John Lennon was clearly nervous about performing on the roof of Apple Corps. in late January 1969. Thanks to the footage culled from The Beatles: Get Back, each of the band members’ attitudes towards the performance can be seen: Paul McCartney is the giddiest, while Ringo Starr is clearly the most unhappy — at least until things start to kick into gear. George Harrison is all business, but Lennon appears to be baffled at once again being on stage.
There’s no immediate audience in front of him – he’s just staring at other buildings as the onlookers gather behind and below him. But something switches once the band get started. Old synapses start firing for the first time in years, and Lennon quickly and clearly remembers his position as a sort of MC for the shows that The Beatles would play either in dingy Hamburg clubs or at The Cavern Club during their early days.
He makes a few jokes about getting requests, which the band would often take during their performances for otherwise-disinterested crowds. He also pulls out a trick that kept there from being too much dead air in between songs when the band had to tune or replace a string – sing ditties. It didn’t matter what it was, as long as someone in the crowd knew it, the stalling would be successful while the rest of the group got it together to “Mach Schau”.
While getting back into the groove and dealing with the early nerves, Lennon sings two different snippets that would have been familiar to a British sailor wandering in The Kaiser Keller or an eager teen going down to The Cavern. The first is ‘Danny Boy’, the English folk ballad that was commonly sung at the time. Lennon gives the opening line just as ‘One After 909’ finishes with its final crashing notes.
Evidently, Lennon wasn’t done making references to other songs, as he once again goes for an old-school reference at the end of the second take of ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’. This time it’s the Irving Berlin song ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody’, a classic jazz standard. By this point, Lennon and the band are all warmed up, with their performances getting tighter and their nerves getting looser. The goofy grin that Lennon puts on while singing the song is one of delight and slight disbelief that this show is even happening.
But before that last take of ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’, during a brief impasse where the cameras were likely changing their reels, The Beatles bust out a few rocked up bars of ‘God Save the Queen’, the royal anthem for Britannia and her commonwealth. It’s a loose jam where everyone knows the form, and it’s over in less than 30 seconds. But all of these songs represent a bygone time where The Beatles had to know hundreds of tunes and have them at the ready in case anyone were to yell them out at a show. It only feels appropriate that their final performance together would include some similar shenanigans.