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30th January, 2019

The Rooftop: 50 years on...

At around midday on a cold, windy day in London on 30th January 1969, John, Paul, George and Ringo stepped out on to the rooftop of Apple HQ and so followed one of the most legendary live performances in pop culture history.

On the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' final ever gig together, we take a look back at that momentous performance and the legacy it has left behind. The rooftop concert marked the end of an era for many Beatles fans. Although this was their last ever live performance together, many fans at the time believed it to be the beginning of a return to live performances and touring.

The Beatles stopped performing live after their concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California on 29th August 1966. Being the height of Beatlemania, the four grew tired of the harsh conditions of touring as well as the sounds of screaming fans rendering them inaudible on stage. By the day of the rooftop gig, it had been 885 days since the Beatles last played live together, making this one-off performance all the more significant.

 

 

The idea for the performance was spawned after a documentary crew filmed the rehearsal and recording of the groups twelfth album Let It Be and it was decided that the film should end with a live performance by The Beatles. The film, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, was released just after the album in 1970 and was the final original Beatles release.

Although suggestions such as the Giza Pyramids, Sahara Desert and an ancient Roman Amphitheatre were made as potential locations for the performance, the idea for The Beatles to perform on the rooftop of Apple was conceived only days earlier as a compromise after enthusiasm for the project diminished.

The four were joined by Keyboardist Billy Preston, who was invited to jam in the studio with the Beatles during the album recording sessions by George Harrison. His warm nature soothed tensions within the group and his musical contributions resulted in him being the only person, other than the four Beatles, to be credited on a Beatles record when the single release of ‘Get Back’ was credited to 'The Beatles with Billy Preston’.

 

 

The audience for the iconic gig consisted of a select few Apple employees and a small film crew, along with Beatles roadie Mal Evans whilst George Martin, long-serving producer for The Beatles, was reportedly in the basement worried he was “going to end up in Savile Row police station for disturbing the peace”. Very few people were allowed to watch the Beatles make history that day, so for the few that managed to witness the event must be a memory that is cherished forever.

Musician Tom Newman was able to watch the gig after helping to carry the equipment to the rooftop and hiding - he even used the opportunity to sell a painting: “I helped Adrian up with all this equipment and Ringo’s drum kit was set up there, so I put this painting that I wanted to see if I could sell, this kind of space-age thing, behind Ringo’s drum kit and I just hid on the roof ‘cause I thought I’d get chucked out.

“They came on and it was an amazing, amazing gig. I’d never seen them live before – ever – so I was amazed at just how much like The Beatles they sounded.”

Beatles friend and business associate Tony Bramwell was also able to watch the iconic performance up-close: “I spent the morning with the cameramen while the gear was set up then a short time watching from the camera viewpoint I was called down to my office because there was a load of media calls coming in!! Then the police turned up and the gig was stopped! Of course, no one really knew or thought that it would be the final gig ever!”

 

 

Although they could not be seen, their distinctive sound was easily recognised and soon enough, crowds began to form in the streets below, bringing the traffic to a halt. Beatlemania was turned on its head – no longer were The Beatles seen but unheard over the sounds of screams, they could be heard but not seen.

“I walked into Apple, Saville Row, and walked up the stairs. I saw lots of amplifiers and leads being taken on the roof. I didn't know that there was going to be a concert.” said Beatles hairdresser Leslie Cavendish who was inside the Apple Building whilst The Beatles played their final ever gig above him.

Apart from the few rooftop invitees, only the lucky people on the upper floors of the surrounding buildings could witness the four playing together for the final time. “There were people hanging off balconies and out of every office window all around. We really wanted to stop the traffic, we wanted to blast out the entire West End...” said engineer David Harries who was in the Apple Building whilst the performance was taking place.

 

 

The exclusivity and surreal feeling of being able to have seen such an iconic performance in music history is aptly summarised here by Former US Manager at Apple Records, Ken Mansfield: “There were only a few of us who witnessed the concert on the roof up-close that day, each leaving that place with deep, life-long impressions that no biographer or researcher can understand or portray in distant words.”

Ken can be seen in the rooftop footage wearing a light white jacket that did little to shield him from the cold temperatures on the roof that day: “I was ‘the guy in the white coat’ floating about in a sea of black attire - a total southern Californian who hadn’t experienced a real winter in many years. But on that magical day you could have put me in my shorts and hosed me down with ice water and I wouldn’t have left this ‘happening’ on the roof for all the money in the world.”

“About a dozen of us remain, and we are eternally bonded together by that moment.”

 

 

In the 42 minutes that The Beatles played on the rooftop that day, their unsuspecting audience got to hear 5 new Beatles songs on what must have been the best lunch break of all time. Several takes of ‘Get Back’, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, ‘One After 909’ and ‘Dig A Pony’ were played, as well as a short, impromptu jam of ‘God Save The Queen’ whilst sound engineer Alan Parsons changed tapes down in basement studio.

50 years on, The Beatles have left a remarkable legacy as one of the biggest and most influential bands of all time. Having seen them perform at any capacity is considered to be an incredibly lucky feat that millions of Beatles fans all over the world would revere the memory of. But being one of the select few that got to see that unforgettable performance on the rooftop of Apple HQ on that cold London afternoon, not knowing at the time it would be their last, must be a phenomenal feeling.

After pressure from the Metropolitan Police to end the performance became severe, at 12:42pm, The Beatles stopped playing their instruments and brought the gig to a close by thanking their audience for the final time - "I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we've passed the audition." said John Lennon, the words that were to become immortal in the history of The Beatles and of music altogether.

Emma Davies

Emma is a Music student at Liverpool University and Sales and Marketing Intern at The Beatles Story.

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