50 Years Ago, The Beatles Played Their Final Rooftop Concert: Here's What It Felt Like
Ken Mansfield on his front-row seat to the Fabs' last public performance.
It was a frigid day on the Apple Corps rooftop in late January 1969, but the Beatles showed up anyway -- to play to a smattering of staffers and a camera crew. The informal show was filmed for the end of that year's Let it Be, a multimedia project that sought to return the Beatles to their roots.
It was an ad hoc gesture -- and the band was fatigued. Five stories below, clothes shoppers and stockbrokers watched on in a mix of amusement and indifference. They made it through a few takes of "Get Back," "I've Got a Feeling," "One After 909" and more before the gig fell apart due to complaints about noise and traffic.
But during those now-iconic 42 minutes, John Lennon and Paul McCartney exchanged a look that has stuck with Ken Mansfield, then the U.S. manager of Apple Corps, for fifty years now.
In that glance, Mansfield saw an understanding. "'It doesn't matter what we're going through. We're mates,'" they seemed to communicate in that second, he recalls. "'We've stood by each other's sides. And right now, we're being who we are.'"
He didn't know it at the time, but in that moment, Mansfield was witnessing the end of the Beatles. That brief show turned out to be the Fab Four's final concert -- and 50 years later, Mansfield's mind is still up on the roof.
Now a Christian speaker -- partly inspired by his friend George Harrison's spiritual awakening -- Mansfield has written six books, including 2000's The Beatles, The Bible and Bodega Bay, which traces his trajectory from Beatles insider to man of faith.
He's currently out with a memoir about his experiences with the Fabs, The Roof: The Beatles' Final Concert. The book follows the industry cat's collegial friendship with the Beatles through a personal lens, culminating in his firsthand experience of watching the Beatles ring out their final notes in public.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary (Jan. 30) of the rooftop concert, Billboard caught up with Mansfield about how that freezing day on the roof of 3 Savile Row set him on a lifelong journey.
The concert on the roof is now more than a classic rock n' roll show: it's cultural shorthand. But in the footage, it doesn't seem like anyone in the audience -- staffers or pedestrians -- looks that electrified. What was going on there?
Some of the people at Apple didn't even think about going up on the roof. Neil Aspinall went and had a dental appointment, and he was usually four feet away from the Beatles. It was just another day at the office, in a way. The people on the street could not see what was going on. All they could hear was the sound. They couldn't see the roof, but they knew it was the Beatles.
It was a very staid street. It was all bankers and upscale tailors and stuff. It was just not good for business. There were people who were upset, they were people who were amused and there were people who couldn't believe they were there. On the roof, I don't think any of us realized what was actually happening.
In fact, Yoko, Maureen, Peter Asher's assistant Chris O'Dell and I were the only four people up there who were an audience, who were observers. Everybody else was working. When this thing started, we just went, "Oh cool, we can just see this."
But then, after a while, a feeling overtook us. We knew something was happening, and we just didn't know what it was. We walked down those stairs afterward and none of us even talked to each other about it. We were trying to put it together in our heads.
This was obviously a last gasp for the Beatles, but they were as funny as ever, they sounded great, and the camaraderie was all there. Do you remember a band in crisis, or four men who still treated each other as brothers?
They had an experience that no one had before. Of course, you know this: if you want to break up a band, just give them a No. 1 record. That's when all the problems start! They had been through all these things, and they were very tight-knit and very deep friends. Even during the worst times, you could see that they were still tied together.
I'll give you a close example. When we were putting Apple together and John and Yoko pulled out their nude album thing, I was really floored at this. I couldn't figure it out. So I asked Paul later, "What do you think about this?" He said, "I don't quite get it, but I trust John. I just figure he's ahead of me on this thing, and I will catch up." That's the kind of thing that shows you that it didn't matter. That they were friends.
I know they initially wanted a grander concert for the documentary. I love Ringo's explanation of why the concert didn't take place on an ocean liner or the Great Pyramid of Giza: "We would have had to take all the stuff, so we decided, 'Let's go up on the roof.'" Were the guys checked out and bored of the Beatles trip?
I just don't think anybody relished going off to Tunisia or someplace, hauling all the equipment, the hotels, the people, the expenses and all that kind of stuff. I think they were past that at that point. Maybe they didn't want to spend that much time together. I don't know.
They had all developed so much by their late twenties. They had wives and deep-set creative impulses. They were interested in stretching beyond the other three.
It's exactly what you're saying. People say Yoko broke up the Beatles, and I say they give her way too much credit for that. We talked about giving a band a No. 1 record, but they had more hits than anybody's ever had. They had more success.
But they were also evolving. They were still young, but they were maturing. They had ideas about what they wanted to do, individually and musically. They had lives. They didn't agree on everything that was going on at Apple. I just think it was natural.
To me, it was just time for a band to break up. After all that they'd been through, that they'd still want to ride in the back of a bus together? I don't know!
It looked like they were at the end of the rollercoaster and ready to get off.
I think it was more of the tension of what was going down. They were individuals. They didn't really dress in matching outfits or anything like that. I mean, Paul was in a suit, George had green pants on. When they walked out of there, I think they all just went their separate ways. I don't think anyone said, "We might as well go get a beer together," or anything like that.
Here's what happened that day. The thing about the book is, I wanted to write something personal. There's been thousands of books on the Beatles, but I was up there. I was four to six feet away from them. There's only about 12 of us in the sweet spot on the roof, maybe 20 altogether with the peripheral people.
There was something special that happened up there that day. When they came up on that roof, there was a lot of dissention. In fact, I was told that the minute before they opened that door to come out, they were still deciding whether they were going to come out there. But they knew they had to do the live footage for the film. So, John said, "Screw it, let's just go do it."
The most magnificent moment of my whole time working with the Beatles was when Paul looked over at John, or John looked over at Paul, and there was this look they exchanged.
It was like, "Hey, you know what? It doesn't matter what's going down. It doesn't matter what we're going through. None of this matters. This is who we are. We're mates. We've been through a lot together. We've stood by each other's sides. And right now, we're being who we are. We are a live, hot rock n' roll band."
There was such a magic about that moment for me. If you were to say, "Give me a one-liner from your book," I wrote in there that "They came up without a soundcheck, but went down with a soul check."
In contrast to their matching suits and choreographed bows on their Ed Sullivan Show debut, the rooftop show's disorganization is so bracing. It ended with the cops anticlimactically cutting the power. Why was the rooftop show so uncurated?
That was just that point in their life. I think chaos was just kind of Apple's modus operandi. Everything was kind of last-minute, hang-loose. What did they have to prove to anybody? When we set up Apple, Paul once said, "We can't do anything more. We can't be more No. 1. We can't be more famous." Apple gave them a fresh thing to do that they hadn't done before.
Few Beatles books go as personal as The Roof. You describe the physical sensation of standing in front of Apple's former headquarters with your eyes closed, "the smell of the street, the familiar dampness on your cheeks" overtaking your senses.
There are thousands of books out there about the Beatles, but this one is different because it's all about the personal aspects of things. I wanted to take people onto that street, into the door of the building and to meet other people that work there. I don't remember details. I just remember the emotions, the beauty and the stress of things.