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Music

The Beatles Rooftop Concert: A minute-by-minute timeline of an iconic performance

@TylerGolsen

On January 30th, The Beatles stepped out into the chilly early afternoon air of London’s business district to perform the final live concert of their career. Nobody knew that it would be their final performance, nor did anyone really consider it a “concert”. Most involved were surprised that they had even reached this point at all.

That’s because the idea for a live show, one that would add a conclusive endpoint to The Beatles’ at-times frustrating and laborious Get Back sessions, had looked like a non-starter for weeks. When the band first entered Twickenham Studios at the beginning of January, there was a set plan: record songs, rehearse them for a live performance and release it all as a television special. There was a short timeline, considering that Ringo Starr was needed on the set of The Magic Christian by the end of the month. The band were under a time crunch from the very start.

But as rehearsals began, it became clear that almost no one involved had any enthusiasm, or even casual attachment, to the live aspect of the project besides Paul McCartney. Getting a proper number of songs together was proving a challenge, and the live performance date kept getting pushed back. The television idea was scrapped in favour of turning the footage into a feature film, and eventually recording moved to Apple headquarters on Saville Row once George Harrison became so fed up that he temporarily quit the band.

It took a major attitude change, plus the addition of Billy Preston on keyboards, to get the project back on track but a potential concert at Primrose Hill comes and goes without any time. Running out of time, the band are pressed by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg to have a live performance as a finale. Between Lindsay-Hogg and engineer Glyn Johns, a more convenient location to propose.

That’s how The Beatles ended up on the roof of their Apple headquarters, performing five songs that they had been workshopping over the past month. Some tracks, like ‘Get Back’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, had been laboured over for weeks, while others, like ‘One After 909’, were from the band’s early days. None of Harrison’s songs made the setlist, and certain songs were played multiple times to achieve better takes.

After about 42 minutes, the Metropolitan Police asked for the band to turn down the music, and they decide to return back to the basement. Some of the resulting takes would be used on the final mix of Let It Be, and the group turned the next day to officially finish recordings for the Get Back project.

This timeline attempts to recreate the rooftop concert on a moment by moment basis, largely thanks to the complete version included in Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back. Since it’s difficult to ascertain what minute the band started precisely playing, this timeline assumes that the band arrive at the roof at 12:30pm, the most commonly cited time for the beginning of the performance.

Here’s an approximate breakdown of how that legendary final performance went down.

A timeline of The Beatles’ rooftop performance:

12:30 PM

The band arrives

As Lindsay-Hogg’s crew makes final preparations for the show, McCartney is the first to arrive, followed shortly by his bandmates.

Starr’s drums are nailed down in the wrong place, and McCartney gives the floorboards a few good jump tests. It only takes a few moments for the band to plug in, tune up, and get on with the show.

A short take of ‘Get Back’

As a sort of soundcheck before the first proper performance, the group plays a single chorus of ‘Get Back’ as everything begins to solidify. The noise attracts a small crowd at the building’s base, most of whom are on their lunch break.

Lindsay-Hogg organises his crew, and the band ready up for their first proper song.

12:32 PM
12:33 PM

The first take of ‘Get Back’

The group launches into its first take of ‘Get Back’, and McCartney shows off his excitement with some off-mic shouts.

At one point, Lennon blows on his fingers, signalling how cold it already was one song in. It was reportedly about -8 degrees Celsius that day, with the group wearing some thick coats in order to stay warm.

A second take of ‘Get Back’

‘Get Back’ was the primary focus of the performance, as the band hoped to get a proper take of the track while playing it live. That didn’t end up happening, as the band chose a take from a few days before to be the final cut.

After a brief stopover to check the levels being monitored by George Martin and Glyn Johns in the basement, the band launched into another take of ‘Get Back’, this one slightly more organised than the first.

12:37 PM
12:40 PM

The first take of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’

Lennon’s ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ was an issue from the very start of the Get Back sessions. It was one of a small number of songs that Lennon had close to being completed, but its arrangement went through a number of changes throughout the weeks.

Lennon also had difficulty hitting the song’s high notes in the song’s chorus, and hoped that a live take would be the ideal recording for the track.

Alas, Lennon forgets the entry lyrics for the final verse, necessitating a second take later. It’s during this performance that the Metropolitan Police first begin their attempts to shut the concert down.

The first take of ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’

Almost immediately after the first take of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, the band launches into their first attempt of ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’. The police successfully enter Apple Headquarters by this point but are stalled at the door by receptionist Debbie Wellum and doorman Jimmy Clark.

This version of ‘I Got a Feeling’ would later appear on the finished version of Let It Be, even though the band attempted it one more time later in the day. The band take a quick look at the crowd after this take.

12:44 PM
12:49 PM

The only take of ‘One After 909’

Now that the group are warmed up, they begin to tackle songs without repeating themselves. The first to get the one-and-done treatment is ‘One After 909’, a song that dates back to one of the earliest writing sessions between John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

The spirited performance is over and done in less than three minutes, with Lennon and McCartney throwing in a few bars of ‘Danny Boy’ at the end just for good measure. The crowd below them continues to grow as interest is reaching a peak.

The only take of ‘Dig a Pony’

A few problems prevent the band from going straight into ‘Dig a Pony’. First, Lennon needs the words in front of him, so he has Beatles assistant Kevin Harrington kneel in front of him with the words on a clipboard. Then, Starr aborts the first count-off to put out his cigarette.

When all is set up, the group does their only take of ‘Dig a Pony’. Included is the customary “All I want is…” intro before the first verse and as the final coda, but these sections were cut by producer Phil Spector in the final version of Let It Be.

12:54 PM
12:58 PM

A brief jam

Lennon expresses to Lindsay-Hogg that his hands are getting too cold to play the guitar. The band have now run through all the songs they are going to play that day, and attention turns to doing different takes of songs that have already been played.

While police are still stalled downstairs, the band play a brief jam before setting up for a return to the band’s main collection of songs.

Take two of ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’

The band decides to give ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ another try, with McCartney being slightly more restrained at the beginning of this performance. Billy Preston’s electric piano is reliable precise, but overall this take doesn’t quite have the same drive as the first.

Lennon ends the song with a few bars of ‘A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody’, and the police begin to ascend the stairs to try and halt the performance.

1:00 PM
1:04 PM

Take two of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’

Before launching into the next song, a bit of confusion arises: Harrison asks if they’re playing ‘Get Back’ again, but no one answers him. After the count off, the rest of the band begins playing ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ while Harrison plays ‘Get Back’.

With a slight adjustment, the band are ready to go, and as the first note of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ comes crashing in, the police successfully make it onto the roof. McCartney sees the police behind him and gives out an excited whoop, clearly giddy at the prospect of getting shut down and providing the film with a climactic end. Police Sgt. David Kendrick also arrives at this time, looking to bring a permanent end to the concert.

The final take of ‘Get Back’

Sensing time is of the essence, Lennon counts off ‘Get Back’ the second that ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ ends. Roadie Mal Evans had been negotiating with the police to let the band finish their song, but wasn’t expecting another one. Evans shuts off Harrison’s amp and then Lennon’s, but Harrison turns it back on, insistent on finishing the set.

The song is almost derailed, and now it’s not about getting a good take: it’s about completing the show. The building owner from across the street, who has a camera crew on his roof without permission, also comes in to try and get the concert to end. McCartney improvises some final lyrics about Sweet Loretta Martin getting arrested, expecting the same to happen to him shortly. As the final notes to ‘Get Back’ ring out, some loud applause comes from the peanut gallery.

McCartney notices the distinct cheers of Starr’s wife Maureen and gives a cheeky “Thanks, Mo” before Lennon gives the show’s immortal final words – “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”

1:08 PM

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