Some performances in pop culture history are so iconic that you truly had to be there to witness it and the Beatles' London rooftop gig is one of them. Here's the story behind the fanfare
It’s no secret that most music fans have a long list of gigs they would’ve loved to attend. Some live music events stand out as truly iconic performances—you simply had to be there to know what it was like.
A truly historic concert, the Beatles’ surprise rooftop gig at the Apple Studios in 1969 is at the top of many music lovers’ list of legendary events. Let’s take a look at the story behind the iconic rooftop concert that would turn out to be the Beatles’ final performance before one of the world’s most legendary bands broke up.
To truly appreciate the magic of the rooftop gig, we need to understand the context in which it happened. The “Get Back” project represented The Beatles’ return to their rock’n’roll roots in a bid to restore unity within the band after a tense period.
The Beatles’ world tour in 1966 had been a challenging affair fraught with issues ranging from political controversy and concerns over personal safety to burnout within the band. The final official concert The Beatles gave was at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966, marking the last of 19 performances in just 18 days.
At that point, the band was exhausted, feeling the effects of constant touring and overwork since Beatlemania hit in 1963.
Unlike the energetic, intimate early gigs the band gave in their native Liverpool’s Cavern Club and in Hamburg, The Beatles were now booking huge stadium tours. With thousands of screaming fans in the crowd, the technology at the time wasn’t there for the band to be heard over the noise.
To make matters worse, crowd control and other safety risks at the large arenas contributed to an unsafe environment for both the band and concert goers. The Beatles, who had long been known for their fun, raucous gigs, weren’t enjoying performing live anymore.
When The Beatles came together again in January of 1969 to start recording their new album, tension and dysfunction was rife within the band. The talented keyboardist Billy Preston, who the band knew from their performances in Hamburg back in the early 1960s, was invited to join the band for the “Get Back” sessions and the rooftop performance.
He was brought in by George Harrison to lighten the mood and inject some much needed fresh energy into the band dynamic, which was fraught with tension. “He got on the electric piano and straightaway there was a 100 per cent improvement in the vibe in the room…having this fifth person was just enough to cut the ice that we’d created among ourselves,” Harrison later stated. Preston helped the band get back to basics and reconnect to their passion for creating music.
Keyboardist Billy Preston was considered a "Fifth Beatle" during the Rooftop sessions, Source: Wikimedia Commons
The “Get Back” sessions have generally been seen as a very tense time with the band members being at each other’s throat throughout the recordings, and it was certainly a period in which the band was coming apart at the seams. George Harrison called the time The Beatles’ “Winter of discontent…very unhealthy and unhappy”.
In fact, the six-hour rockumentary featuring never before seen footage, was described by Paul McCartney as having changed his view of the band’s breakup. “I'll tell you what’s really fabulous about it, it shows the four of us having a ball. It was so reaffirming for me,” he said after having seen the documentary series.
"I'll tell you what’s really fabulous about it, it shows the four of us having a ball. It was so reaffirming for me"
The plan had always been for the “Get Back” project to conclude with a live performance from the band, and ideas for where this gig should take place were varied.
The iconic Roundhouse in Camden, the Royal Albert Hall and Houses of Parliament were all considered as potential venues, while the band were divided on one of the more extravagant ideas—sailing to Libya to play in the ruins of the amphitheatre in the ancient Roman city of Sabratha. In the end, they came up with the idea of holding the concert right where they were.
The band had been recording in the basement Apple Studio at Apple Corps Headquarters in Mayfair, and the building’s rooftop had beautiful views of London—and it had the advantage of being much closer and more convenient than travelling to Libya.
At lunchtime on January 30, 1969, The Beatles climbed onto the roof of the Apple Corps building for what would turn out to be their final ever live performance.
However, what has become known as one of the most famous gigs of all time almost didn’t happen. Right up until the last minute, the band were unsure whether they should perform—until John Lennon famously said: “F**k it—let’s go do it.”
As one of the world’s biggest bands began a spontaneous live performance on a makeshift stage on a London rooftop, traffic in the streets below came to a halt as a crowd of people began to congregate around the building.
News of the gig spread quickly, and workers in nearby buildings watched from windows and climbed onto rooftops for a better view. The unannounced concert caused a sensation as Londoners on their lunch breaks looked up to see The Beatles perform new material, playing live for the first time in over two years.
During the impromptu 42-minute gig, the band performed nine takes of five songs, playing “Get Back”, “Don’t Let Me Down”, “I’ve Got a Feeling”, “One After 909” and “I Dig a Pony”.
As the band played, the sound was recorded onto eight-track recorders in the Apple studio below, and several of the recordings from the rooftop gig were used on Let It Be.
While most people enjoyed the show, some local businesses weren’t too pleased with the noise, and officers were dispatched from the nearby police station after receiving noise complaints.
The police were stalled by Apple Corps employees who tried to keep them talking so that the band could continue playing, but eventually made their way up to the rooftop. The policemen burst onto the roof while The Beatles played the third take of “Get Back”, and can be seen in the camera footage from the gig.
As Paul McCartney spotted them, he famously ad-libbed: “You've been playing on the roofs again, and you know your momma doesn’t like it, she’s gonna have you arrested!”.
Though the officers threatened to arrest them if they didn’t stop their performance immediately, the band refused to stop playing until the end of the song. Famouly, John Lennon concluded the gig by addressing the audience in the London street below, saying: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”
The Beatles' rooftop concert marked the end of an era for many music fans, as the 1960s were drawing to a close. The raucous rooftop gig was a fitting end for one of the most popular bands in musical history, capturing the raw energy and unpredictability of many live music performances at the end of the 1960s.
The band that defined the decade split not long after their final live performance, but the rooftop gig is a truly iconic moment in rock ‘n’ roll history that has been referenced and paid homage to numerous times over the last 50 years.
Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Read more: Everything we've learned from Get Back
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