Pyramids, pantyhose and cool cops: the story behind The Beatles’ final gig on the Apple rooftop

It was 50 years ago this week

It’s difficult to think of a modern-day equivalent. Led Zeppelin playing in a pod on the London Eye, perhaps, or The Smiths reforming on a barge sailing slowly along the Manchester Ship Canal. On January 30, 1969, the first bluesy thumps of ‘Get Back’ echoed around Savile Row, marking the start of the first Beatles gig since 1966, and the last time the fab four would ever play live together.

Office windows filled with gawping workers, pedestrians craned to hear exactly what sort of pony they were supposed to be digging, and the killjoy police turned up to pull the plug 42 minutes in. But there’s much more to the event than four hairy hippies bothering traffic.

The plan – several silly ideas, and one stripped-back compromise

The Apple Corps rooftop was very much a last-ditch option for staging the climactic live scene for the Let It Be film. During sessions for the “honest” album, intended to rally the disintegrating band behind a back-to-their-roots rock record, numerous locations were considered for the show, some more exotic than others. London venues including the Roundhouse and the Palladium were on the list, but the band also looked into playing at the Giza pyramids, in the Sahara desert and on the QE2. Scouts were even dispatched to a 2,000-year-old Tunisian amphitheatre to look into the band playing there at dawn. Gradually, though, the band lost interest in the project and Lennon’s (or, according to some sources, Starr’s) suggestion to just do it on the roof seemed like the easiest option.

The prep – womens’ coats, tights on mics and reluctant bandmembers

A London rooftop in January isn’t the nicest place to play a gig; fog was rolling in, scuppering the proposed helicopter footage, and the strong wind meant that Ken Mansfield was charged with keeping cigarettes lit throughout the gig to help keep Harrison’ fingers warm. Both John and Ringo wore their wives’ coats, and Alan Parsons was sent out to buy tights to protect the microphones. “I walked into this department store and said, ‘I need three pairs of pantyhose. It doesn’t matter what size.’” he told Guitar Player. “They thought I was either a bank robber or a cross-dresser.”

Even as wrapped up as possible, when the four huddled together in a vestibule preparing to go on, they almost pulled the whole thing. “George didn’t want to do it, and Ringo started saying he didn’t really see the point,” director Michael Lindsay-Hogg recalled. “Then John said, ‘Oh, fuck it — let’s do it.’”

The gig – a guitar that flies first class, some cool coppers and several unplayed songs

Though only 21 minutes of footage made it into the Let It Be film, the band actually played for 42 minutes, playing ‘Get Back’ in various incarnations five times and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ twice each. Lennon read the lyrics for ‘Dig A Pony’ from cue cards, complaining that his fingers were too cold to play the chords, and George played a one-of-a-kind custom-made Telecaster than had been flown to the gig in its own plane seat.

Eagle-eyed fans spotting equipment on the roof that wasn’t used have suggested that ballads like ‘Two Of Us’ or ‘The Long And Winding Road’ might have been played, had the police not shown up to shut the whole thing down. Although it’s due to the lenience of the local constabulary, often pilloried for clamping down on musical history, that the show got past the first few chords. The station was mere feet away from Apple, yet the police allowed the band to play for over 40 minutes before complaints from local businesses forced them to act. Even then, they gave the band 10 minutes’ notice to flush any narcotics in the building before they raided.