roof concert possible.
"Dave and I, in the early hours of the morning, were picked up by the police driving into London with all this gear--mainly ropes and electric cables and all that sort of stuff--in the back of my estate car," Slaughter recalled in Recording The Beatles. "He said, 'what er you guys doing?' And I said 'If I told you, you wouldn't believe us.' He said 'Aw…go on.'"
While Slaughter and Dave Harries, who now works for Mark Knopfler's British Grove Studios in London, ran individual microphone cables down stairwells, back down to the basement, and into the mixing board for tracking the concert, producer Glyn Johns set up for the session on the roof. And when he realized the windy conditions would call for wind shields for the delicate made-for-indoor studio microphones that were now going to be used for recording drums and guitar amps outside, Johns sent tape operator Alan Parsons to the department store for a quick and cheap remedy: women's stockings.
"I was assumed to be either a bank robber or a cross dresser," recalled Parsons. "I said 'We need stockings.' 'What size?' 'Doesn't matter.' I received a lot of strange looks."
When The Beatles took the stage around lunchtime, it was their first truly live performance since the end of their 1966 tour in San Francisco. They had performed "All You Need Is Love" and "Hey Jude" before a studio audience, but those performances were at least partially done to backing tracks. Nevertheless, they had been playing together as a band nearly everyday since 1962 (!) and as you can see in the film, The Beatles very quickly got their act together with John's Epiphone Casino front and center in the--as requested--"raw" mix.
The sound was mixed to 8-track tape, with one track devoted to syncing the film and music together during editing. The quartet performed multiple--and solid--takes of "Get Back," "Dig A Pony," "I've Got A Feeling," "Don't Let Me Down," and one of John and Paul's earliest compositions, "One After 909." All the tracks were eventually released.
The entire concert lasted around an hour before businesses in the area called the police who --naturally--were unwilling to arrest The Beatles (as they had hoped) but eventually convinced them to pull the plug. "I always felt let down about the police," recalled Ringo in The Beatles Anthology. "I was playing away and I thought, 'Oh great, I hope they drag me off.'" The concert was filmed by longtime Beatle videographer Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who decades later would reveal that he was the son of famed film maker Orson Welles. (Can The Beatles' story get more epic?)
After all these years, no one has ever bothered to ask Paul or Ringo what else was on the set list that day. But McCartney's assessment of The Beatles' strength-of-character as a band was spot on. They were great performers and the rooftop concert would have been a great first step back into performing. Luckily, the sound of the band that day--raw, unfiltered, and unproduced--would be heard on several tracks on Abbey Road, the album the lads quickly assembled in the spring of 1969 to try to put the stress of Let It Be behind them. Though the film--and the performance--are far removed from the version of The Beatles seen in Ron Howard's documentary 2016 Eight Days A Week, the rooftop concert really does complete the picture and is worth checking out if you haven't seen it.
“I love it,” recalled McCartney in Word magazine, “because it shows you what The Beatles were like underneath it all. We were a great little band.”
And yeah, they passed the audition.