It was 50 years ago today (January 30th, 1969) that the Beatles performed for the last time in public, on the roof of their Apple headquarters building in London. For the better part of that January, the group had been filming their rehearsals for a planned comeback concert, before band politics forced them to abort the plan and concentrate on recording a new album, tentatively titled Get Back.
The film crew continued filming the recording sessions for what eventually became the Let It Be album and movie, and on January 30th, the Beatles finally gave in to director Michael Lindsay-Hogg's request for a live concert finale for the film. Rather than the various exotic locations that had been tossed around for the group's first public appearance in nearly two-and-a-half years, such as a cruise ship, a mental asylum, or a Roman amphitheater, the group had their equipment set up on top of their business offices at 3 Saville Row for a brief lunchtime set — similar to the ones they used to do years earlier in Liverpool's Cavern Club.
The Beatles and keyboardist Billy Preston, who were decked out in winter coats, played for about 42 minutes for a handful of fans, their wives, office workers and their personal staff. They performed a total of nine full songs: three versions of “Get Back,” two versions of “Don't Let Me Down,” two versions of “I've Got A Feeling,” and one each of “Dig A Pony,” and “One After 909” — which was one of John Lennon and Paul McCartney's earliest compositions, dating back to the 1950's.
Ken Mansfield, the former U.S. manager of Apple Records, has just published his latest memoir on his time with working with the Beatles, titled The Roof: The Beatles’ Final Concert. Mansfield was among the handful of insiders present at the rooftop concert that day. He recalled prior to the lunchtime gig walking in on the four Beatles who were using one of the Apple offices as a makeshift dressing room: “It was like walking in on a band, a nervous bunch of guys getting ready to do an audition. I don't know if it's because they hadn't played together, or whether they were trying to put the set together, but it was one of those kind of tense things where they were nervous. When we locked the doors upstairs, and the minute they started playing — and y'know all the. . . everything that was going down, all the stuff. It's like it all went away and I really believe in my mind that they forgot everything and they were what they were. They were the Beatles.”
In between songs, while the film crew was busy setting up, the Beatles briefly ran through a few standards, including a few bars of “Danny Boy,” “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,” and “God Save The Queen.”
George Harrison had made it clear prior to the impromptu concert that none of his songs would be played on the roof. Toward the end of the Beatles' set, the police were called and politely demanded that the group quit disturbing the peace, as dozens of office workers had begun crowding around in the streets near the Beatles' headquarters to hear the band play.
At the end of the final performance of “Get Back,” Lennon uttered the immortal line, “I'd like to thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition.” It was the last time that the Beatles would ever perform in public.
Although never released in its entirety, most of the Beatles' “Rooftop Concert” has been widely bootlegged over the years. The Beatles themselves have also issued a lot of the rooftop concert over various releases. 1970's Let It Be album featured edited live performances of “Dig A Pony,” “I've Got A Feeling,” and “One After 909.” The group's final performance of “Get Back” was included on 1996's The Beatles Anthology 3 album, and the 2003 Let It Be. . . Naked collection included new composite takes from different versions of “Don't Let Me Down,” and “I've Got A Feeling.” In one form or another, at least one version of all the songs from the group's final performance has been officially released.
The version of “Get Back” that closes the Let It Be album, which was long thought to be a live take, is actually a cheat — Lennon and McCartney's pre and post-song comments were tagged by producer Phil Spector onto an abbreviated version of the studio-recorded single version.
Richie Unterberger, author of the excellent book The Unreleased Beatles, says that if it wasn't for Paul McCartney holding the band together at that point, they would have easily fallen apart: “Paul's gotten a little bit of a bad rap for how he acted during those sessions. I think he was pushy and bossy at some points. You can see it in the final film, which they edited pretty heavily. On the other hand, someone had to do that and he was the guy to do it. Nobody else would have done it. If he wasn't there, nothing would have been done.”
Ringo Starr's former producer and songwriting partner Mark Hudson remembers Ringo saying that up until the Beatles' split, they always knew how to pull it together musically: “Like Ringo said, 'With all of the stuff that was going on during (the) Let It Be (sessions), the arguments and George leaving, as soon as I would count the song off and we would start playing, we were those guys again in Hamburg and in the Cavern (Club), and all that went away and we were that great band. And then when that song was over, we went back to that 'I don't like you, I don't trust you, why are you hurting me, and that.'”
In 1970, after Mick Jagger's barbs about the Beatles' supposed inadequacies as a live band, John Lennon set the record straight, telling Rolling Stone: “Our best work was never recorded, y’know? We were performers — in spite off what Mick (Jagger) says about us — in Liverpool, Hamburg, and around the dance halls, y’know? And what we generated was fantastic, when we played straight rock. And there was nobody to touch us in Britain, y’know?”
Paul McCartney admitted that the footage of the Beatles performing together underlines the core strength of “John, Paul, George, and Ringo”: “The Beatles were the best. And, y'know, the thing about the Beatles is (they're) a very good little rock band. It really was a little rock band. Four guys, who when we played something — we locked in. And because we worked so much in Liverpool, then in Hamburg, and then in England, and America — we could read each other. So, yeah, I think we were the best (laughs).”