42 years ago on this date, music history was made on a London rooftop. It was January 30th, 1969 when the most popular, influential, and arguably greatest band in the history of music on this planet set up their instruments and cameras to record their swan song.
It is highly unlikely that anyone on that roof on that cold day realized what they were experiencing exactly, which would be the final ‘live’ performance by The Beatles.
For the legendary quartet that would be forever linked by their musical genius together, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, this was the culmination of a grueling month of work. Throughout January of 1969 the band had worked zealously on the studio recordings for “Let It Be“, the album that would ultimately become their final release as a working band.
The concept for “Let It Be” was that it would be all new material which would be performed in front of a ‘live’ audience at the same time as it was being recorded, a process that had never been attempted previously in contemporary music. But turning this vision of Paul’s into a reality proved far more difficult in practice than in theory.
The Beatles were trying to work their way through the stresses and strains that their celebrity, their personal lives and relationships, and simply a decade of working, living, and travelling together had created. These pressures would soon split the band forever, and trying to find a location to shoot this particular project highlighted their problems.
No one could agree on a suitable, unique location for the recording sessions. The Coliseum in Rome had actually been considered, as had the Tunisian desert. One consideration was to film the project entirely on a ship at sea. In the end, much of “Let It Be” was recorded in the studio. The tensions between McCartney and Lennon actually drove Harrison away for a week, and when he returned it was only after keyboardist and friend Billy Preston was allowed to join the sessions.
Finally, on the final Thursday of January in the first month of the penultimate year of the turbulent and tumultuous 1960’s, the band and Preston all took to the rooftop of the Apple studios building at 3 Savile Row to record the final pieces to the album, which was being documented for a film project as well. When the decade had begun, the band was a group of clean-cut, clean-shaven, wide-eyed pop stars. On the rooftop this day at decade’s end was a rock band complete with long and facial hair.
“Get Back” was the first song that they performed on that day, both a warmup version and then a full version which was eventually captured for the film and became a popular version of the song. As the band plays, people begin to gather on the streets below, and also begin to hang out the windows of adjoining buildings. “Is that really the Beatles?” as the crowd’s whispered murmur slowly grows to a mild uproar.
The band moves on to McCartney’s beautiful, haunting ballad that will become the album and film’s namesake “Let It Be“, and from there proceeds to Lennon’s dramatic, emotional “Don’t Let Me Down“, and then on into a fine Lennon-McCartney duet with “I’ve Got A Feeling“. One wonders if they had a feeling that this performance, their first public performance in 2 1/2 years, would be their last together?
“One After 909” and “Dig A Pony” are recorded for posterity before the police begin to bang on the roof’s door, trying to bring the performance to an end. The large crowds now drawn into the streets below were causing complete chaos for the workday rush, and the powers-that-be wanted the plug pulled on the impromptu jam session that was creating the ruckus.
As the police are trying to end the session, the Beatles play on with final versions of “I’ve Got a Feeling“, “Let It Be” and “Get Back”, which would unknowingly go down in history as the final song ever performed ‘live’ by the entire band together in public. Lennon steps to the microphone, and in his final public moment at the front of his legendary band makes a humorous statement forever immortalized in the film: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.”
With that, the end. The beginning of the end of a decade that many would say had ushered in the end of American innocence, if there ever was such a thing to begin with. The end of the band that had been, either directly or indirectly through their own musical evolution, at the front and center of most of the popular cultural revolution of that decade.
The experience of working on the album and film was so bad that McCartney quickly moved to get them back into a studio together, realizing that things were not going to hold together for them much longer as a group. During the first half of 1969 the band worked through sessions which resulted in the “Abbey Road” album. Released that summer, it became a #1 album, though critics were split on the music. But one thing that was clear to all was that while the musical magic might not be gone, the relationships had soured to the breaking point.
The “Let It Be” album would not be released for more than another year, with the final new Beatles track, George Harrison’s “I, Me, Mine” recorded on January 3rd, 1970, without John Lennon participating. The full band was last together in the studio on August 20th, 1969, and Lennon announced that he had left the band a month later, an announcement that would not be made public for some time still. On December 31st, 1970, McCartney filed a lawsuit to formally dissolve the band, which would actually take place in 1975 thanks to lengthy legal battles.
It is said that all good things must come to an end. Like many relationships that were at one time phenomenal, positive experiences for all involved, this greatest of all musical collaborations had finally reached it’s own end. Any hope for any type of real reunion would fully come to an end on December 8th, 1980, when Lennon would be cut down by an assassin’s bullet.