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.
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.