The Beatles ‘Rooftop Concert’ took place on 30th January 1969. It was the culmination of a month-long project that saw the Beatles rehearsing at Twickenham Film Studios for a concert at a yet undecided venue, at which they were going to perform their new album live. However, after George Harrison walked out of the band, the Beatles relocated to the new Apple Studios in the basement of 3 Savile Row and continued to record their new album, with the film crew still present. As the recording sessions drew to a close, it was thought that some sort of climax for the film was needed, and Paul McCartney especially was keen to play live somewhere – but where?
The decision to play on the roof was only made on Sunday 26th January. There are many different versions on how that idea was reached, and whose it was.
If an earlier idea had been realised, there would have been no place to play on the roof – Paul McCartney had wanted to build a roof garden, complete with a lawn and trees.
On the Monday, an engineer visited the roof to make sure it could withstand all the Beatles’ equipment and personnel. Scaffolding and wooden planks were hired and put down to reinforce the space chosen, which was to the front of the roof, overlooking Savile Row. For the next few days, the equipment was being carried in through the reception, disturbing the work of receptionist Debbie Wellum and Chris O’Dell, whose office was on the top floor, just below where the makeshift stage was being erected.
Initially, the rooftop session was planned for Wednesday 29th January, but the weather forecast had said it would be a very gloomy day, and not good for filming so the project was put back until the 30th. One reason for this was it was hoped to get helicopter shots of the Beatles on the roof and needed good light. However, tut this was later abandoned.
On the morning of the 30th, EMI technicians Dave Harries, and Keith Slaughter were driving towards 3 Savile Row with a car full ropes, blocks, amplifiers, speakers and other vital equipment needed for the rooftop session to take place. In Kings Langley, they were pulled over by the police, who thought their equipment was going to be used in a burglary. They had to convince the police of the real reason they had all the equipment in the car.
One person that missed this historic day was the Beatles trusted roadie, Neil Aspinall, who was in hospital having his tonsils removed. It was left to Mal Evans and Kevin Harrington to set up the Beatles instruments on the roof. Kevin Harrington said that they didn’t know which songs the Beatles were going to play, so just took all the instruments that were in the basement studio up to the roof.
An hour before the session technicians were testing the mics and having real problems, as the strong wind was making a horrendous noise. Therefore, Alan Parsons was sent around to a local branch of Marks and Spencer to buy some stockings to put over the mikes to stop the wind getting in. As Alan remembers, “It was very strange walking into the lingerie department and the assistant asking, ‘what size?’ – and me answering ‘doesn’t matter’, ‘what colour?’ ‘doesn’t matter’ – they thought I was really odd.”
Apart from the Beatles and the film and recording technicians, very few people were allowed on the roof. Among the lucky ones were Yoko Ono, Maureen Starkey, and Apple employees Ken Mansfield, and Chris O’Dell. They all set by a chimney, trying to shelter from the strong wind. Leslie Cavendish, who was the Beatles official hairdresser, was in the building, but after making his way up to the third floor and near to the roof, he was stopped by Mal Evans, who said there was no more room for anyone else. Alistair Taylor, the Beatles long-time associate and now office manager at Apple, decided to watch from down on the street outside.
Although it certainly wasn’t announced in advance that the Beatles were going to play on the roof, one group of fans realised early on that something big was about to happen. ‘The Apple Scruffs’ were a very loyal group of Beatles fans, who used to hang around on the steps of 3 Savile Row, waiting to see their heroes come and go. Their curiosity was certainly raised when they saw all the equipment needed for the session being brought into the building.
Tony Richmond, who was director of photography invited his girlfriend along, and she tipped off Vicki Wickham, who had produced the great TV show, Ready Steady Go, who brought along the presenter of the show Cathy McGowan. Rather than go to the roof, they went to the Royal Bank of Scotland, opposite 3 Savile Row, and somehow were allowed onto the roof. They probably had the best view of all.
Despite it not being announced in advance, the Beatles still wanted an audience, so deliberately scheduled the show for lunchtime, when nearby workers would be on their lunchbreaks and could come and watch. It also harked back to the Beatles Cavern Club lunchtime shows.
Just before they went on the roof, the Beatles gathered in a top floor Apple office which was used as a makeshift dressing room. Ringo borrowed his wife’s bright orange coat, while John and George are wearing their own heavy winter coats. Only Paul didn’t dress for the weather, wearing a suit and an open necked shirt. The Beatles long-time friend Billy Preston had been playing keyboards with them for the last week and had a big role to play on the roof, naturally joined them.
George Harrison was still questioning the point of going on the roof, and Ringo complained of how cold it was. Some were even thinking that the Beatles might abandon the project at the last minute. Finally, John Lennon, who had been silent up to now, said to the others, ‘Let’s do it’ and they went onto the roof.
In all, the Beatles were on the roof for 42 minutes – which was longer than their performance at Shea Stadium. At first, the Beatles played a rehearsal of ‘Get Back’ followed by what could be regarded as ‘take one’ of the same song. They then played ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ and ‘One After 909’ For the next song ‘Dig a Pony’ it’s obvious that John has forgotten the lyrics of his own song (not for the first time!) and asks Kevin Harrington to hold them up for him while he is singing.
After this, there was a slight gap, as Alan Parsons had to change the tapes. During this break, the Beatles play a short version of the National Anthem! After the tapes are changed, the Beatles do second versions of I’ve Got a Feeling and Don’t Let Me Down. They finish the session with a third version of Get Back.
Even though they couldn’t be seen from the street, the Beatles could be heard for miles around and lots of people started gathering in the street below. Of course, the Beatles knew this was going to happen, so they had cameras placed all around and many passers-by were interviewed about their reactions. Beatles fans loved it – the group hadn’t played live in the UK for nearly 3 years.
As well as at street level, people started gathering on nearby roofs, and even on the top of tall chimney stacks, to get a better look. Many others got great views from their office windows. A good back view of the proceedings could be had from the top floors of buildings in Heddon Street, where three years later David Bowie would pose for the Ziggy Stardust album cover photo.
However, the local tailors were not amused by their business being disrupted by the concert. They called the police to get the Beatles to stop. The Beatles guessed that the police were going to come, and had a secret camera set up in reception to film their arrival. The nearest police station, West End Central, is only 150 yards from 3 Savile Row, at the other end of the street. However, as soon as they began playing, the front door of the building was locked, to prevent any intruders coming in, and to delay the police.
A journalist who had been tipped off about the event went into nearby West End Police station to ask their opinion on what was going on. The desk policeman said they were happy for the Beatles to play and weren’t doing any harm. Things started to deteriorate as more and more people started gathering in the street, bringing traffic in Savile Row to a standstill and complaints were made by local tailors, and ironically, the Royal Bank of Scotland, where many people were watching from their roof! Eventually a ‘Black Maria’ police van drove towards 3 Savile Row and the Apple staff started to become worried. Dave Harries remembers ‘George Martin went as white as a sheet’ as he thought he was going to be arrested.
However, the among the first policemen that arrived came from a police box in Piccadilly Circus, about three times the distance to 3 Savile Row than the police station! Ken Wharfe, then a young police officer, got a call on his radio saying that the Beatles were making too much noise and to tell them to turn it down. Ken and his colleague were huge Beatles fans and couldn’t believe their luck when they arrived on the roof and saw the Beatles playing live. They had no intention of stopping them.
This was a disappointment to the Beatles as they wanted to be arrested as it would have been a great climax for the film. Although other policeman had arrived, and asked the Beatles to stop playing, there was no intention to arrest them. After negotiations, they were allowed to perform one last song, which was ironically Get Back. The ‘rooftop session’ ended when John came to the microphone and said, “I’d like to thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition.” It was to be the Beatles’ last ever live performance.
I always feel let down about the police. Someone in the neighbourhood called the police, and when they came up I was playing away and I thought, ‘Oh great! I hope they drag me off.’ I wanted the cops to drag me off – ‘Get off those drums!’ – because we were being filmed and it would have looked really great, kicking the cymbals and everything. Well, they didn’t, of course; they just came bumbling in: ‘You’ve got to turn that sound down.’ It could have been fabulous. – Ringo Starr, Beatles Anthology
In the end it started to filter up from Mal that the police were complaining. We said, ‘We’re not stopping.’ He said, The police are going to arrest you.’ ‘Good end to the film. Let them do it. Great! That’s an end: “Beatles Busted on Rooftop Gig”.’
We kept going to the bitter end and, as I say, it was quite enjoyable. I had my little Hofner bass – very light, very enjoyable to play. In the end the policeman, Number 503 of the Greater Westminster Council, made his way round the back: ‘You have to stop!’ We said, ‘Make him pull us off. This is a demo, man!’
I think they pulled the plug, and that was the end of the film. – Paul McCartney, Beatles Anthology
Richard Porter is a Beatles Tour Guide in London – for more on his tours go to https://beatlesinlondon.com/