What are those tall London buildings we can see behind the Beatles on their famous rooftop? Tony Barrell investigates
I love this photograph of the Beatles’ rooftop performance in 1969. Taken by a Daily Express photographer, it shows the band in mid-song amid the chimney pots and spires of London. The director Michael Lindsay-Hogg is in there too (just next to the chimney on the right), as he should be, because the rooftop blast was his idea. And in the distance is a young man standing and watching the show high above the ground, as some of the office workers did that day. I was pleased that this became the cover image on my 2017 publication The Beatles on the Roof, the first book to cover the rooftop concert in detail.
But there’s something else about the image that I find intriguing. Look at the skyline and you’ll see a number of tall buildings lurking in the haze of that cold January day. What are they? There are three in particular that piqued my curiosity, and further research revealed that these three “towers” represent British royalty, the Church of England, and time itself.
Noting that this skyline view is from the right-hand side of the roof as you face the building, and this side looks in a roughly southeasterly direction, I studied some maps and aerial photographs and made some discoveries. The first building, poking up on the left behind that big glass skylight, was easy to identify. With that distinctive pointed spire and its evident proximity, this has to be St James’s Church in nearby Piccadilly. This handsome building by Sir Christopher Wren was completed in the 1680s, and these days this Anglican church doubles as a venue for occasional pop concerts. Artists including Neil Finn, The Divine Comedy and Laura Marling have performed in its hallowed interior.
The next-tallest of the three towers (No 3 in the picture above) seems to have three points sticking up, with a flag-like object flying above the middle one. Given that we’re looking towards the neighbourhood of St James’s, this was also quite easy to identify. It’s the tall Clock Tower of St James’s Palace, the shape of which matches this silhouette – the outer two “points” are its familiar octagonal turrets, and the “flag” is in fact its weather vane, spinning above the clock on the building’s central gable. St James’s is actually the country’s highest-ranking royal palace, though the present Queen doesn’t live there. It’s a Tudor palace, commissioned by Henry VIII and built in the 1530s, and at the time of the 1969 concert it was the London home of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. (Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, was the brother of the Duke of Windsor, who had famously abdicated as king.) Today, the Queen’s daughter Princess Anne and her daughter Princess Beatrice live at the palace.
The other tower, No 2, midway between the first and the third, was a tougher nut to crack. For a while I believed it was another church spire, and I thought I had matched it with the spires of a couple of churches in the West End. Unfortunately, its location on this skyline didn’t tally with the location of either of those churches: they were both in the wrong place. Then I followed the sightline leading from the roof towards this mystery building, and realised that there were no significant tall buildings for miles. This led me to the supposition that it was a very high structure quite a distance away. As I continued to follow the sightline into Westminster, I hit Big Ben – or, more accurately, the clock tower now known as the Elizabeth Tower, which houses the bell known as Big Ben.
The shape of this famous building isn’t that recognisable in the photograph, but I think there’s a reason for that: from this roof in Savile Row, one wouldn’t have a flat-on view of the Elizabeth Tower, but an angled view; that is, one of the building’s corners faces in this direction. There really is no other decent-sized candidate for this building. Big Ben is, of course, part of the Palace of Westminster, the seat of our government, and the 315ft-high bell tower was designed in the gothic revival style by Augustus Pugin (just before he descended into insanity) and built in the 1850s.
So now we have the identities of all three “towers of power” visible from the famous rooftop of 3 Savile Row. They’re all important and fascinating buildings – and sometimes they’re obliterated in reproductions of this photograph, which is a pity.
And there’s a frustrating irony about the fact that all three of these buildings (pictured above) are fitted with clocks. If only we could read the time on any of these distant structures, we might have a better idea of when the Beatles played up here. We can be sure that it was around lunchtime on that Thursday, but nobody – as far as I know – can be certain what time it was exactly when they started and finished playing.
None of the Beatles, or the people working with them that day, made a note of the time of the performance
When people heard the music start, they were preoccupied with ascertaining where it was coming from and who was playing. They didn’t immediately think: “Oh, I must look at my watch so that I’ll remember when this strange event began.” None of the Beatles, or the people working with them that day, made a note of the time of the performance either. Estimated times vary widely: some witnesses believe it was before noon, others that it was 1.30pm or later, and they can’t all be right. The film of the rooftop concert includes tantalising blurry glimpses of a clock at the Royal Academy of Arts, which fail to settle the matter.
One of the policemen who came to the scene that day suggested that I locate the “occurrence book” that was kept at the police station in Savile Row in January 1969. This is the logbook in which crimes and other incidents would have been recorded, and it’s possible that a senior police officer made a note of the “noise nuisance” caused by the Beatles, including the time when it happened. I was almost insanely hopeful that I’d find the dogeared old occurrence book and discover an official handwritten record of the “crime”. Unfortunately, a police archivist informed me that there was no trace of the book, and that it had probably been disposed of. What a shame.
I still hope that one day I’ll discover the exact time when the band played. Until then, those three towers of power – St James’s Church, Big Ben and the Clock Tower of St James’s Palace – stand there in silent mockery, keeping their secrets to themselves. ♦
© 2018 Tony Barrell
Tony Barrell’s acclaimed and bestselling book The Beatles on the Roof is available now from good bookshops in the UK, North America and Australia.