The Beatles’ final performance was one of those rare moments when the stars aligned. It was the product of divine inspiration, but it very nearly didn’t happen at all. Thankfully for music lovers, on a cold January day in 1968, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr clambered up onto the rooftop of their record label, Apple Corp, for a lunchtime concert that would go down in history. It stunned passers-by at the time, and 52 years later, it’s still as iconic as ever. So join us as we revisit The Beatles’ infamous final public performance.
The original idea was to use the live performance as a sort of promotional trailer for Get Back, a TV special documenting the band’s recording of their album, Let It Be. It was going to be a sort of Magical Mystery Tour, but far less conceptual. Unfortunately, the TV special never aired and was later transformed into the documentary film Let It Be, released a month after The Beatles parted ways.
Today, the rooftop concert is just about as iconic as it gets. So much so that it was famously parodied in an episode of The Simpsons, in which Homer reunites with his barbershop quartet, The Be Sharpes, for one last show. But the reality is that, as perfect as The Beatles’ final gig turned out to be, it was really a pretty rushed and unorganised affair.
For starters, nobody could agree on a location. Paul, who wanted The Beatles to go back to their roots, had suggested they return to The Cavern Club in Liverpool. The director, however, had suggested the warmer climes of Tunisia. But, on wandering up to the breezy roof of Apple Corps one day, the Fab Four – along with Yoko Ono – began to paw at the idea of shooting the performance a little closer to home. The problem was that, as wonderful as the notion was, it was still January. On the days leading up to January 30th, the sky was slate grey and pregnant with sleet. But on Thursday, The Beatles seized a break in the clouds and took to the roof at 12.30 – aiming to hit the lunchtime crowds.
However, just as the group were climbing up the fire escape, George Harrison got cold feet and started saying that he didn’t want to do the gig. The whole thing could have collapsed right there on that rickety metal ladder. The Beatles had already started to grow apart, embittered by never-ending business meetings and gradually moving in contrasting creative directions. Paul had been looking for an excuse to call it quits for some time, and this could have been the perfect opportunity. But, in a moment which surely reminded the band of their early days in Hamburg and Liverpool, John Lennon, dressed in a thick mink coat, turned to his bandmates and said: “Fuck it. Let’s just do it.” And that’s exactly what they did.
Opening with ‘Get Back’, the Fab Four quickly warmed themselves from the penetrating January wind, ripping into tracks like ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, and ‘Dig A Pony’. But what stands out, even more than the music itself, is the joy on the faces of John, George, Paul and Ringo. During ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, there’s a real sense of camaraderie between the band. They share smiles and egg each other on, with Paul offering up a little dance – much to the amusement of John. It’s almost impossible to imagine that, just a few hours earlier and just a few meters below, they had been engaged in a bitter, hostile argument.
The crowds quickly gathered to watch the spectacle. In fact, that became a bit of a problem in itself. People were so eager to catch a glimpse of The Beatles that they were willing to shimmy up drainpipes to get a closer look. And then, as always, the police turned up. Not because of the danger of some tweed-suited office worker falling to his death, but because the music was such a surprise to local businesses that many of them called the police with noise complaints – assuming The Beatles were engaged in some sort of death-defying amateur band rehearsal. The police eventually got up onto the roof and moved to turn off Paul, George, and John’s amps, at which point Paul improvised the lyrics to ‘Get Back’, ad-libbing: “You’ve been playing on the roofs again, and you know your Momma doesn’t like it; she’s going to have you arrested!”
But at last, knowing that they’d given the show everything they had, The Beatles conceded defeat and concluded their set. Lennon lifted his guitar from where it was slung around his shoulder and said: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition,” and thus ended The Beatles’ last ever public performance.
Today, it is possible to name countless bands and singers who have tried to replicate that rooftop concert. But none of them does it quite like the Fab Four did back on that cold January day in 1969.