Leave it to rock ‘n’ roll bands to come up with the wildest ideas. We should all be a little concerned when a rock band is put in charge. Having said that, ideas that stem from said rock bands aren’t always all that bad: case in point being The Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll circus or The Beatles’ last performance together on the rooftop of their headquarters at Apple Corps.
In our case, the question remains, whose idea was it for The Beatles to play on the rooftop? Why did they play on the rooftop? Did they even know it was their last performance together?
Like so many events surrounding The Beatles, their rooftop performance has become the stuff of legends, although looking back now, it seems like it stemmed more from a desire for convenience rather than creativity.
In reality, the decision to play on the rooftop was made in a last-ditch attempt to compromise, as no one could agree on a location for their live televised concert to promote the new material of songs from their ‘Get Back’ sessions.
The Beatles had retired from playing live and touring in 1966 and retreated to the recording studio to explore a different side to their craft. The Fab Four surprised everyone when they non-chalantly took to the rooftop of the Apple Headquarters at Saville Road in London on January 30th, 1969.
In 1968, the band began to implode during the making of their White Album, and the Liverpool lads did work very hard to try and keep it alive. They attempted to get back out on the live circuit again to redefine their philosophy and integrity as a band; what eventually turned into the rooftop gig, was initially going to be a live televised concert to announce their return. Why exactly did things change for them?
Did The Beatles plan on playing live again?
By 1966, The Fab Four had conquered the world via touring – there were no more places for them to play; they sold out Shea Stadium – the first band to do so – they had outdone the world, and had even outdone themselves, to an extent.
Starting with Rubber Soul, the group had a few good years of writing and recording innovative music while also dabbling in and innovating new recording techniques.
By the time they began making their expansive 1968 White Album, the band became fractured. Some of the members had left and come back at one point or another; John Lennon was using heroin on and off; George Harrison felt ignored; Paul McCartney was too controlling, and Ringo Starr was probably tired of always ‘playing it cool’.
The White Album sessions wrapped up in October of 1968, after which the Fab Four felt that perhaps returning to the live stage may help salvage the band. Three gigs were planned at The Roadhouse in December that year. These gigs were intended to be taped for live television according to Radio X.
This idea eventually evolved to possibly playing one concert as a live broadcast event, including two weeks of taped rehearsals. The band and their entourage wanted their return to the live stage to be a spectacular event – the only issue is, nobody could agree on a location for this televised performance. Not to mention, the rehearsals weren’t going as planned.
What was supposed to be two weeks of practice was cut short by one; McCartney seemed to be the only one who showed any interest. “I don’t see why any of you, if you’re not interested, got yourselves into this,” Macca said to the others, according to Rolling Stone.
“What’s it for? It can’t be for the money. Why are you here? I’m here because I want to do a show, but I don’t see an awful lot of support,” he added.
The project was scrapped, and the Fab Four returned to the drawing board.
Why did The Beatles play on the rooftop?
After George Harrison left the band again, he agreed to rejoin the group, only if they would redirect the focus of the live event to a documentary of the making of a new album: Let It Be (the majority of this footage is currently being turned into a film by Peter Jackson).
Harrison returned and he brought along a little help this time: the piano maestro, Billy Preston. The band wanted Let it Be to be a straightforward rock album with as few overdubs as possible.
Michael Lindsay-Hogg was brought in to direct the documentary. Lindsay-Hogg still wanted a climactic ending to the documentary, but this brought them back to the original issue of finding a location that they all could agree upon.
Ringo Starr recalls, “There was a plan to play live somewhere. 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.'”
So on January 30th, 1969, when the band climbed to the rooftop of three Saville Row with the film crew. Studio engineer, Glyn Johns recorded the audio in the basement while live footage of the band was captured.
However, right before the band went on to play, they got nervous. “George didn’t want to do it, and Ringo started saying he didn’t really see the point,” says director, Lindsay-Hogg, according to Rolling Stone. “Then John said, ‘Oh, fuck it — let’s do it.’”
Whose idea was it to play on the roof?
Allegedly, the idea for the concert came about only a couple of days prior to the actual event; whose idea it was to do the gig on the rooftop instead of the Sahara desert remains unclear.
The piano player, Billy Preston, who had previously played on a few Beatles tracks, was invited by George Harrison to perform with them on the rooftop. Amidst turmoil in the band, Harrison felt Preston’s outside influence to be a grounding force for the group. Harrison commented on this: “He got on the electric piano, and straight away there was 100 per cent improvement in the vibe in the room,” Harrison said according to Ultimate Classic Rock. “Having this fifth person was just enough to cut the ice that we’d created among ourselves.”
According to Preston, it was John Lennon who had thought up the idea for the concert. Glyn Johns claimed the idea was his in his book, Sound Man, while the former manager of Apple Records, Ken Mansfield, claims that it more likely came from the director of the documentary, Michael Lindsay-Hogg.
Why did the police turn up?
During their last song, ‘Get Back’, the police had come up onto the roof by then. The gig surprised everyone on the surrounding block of the city who were on a lunch break during the performance. The performance was loud which prompted some local businesses to call the police.
The police turned Lennon’s and Harrison’s amps off and as they approached McCartney’s amp, he improvised the lyrics to ‘Get Back’: “You’ve been playing on the roofs again, and you know your Momma doesn’t like it; she’s going to have you arrested!”
At the end of the song and set, Lennon quipped, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”
Lennon’s comments, as was usual for him, were poignant, cynical, and perhaps a little telling – it would be end up being their last performance together.
What was the setlist for The Beatles’ rooftop gig?
The Beatles’ setlist consisted of five of their songs of which they did nine takes in total.
As previously mentioned, Lindsay-Hogg, along with his camera crew, were aiming to get footage of some good takes of particular songs and not as a complete concert.
The rooftop setlist
- “Get Back” (take one)
- “Get Back” (take two)
- “Don’t Let Me Down” (take one)
- “I’ve Got a Feeling” (take one)
- “One After 909”
- “Dig a Pony”
- “I’ve Got a Feeling” (take two)
- “Don’t Let Me Down” (take two)
- “Get Back” (take three)