Fifty years ago on January 30, 1969, The Beatles held their last public concert on the rooftop of Apple Records, the London headquarters of their new record label, film company, and recording studio. By the winter of 1969, The Beatles were tired of being fab, 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 they were still on top of the pop music charts, they spent most of their time in each other's company since the outside world was obsessed with their every move. After making 'The White Album' in 1968 (during which Ringo had briefly left the band), the Beatles came up with the idea of making a film about their creative process with an audaciously grand finish: a concert featuring new songs played to an unsuspecting audience. It had the running title of Get Back, based on a good new rocker by Paul McCartney, who had taken over as the band's chief cheerleader since the death of their manager Brian Epstein in the summer of 1967. But the lads found it quite hard to feel creative in the cavernous Twickenham Film Studios during a wet English winter, where filming was scheduled Monday through Friday starting at 9am due to union regulations.
Like most rockers, John, Paul, George, and Ringo were not 'morning people' when it came to creating rock 'n' roll, and the whole endeavor quickly became a drag. And to add to the tension, John Lennon and his new love Yoko Ono—who attended the sessions at John's side—rarely spoke, which left McCartney to lead the band's rehearsals causing long-simmering tensions to rise up between all the members. If you can find a bootleg copy of the film Let It Be (it remains officially out of print), you can see perhaps the very moment when Harrison, too, decides to quit the Beatles after a desperately quiet argument with McCartney about how to properly play guitar on "Hey Jude." "I'll play whatever you want me to play or I won't play it all," pleads Harrison. "Whatever it is that will please you, I'll do it."
Harrison had recently returned from visiting The Band and Bob Dylan in Woodstock, New York, where he observed the sessions for what became known as The Basement Tapes. Dylan would write in the morning and then convene with The Band in the afternoon in the basement rehearsal space of a rented house known to the group as "Big Pink" for impromptu recording sessions of new material as well as standards by the Everly Brothers and Johnny Cash.
In comparison, The Beatles were in their "winter of discontent" as Harrison described it in The Beatles Anthology. After a few days without George, in which John Lennon joked that they should ask Eric Clapton to take his place, Harrison agreed to return but on one condition: they abandon filming the long practice sessions at Twickenham and instead move the operation to The Beatles' new basement studio at Apple Records in the center of the banking district in London. The fact that the studio was empty and the band would have to rent equipment from Abbey Road was considered a minor hiccup. Anything had to be better than making rock 'n' roll at 9am.
Once back at Apple, Harrison invited piano and organ prodigy Billy Preston, who happened to be in London, to join in on the sessions. The Beatles had met Preston in Liverpool in the early 60s when Preston was on tour with Little Richard, 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 and record it in front of a crowd.
After days of rehearsals (including a hysterical version of "Help" that sounds like a primordial version of Devo), the fab five decided they were ready to play live. On Wednesday, January 29, word went through the Apple Records staff that The Beatles had decided to perform on the rooftop of the Apple building the next day. A sense of panic quickly set in. Whose idea was it, anyway? grumbled the engineers. Naturally, it was Ringo's.
In one of the least talked about but most revealing moments of Let It Be, McCartney has 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. After several suggestions were thrown about including gigs in Los Angeles, the Roman Coliseum, or an island in Greece, Ringo—always the pragmatist—suggested they just go up on the roof and get it over with.
Since their new recording studio was in the basement of the Apple 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 a few friends in attendance to cheer the boys on.
And though The Beatles had pretended they wanted little to do with Abbey Road and its formal atmosphere, they still needed all of the expert technical help that the studio had to offer to make their whimsical concert—and sometimes hysterical sessions—come off professionally. The logistics were 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 engineer Dave Harries, who now works for Mark Knopfler's British Grove Studios in London, ran individual microphone cables down the stairwells to the control room in the basement, producer and engineer Glyn Johns (whose other albums in 1969 would include Led Zeppelin, Abbey Road, and the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed) set up for the outdoor session on the roof. Johns soon realized he would need something to protect the delicate studio microphones from the damp air and wind without affecting the sound. So Johns sent his new tape operator, Alan Parsons (future founder of the Alan Parsons Project), 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 to the roof 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 made 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 performance was mixed to an 8-track tape machine that Harrison had donated to Apple 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."
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 filmmaker Orson Welles (as if The Beatles' story could 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 raw sound of The Beatles in 1969 did carry over to 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.
"I love it," McCartney said recalling the rooftop serenade 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.