10 Facts About The Beatles's 1969 Rooftop Concert

Evening Standard, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Evening Standard, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On January 30, 1969, at lunch time, The Beatles appeared on the rooftop of their record label’s headquarters, unannounced, and started performing. Londoners looked on with excitement and bafflement as the world’s biggest band, which hadn’t played live in two and a half years, tried out new material for 42 minutes. It would end up being their final live show.

Here are 10 things you might not have known about this strange moment in pop culture.

1. The concert took place during the Beatles’s “winter of discontent.”

When The Beatles reconvened in January of 1969, the band was frayed and dysfunctional, according to The Beatles: Ten Years That Shook the World, Mojo magazine’s book-length chronicle of the group. Paul McCartney assumed leadership of the band and envisioned the follow-up to the White Album, tentatively titled "Get Back," as a return to basics. The band would write songs and bang them out as a four-piece ensemble, forsaking all the overdubs and lavish production of their past few albums.

George Harrison came to resent McCartney's control, and recordings were often interrupted as the two bickered over Harrison’s guitar work. Ringo Starr was anxious for the project to end so as to not conflict with the filming of The Magic Christian, a comedy in which he was slated to star alongside Peter Sellers. John Lennon was prone to long silences, allowing the ever-present Yoko Ono to speak for him. Harrison and Lennon reportedly came to blows over the Yoko issue, a report the former denied to the press. Harrison called the time “the winter of discontent” and Lennon dubbed the Get Back effort “the most miserable sessions on Earth.” The recordings were scrapped in favor of Abbey Road and then retooled as Let It Be, The Beatles’s final album.

2. The concert was staged for a TV project.

McCartney planned a two-night TV special to accompany the release of Get Back. The first installment would document the group writing the material and the second would show them performing it live, marking their first concert since their 1966 U.S. tour. The band’s press agent, Derek Taylor, even told the media The Beatles were scouting locations for a January 18, 1969, concert, according to Ten Years That Shook the World. The band hired director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who had created a handful of their promotional videos (including those for “Paperback Writer” and “Hey Jude”). Like the album, the TV special did not pan out as envisioned. In 1970, Lindsay-Hogg’s footage became a documentary film, also titled Let It Be.

3. The Beatles picked the rooftop for one main reason: convenience.

In The Beatles Anthology coffee table book, Neil Aspinall, the band’s former road manager and head of their label Apple Corps, said he suggested a boat, a Greek amphitheater, and London venue the Roundhouse as locations for the live show. But scheduling didn’t allow for any of those. “[I]t was a case of, ‘How are we going to finish this in two weeks’ time?’” McCartney recalled in Anthology. “So it was suggested that we go up on the roof and do a concert there. Then we could all go home. I’m not sure who suggested it. I could say it seems like one of my half-baked ideas but I’m not sure.”

4. Billy Preston was hired to lighten the mood.

Keyboardist Billy Preston, a distinguished American session musician, is the only non-Beatle in the rooftop performance. The band met him in their early 1960s Hamburg days and thought he could lighten the mood in 1969. “He got on the electric piano and straightaway there was a 100-percent improvement in the vibe in the room,” Harrison said in Ten Years That Shook the World.

5. There’s a reason no George Harrison songs were played.

Keystone/Getty Images

Five new songs were played in a total of nine takes. All of the songs—“Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down," “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “One After 909,” and “Dig a Pony”—were credited to Lennon and McCartney. Harrison contributed a few songs to the Get Back sessions, including an early version of “My Sweet Lord.” According to Ten Years That Shook the World, the band skipped them because they didn’t know if he would still be a Beatle when the project was done. The guitarist walked out of the Get Back recordings twice, at one point telling the band they should advertise for his replacement in the British music magazine NME.

6. The concert's audio was piped to the basement.

As the band played, the audio feed went to producer Alan Parsons in the basement of the building.

7. There were cameras hidden at street level.

Lindsay-Hogg’s camera crew set up cameras in the windows of the Apple Corps building that morning, anticipating a crowd gathering.

8. Onlookers were underwhelmed by the Beatles's performance.

As the band played, traffic came to a halt, pedestrians gathered around the Apple Corps building, and workers in neighboring buildings came to their windows and their own roofs. “I remember it was cold and windy and damp,” Starr said in Anthology, “but all the people looking out from the offices were really enjoying it.”

Contemporary assessments, gathered in Ten Years That Shook the World, were more critical. “It’s The Beatles? Christ, it doesn’t sound like that,” said one man. “You call that a public performance? I can’t see them,” complained a woman. “This kind of music is alright in its place, but I think it’s a bit of an imposition to disrupt the business in this area,” said an annoyed Londoner.

9. Some Apple Corps employees skipped the concert to keep working.

Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“I knew there was going to be something on the roof but it was not my business,” press agent Derek Taylor said in Anthology. “I had other things going on and saw people outside in the street.” The band’s longtime producer, George Martin, was also in the building. “I was downstairs when they played on the roof,” he said, “worrying like mad if I was going to end up in Saville Row police station for disturbing the peace.”

10. Police pulled the plug on the concert—literally.

Eventually, a bank manager (no doubt London’s biggest square) called police to complain about the noise. Officers from the Greater Westminster Council marched over to Apple Corps and made their way up to the roof. In Anthology, McCartney claims he heard an officer yell, “You have to stop!” (he said he still remembered his badge number: 503), but the singer egged the band on to continue until the officer yanked a cord from the equipment setup, ending the performance. No one, Beatle or otherwise, was charged for the incident.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

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25 Facts About John Lennon For His 80th Birthday

Before he was one of the world's most iconic musicians, John Lennon—who was born in Liverpool on October 9, 1940—was a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Let's take a look at some facts you might not have known about the leader and founding member of The Beatles.

1. John Lennon grew up near Strawberry Field.

By the time he was 5 years old, John Lennon had been all but abandoned by his parents, so instead went to live with Mimi and George Smith, his aunt and uncle, in Woolton, England. He lived near a local Salvation Army orphanage, and loved to explore its garden, which was known as Strawberry Fields. In Barry Miles’ book Many Years From Now, Paul McCartney recalled how it was "a secret garden. John's memory of it [was] … There was a wall you could bunk over and it was a rather wild garden, it wasn't manicured at all, so it was easy to hide in.”

2. John Lennon was a choir boy and a Boy Scout.

Yes, John Lennon—the great rock 'n' roll rebel and iconoclast—was once a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Lennon began his singing career as a choir boy at St. Peter's Church in Liverpool, England and was a member of the 3rd Allerton Boy Scout troop.

3. John Lennon’s first instrument was the banjo.

Getty Images

The first song John Lennon learned to play as a teenage rock ‘n’ roll fan was Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day.” But he didn’t master the tune on any instrument you might pose with in front of the mirror. “My mother Julia taught it to me on the banjo, sitting there with endless patience until I managed to work out all the chords,” Lennon once said. The infamous banjo went missing after Julia’s death in 1958 and became the subject of the 2012 novel Julia’s Banjo, which spawned the stage adaptation Lennon’s Banjo.

4. John Lennon hated his own voice.

Incredibly, one of the greatest singers in the history of rock music hated his own voice. Lennon did not like the sound of his voice and loved to double-track his records. He would often ask the band's producer, George Martin, to cover the sound of his voice: "Can't you smother it with tomato ketchup or something?"

5. Songwriting was “torture” to John Lennon.

Lennon wrote some of the most indelible pop songs of the 20th century—and he apparently hated every minute of it. Speaking with Rolling Stone just days before his death, Lennon revealed that songwriting was “absolute torture” for him. “I always think there’s nothing there, it’s sh*t, it’s no good, it’s not coming out, this is garbage ... and even if it does come out, I think, 'What the hell is it anyway?'" he said. The only exceptions, he added, were the “10 or so songs the gods give you and that come out of nowhere.”

6. "Twist and Shout" was not kind to John Lennon's vocal cords.

On February 11, 1963, The Beatles spent one very long day recording 10 songs that would appear on their debut album, Please Please Me. At the end of the 12-hour session, they tackled “Twist and Shout,” a song that required Lennon—who was already hoarse—to shred what remained of his voice.

“The last song nearly killed me,” Lennon said of “Twist and Shout” in 1976. “My voice wasn’t the same for a long time after; every time I swallowed it was like sandpaper. I was always bitterly ashamed of it, because I could sing it better than that; but now it doesn’t bother me. You can hear that I’m just a frantic guy doing his best.”

7. John Lennon was dissatisfied with all of The Beatles' records.

While dining with his former producer, George Martin, one night years after the band had split up, Lennon revealed that he'd like to re-record every Beatles song. Completely amazed, Martin asked him, "Even 'Strawberry Fields'?" "Especially 'Strawberry Fields,'" answered Lennon.

8. John Lennon was the only Beatle who didn't become a full-time vegetarian.

George Harrison was the first Beatle to go vegetarian; according to most sources, he officially became a vegetarian in 1965. Paul McCartney joined the "veggie" ranks a few years later. Ringo became a vegetarian not so much for spiritual reasons, like Paul and George, but because of health problems. Lennon had toyed with vegetarianism in the 1960s, but he always ended up eating meat, one way or another.

9. John Lennon’s signature eyeglasses were far from trendy.

While filming the 1967 black comedy How I Won the War, John Lennon took a liking to the round spectacles that were part of his soldier character’s wardrobe. These weren’t designer glasses, but rather the utilitarian handiwork of the UK's National Health Service. Lennon loved the ugly “granny” frames so much that he made them his signature look for the rest of his life.

10. John Lennon loved to play Monopoly.

During his Beatles days, Lennon was a devout Monopoly player. He had his own Monopoly set and often played in his hotel room or on planes. He liked to stand up when he threw the dice, and he was crazy about the properties Boardwalk and Park Place. He didn't even care if he lost the game, as long as he had Boardwalk and Park Place in his possession.

11. John Lennon was the first Beatle to get married.

Lennon wed Cynthia Powell, whom he’d met in art school, on August 23, 1962. The reason for their union: Cynthia was pregnant, and on April 8, 1963, she gave birth to the couple’s only child, a son named Julian. Beatles manager Brian Epstein worked to keep John’s marriage a secret, but his efforts were futile. When the Fab Four performed on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, a caption reading “Sorry girls, he’s married” appeared on screen when Lennon got his closeup during “’Till There Was You.”

12. John Lennon was the last Beatle to learn how to drive.

John Lennon at a press conference on September 11, 1964.Vern Barchard, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Lennon got his driver's license at the age of 24 (on February 15, 1965). He was regarded as a terrible driver by all who knew him. He finally gave up driving after he totaled his Aston-Martin in 1969 on a trip to Scotland with his wife, Yoko Ono; his son, Julian; and Kyoko, Ono's daughter. Lennon needed 17 stitches after the accident.

When they returned to England, Lennon and Ono mounted the wrecked car on a pillar at their home. From then on, Lennon always used a chauffeur or driver.

13. There’s only one Beatles song featuring just John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

In 1969, while honeymooning in Paris with Yoko Ono, Lennon began writing a song about the controversy surrounding their recent marriage. When he got back to London, Lennon went over to McCartney’s house to finish the composition, which he had already titled “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” Lennon and McCartney then quickly booked a session at Abbey Road and recorded the song as a duo (Starr was filming The Magic Christian with Peter Sellers and Harrison was on vacation).

“John was in an impatient mood so I was happy to help,” McCartney said. “It’s quite a good song; it has always surprised me how with just the two of us on it, it ended up sounding like The Beatles."

14. John Lennon reportedly used to sleep in a coffin.

According to Allan Williams, an early manager for The Beatles, Lennon liked to sleep in an old coffin. Williams had an old, abandoned coffin on the premises of his coffee bar, The Jacaranda. As a gag, Lennon would sometimes nap in it.

15. John Lennon recorded one of pop’s first diss tracks.

Everyone remembers Lennon’s 1971 album Imagine for the utopian title track. But the LP also features “How Do You Sleep,” a rather nasty attack on Paul McCartney. “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead,” Lennon sings in the opening verse, referencing the infamous “Paul Is Dead” myth. Lennon later sings, “The only thing you done was yesterday,” referring to the Paul-penned Beatle favorite “Yesterday.” In fairness, Lennon was responding to a handful of subtler lyrical jabs on McCartney’s 1971 album Ram.

16. The last time John Lennon saw Paul McCartney was on April 24, 1976.

William Lovelace, Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

McCartney was visiting Lennon at his New York apartment. They were watching Saturday Night Live together when producer Lorne Michaels, as a gag, offered the Beatles $3000 to come on the show. Lennon and McCartney almost took a cab to the show as a joke, but decided against it, as they were just too tired. (Too bad! It would have been one of the great moments in television history.)

17. John Lennon was supposed to sing lead on The Beatles' first single, 1962's "Love Me Do."

Lennon sang lead on a great majority of the early Beatles songs, but Paul McCartney took the lead on their very first one. The lead was originally supposed to be Lennon, but because he had to play the harmonica, the lead was given to McCartney instead.

18. John Lennon stole the harmonica heard on “Love Me Do.”

Lennon is known as the bad boy of The Beatles, and true to form, he added a bit of delinquency to the group’s 1962 debut single, “Love Me Do.” The song is notable for John’s use of harmonica, and he reportedly played the signature riff on a mouth organ he swiped from a music shop in Arnhem, The Netherlands, in 1960. In terms of musicianship, Lennon didn’t exactly commit thievery, but he based his harmonica lick on the one heard in Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby

19. "All You Need Is Love" was the best lyric John Lennon ever wrote.

A friend once asked Lennon what was the best lyric he ever wrote. "That's easy," replied Lennon, "All you need is love."

20. John Lennon wanted Jesus and Hitler for the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

After British pop artist Peter Blake came up with the cover concept for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band—the band surrounded by cardboard cutouts of famous figures from throughout history—he asked all four Beatles to make lists of people to include. One of Lennon’s picks was Jesus Christ, even though he’d recently gotten into a heap of trouble for saying The Beatles were “more popular” than the Christian messiah. Blake’s team never actually made up a Jesus cutout, but they did create one for another of John’s controversial selections: Adolf Hitler. The Führer apparently made the final cover, but he’s behind the band, so you can’t see him.

21. John Lennon was the final Beatle to have a #1 solo hit in America.

By the time John Lennon released 1974’s Walls and Bridges, Paul McCartney had topped the Billboard Hot 100 three times. George Harrison and Ringo Starr (yes, Ringo) had each reached the summit twice. Among ex-Beatles, only Lennon had yet to notch a #1 single. That finally changed with “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” a jaunty dance number featuring Elton John on piano and backup vocals. It reached #1 on November 16, 1974, giving Lennon his first—and only—U.S. chart-topper.

22. John Lennon had a deep and abiding love of cats.

Though Lennon did have a couple of dogs, he was absolutely crazy for cats. He had many of them over the years, each one holding a very special place in his heart. As a kid, he had a cat named Elvis—named after Elvis Presley—but discovered that Elvis was a female when she gave birth to a litter of kittens. Still, the name stuck. More than a dozen feline friends would follow over the years.

23. John Lennon made his final concert appearance after losing a bet.

After helping Lennon record “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” Elton John bet the former Beatle that the single would reach #1 in America. A doubtful Lennon took the wager, agreeing to perform with John at Madison Square Garden if he lost. Sure enough, the song topped the Hot 100 on November 16, 1974, and 12 days later—on Thanksgiving night—Lennon joined John for three songs, including the Beatles classics “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” It would be Lennon’s final proper concert appearance.

24. John Lennon was into new wave and punk.

John Lennon seen in 1966.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On December 6, 1980, two days before he was murdered, John Lennon sat for an interview with Andy Peebles of the BBC. During the chat, Lennon professed his admiration for punk provocateurs the Sex Pistols, English ska revivalists Madness, and American new-wave party-starters The B-52’s, among others. Lennon credited his assistant Fred Seaman with hipping him to these new artists, even though he was initially reluctant to listen.

25. The last photographer to snap John Lennon’s picture was Paul Goresh.

Ironically (and sadly), Lennon was signing an album for the person who was to assassinate him a few hours later when he was snapped by amateur photographer Paul Goresh on December 8, 1980.

Lennon obligingly signed a copy of his latest album, Double Fantasy, for Mark David Chapman. Later that same day, Lennon returned from the recording studio and was gunned down by Chapman, the same person for whom he had so kindly signed his autograph.

Morbidly, a photographer sneaked into the morgue and snapped a photo of Lennon's body before it was cremated the day after his assassination. Yoko Ono has never revealed the whereabouts of his ashes or what happened to them.

This post has been updated for 2020.