Tony Barrell explains why he wrote his new book, ‘The Beatles on the Roof’, documenting one of the strangest gigs of all time
On January 30, 1969, I was an ordinary boy walking to primary school on what seemed to be an ordinary Thursday. I was a well-behaved kid, but I was also a devoted Beatles fan, and if I’d known that they were about to play their first live show for more than two years (885 days, to be precise) I would have been downright naughty. I would have feigned illness to get off school, and after my parents had left the house for work I would have boarded a train to London, taken the Tube to Piccadilly Circus and dashed to Savile Row to enjoy the music.
But only a select bunch of people – mainly friends of the band and their film-makers – knew they would be emerging on the roof of Apple Corps HQ to blast their music over the West End. For everyone else, the “rooftop concert” was a total, gobsmacking surprise.
The people who happened to be in the area that lunchtime were the lucky ones. Fans scurried around like rabid lunatics. Women dropped their shopping and men almost choked on their pipe tobacco. Workers in nearby offices flung open their windows when they heard the music. Some brave souls even climbed out of their windows and went wandering over the flat roofs of Mayfair to get a better view as the Beatles, with their guest member Billy Preston on electric piano, bashed out lively new numbers including ‘Get Back’ and “I’ve Got a Feeling’. And despite the chilly weather, they kept the music going for about 42 minutes before acceding to a police request to put a sock in it. Then it was all over: the world’s greatest band would never play live to the public again.
Over the years, my schoolboy disappointment at missing this unique gig has turned into a full-blown fascination with the event. Ultimately I have had to carry out a full self-exorcism and write a book about it, doing some deep research and talking to some of the fortunate folk who were there on that amazing day.
With its gilded cluster of luxury bespoke tailors, Savile Row is arguably the snootiest street in one of the poshest areas of town
As well as allowing me to immerse myself in the lives of the Beatles from 1968 to ’69, the book has forced me to study a particularly intriguing part of London: Mayfair, and particularly Savile Row. With its gilded cluster of luxury bespoke tailors, this is arguably the snootiest street in one of the poshest areas of town, and it provides a bizarre backdrop to the Fab Four’s final fling. On one level, the rooftop concert was a clash of working-class and upper-class cultures; it was also an assault on tradition by modernity. Superficially, as the boys in blue weighed in and the amps were turned off, tradition and the upper class won the day. However, the iconic status of the Beatles’ performance (even nearly 49 years after it happened) means that the iconoclastic Liverpudlian larrikins are the real winners.
Whose idea was it? And what was it like to be there that day?
Why did they do it? Whose idea was it? What was it like to be in Savile Row that day? And why was the rooftop concert “the opposite of Beatlemania”? You’ll find the answers to all these questions, and much more, in The Beatles on the Roof, published by the famous Omnibus Press and available in all good UK bookshops.
© 2017 Tony Barrell