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Get Back: The Beatles’ Rooftop Performance

Original, humorous, and unprecedented, the legendary performance was extremely on-brand for The Fab Four.

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Beatles Rooftop Performance
Cover courtesy of Apple

It took 53 years, but now, at last, The Beatles’ final public performance can be heard – with all the songs complete and uninterrupted. True, a split-screen sequence of the remarkable event on January 30, 1969, was the climax of Peter Jackson’s epic Get Back trilogy. But the film’s fascinating cutaways to the drama unfolding at ground level meant the music on the roof was not always in the foreground. Finally, a new mix by Giles Martin and Sam Okell presents virtually every second from the two reels of tape containing the rooftop session. Listening to this historic audio is a thrilling experience. Although no one knew at the time, this was The Beatles’ last gig. But it’s a perfect live finale – original, humorous and unprecedented: elements that are forever associated with The Beatles.

Listen to The Beatles – Get Back – The Rooftop Performance now.

The reason the group happened to be on the roof of their Apple Corps offices at 3 Savile Row in London is rooted in an idea Paul McCartney proposed soon after the completion of The Beatles (AKA The White Album) in October 1968. “Being a really big fan of the band and loving what we did together,” Paul recalled, “I was always trying to keep us together and think of things we could do.” On January 2, 1969, The Beatles assembled at Twickenham Film Studios with three ideas at the core of an ambitious new project. Having not played live since the end of an American tour in August 1966, the first was to bring the group back out on stage in a live televised concert. The second component was that all the rehearsals for the TV special should be filmed. The cameras eavesdropped on Paul outlining the documentary concept when George Harrison wondered, “Are these really making a film now?” “Yeah, it’s like Picasso paints,” Paul explained. “Where you start from nothing and it’ll end up as a TV show. But they’ll have all this sort of “To G, to D.” It should be good.” The third element of The Beatles’ bold enterprise was to write, learn and perform songs that had never been heard by an audience – all in the space of just two and a half weeks.

During rehearsals, some tense moments led to George walking out of Twickenham Film Studios and perhaps even The Beatles for good. The crisis was resolved through a move to the cozier surroundings of the group’s Apple Studio and by abandoning the idea of a live TV show and the often discussed extravagant schemes to travel abroad for the concert. The hire of “a couple of boats, like the QE2” (at a week’s notice!) to take The Beatles and an audience to the Arabian desert for a torch-lit concert was just one of many quixotic ideas chewed over for the televised event.

“The things that worked out best ever for us haven’t really been planned any more than this has,” George is heard saying in a discussion recorded by the film crew on January 25, 1969. “You just go into something and it does it itself. Whatever it’s gonna be, it becomes that.” And in the end, that’s what happened. A visit to the top of the Apple office building to see the panoramic view of London sparked the novel idea of playing some of their new songs up on the roof. “It was a typical Beatle thing,” Ringo Starr recalled. “In the end, we said, ‘Well, let’s just put the stuff on the roof. Let’s get on with it!’”

Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg was relieved to have the possibility of an outdoor event to conclude his film. “As far as the audience was concerned,” he reflected, “there would be some sort of growth in the picture from Twickenham through Apple through to something which shows you the fruits of the hard work and whatever was going on. I was very keen that there was some kind of resolution.” “I don’t wanna go on the roof,” George admitted the day before the scheduled date. Even when the group gathered together at the allotted time to climb the staircase to the roof, it was still touch and go whether all four were keen to take that step.

The rooftop concert

To everyone’s relief, given the elaborate preparations made in very little time to construct a makeshift stage and hire extra cameras and crew, The Beatles emerged on the roof at around 12.30pm on Thursday, January 30, 1969. A shout of “roll cameras, take one” is heard at the beginning of the tape, followed by Ringo wondering about the position of his drum kit. Paul jumped up and down to test the strength of the wobbling wooden planks beneath him. The tape was paused while The Beatles played an incomplete version of “Get Back” for engineer Glyn Johns and producer George Martin to set sound levels in the control room way down in the basement of the building. Recording was resumed to capture the first entire performance of “Get Back” – described as a rehearsal on the tape box. Since very few onlookers were present on the roof, the quiet ripple of applause at the end of the song reminded Paul of the polite clapping that might be heard at a cricket match. “Looks like [cricketer] Ted Dexter has scored another,” he said, imitating a genteel commentator.

Performing at this time of day, John Lennon thought back to the group’s pre-fame days when they played many lunchtime sessions at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. Familiar with many of the audience members, who were taking their meal breaks from work, The Beatles would often do specific requests for them. “We’ve had a request from Martin and Luther,” John joked before Michael Lindsay-Hogg told Glyn Johns to stop recording. Following a second performance of “Get Back,” John said, “We’ve had a request from Daisy, Morris, and Tommy.”

The Fab Four line-up was augmented for this performance by Billy Preston, a friend The Beatles had met during their formative period of playing through long and hard nights in the rowdy clubs of Hamburg. In 1962, the teenaged keyboard player had arrived in the West German port with rock ’n’ roll pioneer Little Richard. When Billy came to London in January 1969 to star in a BBC TV special, he soon found himself at Apple. “Basically, it was just to come to say, ‘Hello,’” he recalled. “Then we started jamming and they invited me to stay over and help them finish the album. They treated me as a member of the band, which was, you know, grand!”

“Don’t Let Me Down” was played twice during The Beatles’ lunchtime session. In the first attempt, John forgot the opening words of the second verse so filled in with a string of meaningless syllables. As seen in Get Back, during the filmed playback in the Apple control room, John stares straight at the camera and raises a quizzical eyebrow when he hears the nonsensical line. “Don’t Let Me Down” was played once more as the penultimate song of the day; this time John fluffed the opening line. Dynamic rooftop performances of “I’ve Got A Feeling” (first version), “One After 909,” and “Dig A Pony” were included on the Let It Be album released in May 1970. When they prepared to play “Dig A Pony,” John needed to see the words clearly. The group’s assistant Kevin Harrington turned himself into a music stand by kneeling before John and holding up a lyric sheet. “Get comfortable,” Paul advised him. “It’s a long song.” For the Let It Be album, the “All I want is you” refrain sung at the beginning and end of “Dig A Pony” was edited out.

Just before recording on reel one was stopped, John is heard saying, “Me hands are getting too cold to play a chord.” The air temperature was seven degrees Centigrade (around 45 Fahrenheit) and a chilly wind was blowing across the roof. Considering the wintry conditions they braved, the dexterity of The Beatles’ playing is astonishing. The sound quality of the recording is also impressive. “It shows Glyn Johns’ brilliance,” Giles Martin observes. “Even now, if you were going to do the rooftop, I’m not sure you’d get as good a recording as was made in 1969. In a way, you have to remind yourself you’re listening to a rooftop performance. There’s not much wind noise on the microphones. All in all, the sound of the vocals and guitars is remarkable.” The stereo picture of the new mix places John’s guitar on the left, George’s guitar on the right, Billy’s electric piano toward the left, and drums, bass, and vocals around the center.

When the second eight-track tape began recording, it captured a part of The Beatles’ off-the-cuff jam of the national anthem “God Save The Queen.” The second takes of both “I’ve Got A Feeling” and “Don’t Let Me Down” then followed. The final song on the tape is “Get Back.” During this version, with city policemen in a row on the roof, a guitar amplifier was switched off during the first verse, but then defiantly turned back on again by George. “You’ve been out too long, Loretta,” Paul teased. “You’ve been playing on the roofs again and that’s no good, ’cause you know your mommy doesn’t like that. Oh, she gets angry. She’s gonna have you arrested!”

News of complaints about the noise and the commotion happening at street level had traveled to the roof. “It suddenly occurred to us, of course, that it would be a great end to the film,” Paul recalled. “The police bust us and we’re all dragged off to jail.” Ringo agreed: “I just thought, ‘Oh, we’re on film. Drag me off the drums.’ It would have been great. But it was like, ‘Well, I’m afraid you’ve got to turn down.’” The visiting policemen had been stalled long enough for everything to be wrapped up successfully. Before leaving the roof, John gave another nod to the group’s early days by announcing, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”

The reaction

In fact, the unannounced lunchtime event was not universally welcomed and there was surprisingly little coverage of it in the press. London newspaper the Evening Standard, under the headline “Police stop Beatles ‘making a din,’” reported that “company director Mr. Stanley Davis, a next-door neighbor of Apple, said ‘I want this bloody noise stopped. It’s an absolute disgrace.’” An employee from a nearby bank told the paper that “everyone on the balconies and the roof seemed to be enjoying the session. Some people just don’t appreciate good music.” All that was reported in the pop paper NME, within an article called “Allen Klein to help Beatles,” was a casual mention that “some specially-written songs were heard by startled passers-by in London’s Savile Row last Thursday.”

In The Beatles’ first movie A Hard Day’s Night, shot in 1964, they had made fun of a film musical cliché when John deadpanned, “Hey, kids, I’ve got an idea! Why don’t we do the show right here?” Five years later, that’s exactly what they did do for their last film. The event was soon much imitated. In 1987, U2 disrupted traffic in downtown Los Angeles while playing “Where The Streets Have No Name” on the roof of a liquor store. The creators of The Simpsons paid tribute by showing Homer’s barbershop quartet The Be Sharps, singing on the roof of Moe’s Tavern. “It’s been done,” said George, making a cameo appearance in the show.

Get Back – The Rooftop Performance, now available with all of the complete songs, confirms the original is still the greatest. “It was the closest we got to a live show in many years. You listen to the songs. You listen to the energy. As I said to one of my partners,” Ringo remembered with a grin, “not a bad band!”

Listen to The Beatles – Get Back – The Rooftop Performance now.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Alicia Hines

    January 30, 2022 at 5:48 pm

    And don’t forget A Tribe Called Quest “Check the Rhime” on the roof of Nu-Clear Cleaner in Queens. RIP Phife Dawg

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