Last Gigs: The Beatles

Originally printed in Guitar World, November 2008

January 30, 1969 - Apple Corps Rooftop, London

By 1969, the Beatles were in free fall. A year’s worth of bickering and jealousies was tearing the group apart. As the year began, they tried to make a clean start of things, gathering at Twickenham Studios, where nearly five years before four very different Beatles had filmed A Hard Day’s Night. The idea was to write an album from scratch, record it and document the process on film.

At first, everybody felt cautiously optimistic. “I thought, Okay, it’s a new year, and we have a new approach to recording,” guitarist George Harrison said. But their communication skills had deteriorated badly. Strung out on heroin and enamored with the ever-present Yoko Ono, John Lennon was remote and inert. Paul McCartney and Harrison were locking horns daily. Meanwhile, poor Ringo Starr seemed utterly lost behind his drums.

Following an argument with his bandmates, Harrison quit on January 10. At a band meeting on January 15, he was persuaded to come back at least to finish the album. The group also decided to abandon Twickenham for the cozier atmosphere of the studio in their Apple offices on Savile Row.

And then, out of nowhere, the idea of performing live appeared. It was an unusual proposal—the group had quit making concert appearances some three years before. Ideas ranged from playing on an ocean liner to performing in an amphitheater in Saudi Arabia. Eventually, the band abandoned its grand ideas and headed to Apple’s rooftop. Said Harrison, “It was simpler than going anywhere else.”

On January 30, a windy, gray day, the Beatles, with keyboardist Billy Preston, ascended the five floors to play among the tarpaper and chimneys of Savile Row. It was so cold that Ringo borrowed his wife’s red plastic raincoat, while John wore Yoko’s fur jacket. “All cameras, take one!” shouted director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, and the Beatles launched into a “rehearsal” of the song “Get Back.”

On the street and surrounding rooftops, nobody seemed to know what was happening. Loud music was coming from the sky, and it sounded familiar. Could it be?, people asked. The lunchtime crowd stopped what it was doing and listened to something many thought they would never hear again: the Beatles performing live—and for free.

The Fab Four breezed through multiple takes of “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “The One After 909” and “Dig a Pony.” The bad feelings that had permeated their earlier sessions were gone. Paul was thrilled to be playing live again, and even Lennon appeared to be enjoying himself.

But alas, their exciting finale was cut short when the police arrived in response to a “disturbance.” The Beatles’ last public performance was history. Lennon summed up the day, and perhaps the preceding decade, when after the third rendition of “Get Back” he announced, “I’d like to say ‘thank you’ on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition!”

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