The story behind The Beatles last ever live "rooftop" performance

30 January 2024, 13:31

Peter Jackson stripped away guitar sounds to hear the honest conversations between members of The Beatles in ‘The Beatles: Get Back’

By Mayer Nissim

The full story behind how The Beatles played their last ever public live performance on the rooftop of Apple studios.

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The Beatles played their last proper concert on August 29, 1966 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

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

The band were plagued by controversy Stateside. Partly because of John Lennon's remark that the band were "more popular than Jesus now", partly because of the Fabs' opposition to the Vietnam War.

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

Even ignoring that backdrop, the band weren't enjoying their live performances. The intimate, tight sets played back-to-back in Hamburg or the Cavern Club seemed long ago.

Now the band were playing to tens of thousands of screaming fans in stadiums that just didn't have the technology for the band to be heard above the din.

Watch the official trailer for The Beatles: Get Back on Disney Plus

Not to mention the terrifying lack of adequate crowd control that threatened the safety of the group and audience alike.

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

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

But there was one more public live performance. On 30 January 1969, The Beatles performed an impromptu 42-minute gig from the rooftop of their Apple Corps headquarters at 3 Savile Row. And here's how it happened.

The Beatles on the roof of Apple HQ
The Beatles on the roof of Apple HQ. Picture: Walt Disney Studios

The original plan for the Get Back project was to get The Beatles back on stage as live performers. George though, was still very much against the idea of some massive concert.

Nevertheless, Paul McCartney and Let It Be filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg still pushed for a live performance being central to the whole project.

There were all sorts of ideas during the sessions as to what that could be. Early on, there was talk of The Roundhouse in Camden, the Royal Albert Hall, or the Tate gallery.

Then there were the odder choices. An orphanage or Houses of Parliament, or a special show for dogs.

I've Got a Feeling Clip | The Beatles: Get Back | Disney+

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

While 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 (he called the idea"very expensive and insane" adding that he didn't want to be "stuck with a bloody big boatload of people for two weeks").

So producer Glyn Johns, the original man behind the desk for the sessions, came up with an idea. Why don't we do the show right here? Well, not right here, but up on the roof.

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

Making of The Beatles: Get Back Featurette | The Beatles: Get Back | Disney+

But even an impromptu show needs some preparation, and it was Mal Evans who got a stage built up on the roof, while Johns and his assistant engineer Alan Parsons made a quick hop to M&S to buy some tights for microphone shields.

Despite the prep, the band still weren't entirely sure about the whole crazy idea, before John Lennon piped up with the brilliantly John line: "F**k it – let's go do it."

So at 12.30pm along with temporary Fifth Beatle Billy Preston, that's just what they did.

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

Get Back | The Beatles: Get Back | Disney+

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

The full setlist of the performance was as follows:

  • "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, some local businesses and the Metropolitan Police weren't so keen.

Despite the best efforts of the staff at Apple to keep them at bay, they eventually 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 yelped as the cops burst on to the roof.

Evans switched off Lennon and Harrison's amps, but Macca, Ringo and Billy kept on playing, prompting Harrison to switch his amp back on and Evans to pop Lennon's back on for the group to finish the third and final take of 'Get Back'."

In 2021, one of the cops who shut down the performance – long-retired PC Ray Dagg – spoke about his involvement in a bit of pop history.

"Get Back" Rooftop Performance | The Beatles: Get Back | Disney+

The then-19-year-old officer told The Sunday Times that the force had received 30 complaints within a few minutes of the group starting up, but also admitted his threats to arrest the band were a "bluff".

"At that time, I didn’t know that they would never play together again," he said, adding that his involvement was "just work".

"At least there’s something on a film somewhere that will forever show that PC Ray Dagg shut down The Beatles.

"If that’s my lasting image of life, if that’s what people remember me for, that’s not bad. Thousands, millions of people don’t get remembered at all."

The Beatles, Get Back and London: on the trail of a timeless story

McCartney gave his thanks to a cheering Maureen Starkey ("Thanks Mo!") while Lennon 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 being a completely live or as-live project never really 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.

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

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

The Be-Sharps - Baby On Board

The Beatles Rooftop Gig was of course part of The Beatles: Get Back series and was later released to cinemas as a limited edition one-hour special.

And while it was controversially left off that year's 5-disc Let It Be re-release, it was later made available to stream in full.

That Rooftop Performance has often been imitated since, by everyone from the Across The Universe jukebox musical to U2 to James to Paul McCartney.

Maybe most memorably, The Simpsons barbershop quartet The Be Sharps (Homer, Apu, Barney and Principal Skinner), paid tribute, getting up on the roof of Moe's Tavern for one final performance of 'Baby on Board'