What are those tall London buildings we can see behind the Beatles on their famous rooftop? Tony Barrell reports
I love this photograph of the Beatles’ rooftop performance in 1969. Taken by a Daily Express photographer, it shows the band in mid-song atop 3 Savile Row, 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 government and the Church of England.
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 (pictured below). 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.
For a while I believed that tower No 2 was another church spire, and I thought I had matched it with the spires of a couple of places of worship 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 spire, and found 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. I decided it was probably Big Ben – or, more accurately, the Westminster clock tower now known as the Elizabeth Tower, which houses the bell known as Big Ben. I would later discover this was wrong – though it wasn’t far off.
The Victoria Tower is a whopping great building, more than 320 feet high, and can be seen for miles
Tower No 3 was initially a tough one too. For a long time I imagined that it was a nearby Tudor building – the tall Clock Tower of St James’s Palace. But a clever friend argued that it was the Victoria Tower, the tallest tower of the Houses of Parliament. Initially I was reluctant to believe that this Westminster building would loom so large from a roof in Mayfair; however, the Victoria Tower is a whopping great building, more than 320 feet high, and can be seen for miles. The shape matches perfectly, and the 1969 photograph even shows its flag fluttering high in the sky. The same friend suggested that Tower No 2 was not Big Ben but another of the towers at the Palace of Westminster – the Central Tower. This makes a lot of sense when you see the two towers together (below), next to their neighbour Big Ben (on the far left of the picture). The Central Tower, with its distinctive neo-gothic profile, suddenly looked familiar.
So two of the towers belong to the Houses of Parliament, which was designed in the 19th century by the architect Sir Charles Barry, assisted by Augustus Pugin. Unlike Wren’s Piccadilly church, they weren’t there when 3 Savile Row was built in the Georgian period.
Finally, then, we have the identities of all three “towers of power” visible from the famous rooftop. They’re all important and fascinating buildings – and sometimes they’re obliterated in reproductions of this photograph, which is a pity.
You see that little spire to the right of St James’s Church in the rooftop-concert photograph? Could that be Big Ben? ♦
© 2022 Tony Barrell
Tony Barrell’s bestselling book The Beatles on the Roof is available now from good bookshops in the UK, North America and Australia.