The Beatles' Final Performance Was The Culmination Of Years Of Infighting
On January 30, 1969, about three months after the release of the White Album, the Beatles climbed onto the roof of Apple Records to play a set of nine songs in under and hour. The performance was captured for the film Let It Be, but shortly after the performance John Lennon and Paul McCartney parted ways forever, and the band was no more. The performance wasn’t meant to be on the band’s roof; prior to walking up there with a camera crew the band tried to gin up a show -- their first since 1966 -- but when that failed to come to fruition the rooftop show was a means to an end.
The Band Was Working On A Return To The Stage Before Ending It All
In January 1969, the band was freezing in London’s Twickenham Studio. They plunked at their instruments, they worked out new material, but didn't accomplish anything. The Beatles hadn’t played a full set in front of an audience since their final American tour in 1966. Paul McCartney wanted the band to make a big splash at a venue called The Roundhouse, a small rock club that would bring the group back to their roots. He wanted to shake things up. But the rest of the band just wasn’t excited about this new, McCartney-led direction.
During rehearsals for the performance, McCartney had boundless energy, but none of the other guys seemed to care. A frustrated Paul lectured everyone, which didn’t sit well with the group. He said:
I don’t see why any of you, if you’re not interested, got yourselves into this. What’s it for? It can’t be for the money. Why are you here? I’m here because I want to do a show, but I don’t see an awful lot of support. There’s only two choices: We’re gonna do it or we’re not gonna do it, and I want a decision. Because I’m not interested in spending my f**king days farting around here, while everyone makes up their mind whether they want to do it or not.
John Lennon And Paul McCartney Weren't Writing With Each Other Anymore
The falling-out between Lennon and McCartney started long before they decided to play live again. Starting with the recording of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the two main songwriters in the group started working without one another. They may have shared credits, but the different nature of their songs was growing clearer. For every populist singalong that McCartney wrote, Lennon wrote a personal piece exploring his own psyche. This attitude towards songwriting extended to Harrison and Starr, who brought in their own songs and bristled at being told what to play. For a group of artists, the Beatles wasn't a fun place to be to make art.
The Band’s Appearance On The BBC In '68 Gave Them A Hunger For Live Performance
Since giving up live performances in 1966, The Beatles had been happy to argue and record beautiful music in private. But after a one-off performance for television, the band realized how much fun they had jamming in front of people. In September 1968, the group filmed a performance of “Hey Jude” with a small audience for David Frost’s show where the audience joined in as a chorus during the ending. The short performance sparked something in the group; they realized that they wanted to play in front of people again. They quickly arranged a date in January 1969 at the Roundhouse in London. Rather than just play the show the band decided to film it for a TV broadcast. They hired Michael Lindsay-Hogg to direct the performance -- but the band never made it to the Roundhouse.
The Beatles Hated Being Around One Another But They Really Hated Paul McCartney
To get ready for the show at the Roundhouse, the band started rehearsing at Twickenham Film Studios. They were flanked by Lindsay-Hogg’s film crew, but rather than work out a set they just bickered in front of the cameras. The biggest problem was that The Beatles -- a group of very famous and wealthy people -- had to get up early to make rehearsals. Twickenham was a strict union space which meant that they were only open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. That didn’t fly for guys who wanted to stay out and having a good time.
During rehearsals, McCartney was pushy, which is putting it politely. George Harrison hated working with McCartney because he didn’t have any say in the parts he played. According to Harrison, he was told what to play, when to play it, and at what tempo. The same went for Starr. Even Lennon, who had his own songs, was tired of working things out with the bassist.
After The Roundhouse Gig Fell Through, George Harrison Quit
Obviously, the Roundhouse show never happened, or you'd be reading about it right now. On January 10th, Harrison got into a fight with Lennon that may or may not have come to blows, but the fight managed to happen off camera so it’s become a thing of rock and roll legend. Lindsay-Hogg only managed to catch Harrison packing his guitar and saying, “I’m out of here. Put an ad in [the papers] and get a few people in. See you ’round the clubs.” Harrison expanded on his blow-up in Anthology:
It became stifling, so that although this new album was supposed to break away from that type of recording (we were going back to playing live) it was still very much that kind of situation where he already had in his mind what he wanted. Paul wanted nobody to play on his songs until he decided how it should go. For me it was like: ‘What am I doing here? This is painful!’
After Harrison quit, John Lennon tossed around the idea of replacing the guitarist with Eric Clapton, but a few days later the band managed to get back together and reach and agreement. Harrison said he would rejoin the band if the group stopped talking about a live show and stopped working at Twickenham.
When Harrison Returned He Brought Billy Preston With Him
If Yoko Ono was going to hang out with the group, George Harrison was going to bring in some backup in the form of a new musician, keyboardist Billy Preston. While his presence didn’t save the group it did lighten the mood a bit. Apple Records employee Ken Mansfield explained what Preston brought to the band in Rolling Stone:
Billy was really special to the band at that time. I think George was very wise for bringing him in, because Billy was a calming effect. They were all really big fans of Billy and loved Billy. He was really important to the whole thing. When they were in the studio, they would play something and Billy would look over at me with his eyes just as big as saucers and go, ‘Wow, did you hear that?’ And they’d turn to Billy and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you do this here?’ and Billy would go, ‘Wow, that’s great.’
The Rooftop Performance Was Put Together In A Day
Throughout this entire period, the band didn’t stop filming their sessions, but they’d been at it long enough that they needed an ending. Since booking another show was out of the question, the band just decided to put something together quickly. No one can agree on who exactly suggest the band play on the roof; some confidants suggest that it was Starr, others say it was McCartney, and Lindsay-Hogg has also been suggested as the person who figured out the final performance. Before the band climbed onto the wooden planks that would be their final stage, they were a tangle of nerves, and Apple employee Ken Mansfield says they almost didn’t do it:
There was a lot of dissension with the Beatles at the time. I went up to the dressing room — the offices they were using just before the concert — and it looked like they were nervous, like a young band getting ready for an audition. I thought maybe it was because they haven’t played in a while and there’s a lot of tension. I found out later on that when I walked in, they weren’t nervous; there was just a lot of tension amongst them.
The Show Stopped Traffic
After the four lads from Liverpool said sod it and started playing in the freezing London afternoon, traffic on Savile Row came to a full stop. The police tried to shut the band down and people watched from the street below. Paul McCartney described the excitement of the show:
It was good fun, actually. We had to set the mikes up and get a show together. I remember seeing Vicki Wickham of Ready, Steady, Go! (there’s a name to conjure with) on the opposite roof, for some reason, with the street between us. She and a couple of friends sat there, and then the secretaries from the lawyers’ offices next door came out on their roof.
It was a very strange location because there was no audience except for Vicki Wickham and a few others. So we were playing virtually to nothing – to the sky, which was quite nice. They filmed downstairs in the street – and there were a lot of city gents looking up: ‘What’s that noise?’
That Was It
The Beatles and Billy Preston ran through their nine song set with a few multiples thrown in there for alternate takes -- and that was the last time the group ever played in front of an audience. If you’ve seen the performance you know that the band isn’t as tight as they would have been if they’d been practicing non-stop like McCartney wanted, but they still played like a group. They were charismatic, and the songs still carry a weight to them. Watch closely and you’ll see Lennon and McCartney crack a smile at one another whenever something unexpected happens. It’s clear from this performance that the Beatles weren’t just a band, they were a family.