On January 30 1969, John, Paul, George and Ringo performed together for the last time – marking their imminent break-up in an audacious, unannounced and wholly original way.
They planned a secret concert at an unusual venue: on the small, cramped open roof space of their record company Apple, four floors up from London’s fashionable Savile Row. On this bleak, wintry day, they performed five new songs (Get Back, Don’t Let Me Down, Dig a Pony, One After 909 and I’ve Got a Feeling) that would feature in their forthcoming (and last) film, Let It Be.
The event would be witnessed by only a handful of people: the small film crew, led by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg; a few senior Apple executives; and some friends and family, huddled together on a narrow bench.
One of these was Ken Mansfield, then US manager of Apple Records. He dealt with the Beatles extensively on both sides of the Atlantic, and has written the most detailed, authoritative book about the rooftop concert. His admiration for the group is genuine: ‘These were real people, good people at heart. I started working with them in 1965 and it was like working with kids. There was such an air of excitement about them. Paul came to America in 1968, we were together, and we had to make our way through a crowd of adoring fans. After we’d closed a door on them, Paul said: “I just don’t get it”. There was this innocence about them all.’
Ken recalls that the whole point of the rooftop concert was getting some live recording into the Let It Be film. ‘There had been talk of going to some spectacular places, like the Grand Canyon, to do it. But using the roof at Apple was a cheap and easy way of doing it. And the film benefits tremendously from having The Beatles playing live.’
At the time of the rooftop concert, it was known within Apple that The Beatles would soon be going their own ways. There was speculation in the press that Yoko Ono was a factor in the split, but the truth was the group were tired of going out on tour, performing for fans who screamed so loudly that their music was inaudible.
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On the day of the concert, Ken dashed out of the office and bought himself a white trench coat to ward off the cold. He is still known to fans of the Let It Be film as the mysterious ‘man in the white coat’.
‘Once we got up to the roof,’ he recalls, ‘most of us felt it was a unique situation, a special time. We guessed something was happening. When it was over and we walked back down those stairs, nobody talked about it. We were absorbing it. But I think we all knew in our hearts it was some kind of ending.
‘Being on that roof was monumental. There was something about the sheer craziness of it. It was January – it was cold up there! It was a dirty old roof. The band were falling apart, yet they came together.
‘At Apple, we knew about the dissension between them. But they started playing, and Paul and John gave each other a look that said: “We’re mates. We’ve gone through a lot together. We’re a live band and we’re friends.” I could see that there in that moment. I was only four feet away.’
American Chris O’Dell, still in her early twenties at the time, had met The Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor in Los Angeles in 1968. He offered her a job with Apple in London as his personal assistant. She went on to become PA to Peter Asher, another Apple executive (as well as one half of Peter and Gordon, and brother to Paul’s then girlfriend, Jane Asher). Later she became assistant to George Harrison, who wrote the song Miss O’Dell for her; it was on the B-side of his solo hit Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth).
Chris knew something big was about to happen that day. She was well-liked and hard-working, though she clearly wasn’t ‘essential staff’ and there was no reason for her to join the select band who gained access to the Apple rooftop. But Tony Richmond, lead cameraman for the filming session, invited her to go up with him as his ‘assistant’. She took her place on the bench next to Tony’s camera, along from Ken, Yoko Ono and Ringo’s wife, Maureen.
‘My main memories were of the cold,’ she recalls. ‘It was windy too. My teeth were chattering. The Beatles were in good voice, singing and playing really well. I wondered, in those conditions, how could they even sing or play? It lasted 42 minutes. By that time, I was ready to go.’
She had observed the Fab Four and keyboard player Billy Preston, who joined them for the session, from close range. ‘John’s nose was red from the cold, and Ringo looked plain miserable; George wore a red shirt and a furry coat that he loved. Unbelievably, Paul just wore a black suit jacket over a shirt.’
So it was that Chris O’Dell enjoyed a view of the proceedings that was denied to the vast majority of people in The Beatles’ entourage.
This included hairdresser Leslie Cavendish, who befriended The Beatles – he first gave Paul McCartney a trim after Paul’s then girlfriend Jane Asher recommended him – and became the group’s official hairdresser in 1966.
But even that wasn’t enough to secure him a place on the rooftop to watch the concert. Chris O’Dell had tipped him off that something big was happening that day; she phoned him and said: ‘I’m sworn to secrecy – but just make sure you’re over here at Savile Row at noon.’
Like many others in The Beatles’ inner circle, Leslie was turned away at the foot of the spiral staircase leading to the roof by Mal Evans, the group’s roadie/bouncer/general assistant, who was 6ft 6ins tall, and an impossible man to get past. He told Leslie there was no space on the roof, as equipment was continually being carried up and down the narrow stairs.
‘I wondered,’ Leslie recalls, ‘what on earth was going on? And then after a while I heard singing from the roof above: “JoJo was a man who thought he was a loner…” I was suddenly hearing Paul singing Get Back.
‘It was weird to think they were playing on the roof. From inside the building, I looked out of the window and down. And suddenly crowds started gathering, looking up as it dawned on them – The Beatles were actually playing live! On the roof! I didn’t quite realise the impact of it all until it was all over.’
The loud music attracted the attention of the Metropolitan Police, who paid a call to Apple to investigate the source of the problem. One of them, a polite young cop named Ken Wharfe, made his way to the roof and had a civilised conversation with Paul McCartney, who assured him the concert would finish soon. There was no drama, and no arrests. (In later years, Ken Wharfe became Princess Diana’s bodyguard.)
Judith Wills (this month’s Opinion columnist, see p21) was a young journalist on pop magazine Fabulous at this time and was familiar with the Apple building and its employees. But none of that counted for anything on that day. ‘I couldn’t get near the roof. I seemed to spend a lot of time that day inside Apple, running up and down stairs!’
Saga Magazine reader David Stiff remembers the day clearly, though he got no closer to the concert than being in Savile Row with the gathering crowds.
‘I’d seen The Beatles four or five times,’ he says now. ‘So this was exciting. From the ground you could see people on the roof. Then there was the music. Loads of people were looking up, wondering: “Where’s this music coming from?”
‘The younger people stayed around, loving it. Some older people were walking past looking mystified: “What is this?” It was a memorable day.’
Chris O’Dell agrees. ‘It’s gone down in history as something even bigger than it felt at the time. But it was an amazing day.’