THE BEATLES NEEDED a way to finish their film. And time was running out.
Throughout January 1969, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (the man who shot the Paperback Writer/Rain and Hey Jude/Revolution promotional shorts) had been filming the dissolution of the biggest band in the world as they rehearsed and recorded the songs that would eventually appear on Let It Be.
The decision to move the production from the cavernous confines of Twickenham Studios to the intimate rooms of the new Apple offices at 3 Savile Row in central London was a wise one, immediately thawing the frosty atmosphere that had so far blighted the project. Beatles Press Officer, Derek Taylor: “I was glad when they came back to Apple and were inside the building again. There was a two or three-week period at the end of January when it was nice”.
A live concert had been suggested as a way to end the film and so it was that on January 30 The Beatles ascended the stairs at Apple HQ to play live together for the very last time. What followed remains one of the all-time greatest moments in pop culture…
1. The Building
The Beatles purchased 3 Savile Row in the summer of 1968, quickly installing a studio in the basement. Following the Let It Be sessions in January 1969, it would go on to host the recording of albums including Harry Nilsson’s Son Of Schmilsson (1972), Tim Hardin’s Painted Head (1972), Ringo’s Ringo (1973), George’s Living In The Material World (1973), Roger Daltrey’s Daltrey (1973) and Badfinger’s Ass (1973). The building would remain under Apple ownership until 1976. In 2013, US clothes brand Abercrombie & Fitch attempted to open an outlet at 3 Savile Row much to the outrage of the street’s heritage tailors. Here’s a photo of the building taken on Tuesday, January 28, 2014.
2. The Concept
The idea of ending the Let It Be film with a live performance had been around for a while. Neil Aspinall: “They were talking about doing a concert on a boat or an amphitheatre in Greece… or at The Roundhouse in London.” Four days before the event, on January 26, the roof was chosen as the location for the movie’s conclusion. You can see the band discussing how to end the film in the final part of The Beatles Anthology series.
3. Mach Schau!
The performance itself began at around 12pm on a bitterly cold Thursday lunchtime and lasted for 42 minutes. Approximately half of the gig is shown at the end of Let It Be. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg and his team had boarded the roof prior to The Beatles’ arrival (witness McCartney jumping up and down to test the new stage) and two eight-track machines were running in the basement in order to record the sound. Several cameras were used, including those capturing the reaction of onlookers in the street below.
4. Positions, Please
It had been two years, five months and one day (or 885 days) since The Beatles’ last live performance at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966. For the rooftop concert, John and George broke away from their familiar onstage placements – John now stood in the middle with George to his left. Billy Preston and his Hammond B3 organ were situated behind McCartney and to the right of Ringo’s drums. Preston had arrived in London as part of Ray Charles’ band, and was drafted into the Let It Be sessions to act, as George Martin remembers, as “an emollient” to ease tensions within the group.
5. Happiness Is A Warm Coat
It was a day for swapping clothes. Ringo’s distinctive red mac belonged to his wife Maureen, while John kept the cold at bay by donning Yoko’s fur coat.
6. The Inner Circle
Apple employees and the film crew surrounded the band, along with long-serving Beatles roadie Mal Evans, although two key personnel were missing. George Martin ensconced himself in the basement “worrying like mad if I was going to end up in Savile Row police station for disturbing the peace” while Neil Aspinall missed the gig completely: “I wasn’t there. I was in hospital having my tonsils out.”
7. Get Back
The band began with a rehearsal of Get Back (they had recorded a studio version on January 24). The subsequent muted applause from the small crowd prompted McCartney to murmur a reference to Sussex/England cricketer Ted Dexter followed by Lennon’s: “We’ve had a request from Martin Luther”. The song was then played for a second time. The footage you see in the Let It Be film is an edit of the two performances.
8. I’m In Love For The First Time
The first of two takes of Don’t Let Me Down followed. The first can be seen in the footage of the rooftop concert (Lennon visibly enjoys fluffing the lyrics) while an edit of both was included on 2003’s Let It Be... Naked. You can hear a recording of Don’t Let Me Down from street level here.
9. Everybody Had A Hard Year
At the end of the next song – a blistering version of I’ve Got a Feeling – John Lennon’s mind is suitably blown. “Oh, my soul,” he says, “So hard”. Either that or his fingers had frozen.
10. The Pipes, The Pipes...
The One After 909, the studio version of which was recorded at Savile Row the day before, ends with John singing a few lines of Danny Boy. McCartney looks like he might join in. Ringo, meanwhile, lights a cigarette.
11. Say The Word
Lennon’s Dig A Pony kicks off with Ringo disposing of his cigarette (“Hold it!”) while one of the film’s production team, Kevin Harrington, kneels in front of John brandishing a clipboard of lyrics. John finishes the song with: “Thank you brothers... hands too cold to play the chords.” The original Let It Be album version is missing the “All I want is…” vocal intro. Thanks, Phil Spector!
12. Her Majesty
While engineer Alan Parsons changes tapes, the band and Billy Preston run through an impromptu few bars of God Save The Queen. Three years later, Alan Parsons could be found at Abbey Road engineering Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.
By this point, crowds had gathered in the streets below and on the surrounding rooftops for what must have been one of the greatest lunch break treats of all time. However, not everyone was pleased to see the biggest band in the world playing a free gig. Stanley Davis, the wool merchant next door, reportedly said: “I want this bloody noise stopped. It’s an absolute disgrace.” Other reactions of passers-by are captured in the Let It Be film and range from the elated (“Fantastic!” “Fabulous!”), to the buttoned-down (“This type of music has its place”) and the topical (“It’s nice to have something in this country for free at the moment”).
14. Caught By The Fuzz
With traffic beginning to bottleneck on the street below, the police at nearby West End Central Police Station (located at 27 Savile Row) were summoned. Mal Evans had set up a hidden camera in the reception area of the Apple building that later captured their arrival. Ken Wharfe, a young policeman on duty that day, recalls his memories in the video above.
15. Play On
The third take of Get Back sees the police arrive on the roof. Lennon and Harrison’s amplifiers are switched off just before the first chorus, before kicking back in just in time for the solo. Paul’s soul preacher ad-lib arrives towards the end of the track: “You’ve been playing on the roofs again, and you know your Momma doesn’t like it, oh she gets angry, she’s gonna have you arrested!” A cheer from Ringo’s wife Maureen then prompts a deadpan “Thanks, Mo” from McCartney. These outtakes can be heard on the Anthology 3 version of Get Back.
16. Sound & Vision
Later that day, Glyn Johns mixed the recordings into stereo at Olympic Studios in Barnes. Johns would go on to helm recordings for Led Zeppelin, The Who, Faces, The Band, Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones.
17. “It Could Have Been Fabulous"
The rooftop concert was a short and sweet reminder of The Beatles at their live best, although not everyone was happy with the end result. As Ringo recounts in The Beatles Anthology: “I always feel let down about the police. When they came up I was playing away and I thought, ‘Oh great! I hope they drag me off.’ 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.”
18. Ready Steady Go!
The world got its first glimpse of the rooftop concert via the promo clip for the Get Back/Don’t Let Me Down single. It appeared four times on the UK’s Top Of The Pops between April 24 and May 22. A colour version was shown on the 1969 TOTP Christmas special. America got its first taste of the rooftop gig via the Get Back clip shown on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour on April 30.
19. The Toppermost Of The Poppermost
The Beatles weren’t the only band of the era to take to the top of a building to play their songs. Two months before, in November 1968, Jean Luc Godard filmed Jefferson Airplane playing on a midtown Manhattan roof and it’s always worth reminding yourself of The Rutles’ rooftop show (“a good version” according to George Harrison) which you can check out above.
20. And In The End…
As the rest of the band put down their instruments, it was left to John Lennon to bid the world farewell. “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition.”
With thanks to The Beatles Anthology and Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Chronicle.