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How the Beatles’ famous 1969 rooftop concert almost ended up on a yacht

In January 1969, the Beatles were huddled together in the basement of the Apple Corps offices in West London, working on their follow-up to the previous year’s White Album. 

In addition to the new album, “Let It Be,” they were planning a concert, their first live performance in front of an audience since 1966, when they vowed to retire from the stage after a disastrous tour of the United States that included too many shrieking girls and protests from the Ku Klux Klan. 

Their ideas for a live show ranged from impractical to borderline deranged. Paul McCartney, 26, suggested playing in the rain or a snowstorm, admitting that the water might cause a “few deaths on the set due to electric shocks.” 

Yoko Ono, 35, recommended a stadium full of 20,000 empty chairs, arguing that it would be “much more dramatic.” 

For the venue, everything from the Royal Albert Hall to the Tate Gallery to the Houses of Parliament was proposed. They discussed the pros and cons of playing in an orphanage, or at an airport, or in front of an audience made up solely of dogs. 

The Beatles jammed and bonded in Apple Corps’ studio as they worked on their final album, “Let It Be.”
Ethan A. Russell/© Apple Corp

But the idea that garnered the most enthusiasm (at least for McCartney and John Lennon, 28) was a cruise to Libya, where the band would cohabit with hundreds of fans and perform on the Mediterranean Sea, and then give a final concert in a crumbling amphitheater in Sabratha, an ancient Roman city. 

It would be, longtime Beatles collaborator Michael Lindsay-Hogg said, “torch-lit, [with] two thousand Arabs and friends around.” 

Ringo Starr, 27, and George Harrison, 25, had no interest in “being stuck with a bloody big boatload of people for two weeks.” What’s more, Harrison argued, a floating rock show would be “very expensive and insane.” 

But Lennon loved the idea. It was ridiculous and dramatic, and if questioned about what it all meant, there was a simple answer. 

“God’s the gimmick,” he said. 

That back and forth is just one of many insights into the Fab Four’s creative process detailed in the book “The Beatles: Get Back” (Callaway Arts & Entertainment), out Oct. 12. 

What makes these conversations so unique is that they aren’t formal interviews with journalists. It’s just chatter between the four guys and a few close acquaintances — wives and girlfriends, producer George Martin, engineer Glyn Johns and director Lindsay-Hogg, who taped their musical synergy for a possible future TV show. He ended up with 120 hours of the Beatles over 21 days — first at Twickenham Film Studios in London and then at Apple Studios — as the band rehearsed, plotted, composed and contemplated their future. (A three-part documentary, using the same recordings and helmed by “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson, premieres on Disney+ in late November.) 

They talked about their late manager Brian Epstein, who died from a drug overdose in the summer of 1967, which McCartney compared to losing a father. 

Paul McCartney (left) was not initially enthused to perform on the roof. “Well, let’s just decide on that . . . a bit later,” he’d shrugged. But in the end he got the excitement he wanted — when police arrived.
Paul McCartney was not initially enthused to perform on the roof. “Well, let’s just decide on that . . . a bit later,” he’d shrugged. But in the end he got the excitement he wanted — when police arrived.
Ethan A. Russell/© Apple Corp

“But that’s only growing up,” he said. “Your daddy goes away at a certain point in your life.” 

They discussed how the world would always misinterpret the band’s feelings about Yoko. Despite reports that she was driving a wedge between the members, nobody in the Beatles actually minded her constant presence. 

McCartney even joked about it. 

“It’s going to be such a . . . comical thing, like, in 50 years’ time: ‘They broke up ’cos Yoko sat on an amp,’ ” he laughed. 

They discussed what to do if Harrison actually quit the band, as he’d been threatening. (As he wrote in his diary during the sessions, just before disappearing for several weeks: “Got up, went to Twickenham, rehearsed until lunchtime, left the Beatles.”) Eric Clapton was discussed as the most obvious replacement. 

John Lennon at Apple Studios, January 1969.
John Lennon at Apple Studios, January 1969.
Ethan A. Russell/© Apple Corp

“He’s just as good,” Lennon remarked. “And not such a headache.” 

But mostly, they goofed around like old friends. Between songs, just to entertain each other, Lennon did an improvised interview with McCartney, asking questions like, “Tell me, McCartney, does religion mean much to you in this present day, with all the trends and the swinging miniskirts that are about?” 

McCartney answered, in a thick cockney accent, “F–k off!” 

They made up absurd songs — in one spontaneous jam, Lennon sang, “There’s a madman a-coming, gonna do you no harm/ He’s wearing pink pajamas and he lives on a farm” — and had fun with visitors. When McCartney’s 6-year-old adopted daughter (with Linda) showed up at the studio, announcing that she had kittens, Lennon asked her, straight-faced, “Are you going to eat them?” 

Most of all, they found joy in the music again, something they’d been missing for awhile. Despite how the story is often told, the songs of “Let It Be” weren’t about a band falling apart, but a group of old friends discovering that they still liked making music together. Their shared history was in these songs — they even pulled out an old chestnut from their youth, “One After 909,” which Lennon had written at just 15. They had once felt embarrassed by the clumsy lyrics, but their perspective had changed with time. 

“He goes to the station and he misses it,” Lennon explained about the song’s premise. 

“But he goes back and finds it was the wrong number,” McCartney added. 

“Wrong location,” Harrison said. 

George Harrison presented the band with his song "Something," but needed help with the lyrics.
George Harrison presented the band with his song “Something,” but needed help with the lyrics.
Ethan A. Russell/© Apple Corp

“To rhyme with station, you know,” Lennon said. 

The bandmates howled with laughter, like only old friends who’d made music together for a decade could do. George Martin noticed their enthusiasm, pointing out to them that the mood had changed. 

“You’re working so well together,” he said. “You’re looking at each other, you’re seeing each other, you’re just happening.” 

Lennon said to McCartney, “It’s like you and me are lovers.” 

We should trespass. In a place we’re not allowed … and that should be the show.

Paul McCartney’s idea for the Beatles’ final show

The reason for their synergy, McCartney noted, was that they were spending more time together. He reminisced about the old days of touring, when they didn’t just play together but slept in the same hotel rooms. 

“Just as long as you’re this close all day, something grows,” McCartney said. 

One day Harrison brought in a new song he’d been working on over several months and said he was having problems with the lyrics. 

“Just say whatever comes into your head each time,” advised Lennon. “ ‘Attracts me like a cauliflower’ — until you get the word, you know.” 

Harrison tried a different version, singing “Attracts me like a pomegranate.” But this just made him burst into laughter. 

“Something in the way she moves,” Lennon attempted, singing a verse. “Attracts me like a moth to granite.” 

Ringo Starr had no interest in playing a show on a boat where he'd be stuck with people for two weeks.
Ringo Starr had no interest in playing a show on a boat where he’d be stuck with people for two weeks.
Ethan A. Russell/© Apple Corp

Harrison rejected it immediately. “I didn’t like moths,” he said. But Lennon’s spontaneous quote helped forge the song into the legendary “Something.” 

Meanwhile, McCartney introduced his bare-bones version of “Get Back” to the group, but he wasn’t all that impressed with it. 

“I don’t know what it’s about,” he told his bandmates. “It’s about going away, and then the chorus is ‘Get back.’ ” 

McCartney laughed at the shallowness of his own creation. 

“Actually, it’s not about anything.” 

But just a few weeks later, after playing the song repeatedly with Lennon, Harrison and Starr, he started to hear the music differently. Starr had finally found the perfect beat, and keyboardist Billy Preston brought another layer to it. 

When McCartney talked about the lyrics to Lennon, he was excited about it for the first time. 

“I like the words of that verse now,” he said, amazed at what the song had become. 

On Jan. 30, 1969, spurred on by collaborator Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the Beatles took to the roof of their Apple Corps studio in West London, their first public appearance since 1966.
On Jan. 30, 1969, spurred on by collaborator Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the Beatles took to the roof of their Apple Corps studio in West London, their first public appearance since 1966.
Ethan A. Russell/© Apple Corp

The “Let It Be” album wouldn’t be released for another year, on May 8, 1970. The live performance, meanwhile, was still in flux. Where would it happen, and when, and what exactly would the live footage be used for? A movie, a TV show, something else? Nobody knew yet. 

The boat idea was still in contention. Lennon offered that they could likely get something donated, perhaps a yacht from Aristotle Onassis, but McCartney suggested a simpler option. 

“We should trespass,” he said. “In a place we’re not allowed to do it . . . and that should be the show, getting forcibly ejected, still trying to play your numbers.” 

The rock cruise idea was dropped, and on Jan. 29, Lindsay-Hogg offered a new and simple thought. 

“What about the roof tomorrow? Do you want to collectively do that, or not?” 

McCartney shrugged. “Well, let’s just decide on that . . . a bit later.” 

The next day, still nothing had been decided. 

And then John said in the silence, “F–k it — let’s go do it.” 

The Bealtes Get Back

Right at lunch-hour, they ascended the stairs to the roof of Apple Corps, hoping to catch passersby down below by surprise. But the crowd that gathered was mostly confused, and a little angry. 

“Do you know how long this racket is going on?” one man asked. 

When a befuddled woman learned that this was the Beatles giving their first public performance in years, she said, “You call that public? I can’t see them.” 

Just as McCartney had hoped, the police did show up, responding to over thirty complaints about the noise. As they made their way to the roof, he improvised his lyrics to “Get Back,” singing “You’ve been playing on the roofs again. You know your mommy doesn’t like that! She’s gonna have you arrested!” 

But there were no arrests. In fact, the police were polite, and a few even seemed to enjoy the performance. 

It wasn’t the hell-raising, mind-blowing spectacle that the Beatles had originally conceived. But it went down in history as one hell of a show.

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