On the afternoon of Jan. 30, 1969, the Beatles climbed onto the roof of their Apple Records headquarters, where they braved the winter chill and played an impromptu concert to a throng of (mostly) delighted Central London office workers below. The 42-minute set — the culmination of the month-long session that would yield their last album, Let It Be — is enshrined in Beatle lore as the final live performance the band would ever give. Regularly hailed as one of the most famous musical moments ever, the event was showcased as the finale of Peter Jackson's 8-hour documentary epic Get Back. Now, on Jan. 28, the complete audio from the rooftop concert will be made available across streaming platforms, allowing fans to hear the iconic gig in its entirety for the very first time.
The Beatles: Get Back - The Rooftop Performance is an answered prayer for many Beatles fans who were saddened by its absence on the lavish Let It Be box set issued in the fall, which contained several discs worth of outtakes and previously unreleased material. "There were a lot of discussions about whether we should put the rooftop concert on the box set," says Giles Martin, steward of the band's recorded legacy, who completed stereo and Dolby Atmos remixes of the live set along with Sam Okell. "It was something we thought a lot about." He likens it to the same dilemma faced by his late father, the Beatles' legendary producer Sir George Martin. "He didn't want to put the Beatles' singles on their albums, because you're selling stuff more than once. We bear that in mind when we do these [collections]. Our thinking was, "Well, how many different versions of songs are we going to be putting out there?" Paul [McCartney] even said to me, 'How many different versions of 'Get Back' do you want?'"
The concert footage had already been earmarked for inclusion in the Get Back docuseries, sparking further debates about whether the audio was compelling when stripped of the arresting visuals. But the overwhelmingly effusive response to the film led those in the Beatle camp to reconsider their decision to hold it back. "The film adds a new level of appreciation to the [audio]. It's contextualized," Martin explains. "You listen differently [having seen it], probably with more empathy, in a way. Some of the performances are great, while some of the performances aren't the best performances ever. But it's historical and it's got a vibe to it. People can tune in more with that vibe because they've seen what it was like up there. There's something more intimate about listening to it."
In typical Beatle fashion, even the imperfections are charming. It's hard not to laugh as John Lennon, never the best at remembering his own lyrics, stifles a giggle while substituting gibberish for a forgotten line on "Don't Let Me Down." And McCartney's ad-libbed verse in "Get Back," done for the benefit of the policemen who've crashed the party, is guaranteed to raise a smile. "The police are about to arrest them on the stage and Paul's singing, 'You've been playing on the roofs again and that's no good, they're gonna have you arrested!'" Martin says with obvious admiration. "I mean, that's a proper sort of punk attitude, really!"
Apart from just historical significance, the performances themselves are more than strong enough to stand on their own — a minor miracle considering the bitter cold, the busy traffic a few stories down, and the intrusion of the London Metropolitan Police. "If you think about it, they wouldn't have been able to hear themselves very well and they were on a rooftop in January!" says Martin. "If I chose a band now, with all today's technology, I don't think I'd be able to make as good a recording as they did then. I joke to Paul about it quite a lot. When we listen to stuff together, he goes, 'We were actually a really good band.' And that's easy to forget with all the history going on. It sounds like a stupid thing to say, but they can really play. And I think the rooftop proved that."
The final tracklist consists of three complete versions of "Get Back" (plus a brief aborted take), two takes of "Don't Let Me Down," a run-through of "I've Got a Feeling," an improvised version of "God Save the Queen," and the versions of "One After 909," "Dig a Pony" and "I've Got a Feeling" that made the final Let It Be album. Completists will be thrilled to know that there's plenty of between-song chatter and other audio-verite moments to make you feel like you're standing alongside the Fabs. "People are getting to hear everything I have," says Martin. "There's a beginning bit where there's wind and stuff and some camera people talking. And then it finishes about 30 seconds after John says 'I hope we passed the audition,' and you hear him leaving." Martin even briefly toyed with releasing the concert as "one big long chunk" of audio, before logistical concerns mooted the idea. In any event, he says, "I'm just letting the whole thing run."
As far as Martin's concerned, it's his duty to share the wealth. "I know I'm lucky — I'm George Martin's son. I get huge privileges. And I think other people should experience the same luck I have. There are people who are massive fans and they should get a chance to listen to the stuff I listen to. So this is one of those chances."
Ethan A. Russell/Apple Corps Ltd
The Beatles: Get Back - The Rooftop Performance is just one element of the celebration surrounding the concert's 53rd anniversary. On Thursday, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announced an immersive new exhibit at their Cleveland headquarters designed to complement the Get Back docuseries. Due to open on March 18th, the installation promises to transport fans back to the January 1969 sessions with large-scale audio-visual displays and a treasure trove of memorabilia on loan from the Beatles themselves. These artifacts will include the original instruments, handwritten lyrics, and articles of clothing — ranging from Ringo Starr's (borrowed) red raincoat worn on the rooftop, to George Harrison's ultra-hip pink pinstripe suit, and even John Lennon's trademark granny glasses.
Norah Jones is also paying her own special tribute to the rooftop concert with a pair of performance clips recently filmed on top of the Empire State Building. The singer's version of two Beatles classics — "I've Got a Feeling" and "Let It Be" — will be available to stream on her YouTube channel beginning at noon EST on Jan. 28. The following morning, at 9 a.m. EST, the cast of the Beatles-themed Cirque du Soleil show LOVE will debut a rooftop performance tribute video of their own set to a version of "Get Back," specially remixed for the production. There's a "Rooftop Concert Special" featuring commentary by Beatles historian, author, and radio producer Kevin Howlett set to premiere on the SiriusXM Beatles Channel on Jan. 28 at 11 a.m. EST. This all leads up to a series of synchronized screenings of the rooftop concert at IMAX theaters across the US and UK, including a virtual Q&A with Peter Jackson, kicking off at 3 p.m. EST on Jan. 30 — exactly 53 years after it was filmed.
The festive spirit surrounding the anniversary is surprising considering many previously believed this to be an unhappy era for the Beatles; the so-called winter of discontent that precipitated their public split in April 1970. But Jackson's documentary and the box set of material culled from these sessions has led to a radical reappraisal of this period in the band's career. Even the surviving Beatles were taken aback.
"We had a premiere of the film in London, and I sat with Paul having dinner afterward and he said it was so great," Martin recalls. "He said, 'It was so great to look back and realize that it was actually a really happy time. I was with my mates! It was great to see me and John together.' It was a genuine moment for him of love and happiness."