Thursday, Jan. 30, 1969 dawned a typically cold, overcast day in London. But by lunchtime, the heart of Westminster’s normally staid, upscale tailor district was abuzz with noise and confusion. Indeed, city police had been summoned to investigate the disturbance – which was now causing area business people and passersby alike to mill in the street, craning their necks upward to find the source of the loud, boisterous music echoing off the walls of the area’s usually sedate rows of office buildings.
When the London bobbies finally arrived, they noted the ruckus seemed to be emanating from the upper floors of 5 Saville Row, which was their first clue – it was the five-story headquarters of the Beatles fledgling Apple Corps empire. They also noted what seemed to be a small crowd of people near the edge of the building’s roof. But like most on the street below, they really couldn’t see much more than that.
Other workers in the district had already clambered to their own office rooftops to investigate the source of the commotion – and found, to various levels of delight and aggravation, the Beatles themselves, joyously blasting what would be their last public performance into the Winter London air.
5 Savile Row, London
The band had just completed their busiest, arguably most productive year (see parts one and two of our Beatles ’68 retrospective). Yet it was also a year when Apple business, solo projects and outside personal relationships had fostered increasingly fractious relationships. Paul McCartney in particular pushed his bandmates – who’d essentially been a virtual studio entity since their last touring date in August, 1966 – to find some common musical roots, a way to let the Beatles be a real band again.
Paul had initially suggested playing a series of shows at London’s Roundhouse in December, an idea that quickly fizzled. The band finally settled on performing a single, televised show, whose rehearsals would also be filmed for inclusion and recorded for a subsequent album. So, on January 2, 1969, the Beatles assembled themselves at a cavernous, drafty soundstage at Twickenham Studios to begin rehearsals, with filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg (who’d also directed several Beatles promos as well as the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus) tasked with capturing it all on camera.
The Beatles at Twickenham
New material was worked up and seasoned with copious rock and r&b chestnuts intended to inspire a return to roots. With the bulk of the project recorded outside Abbey Road, usual producer George Martin was reduced to spectator, with engineer Glynn Jones supervising most of the recording. There were flashes of typical brilliance in the weeks to come, but they were mostly overwhelmed by lack of focus, indifference and increasing discord. George Harrison, feeling both shunted aside in general and stung by McCartney’s criticism in particular, quit the band briefly midway through the month. What had been intended as a fresh start was quickly becoming the beginning of the End.
Unused cover concept for Get Back
But as the month of “sessions” – for a project initially titled Get Back, but released a year later (originally in a box set containing a lavishly illustrated book) as Let It Be – drew to a close, the band still hadn’t decided on a location for their live performance, now envisioned as the finale of a documentary film. Various venues had been discussed, including playing in the ruins of a Roman amphitheater in North Africa (an idea Pink Floyd cribbed not long after), but it wasn’t until just days before the show that they settled on performing on the roof of their Apple headquarters in central London. It made some sense – they’d also commissioned a studio in the building’s basement (where some of the final Let It Be recordings would also come together), and cables could be snaked down the stairwells to the multi-track recorder there.
So, joined by keyboardist Billy Preston (who’d ably filled out the band’s sound during the last week of the project’s haphazard sessions), the Beatles tromped up to the Apple rooftop accompanied by a few friends, associates, and Lindsay-Hogg’s modest film crew. The air was so chilly that Harrison and John Lennon opted for heavy fur coats, and Ringo a bright red rain slicker.
With McCartney on his trademark Hofner bass, Lennon toting his now-familiar sanded-down Epiphone Casino, and Harrison playing a custom rosewood Telecaster, they quickly kicked into a rough-hewn version of “Get Back” where John and George obviously struggled to warm up. But things went much better on the second take, which ended up in the Let It Be film.
Next up was a tight take of “Don’t Let Me Down” (despite Lennon’s lyric flub) which also graces the film, as does the powerful version of Paul’s “I’ve Got a Feeling” that followed. As the film crew rearranged equipment, Billy Preston and the band amused themselves with a few “One After 909” riffs, then a full-bodied performance of the song – with John adding a playful refrain from “Danny Boy” at the end - that ultimately ended up on. both album and film. The versions of “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down” that are released as a single in April, 1969 are different takes, recorded days earlier in the Apple basement studio.
The band then huddled to decide what to play next, with Glynn Johns suggesting Lennon’s “Dig a Pony.” After John’s lyric clipboard is located, the band launches into a false start, then a complete version that also winds up on album and film, despite Lennon’s protestations that the cold air is affecting his playing. The band next takes another run at “I’ve Got a Feeling,” with George experimenting a bit with his guitar fills, but it’s a vastly inferior take to the first run-through.
A false start of “Get Back” followed, interrupted by John requesting they tackle “Don’t Let Me Down” again instead. But with Lennon flubbing the first line, the band’s focus quickly lapsed for the remainder of the unused performance. As the London constables had now reached the rooftop, George kicked off yet another take of “Get Back,” with Paul improvising some snarky lines about the police presence. Both John and George’s amps cut out at one point, but they soldier on regardless, yielding a gloriously ragged take that ends up in the film and, a quarter century later, on Anthology 3. They finished with Paul thanking “Mo” (Maureen Starkey, Ringo’s wife) for her presence and then Lennon uttering the famous line: “On behalf of myself and the group, I hope we passed the audition.”
But the project still wasn’t finished – the next day they gather in Apple’s basement studio to record/film three songs that will be centerpieces of the finished album and film, “Two of Us,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and “Let It Be.” Yet such is the general dissatisfaction with the entire affair that it’s largely shelved for a year, with the band rejecting several of Glynn Johns’ attempts at sequencing and assembly of the material – acetates of which are aired on a couple East Coast radio stations in the Fall, then widely bootlegged. In the interim, the Beatles have largely moved on, recording/releasing their true swansong, Abbey Road, instead.
In the Spring of 1970, legendary producer Phil Spector was brought in to “salvage” the Let It Be project, and his controversial overdubbing of strings and choir onto “The Long and Winding Road” particularly angered Paul McCartney, who quit the band via press release in April, breaking up the epochal outfit. Yet when the film soundtrack won an unlikely Academy Award in 1971, none other than McCartney bounded down the aisle to claim the Oscar.
The Beatles rooftop performance – arguably one of their brashest and most ‘punk’ moments - quickly became an iconic rock touchstone, one imitated over the years not only by tribute bands and struggling indie artists, but world-beaters U2. The Irish band largely recreated its ambience in their 1987 video for “Where the Streets Have No Name,” filmed on top of a downtown Los Angeles roof during a live performance that itself was cut short by the LAPD. In September, 2000, the band also shot a live take of “Beautiful Day” for Top of the Pops atop the Clarence Hotel in Dublin. “We’ve ripped off the Beatles many times before,” Bono once admitted.
The Beatles’ rooftop concert, January 30, 1969, as edited for Let It Be:
”Get Back” (take 2) and "Don't Let Me Down" (take 1)
“I’ve Got a Feeling” (take 1) and “One After 909” (take 1)
“I Dig a Pony” (take 1) and “Get Back” (take 3)