The Beatles Got Back Where They Belonged In Rooftop Swan Song

It was 50 years ago today, The Beatles’ last show went through the roof.

The Beatles blasted the London financial district for their last lunchtime concert. The Beatles ended their concert history the way it began. Before the four Beatles were fab, there were five of them and they played to swinging teens during their midday breaks at the famous Cavern Club and the Casbah, an obscure performance space painted in day-glo colors by art students Stuart Sutcliff and John Lennon, in Liverpool. This was before and after the band pulled eight hour live shifts in Hamburg, Germany.

For their last concert, on Jan. 30, 1969, The Beatles took to the roof of Apple headquarters at 3 Savile Row and sang for their last supper, well, lunch. Starting at midday, Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Star and a keyboardist friend they’d known since their early touring days, Billy Preston, strapped on, plugged in and let loose with an impromptu 42-minute set that was closer in style to their earliest and rawest performances than to their half hour pop concerts. The Beatles got through nine takes of five songs, plus sundry snippets, before London’s Metropolitan Police Service told them to turn it down.

The concert was shot as a last-minute idea to end the 1970 documentary film Let It Be. Originally entitled Get Back, the film was supposed to show the band rehearsing and recording a back-to-the-roots, no-overdubs-allowed album. The film was going to end with a concert. The only question was where was the concert going to be held? On top of Mount Everest? Nah, the acoustics would have been terrible and no one would hear it except a couple Sherpas. An ocean liner out at sea? Lennon even suggested doing it in an asylum, which wasn’t as crazy an idea as it might seem.

“There was a plan to play live somewhere,” Ringo remembered in The Beatles’ Anthology. “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.'”

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The Beatles came up with the idea to do the concert on the roof the day before they performed the show. They might have gotten the idea from a lunchtime rooftop concert Jefferson Airplane performed at the Schuyler Hotel in Manhattan a few months earlier. That concert was filmed by Jean-Luc Godard. On December 7th, 1968, Grace Slick opened the show by announcing “Hello, New York! Wake up, you fuckers! Free music! Nice songs! Free love!” The band only got through “The House at Pooneil Corners” before the cops made them stop and arrested their friend, the actor Rip Torn for insisting the show must go on. You gotta love Rip Torn. You really do.

For the cold outdoor show, Lennon borrowed Yoko Ono’s fur coat, and Ringo wore his wife Maureen Starkey’s red mac. “Thanks Mo,” you can hear McCartney say on behalf of the drummer. The concert was recorded by engineer Alan Parsons onto two eight-track recorders in the cellar of Apple. Parsons, whose name you might recognize from his work with Pink Floyd or his own project, protected the microphones from the wind with women’s pantyhose. “I walked into this department store and said, ‘I need three pairs of pantyhose. It doesn’t matter what size.'” Parsons told Guitar Player. “They thought I was either a bank robber or a cross-dresser.” Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg filmed the performance and the reactions of the surprised and mostly thrilled, people on the street.

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Not everyone was thrilled. Some business people complained on camera that that music was fine in its place, even enjoyable, but it was quite the nuisance during office hours. Someone called in the bobbies to keep traffic moving. At first the Beatles’ people didn’t let the cops in. But they politely insisted with hints of pending arrests for controlled substances and were let in. They were probably even offered tea.

According to Ringo, when he saw the cops hit the roof he was thrilled. This was going to be a great ending, the greatest show on earth, for what it was worth, was going to be dragged from their instruments by ugly, great brutes with sadism stamped all over their bloated British kissers and rabbit punched into a tiled room and beaten with rubber hoses.

McCartney, who was the walrus and not the eggman, egged on the cops, improvising “You’ve been playing on the roofs again, and you know your Momma doesn’t like it, she’s gonna have you arrested.” But the cops merely turned off the amplifiers, leaving just the rhythm section to keep the beat. Kind of anticlimactic, but actually better than a kidney punch with mahogany truncheons.

“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,” George Harrison said in Anthology. “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.'”

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 “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,” McCartney remembered in Anthology.

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“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?’”

Preston met The Beatles while he was playing organ for Little Richard on his 1962 European tour. Harrison found him playing for Ray Charles concert and asked him to jam with the band to lighten up the documentary recordings. Lennon suggested making Preston a full-time fifth member, but McCartney pointed out that four Beatles were “bad enough.” The single “Get Back” is credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston.” Preston would also play organ on the songs “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Something” on the Beatles’ Abbey Road, which was the last album they recorded, if not their last release.

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The documentary Let It Be included 21 minutes of the concert, but the band played “One After 909,” two complete versions each of “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Dig a Pony” and “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and three versions of “Get Back.” Besides what was caught on the reel-to-reels, the Beatles also performed snippets of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” “God Save The Queen” and Irving Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody” in between takes.

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Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.