The Beatles‘ rooftop concert was the climax of a project originally titled Get Back. It was conceived as exactly that, a return to their rock roots in a desperate effort to restore unity when business and personal chaos threatened to destroy the band. A documentary crew filmed the Beatles rehearsing and recording new material for an “honest” album, free from the studio wizardry that had dominated their recent work.
The experience pushed the group to the point of disintegration, but they needed an end to the film. So 50 years ago today,on January 30th, 1969,the band climbed five stories to the top of their Apple Corps headquarters and played their last concert together. The album and film were ultimately released in May 1970 as Let It Be, their swan song. Here are 15 little-known facts about the Beatles’ final bow on the world stage.
The concert was originally going to take place in an ancient amphitheater. Or on a cruise ship. Or in the desert. The Beatles had many ideas about where to perform the climactic concert for their new film,too many ideas. London venues like the Palladium and the Roundhouse were some of the more level headed propositions, but most were pretty far-out. The Sahara desert was floated as a potential location, as were the Giza pyramids, and even the QE2 ocean liner.
A 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater in Tunisia was seriously considered, and location scouts were sent to investigate. “The Beatles were to start playing as the sun came up,” explained director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, “and you’d see crowds flocking towards them through the day.”
But nothing was ever agreed upon. As enthusiasm for the project waned, the band opted to do something a little simpler and closer to home. Guest keyboard player Billy Preston recalls that it was John Lennon who had the idea to stage the concert on the roof of Apple headquarters. Lindsay-Hogg says it was his idea. Others attribute it to Ringo Starr. The concept sounds inspired, but in retrospect it speaks less to creativity and more to laziness.
Preparations were made, with scaffolding planks laid to support the weight of the gear. A few minutes before the concert was due to start, the band huddled in a small vestibule at the top of the stairs. They had cold feet. “George didn’t want to do it, and Ringo started saying he didn’t really see the point,” says Lindsay-Hogg. “Then John said, ‘Oh, fuck it,let’s do it.’” The Beatles racked up many firsts over the years however this wasn’t one of them Jefferson Airplane performed on a New York City rooftop several weeks earlier.
Mercifully, the guerrilla happening was preserved for all time by director Jean-Luc Godard, who filmed the incident as part of his One A.M. project. It’s unknown whether the Beatles were directly inspired by the Airplane’s antics, but press coverage (not to mention their friendship with the band) would have likely made them aware of it. The film is directed by the secret son of Orson Welles — allegedly.
Having worked with the Beatles on their recent promotional videos for “Hey Jude” and “Revolution,” American filmmaker Lindsay-Hogg was the logical choice to direct the Get Back project. He arranged an army of cameras to capture the moment from all angles, sending a crew into the street, the adjacent building, and the Apple reception area — not to mention the five cameras on the roof itself. The result is some of the most iconic concert footage in history.
Film prowess may be in his blood. In his 2011 autobiography, Lindsay-Hogg revealed that he believes himself to be the only son of cinema giant Orson Welles. His mother, actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, publicly denied the rampant rumors, but she allegedly acknowledged the truth to family friend Gloria Vanderbilt. When Welles’ oldest daughter supported Lindsay-Hogg’s claim, he submitted to a DNA test. The results were inconclusive.
Lennon and Starr wore their ladies’ coats. It was 45 degrees in London that raw January afternoon, and that doesn’t account for the icy wind whipping over the West End buildings. Impending fog had ruled out an expensive helicopter aerial shot, and the threat of rain was very real.
These conditions were not ideal to making rock and roll. “[My] hands [are] too cold to play the chords,” Lennon muttered between songs, and Apple Corps exec Ken Mansfield held a constant stream of lit cigarettes so George Harrison could warm his fingertips. To ward off the winter chill, Lennon borrowed Yoko Ono’s fur coat (as he did on occasion). Ringo Starr also donned his wife Maureen’s red raincoat.
The microphones were wrapped in women’s pantyhose. The cold gusts also proved to be a problem for the delicate studio microphones recording the drums and guitar amplifiers. In need of a quick shield to minimize wind noise, tape engineer (and future Pink Floyd cohort) Alan Parsons was dispatched that morning to buy women’s pantyhose. “I walked into this department store and said, ‘I need three pairs of pantyhose. It doesn’t matter what size.’” he recalled in Guitar Player. “They thought I was either a bank robber or a cross-dresser.”
It was their first live performance in over two years. Famously cited as the Beatles’ last concert, the rooftop gig was also their first live performance in more than two years. While they had played “All You Need Is Love” and “Hey Jude” before a studio audience on television during that time, those numbers were heavily bolstered by a backing track. The roof was their first truly live show since their final tour ended on August 29th, 1966, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. They also made a small break from tradition by varying their classic stage placements. Lennon took the middle spot with Harrison to his left.
George Harrison’s guitar was the first of its kind. The Telecaster that Harrison played throughout the rooftop concert was custom made for him by master builders Roger Rossmeisl and Philip Kubicki as a gift from Fender. The company was launching a new line of all-rosewood guitars, and presenting the prototype to a Beatle was good publicity.
After many hours of labor, the guitar was flown to England in its own seat and hand-delivered to Apple headquarters. The builders weren’t sure what became of the guitar for over a year, until they bought tickets to see the Let It Be film and saw their handiwork on the big screen. “I was so thrilled I almost jumped out of my seat,” remembers Kubicki.
John Lennon needed cue cards to remember his own lyrics. John Lennon always had a problem with lyrics. Paul McCartney often recalls seeing Lennon on stage singing his own ad-libbed words to the Del Vikings’ “Come Go With Me” on the day they met in 1957. Wanting to get things reasonably correct for the film, the Beatles asked Apple office assistant Kevin Harrington to kneel just out of camera view and hold up a lyric sheet for “Dig a Pony.” Lennon still managed a memorable flub during “Don’t Let Me Down,” singing something like, “And only reese we got the blootchy-koo.”
There were other songs performed on the rooftop that day. While 21 minutes of the concert made it into the final Let It Be film, the actual performance was twice as long. During the 42-minute set, the Beatles played “One After 909,” two complete versions each of “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Dig a Pony” and “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and three versions of “Get Back” — plus various incomplete takes, including a line from the Irish folk song “Danny Boy.”
The set list may have ended up being longer. Because the concert was cut short by the police, fans have spent decades theorizing what other songs — if any — the Beatles might have performed had they continued. Some eagle-eyed rock scholars have noticed equipment in the background of the Apple roof set that went unused, including an extra keyboard, a lap-steel guitar and what appears to be an acoustic-guitar microphone positioned by McCartney.
Were folky songs like “Two of Us” originally in the mix? Was McCartney going to try out some of his piano-based ballads like “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road”? Could Lennon have used the lap-steel guitar as he did on “For You Blue,” giving Harrison his first (and only) solo vocal of the day?
Billy Preston received the only official Beatles co-credit. Friends with the Beatles since touring Europe with Little Richard in 1962, Billy Preston is the MVP of the entire Get Back/Let It Be project. Band relations had deteriorated so badly that Harrison actually walked out on the sessions, vowing to quit the group all together. To clear his head, he attended a Ray Charles concert, where Preston happened to be playing organ. Harrison invited him back to the studio to jam with the rest of the Beatles. His warm nature soothed tensions and his keyboard chops added a dose of excitement to the formerly dreary proceedings.
Preston’s sparking musical contribution on Let It Be speaks for itself. Lennon even lobbied to make Preston a full member of the band — an actual fifth Beatle. “It’s bad enough with four!” McCartney supposedly replied. Even so, his importance was recognized on the single release of “Get Back,” which is credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston.” Barring unauthorized reissues, it was the first time that the Beatles credited anyone on their records in this way.
It’s the last sound you hear on the Beatles’ final release. Although Abbey Road was the final album to be recorded by the four Beatles, Let It Be was the last to be issued in May 1970, weeks after the group’s split made headlines around the world. The black-trimmed cover gave it funereal quality, and fans anxiously studied to the parting message from the foursome that defined the Sixties.
As “Get Back,” the last track, draws to a close, the sound of John Lennon’s voice can be heard: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.” It was a self-effacing remark made at the end of the rooftop show, poking fun at the many auditions the band failed over the years. It was also a humble nod to the band’s unprecedented success — and, inadvertently, the perfect Beatles epitaph.
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