Competence and the Beatles Last Concert

On January 30, 1969 the Beatles hated each other, and they were sick of working on their album, “Let It Be” inside of their cramped studios. On a whim, they took all their equipment and moved it five floors up to the roof, in the middle of winter. Then they performed for about a half hour. They had last performed lived over two years earlier. It was their last “concert” together ever. They broke up shortly afterwards and never performed together again.

(click image for the full video)

I say it was a “concert” because people in the blocks around them quickly began to realize what was happening. People couldn’t believe it. You see office workers climbing out of windows and down ladders to get a better view. Women running  up and down the street to try and see better. An older man with a pipe climbing up a fire escape to stand on a rooftop and just watch. After about ten minutes the streets were crowded with people on the street staring up on the roof of the building where the music was coming from. People on the ground couldn’t see the band but they knew it was them. The effect of the Beatles singing live shut down London for a half hour.

About halfway through, so-called “reality” started to hit some of the passersby. One guy said, “it’s’ a bit of an imposition to absolutely disrupt all of the business in this area.” We’ll never know the name of that guy. We’ll never know what he was working on in January of 1969 that was so important. Or what any of the “business” in that area was that winter afternoon. But 43 years later we still watch the video. We still listen to the songs.

A couple of things I find interesting about this video: 

A) They hated each other. At this point the Beatles were basically over. The album was originally called “Get Back” after one of the songs in it. But they couldn’t “get back” together and ultimately it was called “Let It Be”. It was their last released album. You can blame it on anything: Yoko, Linda, creative conflicts, Phil Spector, Brian Epstein’s death, and on and on. But they hated each other despite the mega-success they created together.

B) You can see on their faces as they get to the roof: They were never going to perform again. Ringo looks sad. George Harrison looks particularly upset. In fact, a few weeks earlier he and John Lennon had gotten into a fist fight and Harrison had run out and said he was “quitting”. “See you in the clubs,” he said as he left. The band debated replacing him with Eric Clapton but Harrison came back. The Beatles wouldn’t be the Beatles without the four of them, McCartney had the wherewithal to say.

C) Harrison hated the fact that Lennon was getting more and more detached from the band and doing his own thing. Lennon hated Harrison’s and McCartney’s music writing. (Lennon, after the album came out, said of “The Long and Winding Road” and producer Phil Spector’s treatment of it: “He was given the shittiest load of badly-recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something of it.”) In other words, they hated each other. And they didn’t hold back. They just simply did not want to work with each other anymore despite the years of creative and financial success. George Harrison joined The Beatles when he was 14 years old. They all had grown up together.

D) The second song they sing in the video is poignant, “Don’t Let Me Down”. It was originally written by John Lennon for Yoko. Despite his success he was terrified of being let down by Yoko. Despite our attempts to climb away from the worst fears of our childhood, success only magnifies those fears. We’re like birds trying to climb a tree to reach the sky. Only when we learn how to fly can we truly be free. Being let down as a kid, or young adult, explodes into a plea to not only one woman but to millions of eventual listeners.

It feels like he’s not just singing it to her. He’s singing it to the Beatles, who he felt let down by. He’s singing it out there to the air, to the blocks of people staring out their windows at him. He’s singing to London. He’s pleading to his future where he would be creatively on his own –  “Don’t Let Me Down”. And, prophetically, the world let him down in the worst way on December 8, 1980. The song never made  it to the final released album. I like the original shot in the video, of Lennon and McCartney singing it together, with Ringo in the middle in the background. The three barely spoke to each other at that point. They had all let each other down. And  yet that wouldn’t prevent them from creating beautiful music.

E) Competence. Despite all the troubles. Despite their contempt for each other’s musical abilities. Despite the fragmented legal and emotional fallouts that was quickly cascading them towards their demise, they went up on that stage and PERFORMED. I’ve listened to the video 100 times. Paul opens his mouth and it begins and doesn’t stop for twenty minutes. It’s beautiful. Competent people move forward and do what they do. I hope in my life I could be as good at any one thing as the four of them were at what they did that day but I doubt it will happen.

And finally, “beginner’s mind”.

At the end of the video, with the police now getting into the action and telling them to shut it down because of noise complaints, they finish with the song “Get Back” again. Paul McCartney riffs in the middle of the song, You’ve been playing on the roofs again, and you know your Momma doesn’t like it, she’s gonna have you arrested!

And when they finally put their instruments down, John Lennon only half-sarcastically says (the last line The Beatles ever say to an audience), “On behalf of the group and ourselves, I hope we pass the audition.” 

A creator can’t ever rest. No matter what you do, no matter what your creation is. Every moment is the audition. Every time you create is a chance to go on the roof and do something new, in a way that hasn’t been done before, in a way that is potentially disruptive, playful, unique, and vulnerable. People will hate you, people will love you, people will climb on the rooftops to see you before the police arrest you. They passed the audition that one last time. Now it’s our turn.

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  • Jim Plunkett

    I don’t think I have ever been so entranced with a blog post before as I am with this one. That video is a part of me as well..Thanks

  • Tracy Lovett

    This is amazing. This is why I read you, James. Thank you.

  • Oren

    To save everyone under 40 the trouble of looking up “The Beatles”, they were the original boy band, and many of their fans who grew up in the 1960s still haven’t gotten over their original crushes.

  • Zahra Salahuddin

    I love the detail with which you express your views in this blog. I myself have seen this concert countless times and despite knowing that this was their last concert together, ever.. it still brings a smile on my face. However, the fact that you keep using the word “hate” and the fact that The fab four hated each other puts me off a little, it may be true, but be being a beatlemaniac makes it tough for me to come to terms with that fact considering how amazing they were with each other initially. Perhaps I’m just in denial of their hate for each other..
    but I love the way you have written this it is nice to know that people today still give importance to the greatest band in the history of rock n roll..

  • socrates

    Love the video. Thanks for introducing it to me.
    I have always been fascinated by Lennon. Some of the things he said, just blow my mind. About love and thinking differently, revolutionary. Yet, he was a misogynist for a lot of his life and he admitted to hitting his wife and girlfriends. Not sure what that means, but I still am fascinated by him.

  • kevin faul

    you’ve become an artist

  • pgyogjw

    Is this post about competence or is it about discipline? for me competence is your ability to do something where as discipline is the ability to carry on doing it no matter what.

    • AtlasAikido

      It makes more sense to think of this as playing to strengths and away from weaknesses. This was a coming together of innovative creative guys and their love of their craft. This “discipline” thing is not what creative people I know focus on. They may notice their “competence” is not where it should be and decide go /no go from there. But it is another red herring. This article and the last jam/meet up looks more like a work-it-out, work-it-thru transition session or progress by incremental improvement and prototyping. And it clearly made more sense for them to progress by backing off as a group–and away from the Group Trap–and splitting off individually to do their own thing. A very natural and satisfying thing to do. Good for them!

  • bitchin yoga

    Sweet memories. Such a beautiful half hour it was. I lived with a drummer and traveled with the band sometimes. They would be furious with each other in between sets, not speaking in the dressing room. When they hit the stage though no one would ever know. I was young at the time. It was a great thing to learn: art triumphs over confusion and anger. Once it’s released it exists outside the people who created it and then it winds back to shape them in the moments they witness it.

  • Otaddy

    I’m one of the haters. Sure these guys had much more talent than what exists on the music scene today, but honestly, I just don’t care for their music and I know I would have been one of the ones irritated by their antics.

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it.

  • Efrain

    Like this message. A creator can’t ever rest.

    And by the way, I noticed your Facebook likes skyrocketed recently. Awesome job.

  • Srirang


    Is there a message in there somewhere that I am missing? Honestly, this post is just about a band that you adore, very much. I don’t know anything about beatles except that they were a band. So I might be missing some context here, but otherwise I just don’t see what is in this post, unlike your other posts which generally carry some piece of wisdom, mostly actionable things.

    Or is it the case that you just chose this post to be a simple recollection of your fond memories?

  • redzaffer

    Thanks James. This video is so bittersweet knowing (in retrospect) that this was their last live performance together. I agree that creators should strive to keep creating. Even more important, perhaps, is to savor the times when you’re on a “creative high”. Those times are usually short and sporadic. You can never go back and relive them, and it often takes true presence of mind to recognize them as they happen.

  • Dan Reznik

    I *love* this video. Did you notice that (a) the guy at 11:28 looks like the spitting image of Robin Williams, accent and all; also, (b) the lyrics of “i’ve got a feeling” seem to be very telling of their imminent split up:

    Ev’rybody had a hard year
    Ev’rybody had a good time
    Ev’rybody had a wet dream,
    Ev’rybody saw the sunshine
    Oh yeah, oh yeah.
    Ev’rybody had a good year,
    Ev’rybody let their hair down,
    Ev’rybody pulled their socks up,
    Ev’rybody put their foot down.
    Oh yeah, oh yeah.

  • Dawn Casey-Rowe

    They were a great part of the reason I wanted to be a professional musician. I used to hide away from my childhood responsibilities listening to “The Beatle Hour” like a crack addict, getting in trouble if I got caught because I had to clean something, do the dishes, or whatever annoys parents when kids are obsessed. Sometimes I took the radio into the bathroom where no one bothered me–the safe zone. I still have some cassettes where I’d try to tape them-I wasn’t very old–I was an anachronism… As you know, I’m not a professional musician–it was my first big failure in life (as well it should have been), but the lessons they taught me–still there. Thanks for repackaging a great story into an even more poignant lesson once again!

  • George Collins

    Wow. Thank you, James. The Beatles have always been my favorite group and I remember very clearly how heartbroken I was when they broke up and how depressing it was to see the movie “Let It Be” when it came out in 1970–when I was eight years old. I’d been a fan since I was five! Just last week I was listening to the “Get Back/Let It Be” sessions on Volume 3 of “The Beatles Anthology” and grooving to these tunes and reading the liner notes again, but I don’t think I’ve watched the rooftop concert in forty years. Bittersweet, yet inspiring. Thank you for posting this and for your always insightful comments. I can now watch this clip and listen to these tunes with a bit of a different–and more hopeful–perspective.

  • Rocco

    I don’t think they hated each other as much as you insist here. Yes there was resentments, etc but don’t forget they went on to record Abby Road after this. One of their greatest albums. They got it together to do that with pride, love and,most definitely, competence.

    • Gary

      Actually, George Martin is said to have had the creative hand in Abbey Road, stringing bits and pieces together to make an absolutely fabulous album — especially side 2. Lennon is said to have disliked it greatly.

  • JAM

    Passel of overrated, undertalented wankers. Decent tunes? Yeh, ‘suppose, but never could grasp the breathless hero worship soapoperas. Band of blokes did well for a bit, were wildly successful a bit, grew up a bit, didn’t have the grit to hold it together, and moved on…to be wildly successful. Wake me when yer done.

    • InnerCynic

      Wake me up when you’re as “undertalented” as they are.

  • Rolling Dance Floor

    Beautiful, James. so is Singing Call (1970 Demo) Stephen Stills

  • Georgina Shamon

    I don’t know much about the Beatles, but i still enjoyed reading this post. Love how you ended it. Hope ur day is going well James!

  • Rohit

    Loved teh article..very well written James..I love beatles and though my Dad makes fun of me that I still listen to their songs..But they made beautiful songs

  • Bob Breeks

    Things are never what they seem..this roof top concert was copied from Jefferson Airplane…and they never had an invisible keyboard player….who was dubbed on -post rooftop- in the studio at a later date

    • Boon Companion

      Pay attention, Bob. Billy Preston is off to the left, or “stage right.”

      • James Altucher

        Billy Preston had an excellent voice as well. Watch his videos in the George Harrison tribute concert.

      • bob breeks

        really…..oh I stand corrected….thanks….give me a chance to watch it again…..but they didn’t exactly give him much of the camera did they?
        Anyway thanks for setting it straight.
        Check out

        for the Airplane gig film by Jean-Luc Godard on a rooftop in Midtown Manhattan (December 7, 1968)

  • Jim

    Read “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle. It will absolutely blow you away.

  • Bob

    That last sentence is worth it all.

  • EdD

    Sorry, but I was always a Stones/Cream fan. The Beatles weren’t even on the list for me while they were recording. As individual recording artists, they were just annoying with their silly bubblegum tunes. Beatles fans and Monkees fans were about the same to me in those days. Still are, actually.

  • Steve

    That was fantastic. I’ve skimmed the video a few times but I guess never really read the complete history of it. And you’re right. Despite the personal issues, they were very good. Thanks for the nice morning.

  • Boon Companion


  • The__Bobster

    Slope-loving Lennon was a real douchebag.

  • Roger Ellman

    Oh great joy! Sadness – with a lasting taste of wonder. Musically, momentously mischievous. So moving.

  • John Public

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and this video. There are so many complex aspects of this history, but I feel like you did a good job of presenting an interesting view. More people would gain a lot by learning about the Beatles.

  • Deuce

    As others have already pointed out, this is a fantastic article. Kudos.

    My only complaint is not with the word hate, because despite being a strong word, it is probably accurate to their collective states of mind at that moment of time, regardless of what came before or after. But I think where James says ‘competence’ he means ‘PURPOSE’. It was the sense of purpose that made the Beatles great in this moment, despite any peripheral emotions or agendas going on at the time. We can all block out the negative in our lives when we are doing something with a sense of purpose. And conversely, having a sense of purpose, DIMINISHES the negative things in our lives. This is what I gather to be James’s true meaning and I think purpose is the better word. Their competence was merely the product of the passion that comes with doing something with a sense of purpose.

    But in no way is this a criticism. The point is the same either way, and it is a profound and relevant one. Look at all the digression and corruption taking place in our society as we lose jobs and industries, and with them the sense of purpose of all who once filled their ranks. Without the pride that comes with a sense of purpose, we have become the Beatles immediately before and after this concert. A bunch of unfulfilled individuals, ripe for division by petty differences. So true.

    Great stuff James!

  • Ingot News

    I love your last paragraph – it is so true, especially the line “Every moment is the audition”. It’s true and so many people let the moments pass by, just getting through. Not the great though.

  • porkypine

    Jamesy, your last paragraph is immortal, love it. What did Neil Diamond once write in a song? “Be as a page that aches for a word on a theme that is timeless.” You hit it smack square on the head. Gore Vidal also said “Style, is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” Nice article.

  • Sage Blum

    Wonderful post, James. Funny how people are so different. I am amazed that anyone can watch the youtube video of that rooftop concert of 1969 & not be amazed at the talent of the Beatles.
    I am grateful for the time they spent together & the music they created together. And am happy for them that they split up when they needed to. A marriage between 2 people has its frustrations. A professional “marriage” among 4 different people can possibly be good for a while. But no one can be surprised if eventually the compromises & frustrations & perhaps unresolvable conflicts, become unbearable. And if there emerges an intense need for each person to follow only their own professional path without interference.

  • Lastangelman

    Read Rolling Stone
    It was Lennon’s anxieties, angst, apathy that ultimately split the Beatles.

  • jquick99

    Notice how NO one watching [spectators, NOT the filming crew] on the rooftop has a camera to capture the moment? If that happened today, every single person there would have whipped out their phone to take a photo.

  • ChasInNJ

    I clicked on the image and saw an ominous notice … “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by EMI Music.”

    EMI is getting bought up and split apart, yet that did not stop it from doing the dirty work of the Greedy Music Industry.

  • Anonomoose

    The EMI guys forced the removal of the video linked above. However, after a search I found it again to those who came late: