The story behind The Beatles' final live show on the Apple Studios rooftop

2 December 2021, 18:13

The Beatles performing on the Apple rooftop
The Beatles performing on the Apple rooftop. Picture: Disney

By Mayer Nissim

The Beatles famously played their final ever live performance on the rooftop of Apple Studios in 1969.

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The unconventional show has been heavily documented in Peter Jackson's incredible new Disney+ series Get Back.

The series showcases what led to the performance after a couple of weeks of writing songs that eventually were released as Let It Be.

But what is the story behind the iconic rooftop concert?

When was The Beatles' final tour?

The Beatles' previous final proper concert occurred on August 29, 1966 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

It was the last of 19 gruelling performances in 18 days, and it wasn't a particularly happy tour.

The band were plagued by controversy while visiting the USA. This was mainly due to John Lennon's infamous remark about the band being "more popular than Jesus now", and also due to the Fabs Four's opposition to the Vietnam War.

The US was also tangled up in race riots that summer, and the Ku Klux Klan were among those protesting The Beatles after John's comments about Christianity.

Meanwhile, the band weren't enjoying their live performances either. Their intimate sets in Hamburg or the Cavern Club seemed a long time ago.

Now the band were performing in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans in stadiums, which sadly didn't have the technology required for the band to be heard above the deafening noise.

Plus, at the time there was a terrifying lack of decent crowd control that threatened the safety of the group and audience members.

"That's it, then. I'm not a Beatle anymore," said George Harrison.

Thankfully, he reconsidered, but that was the end of The Beatles as a touring group. Instead, they focused on their studio output, releasing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (aka The White Album), Abbey Road and Let It Be – plus plenty of singles and EPs.

But then there was one final public live performance.

When did The Beatles perform their rooftop concert?

On January 30, 1969, The Beatles performed an impromptu 42-minute gig from the rooftop of their Apple Corps headquarters at 3 Savile Row.

The original plan for the Get Back project was to get The Beatles performing on stage once again. However, George was still against the idea of a massive concert.

Still, Paul McCartney and Let It Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg kept pushing for a live performance as being the main reason for the whole project.

As for what the concert could be, there was talk of The Roundhouse in Camden, the Royal Albert Hall, or the Tate gallery. Or how about an orphanage or Houses of Parliament, or a special show for dogs!

When watching Peter Jackson's Get Back, you can see Lindsay-Hogg pushing hard for the group to take a cruise ship to Libya and play in the ruins of the amphitheatre in Sabratha, an ancient Roman city.

Although John and Paul were up for the idea ("It does make it like an adventure, doesn't it?), Ringo wasn't convinced and George flat out refused (calling the idea"very expensive and insane" and that he didn't want to be "stuck with a bloody big boatload of people for two weeks").

This led to producer Glyn Johns, the man behind the desk for the sessions, to come up with an idea. Why not just put the show on right here?

Ringo had previously shown him the impressive views from the top of Apple HQ, and so he and Lindsay-Hogg told Paul about their idea. He was excited, and even George agreed.

Mal Evans was the man who got a stage built up on the roof, while Johns and assistant engineer Alan Parsons quickly went over to M&S to buy some tights for microphone shields.

The band weren't quite sure about the whole idea, before John Lennon famously delivered the line: "F**k it – let's go do it."

At 12.30pm, along with temporary Fifth Beatle Billy Preston, they did just that.

Abandoning plans to shoot footage from a helicopter, Lindsay-Hogg used six video cameras, including one over the road and a couple on the street below, to capture the response from passers-by on their lunchbreak.

Meanwhile, the sound was recorded on to a couple of eight-track recorders in the Apple basement studio.

What songs did they perform?

The full setlist of the performance was:

  • "Get Back" (take one)
  • "Get Back" (take two)
  • "Don't Let Me Down" (take one)
  • "I've Got a Feeling" (take one)
  • "One After 909"
  • "Dig a Pony"
  • "I've Got a Feeling" (take two)
  • "Don't Let Me Down" (take two)
  • "Get Back" (take three)

While most of the people on Savile Row enjoyed the show, other local businesses and the Metropolitan Police weren't so happy.

Despite the best efforts of staff at Apple to keep them away, the party-poopers made their way upstairs.

"You've been playing on the roofs again, and you know your momma doesn't like it; she's going to have you arrested!" McCartney shouted as the cops burst onto the roof.

Evans switched off Lennon and Harrison's amps, but Paul, Ringo and Billy kept on playing, prompting George to switch his amp back on. Evans did the same for John's, helping the group to finish the third and final take of 'Get Back'.

John famously quipped: "I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we've passed the audition."

The idea of Get Back becoming a completely live project never quite got off the ground, and the album that became Let It Be was infamously "reproduced for disc" by Phil Spector – much to the annoyance of Paul McCartney.

However, 'I've Got a Feeling' (take one), 'One After 909' and 'Dig a Pony' survived from the rooftop gig, and were used on the original Let It Be album.

Eventually, 'Get Back' (take three) ended up on Anthology 3, while Paul's Let It Be... Naked project in 2003 used the rooftop tapes to get the authentic live sound, using a couple of takes of 'Don't Let Me Down' and 'I've Got A Feeling'.

The Rooftop Performance has been parodied many times ever since, by everyone from U2 to The Simpsons.