It’s lunchtime on a cold Thursday in January 1969. After weeks of sometimes difficult rehearsals and recordings, the Beatles and their new songs finally – and spectacularly – collide with the outside world. The occasion is now fixed in their iconography. On 30 January on the roof of 3 Savile Row, the London HQ of their company Apple, the four – joined by the US keyboard player Billy Preston – performed five songs: Get Back (three times), Don’t Let Me Down (twice), I’ve Got a Feeling (ditto), Dig a Pony and One After 909. They played with a tightness and confidence that belied the last-minute nature of events, while a sense of urgency and drama was provided by two police officers, determined to shut everything down.
This magical performance forms the finale of Get Back, Peter Jackson’s new three-part documentary series about the Beatles. Neither the band nor the people watching on the rooftop and down below are aware that this will be their last ever live performance. But for the viewer, that knowledge makes everything more compelling.
What happened that day highlights one of Get Back’s themes, something that is often overlooked: the group’s fascinating relationship with their audience and the wider public. Down below, on streets dominated by the elegant facade of the Royal Academy, a swelling crowd gathered, and their opinions were sampled by camera crews who asked the most simple of vox pop questions: “Do you know what music you’re listening to?”; “Do you like the music you’re listening to?”; “Do you normally like listening to the Beatles?”
Among other things, the resulting footage – used in the original 1970 documentary Let It Be, and now recut by Jackson – proves that the Beatles could still tease out the prejudices of age and class. This is shown by the responses of a gaggle of businessmen who gather in the doorway of 2 Savile Row. “This type of music is all right in its place – it’s quite enjoyable,” says one man whose slicked-back hair, horn-rimmed glasses and double-breasted overcoat give him the air of a character from a late-60s sitcom. “But I think it’s a bit of an imposition to absolutely disrupt all the business in this area.” A man next to him is asked if he ever enjoys the Beatles’ music. “In the right surroundings,” he shoots back. “But definitely not now.”
When I ask Paul McCartney about these scenes, he mentions a sequence from the first Beatles film, 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night. The four are portrayed confronting a bowler-hatted commuter who objects to sharing space with them in a train compartment. He responds to Ringo Starr blaring music from a radio with a line that, back then, was common currency: “I fought the war for your sort.”
“There’s always the guy in the bowler hat who hates what you’re doing,” says McCartney. “He’s never going to like it, and he thinks you’re offending his sensibilities. But you’ve got to remember, as we always did, there’s the people who work for that guy. There’s the young secretaries, the young guys in the office, or the tradesmen or the cleaners. Those are the people who like us. Also, a lot of the bosses too. We always knew that there’s the establishment, then there’s the working people. And we were the working people. Working people tended to get us, and understand what we were doing. And occasionally, you would get the kind of snob who would get angry. In a way, that was part of the fun.”
By and large, the array of people with positive opinions of the rooftop performance outnumbered the detractors, proving that the Beatles had an almost universal appeal – from female twentysomethings to a passing cab driver (“Is it their new record? Oh, great! I’m all in favour of it”) and the trilby-hatted man who offers the opinion that the Beatles are “real good people”. The band’s reach, it seemed, was formidable – and, to some extent, this had happened by design.
As McCartney has pointed out in the past, the early run of singles – Love Me Do, Please Please Me, From Me to You, She Loves You – had deliberately used personal pronouns, to maximise their popular resonance. Later, such McCartney songs as Eleanor Rigby, Penny Lane and She’s Leaving Home brilliantly mixed the everyday with the poetic. In John Lennon’s case, even his most surreal imagery often originated in the ordinary: “newspaper taxis”, “4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”, I Am the Walrus’s “stupid bloody Tuesday” and “choking smokers”. The brief detour into avant garde film-making they titled Magical Mystery Tour, let us not forget, centred on a coach trip around Devon and Cornwall. Whatever they did, they never really lost the quality we now know as being “relatable”.
Their work in early 1969, moreover, was partly based on a very relatable idea. When they began work at Twickenham Film Studios, they were aiming to go back to their roots and reconnect with their audience. The starting point for the rehearsals and recording sessions that would produce the album and film titled Let It Be was a plan to globally televise their first performance in front of a crowd since 1966.
This necessitated long conversations about who their audience now were, and how they might be gathered together. The movie’s director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, said they ought to somehow play to “the whole world”. Among the ideas they considered was a show at a Roman amphitheatre in Libya, staged in front of some kind of microcosm of humanity. (Not unreasonably, Starr worried that “every time we do something it’s got to be really awesome”.)
Could they stage an event that somehow represented their global appeal? In the summer of 1967, they had pulled off something like that, playing All You Need Is Love to a worldwide TV audience of at least 400 million, thanks to the new technology of satellite broadcasting. In September 1968, Lindsay-Hogg had directed the promotional video for Hey Jude which featured a multiracial cast of about 300 extras (“We wanted a mix, which would be like the world of England at the time,” he later said).
This time, though, George Harrison’s antipathy to returning to the stage, which led to his temporary walkout, meant that any ambitious plans soon proved to be non-starters. Blasting out their music into central London without warning on a cold January day was a last-minute compromise … but in attracting a crowd of all ages, it just about made the same point.
And so to a slightly smaller aspect of the 50-year Let It Be/Get Back saga. As well as new CD and vinyl editions of Let It Be, Jackson’s series is accompanied by a Get Back book which, like the films, tells a much more nuanced and complicated story than the received idea of the sessions as a time of unending strife. It features superb images by Linda McCartney and Let It Be’s on-set photographer Ethan Russell, and transcripts taken from 120 hours of Beatles conversations – which, it still amazes me to say, I was given the task of editing. After that job was complete, Apple then got in touch with me and my colleague John Domokos with an idea: given the centrality of vox pops to some of the 1969 footage, and also our Guardian video series Anywhere But Westminster, could we make a short film about the Beatles, their 21st-century audience, and London?
We spent time in and around Savile Row and the West End, collaring the public, pointing at the rooftops, and asking much the same questions that had been posed in 1969. This time, no one was dismissive or snobby, and 99% of our interviewees responded to the idea of anyone trying to stop the Beatles’ last live performance with incredulous laughter. We met a hip-hop aficionado who talked about learning of the Beatles through other artists sampling their music, and a man whose 24-year-old daughter had just completed a cover of Eight Days a Week and put it online. “The youngsters are still into them,” he marvelled. From one passerby, we got a matter-of-fact summary of what we were trying to get at: “Nobody dislikes the Beatles. Everybody at some point has a memory to one of their songs. So they’re part of our collective culture.”
The best example of this were the Thayer family from Somerset, whom we later met outside Abbey Road studios, restaging the famous cover of the album of the same name. Dad Tom led his kids – Lois, Evie and Jude (named after the song) – across the zebra crossing, while mum Esther took the photo. High fives ensued. And there, once again, was the Beatles’ magic: a very ordinary part of the British streetscape, once again filled with wonder by history’s most truly universal pop group.
• New versions of Let It Be and the Get Back book are out now. Peter Jackson’s Get Back begins on 25 November on Disney+