ON THIS DATE (43 YEARS AGO)
January 30, 1969 – The Beatles, with Billy Preston, gave their final live performance atop the Apple building at 3 Savile Row, London, in what became the climax of their Let It Be film.
“We went on the roof in order to resolve the live concert idea, because it was much simpler than going anywhere else; also nobody had ever done that, so it would be interesting to see what happened when we started playing up there. It was a nice little social study. We set up a camera in the Apple reception area, behind a window so nobody could see it, and we filmed people coming in. The police and everybody came in saying, ‘You can’t do that! You’ve got to stop.’” ~ George Harrison, Anthology
January 30, 1969 in London was a cold day, and a bitter wind was blowing on the rooftop by midday. To cope with the weather, John Lennon borrowed Yoko Ono’s fur coat, and Ringo Starr wore his wife Maureen Starkey’s red mac.
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.’ We had Mal and Neil set the equipment up on the roof, and we did those tracks. I remember it was cold and windy and damp, but all the people looking out from offices were really enjoying it.” ~ Ringo Starr, Anthology
The 42-minute show was recorded onto two eight-track machines in the basement of Apple, by George Martin, engineer Glyn Johns and tape operator Alan Parsons. The tracks were filled with the following: Paul McCartney, vocals; John Lennon’s and George Harrison’s vocals; Billy Preston’s organ; McCartney’s bass guitar; a sync track for the film crew; Starr’s drums; Lennon’s guitar; Harrison’s guitar.
“That was one of the greatest and most exciting days of my life. To see The Beatles playing together and getting an instant feedback from the people around them, five cameras on the roof, cameras across the road, in the road, it was just unbelievable.” ~ Alan Parsons, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
The songs performed on the roof:
Get Back (five versions)
I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
Don’t Let Me Down (two versions)
I’ve Got A Feeling
One After 909
Dig A Pony (two versions)
God Save The Queen
A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody
Brief, incomplete and off-the-cuff versions of I Want You (She’s So Heavy), God Save The Queen and A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody were fooled around with in between takes – as was Danny Boy, which was included in the film and on the album. None of these were serious group efforts, and one – the group and Preston performing God Save The Queen – was incomplete as it coincided with Alan Parsons changing tapes.
The Beatles’ rooftop show began at around midday. The timing coincided with the lunch hour of many nearby workplaces, which led to crowds quickly forming. Although few people could see them, crowds gathered in the streets below to hear The Beatles play.
“There were people hanging off balconies and out of every office window all around. The police were knocking on the door – George Martin went white! We really wanted to stop the traffic, we wanted to blast out the entire West End…” ~ Dave Harries, engineer, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
Traffic in Savile Row and neighbouring streets came to a halt, until police from the nearby West End Central police station, further up Savile Row, entered Apple and ordered the group to stop playing.
“It was good fun, actually. We had to set the mikes up and get a show together. I remember seeing Vicki Wickham of Ready, Steady, Go! (there’s a name to conjure with) on the opposite roof, for some reason, with the street between us. She and a couple of friends sat there, and then the secretaries from the lawyers’ offices next door came out on their roof.
We decided to go through all the stuff we’d been rehearsing and record it. If we got a good take on it then that would be the recording; if not, we’d use one of the earlier takes that we’d done downstairs in the basement. It was really good fun because it was outdoors, which was unusual for us. We hadn’t played outdoors for a long time.
It was a very strange location because there was no audience except for Vicki Wickham and a few others. So we were playing virtually to nothing – to the sky, which was quite nice. They filmed downstairs in the street – and there were a lot of city gents looking up: ‘What’s that noise?’” ~ Paul McCartney, Anthology
The Beatles began with a rehearsal of Get Back while the film cameras were being set up. At the end it was applauded by the spectators on the roof. In response, McCartney mumbled something about cricketer Ted Dexter, and Lennon announced: “We’ve had a request from Martin Luther.”
Another version of Get Back followed. An edit of these two versions was included in the Let It Be film. Afterwards Lennon said: “We’ve had a request for Daisy, Morris and Tommy.”
The third song was Don’t Let Me Down, as featured in the Let It Be film. At the end The Beatles went straight into I’ve Got A Feeling, which was used in both the film and the album.
George Harrison sang a few lines on I’ve Got A Feeling, his only vocals throughout the performance. At the end of the song Lennon can be heard saying: “Oh my soul, so hard.”
One After 909 was also used in the Let It Be film and album. At the end of it John Lennon broke out into a brief impromptu rendition of Conway Twitty’s 1959 hit Danny Boy.
The sixth song The Beatles played was Dig A Pony. A short rehearsal was played first, with Lennon asking for the lyrics. They then performed the song properly, with a production runner on the film, Kevin Harrington, kneeling in front of Lennon holding a clipboard with the words on. George Harrison, too, briefly knelt next to Harrington.
Dig A Pony began with a false start. In the film, Ringo Starr can be seen putting his cigarette down and crying out ‘Hold it!’ This, and the full version that followed, were both included in the album and film, although on the LP the ‘All I want is…” refrain which opened and closed the song were later cut by Phil Spector.
As Alan Parsons changed the recording tapes in Apple’s basement studio, The Beatles and Billy Preston performed an off-the-cuff version of God Save The Queen. This was never used; nor were second versions of I’ve Got A Feeling and Don’t Let Me Down.
The final full song was Get Back, although The Beatles nearly stopped performing when the police arrived on the roof. The officers demanded that Mal Evans turn off the group’s Fender Twin amplifiers. He complied, but George Harrison immediately turned his back on.
Evans realised his mistake and turned John Lennon’s back on too. The amplifiers took several seconds to start again, but The Beatles managed to continue long enough to see the song through to the end.
In the end it started to filter up from Mal that the police were complaining. We said, ‘We’re not stopping.’ He said, The police are going to arrest you.’ ‘Good end to the film. Let them do it. Great! That’s an end: “Beatles Busted on Rooftop Gig”.’
“We kept going to the bitter end and, as I say, it was quite enjoyable. I had my little Hofner bass – very light, very enjoyable to play. In the end the policeman, Number 503 of the Greater Westminster Council, made his way round the back: ‘You have to stop!’ We said, ‘Make him pull us off. This is a demo, man!’
I think they pulled the plug, and that was the end of the film.” ~ Paul McCartney, Anthology
As a climax it could scarcely be bettered, with McCartney brilliantly ad-libbing, “You’ve been playing on the roofs again, and that’s no good, and you know your Mummy doesn’t like that… she gets angry… she’s gonna have you arrested! Get back!”
The police presence ensured that The Beatles would play no more on the roof. The concert over, McCartney thanked Ringo Starr’s wife Maureen for her enthusiastic cheering with a simple “Thanks Mo”.
“I always feel let down about the police. Someone in the neighbourhood called the police, and when they came up I was playing away and I thought, ‘Oh great! I hope they drag me off.’ I wanted the cops to drag me off – ‘Get off those drums!’ – because we were being filmed and it would have looked really great, kicking the cymbals and everything. Well, they didn’t, of course; they just came bumbling in: ‘You’ve got to turn that sound down.’ It could have been fabulous” ~ Ringo Starr, Anthology
Then, of course, there was John Lennon’s immortal closing quote: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.” Both these comments were used at the end of Get Back on the Let It Be album, although the version of the song was not from the rooftop performance.
Around half of the performance was used in the Let It Be film. Furthermore, edits of I’ve Got A Feeling, One After 909 and Dig A Pony all featured on the Let It Be album.
The final Get Back take was included in the Let It Be film, and appeared on Anthology 3 in 1996.
An edit of the two Don’t Let Me Down takes was included on 2003’s Let It Be… Naked, due to John Lennon getting the vocals wrong at different points in both. That album also contained an edit of the rooftop performance of I’ve Got A Feeling and another version, recorded on another date.