As Universal launch the special editions of The Beatles’ chart-smashing 1970 album Let It Be – including a SuperDeluxe Vinyl package which includes 4 LPs, a 12-inch EP, and a 105-page hard-backed book of rare images and notes – we’re trotting down the lane of musical memory. Here’s the story of the band’s renowned 1969 rooftop concert.
John messy-haired in a fur coat, Paul beaming with the wind in his beard, Ringo rocking a tangerine mac and George appearing to have skinned a bear for his get-up: these are The Beatles on January 30, 1969, sky-high on a rooftop in London’s West End. The lads played for a total of 42 minutes before the bobbies shut down the show at 3 Savile Row, so ending what ultimately became the last public performance of the beloved group’s career – and for millions of fans, the end of an era.
Who came up with the concept for the rooftop concert is debated, even within the bosom of The Beatles’ closest circles. Keys player Billy Preston recalled it was John Lennon’s idea. Recording engineer Glyn Johns has said it was his own. Former US Manager of Apple Records, Ken Mansfield, reckons it was Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director of the film for which the event was recorded (1970’s Let It Be). Whoever it was, the notion of the Let It Be sessions culminating in a live performance had been baked into the record’s concept since the beginning, as the group endeavoured to find the joy that’d been lacking during strained recording sessions at Twickenham Film Studios, and then at the band’s own Apple Studios, throughout the month of January 1969. The only question was where that stage should be.
Once it was decided they need only travel on the Y-axis, the Fab Four – plus lauded keys player Preston, who’d joined sessions after George Harrison implored his long-time friend to come jam in a (successful) effort to enliven proceedings – headed up the stairs of Apple Corps HQ. It’s clear in the footage of what happened next that some measure of the group’s in-studio grievances were shed as that ascent was made; it’s as if tensions were physically left downstairs.
It’s an idea shared by the afore-mentioned Ken Mansfield – one of the very few non-crew allowed on the rooftop during the performance. “John looked over at Paul, and Paul looked over at John,” he recalled to NPR in 2019. “It was like, ‘This is us. It doesn’t matter what’s going down… this is who we are. We’re mates. We’ve been together for so many years, we’ve been through things no body else has experienced’… And you look at that performance, and man, they started having a good time. Like a live show… they’re just rocking out.”
January in London doesn’t offer the most beatific weather – it’s the coldest month of the year in fact, with temperatures occasionally dropping to zero. If you think some of the lads’ outerwear seems borne of desperation, you’d be right. Lennon decided to sport his wife Yoko Ono’s fur coat (we can see Yoko huddled under an eave in the background of footage and photographs), while Ringo looked smashing in his wife Maureen Starkey’s bright rain jacket.
During soundcheck, it was discovered that some of the mic feeds were being completely obliterated by the wind; tape engineer Alan Parsons was sent down the street to buy pantyhose, which were then wrapped carefully around the equipment of concern. “I walked into this department store and said, ‘I need three pairs of pantyhose. It doesn’t matter what size,’” he later recalled to Guitar Player. “They thought I was either a bank robber or a cross-dresser.”
Of course, unlike the Be Sharps’ completely visible gig on top of Moe’s Tavern, the rooftop of Apple Studios isn’t a few metres above street level. It’s five stories high, and that meant passers-by on the ground didn’t know quite what to think when the gallop of Ringo’s snare began to thunder across Mayfair, and McCartney’s voice rang out: “Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner…”
The concert was totally unannounced to the media and fans – almost inconceivable in our current age of mega-exposure. The group went on to play two more takes of Get Back, two of Don’t Let Me Down, two of I’ve Got A Feeling, and one each of One After 909 and Dig A Pony. The first performance of I’ve Got A Feeling, and the recordings of Dig A Pony and One After 909, were eventually included on the album Let It Be.
As for the cops, they apparently weren’t as evil as they’ve been painted. The address of the West End Central Police Station is 27 Savile Row – a mere 12 doors down from Apple HQ. The police could’ve taken a two-minute stroll and put the kibosh on one of history’s great musical moments as soon as it began. But they not only allowed the concert to continue right up until local businesses began complaining (by all accounts, most people outside on the street weren’t upset), but they called the studio 10 minutes ahead to warn they were on the way, should anyone want to discard any illicit substances.
As the fuzz mounted the stairs to the rooftop, McCartney altered the lyrics to Get Back: “You’ve been playing on the roofs again, and you know your Mama doesn’t like it/ She’s going to have you arrested!” he sang. At the conclusion of the track – having accepted that the show was over – Lennon quipped: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we’ve passed the audition.” Although the version of Get Back ultimately included on the Let It Be album was a studio recording and not the rooftop iteration, producer Phil Spector did the 1970 version of ctrl+c, ctrl+v and edited Lennon’s now famous remark into the end of the song. Needless to say, if the audition was to win the hearts and imaginations of music-lovers in every conceivable corner of the globe, then they indeed got the gig.
The Let It Be special edition releases by The Beatles are out October 15 via Universal.
Each of the new mixes have been sourced directly from the original session and rooftop performance eight-track tapes, and are have been crafted via the original “reproduced for disc” version by producer Phil Spector. The Super Deluxe editions (both CD and vinyl) feature 27 previously unreleased session recordings, a four-track Let It Be EP, and the never before released 14-track Get Back stereo LP mix, compiled by engineer Glyn Johns in May 1969. They also include a 100-page hard-back book with an introduction by Paul McCartney, extensive notes and track-by-track recording information, and many previously unseen photos, personal notes, tape box images and more.