This account of the band’s final live appearance, on a London rooftop, was written for MOJO, October 2016
And at the bottom is a piece about their three singles in 1969, written for MOJO November 2015.
What is going onout there? Lunchtime’s an hour away but office typewriters are silent and cups of tea grow cold upon the trolley. At every window the workers crane their necksin the freezing air, straining to catch the muffled thump of a live rock’n’roll band. Crunching riffs drift in on the wind that blows from 3 Savile Row.
It’s midday, January 30 1969, and on a makeshift stage of scaffolding and planks on the roof of the group’s Apple HQ, The Beatles are performing their coda as a live act. Even though they have not played anywhere since Candlestick Park in 1966, they’ve committed to a documentary film that will emerge, 16 months later, as Let It Be. And they’ve promised its director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, some sort of live finale.
God knows they need something. All the footage so far has been of a bickering band in claustrophobic rehearsals. Every mad and grandiose plan to cap it off – ideas had ranged from a Roman amphitheatre to a concert on a cruise ship – has been scrapped in favour of the only option The Beatles could be arsed to agree upon. Troop upstairs, play a handful of new songs and scuttle back into the warmth.
And yet, being The Beatles, they alchemise this half-baked whim into indestructible magic.
Paul McCartney straps on the Hofner bass that he loves for its lightness: it lets him “bop about”. Still the boyish go-getter, he’s badgered the other three into re-creating the lost solidarity of their early gigging years. And, briefly but amazingly, it works. His sceptical band-mates shrug off their reluctance and the old telepathy takes hold. Even in the “studio years” since Sgt. Pepperthey jammed together for hours on end, but never with such freshness and joy as they accomplish on this winter afternoon.
Macca leads the charge through the addictive chug of Get Back, its title a nervous rallying cry for the whole project. Harrison and Starr respond with all the old Cavern gusto; Lennon peels off a laconic and delicious lead guitar solo. Their guest Billy Preston, a good friend drafted in to soothe those internal tensions, whips up an electric piano part of scintillating virtuosity. Job complete, John revels in the nostalgic daftness of it all: “That was a request for Daisy, Maurice and Tommy.”
His own song, Don’t Let Me Down, is next: a heavy, sensual blues for Yoko Ono, who shelters in the lee of a chimney stack. With her is Ringo’s wife Maureen, who has donated her red mac to the shivering drummer and provided the one flash of colour on this drab London day. With the cheeky “she done me, she done me good” Lennon and McCartney exchange naughty-schoolboy glances – as if sharing a gag at the Kaiserkeller. George spontaneously cracks up.
On neighbouring buildings are astonished spectators who have clambered up the fire escapes. In the streets beneath a puzzled crowd is beginning to block traffic, impeding the black cabs disgorging hacks hastily summoned from Fleet Street bars. The secretaries in mini-skirts, the stolid clerks with pipes and trilbies, they can’t actually see The Beatles but they can hear them. Probably, they’re hoping for She Loves You or I Want To Hold Your Hand, but instead they get three more unfamiliar numbers.
There is I’ve Got A Feeling, the clever grafting of one McCartney and one Lennon song, with their respective freights of optimism and acid ambiguity. One After 909 is a knockabout skiffle thing so old it pre-dates Ringo’s time in the group. And Dig A Pony is prime Lennon mischief, some hypnotic gibberish about moondogs and boats, on a churning tide of Yoko-directed sexual yearning: “All I want is you!”
Then there are little skits, alternate takes and abandoned startsIf John breaks into a pub-drunk chorus of Danny Boy, it‘s a sly opportunity for somebody else to blow their nose or cadge a cigarette.In all it lasts about 40 minutes and the recording set-up (cables running down to Apple’s basement) is so crude that almost nothing is usable on record. A bit of a mess? Probably. A last, mesmerising glimpse of pop’s greatest band? Yes, it’s that as well.
Twenty minutes in, the police turn up (as everyone secretly hoped they would). The young bobbies look stern in their chin-strapped helmets but let The Beatles play on anyway. These coppers, after all, are from Savile Row nick, whose beat takes in the Kray Twins’ fiefdom of Soho pimps, porn and protection rackets. The Fab Four would not have struck them as a very big threat to society.
The rooftop concert gave Let It Be the upbeat ending it would sorely need. It presented The Beatles in a proto-grunge style that was untypical of their next and effectively final album Abbey Road. And it provided their original leader with one of his last classic Lennonisms: “I’d like to thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”
An important chapter of musical history closed this day, somewhere among the Mary Poppins chimney pots of London. Not one of The Beatles was over 29, but folk were already wondering if rock would survive without them. Right below, behind Savile Row, was an obscure back alley called Heddon Street, where a rag-trade sign said K. West. Exactly three years later a rising star posed there for his next LP cover. And the world did not end after all.
The Beatles’ 1969 in three singles…
#1 in: UK, US
Released: April 11, 1969 (UK) May 5 1969 (US)
It was the year when Apple turned pear-shaped. Yet it seemed to start so well. Here was a fine, addictively driving rocker, instantly commanding the singles charts. Few knew, at the time, that “get back” was Paul McCartney’s project code-name for a bid to re-ignite the apathetic Beatles, via live shows, a TV special and back-to-basics music. It would be just like the good old days in Liverpool and Hamburg – before Beatlemania, psychedelia and the ennui of imperial decadence had set in.
The genius of Get Back was that it also mirrored the zeitgeist. From its title downwards, this urgent, chugging boogie expressed rock music’s end-of-decade yearning for past times. In America that meant the rootsy, bearded authenticity of The Band, Canned Heat or Creedence Clearwater Revival. In Britain it stood for 1950s coffee bars and larky retro flash. (Which in turn gave us everything from Roxy Music to Gary Glitter.)
Get Back was recorded in late January, barely six weeks after the release of the White Album (a whole 30 tracks) and it was certainly the strongest new song they had available. A rousing version was filmed on the Apple rooftop on January 30, an off-the-cuff idea that replaced many grandiose schemes, including a concert at an ancient amphitheatre in Africa. It was a time, sighed their pressman Derek Taylor, “of indecisive malarkey” – and indeed the previous weeks had been miserable, as chronicled in the eventual movie Let It Be.
Adding a thrilling keyboard line was the group’s old friend Billy Preston – brought in to dampen their internal tensions – earning him the unique distinction of a co-credit on a Beatle record. Artfully, Get Back concealed the sad fact that The Beatles were running out of road. Thankfully, The Beatles knew how to hit a cul-de-sac with style.
The Ballad Of John And Yoko
#1 in: UK
Released: May 30, 1969
As the year dawdled forward, half-hearted plans for a film and its attendant album, both to be called Get Back, were left in abeyance. The troubles at Apple, a company conceived amid such high idealism a year earlier, ran stubbornly deep. It wasn’t only a case of creative fatigue: the four Beatles were now leading very separate lives and their business empire was unravelling. The arrival of new manager Allen Klein was proving fatally divisive.
It’s all the more cheering, then, that McCartney and Lennon could still re-kindle their musical partnership occasionally. They convened at Abbey Road on April 14 and, in George and Ringo’s absence, bashed out this hearty homage to 1950s rock (its foundation riff was probably Elvis Presley’s Don’t Be Cruel) that turned John’s latest misadventures into another hit single. Paul put his all into the bass and drums while John howled out the song he initially called They’re Gonna Crucify Me.
Wisely re-titled The Ballad Of John And Yoko, it detailed his recent wedding and the first “bed-in” of his world peace campaign. The narrative captures a classic contradiction of Lennon’s character: he wants to weaponise his fame to attract the maximum press attention to his cause, but – bloody hell – all this media coverage is doing his head in. His dream, ironically, was of an urgently journalistic style of instant reportage. He would next develop this idea outside The Beatles, via The Plastic Ono Band and numbers such as Give Peace A Chance and Cold Turkey.
The single was issued just six weeks later – when Get Back was still at Number 1 – and signalled John’s eagerness to front a global counter-culture. Soon afterwards he returned his MBE to Buckingham Palace. (“Go back to bed, Mr Lennon!” barked an obligingly angry piece by the Daily Mail’s Vincent Mulchrone.) And at summer fairs across the country, children dressed up as John and Yoko.
Amid this madness the band summoned George Martin back to Abbey Road and agreed to knuckle down for one more “proper” Beatle album. The world has every reason to be grateful.
Something / Come Together
#1 in: US
Released: October 31, 1969
For all its apparent unity, Abbey Roadwas not made in a spirit of harmony and by its completion in late summer, The Beatles were disintegrating. Formerly the keenest team-player, Paul McCartney was now boycotting Apple completely, which doubtless helped his enemy Allen Klein to pick a George and a John song for the double A-side of the band’s new single.
And to be fair, Harrison’s Something was clearly a career highlight. Like another recent stand-out, Here Come The Sun, it seemed to announce the guitarist’s emergence from the songwriting shadow of Lennon and McCartney. Frank Sinatra was unabashed in his admiration for what became one of The Beatles’ most-covered numbers. And John Lennon praised the song generously – which may have helped it get the more prestigious “green” side of Apple vinyl label over his own effort.
John’s Come Together was, it should be said, less obviously commercial. Its title was taken from a failed campaign slogan by the drug guru Timothy Leary, and the echoes of Chuck Berry’s song You Can’t Catch Me would prove too close for legal comfort. Even so, the Abbey Roadopener richly deserved the added exposure of its release on 45.
Come Together, in fact, is probably The Beatles’ last great group performance. Burnishing the word-play of Lennon’s mesmeric vocal, Paul’s swamp-out bass (plus his stuttering piano solo) and Ringo’s skittering drum pattern are among its most memorable elements.
By now, even outsiders began to sense a slackening-off at Apple HQ. It was unlike The Beatles to stick out two tracks already familiar from an album, and in their homeland the single stalled at Number 4. Music journalists, dismayed to find that Savile Row’s hospitality cabinet was suddenly locked, penned some pessimistic headlines: “Is this the end of Apple blossom time?” fretted Disc And Music Echo. They were right to be worried.