‘I hope we passed the audition’
Why The Beatles played their last gig on a windy rooftop.
By 1968 the threads that held The Beatles together were fraying. After the bitter infighting that surrounded the recording of The Beatles it was agreed that something had to change.
The problem was that there was no consensus on what that change should consist of. Since the death of Brian Epstein in August 1967, Paul had been the practical driving force behind The Beatles. This leadership role had held the band together but was now increasingly resented by the others.
Paul’s new proposal — that they rekindle their creative energy by returning to their roots as a rock and roll band — was greeted with wariness and suspicion. George was adamant that he would not return to touring by the back door. John interpreted the ‘back to basics’ part as a pretext to replace George Martin — on the grounds that Martin’s studio ‘jiggery-pokery’ was stifling his artistry. Ringo just wanted everyone to get along better.
A fresh start?
Ever ambitious, McCartney suggested that the new album be accompanied by a ‘making of’ documentary. It was a decision they all came to regret but at the time nobody had a better plan. Michael Lindsay Hogg, a promising young film director was commissioned to make the film.
Hogg, who it would later transpire was the unacknowledged son of Orson Wells, proved to be a gifted documentary maker. He was, however, entering the extremely eccentric world of the recently formed Apple Corporation.
The first issue was that it was open season for bonkers proposals. One of the loopiest — a making-of-the-album documentary culminating in a live concert from Roman ruins in Tunisia — was initially given the thumbs up by the four emperors of the Beatles Court.
“The Beatles were to start playing as the sun came up,” explained director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, “and you’d see crowds flocking towards them through the day.”
Nobody bothered to think through the logistics of this masterplan. Those sort of details could be left to the suits, the squares to sort out.
One point of agreement was that the rehearsals be completed away from Abbey Road. In early January 1969 he band duly trooped off to a sound studio in the London suburb of Twickenham. It did not go well.
Lennon, who always hated rehearsing (“we’re grown men”) was matched in his antagonism by Harrison, who loathed the sound quality of the studio. Everyone complained bitterly about the bitter cold.
The Beatles also hated the presence of outsiders. One of these, Michael Housego of the Daily Sketch, claimed that the atmosphere of ‘hostile lethargy’ had descended into a physical fight between Lennon and Harrison. The latter issued a half-hearted denial on January 16. “There was no punch-up. We just fell out.”
This falling out did, however, lead to Harrison downing tools. As he left he famously said “See you around the clubs” — the Beatles equivalent of a resignation letter.
It took several day of negotiations to reel him back in. The peace treaty contained a ‘no more Twickenham’ clause — and rehearsals restarted on 21 January at the new Apple Studio, in the basement of the Apple Corporation building in central London.
By this point, The Beatles had had cooled on all talk of wild locations like the Sahara desert or Tunisian ruins. There was no prospect of anyone getting on a plane to North Africa.
This left the film without big finish or indeed any finish at all. And the one thing everyone agreed upon was that filming needed to end quickly. After more haggling, they agreed to a suggestion — possibly from John, possibly from Lindsay-Hogg, possibly even from Ringo— that they do the concert right there.
So on the 30th of January 1969 the group — plus guest member Billy Preston — climbed five stories onto a very windy rooftop. There a hastily constructed stage, mirrors, cameras and cue cards — for the notoriously forgetful John — awaited.
More tantrums — and tiaras
Typically, there was last minute melodrama. On the final landing, a team meeting was hastily convened. George suddenly went cold on the plan, Ringo was lukewarm. The whole project was in the balance.
It was the intervention of John that proved decisive: “Oh fuck it,” he said retaking control of the band he had formed. “Let’s do it.”
Wrap up warm
Performing outside in a coldish (45f/7c) January and a sharp wind created practical problems, particularly with regard to stage costumes. John complained that his fingers were too cold to form chords. Yoko — always within ten feet of him — came to the rescue with her fur coat.
Ringo, who had heroically performed in the Austrian snow during the filming of the ‘Ticket to Ride’ segment of Help, followed his band-mate to the wives’ dressing up box. Maureen supplied him with a shiny red rain coat, while George wore and equally peculiar black feather jacket.
Paul went for a contrasting look — that of a man dressed for a hotel breakfast buffet after a night on tiles with business associates. Even his machismo was somewhat undermined by some camp mugging to camera.
The impromptu set lasted 42 minutes, with a playlist as ragged as their appearance.
The Beatles played “One After 909,” two complete versions each of “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Dig a Pony” and “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and three versions of “Get Back” — plus various incomplete takes, including a line from the Irish folk song “Danny Boy.”
In addition to these, the band tossed off snippets of several songs that didn’t make the cut for Let It Be. These include a few bars of “I Want You,” later released on Abbey Road, and lines from the Irving Berlin chestnut “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.” The most complete of these off-the-cuff performances is an instrumental version of “God Save the Queen,” played while engineer Alan Parsons changed tape reels. These were little more than jokes, and were never seriously considered for any official release. from Jordan Runtagh, Rolling Stone
With hindsight, there is a tentative feel to the concert, a sense that that they are testing ideas rather than showcasing their new material with confidence.
The stand-out performance recorded on film is ‘Don’t Let Me Down’. This showcases Lennon’s voice at its most powerful. He even manages the higher harmonies with out sounding like he’s about to carted off in an ambulance. Ironically, he is the one who inspires the others to fulfill Paul’s ambition. For those three and a half minutes they become the thrilling live act they were before the screaming started.
And say what you like about Yoko, she clearly is his muse for this recording — he sings “I’m in love for the first time” with her sitting just stage left. Tough on Cynthia but great for his vocal.
As for the rest
Overall, there is an elegiac feeling to the session. Even the ostensibly ‘new’ “One after 909” dates back to their Hamburg days. The snippets go back still further, to the songs of their are childhood.
In recent years has McCartney acknowledged that a ‘guilty pleasure’ he shared with Lennon was a love of show tunes. This occasionally surfaced in their early work (‘Besame Mucho’. ‘Till there was you’) but it was nut until 2012 that Paul recorded Berlin songs for his superb American songbook album, Kisses on the Bottom.
Here the snatches of old songs express their friendship and shared past. The divorce is coming but the tunes will always be with them.
Who called the fuzz, man?
The cartoon villain for many casual Beatles fans is the young policeman who comes to close down the concert. The narrative goes that the square establishment sent him to shut down all the fun.
But the excellent 2017 BBC radio documentary The Last Beatles Concert definitively clears him of the charge of being a blue meanie. In reality the authorities showed remarkable restraint in the face of a flagrant breech of public bylaws.
The problem was that nobody from Apple had bothered to get permission for a public performance. When complaints about loud music from local residents and businesses began pouring into the police station opposite the Apple building, the police were legally obliged to take action. They negotiated with Apple representatives and eventually gave them ten minutes notice to end
The now retired PC sent to pull the plug was a Beatle fan himself. As Lindsay-Hogg puts it:
the young bobby had a duty…he discharged it as discreetly as possible and as politely as possible BB documentary audio here (23.38–26.29)
By happy accident The Beatles dodged a Spinal Tap style finale amidst Roman ruins. Plenty of fine acts have lured into that trap — step forward Pink Floyd on the Wall, for example. Yet the spectacular backdrops are no match for the sight of four young men on a windy roof having fun together for the last time.
Yes, John, you passed the audition. RIP