The Beatles’ Rooftop London Serenade
It started out as a solution to a problem: How to conclude a documentary on The Beatles eventually titled Let It Be, a seemingly never-ending affair with moments of exasperation and outright rebellion.
It might have been Paul who suggested a live performance (The Beatles’ first since August 29, 1966 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco), but the boys almost didn’t go through with it; they needed John to command, “Oh, fuck it–let’s do it.”
Ringo mused on the location:
There was a plan to play live somewhere. We were wondering where we could go–‘Oh, the Palladium or the Sahara.’ But we would have to take all the stuff [equipment], so we decided, ‘Let’s get up on the roof.’
So the Fab Four, with keyboardist Billy Preston (another “fifth Beatle”) in tow, walked up five floors to the rooftop of their spiffy new headquarters, Apple Corps, Ltd., 3 Savile Row in London.
Engineer Alan Parsons sat in the basement with two eight-track recorders at the ready. Documentary director Michael Lindsay-Hogg engaged his camera crew.
Set List Included Abbey Road Preview
The 42-minute concert was basically nine takes of five Beatles songs that appeared on the 1970 release, Let It Be (and later, Let It Be…Naked). Here is the set list:
- “Get Back” – three takes
- “Don’t Let Me Down” – two takes
- “I’ve Got a Feeling” two takes
- “One After 909” – one take
- “Dig a Pony” – one take
Notably, while the cameraman was changing film, the boys launched into a jam of Lennon’s composition, “I Want You (She’s So heavy),” which of course completed the “A” side of Abbey Road with a jarring silence.
Here is a cut from the rooftop, “Don’t Let Me Down,” published by VEVO and courtesy of YouTube:
Borrowed Coats and Pantyhose
There were some eccentric moments to this odd musical affair:
- London in January. They tell me it’s cold. Somehow, both John and Ringo forgot to wear their coats. John borrowed Yoko’s fur coat. Likewise, Ringo wore wife Maureen’s bright red overcoat.
- The wind was whipping around the rooftop and microphones had to be insulated with something. Alan Parsons was dispatched to buy women’s pantyhose–“any size!” Who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall for that purchase?
- John Lennon’s problem with forgetting lyrics was legendary. An Apple employee had to kneel down just out of camera range with lyric cheat sheets. Still, Lennon botched a line to “Don’t let Me Down” that sounded like “And only reese we got the blootchy-koo.”
- Playing loud rock music in a condensed urban area can create all sorts of calamities, such as windows rattling and floors shaking. The West End cops, located on the same block, could have shut it down immediately, but gave The Beatles, national heroes, a generous 42 minutes. The cops also called in their arrival in advance so that certain illicit substances could, uh, disappear.
Here are The Beatles playing “Get Back” plus some intimate preparation shots and chatter, copyright by Apple Corps and UMG, and courtesy of YouTube:
Who’s on First?
Many Beatles fans believe that the album Let It Be, with its back-to-basics approach, was the Beatles’ 12th and final studio album. Indeed, it was released May 8, 1970, about a month after the Beatles’ official break-up.
Abbey Road was released on September 26, 1969.
However, according to Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn’s book, The Beatles: Recording Sessions, most of the songs included in the Let It Be album were recorded by the band around the time of the rooftop performance. Its delayed release had more to do with production scoring and mastering by producers Glyn Johns and Phil Spector (along with George Martin).
Lewisohn’s book makes it clear that the Abbey Road sessions, which began around April 1969, was the Beatles’ final studio endeavor. In fact, the last time the four Beatles were together inside EMI Studios was on August 20, 1969.
It is fitting and proper that Abbey Road, with its farewell to fans in the song “The End,” was destined to be the Beatles’ crowning achievement.