When The Beatles Performed Live for the Last Time, on a London Rooftop
“I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.”
Outside of perhaps Johnny Rotten saying “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” at the Sex Pistols‘ final concert, no other group ended its history as a live act with such fitting words. And they were spoken by John Lennon from a London rooftop after the Beatles last-ever live performance on Jan. 30, 1969.
The Get Back project, which morphed into Let it Be, was an attempt by the Beatles to return to their roots as a pure rock n’ roll band after the studio-heavy work of the previous three years. The idea was to film the band rehearsing and recording the songs, with a concert marking their first performance since saying goodbye to the road on in San Francisco on Aug. 29, 1966.
By this point in their career, the Beatles hated each other. The Let it Be film that eventually emerged doesn’t show a band rediscovering itself so much as falling apart, a far cry from the smiling moptops that took over the world only five years prior. George Harrison even quit during the rehearsals at Twickenham Film Studios earlier in the month, but returned a few days later. Most of the animosity was directed at Paul McCartney, who was going through a particularly creative period and was trying to drum up enthusiasm among his band mates, but often came across as bossy.
All sorts of locations were suggested for the concert, everywhere from a London pub to a Greek amphitheater to the Sahara Desert. But all of those would involve too much work, a sign of their unwillingness to spend any more time around each other than absolutely necessary. On Jan. 29, they agreed to move their equipment from the basement studios in Apple Corps’ headquarters at 3 Savile Row up to the roof the next day.
The Beatles’ crew spent the morning setting up the gear and running cables down to the basement. To cope with the January wind, engineer Alan Parsons was sent out to buy ladies’ stockings to put over the microphones to his considerable embarrassment. By lunchtime, everything was ready to go.
For all the acrimony surrounding the band at the time, the performance finds the Beatles doing what they were trying to force throughout the month. The group – with their old friend Billy Preston on electric piano – actually sounds happy to be playing together. “We’ve had a request from Martin Luther,” John quipped after the first attempt at “Get Back,” recalling, no doubt, the many afternoon sessions they played at Liverpool’s Cavern Club. He and Paul occasionally exchange looks between them that put aside all the bitterness between the two.
After a second stab at “Get Back,” they moved on to “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I’ve Got a Feeling.” Next was “One After 909,” a song Lennon and McCartney wrote in their early days, and “Dig a Pony.” Both performances were released on the Let it Be album.
By this point, the music coming from the sky brought the neighborhood to a halt. Despite the cold and damp, crowds gathered along the street, neighbors opened up their windows and cars stopped on the streets. Of course, not everybody was happy with the noise, and the police were called to intervene.
Unaware of what was going on below them, the Beatles kept playing. Second attempts at “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” and a third run through of “Get Back,” were made. By this time, however, the police had arrived. On their orders, Harrison’s and Lennon’s amplifiers were turned off mid-song, but the musicians turned them back on in time to finish the song.
“You’ve been out too long, Loretta,” McCartney, seeing the policemen, improvised in the spoken section. “You’ve been playing on the roofs again, and that’s no good / ‘Cause you know your Mommy doesn’t like that / She gets angry / She’s gonna have you arrested!”
Seconds later, the song came to halt. McCartney thanks Maureen Starkey, whose red coat her husband, Ringo Starr, was wearing. Lennon says his famous line, and the Beatles’ final performance came to an ignominious end. Approximately half of the 42-minute concert wound up in the Let it Be film.
McCartney would run afoul of the law in concert 43 years later when, while sitting in with Bruce Springsteen at Hyde Park, the show ran beyond the local curfew. Police pulled the plug as McCartney and the E Street Band were finishing “Twist & Shout.”
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