A few years ago, I visited Liverpool for work, and stayed for a couple of days. I booked a hotel and, visited many of the sites associated with The Beatles: The Cavern club (not the original, but it’s close), Strawberry Field, Penny Lane, and the house where John Lennon grew up with his Aunt Mimi. It was so moving going to these old haunts, because the band are often presented in a mythical or (and I’m not keen on the word) ‘legendary’ light. I felt the same way as I watched the film of The Beatles concert on the roof of the Apple building. It was all so, well, real: there’s Ringo, wearing the red shiny coat that belonged to his wife, because it was such a cold day. There’s the pinstripe on Paul’s shirt. The cars are late ‘60s cars. Men in the street wear bowler hats.
By Miles Salter
Beatles: Get Back The Rooftop Concert is a 60 minute extraction from the longer film, directed with love and care by Peter Jackson. The version that has just come out in cinemas has re-mixed sound (overseen by Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin). If you’ve seen the longer version already, you may not feel the need to revisit it, but I hadn’t seen the epic, and was surprised to find guys at the cinema who’d already sat through six hours of the documentary. Fans, clearly.
Apart from the vivid quality of the footage (the detail is fantastic), what’s lovely about the concert is that there is a faint air of the shambolic about it. There’s not a wristband or backstage pass in sight. They just put a load of kit on the roof, set up the drums and guitars, and got stuck in. Today, such an event would be stage managed to within an inch of its life.
The film captures the reactions from the street as people look up, wondering what is going on. On the whole the street audience are positive about it. There’s an older man who’s very open and effusive, full of appreciation for the band, but not everybody is keen. One young man is sniffy and dismissive, and, this being London in 1969, there are complaints about the noise. A couple of young policemen turn up at the Apple building, looking officious and a bit silly (I was reminded of York buskers Ali Lawrence and Karl Mullen being fined for playing piano during lockdown). The Police intrusion is amusing, and adds a bit of tension and narrative power to the film.
There’s a palpable sense of history here, too. Numerous people who feature in the film are no longer with us: John and George, of course, but also Mal Evans (the band’s roadie), Maureen Starkey, Linda Eastman, George Martin, keyboard player Billy Preston and press officer Derek Taylor. All the older people seen in the street will be long gone. It’s moving to see a moment in time caught so vividly.
The band were struggling with the increasing difficulties of running Apple, and the end was in sight. The White Album had been dogged by a bad atmosphere, and during 1969 things steadily unravelled. Lennon was using heroin, and was besotted by Yoko Ono, whose presence in the studio was particularly resented by George Harrison. By April 1970, Paul McCartney would be hinting that they’d gone their separate ways.
George Martin once said it was remarkable that The Beatles stayed together as long as they had; they’d lived a very intense decade together, shooting through time and space at breakneck speed. (Liverpool, Hamburg, the first album, Beatlemania, the end of touring, experimentation, drugs, Brian Epstein’s death, the Maharishi, the unravelling…the various chapters are well rehearsed.) The concert was part of a project called ‘Get Back’, which was about a return to roots. In this sense, it was a success; there’s a real joy in seeing the four men playing together, smiling, remembering what brought them together in the first place. It’s their last ever public performance. As Film Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg said later, ‘Since you know it’s their last time playing in public, and since you know they didn’t know themselves it was the last time, it’s kind of beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time because if anybody ever passed any audition it was them.’
Four men who’d revolutionised popular music get on a roof and play. It’s rock ‘n’ roll, played with heart and soul. The musical highlights are ‘Get Back’ with Paul on vocals, and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, with John singing. These songs show the powerful reach of pop music, punching little holes in the universe. When the guys smiled, it was magic. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to a Beatles gig, and it was fab.
Miles Salter is a writer and musician based in York. His most recent book of poems was ‘Fix’, published in 2020. He fronts the band Miles and The Chain Gang.