The Beatles’ famous, bittersweet Savile Row rooftop concert on Jan. 30, 1969, drew me to London to pay homage to the group’s last performance and caused me to recall my own rooftop experience with the comedy troupe The Gramcrackers.
I was in The Gramcrackers in 2004, during my twenties. We had finished our album We’ll Be Right Back and a few months later, one January night, we were at Fred’s shoebox of an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. Someone suggested we go up on the roof.
Perhaps it was the alcohol, but I brought up the idea of recording a comedy sketch on the roof. We never did, and went our separate ways shortly after.
But 12 years later, I was in London and in an effort to negate the Gramcrackers’ failure.
I had to not just visit 3 Savile Row, the Georgian house that was the headquarters of the Beatles’ Apple Corps and the location of their famous concert, I had to somehow get inside.
Though the Beatles had long left the building, getting on the roof would be a home run. But I’d settle for just getting under it, too.
I thought about going to the top of an adjacent building and somehow climbing or perhaps even jumping to No 3’s roof. But a foolish scheme like that would probably have landed me in the clink or the hospital.
I thought of confidently striding into the building and pretending I had an appointment. Or maybe, the secretary would take a shine to me and I could simply charm my way into the place.
I brushed shoulders with stylish shoppers and business people as I emerged from the Piccadilly Circus tube station in posh Mayfair and skulked down the busy Savile Row until I found No. 3. I looked up into the gray London sky, just like the confused spectators on their lunch breaks back in ’69.
The faint sun reflected off the building’s windows and the building’s white-stone face looked the same as it did in “Let It Be.” I noticed some cursive lettering above the front door as I planned my next move. I walked closer to investigate and was confused when I was able to read it: “Abercrombie and Fitch for Kids.”
What? Was the former Apple Corps office and location of one of the greatest moments of rock and roll history now a store selling overpriced children’s attire?
I walked up the same steps and stood at the same doorway that Bobbies did who investigated the noise coming from the roof on the day of the concert.
The door was not locked and when I stepped inside I realized that yes, I was in a clothing store. But I was inside! The offices once occupied by the Beatles and their associates were now filled with kiddie mannequins and racks of dresses and shirts for little folk. But I didn’t care.
I was directly beneath the makeshift stage of one of the coolest concerts ever. I wasn’t sure if photographing the place was allowed, so I furtively removed my camera from my jacket pocket. I was about to secretly snap a few shots, when I was approached by a twenty-something store employee in ripped jeans and a graphic tee.
“Can I help you with something, sir?” he asked.
“I’m just looking around,” I tautly replied as I hid my camera and pretended to browse at a rack of boys’ trousers. I realized it didn’t look good that I was a nervous man, by himself, with a camera, in the boys’ section of a children’s clothing store, so I found the staircase and marched upwards.
The stairs stopped after the fourth floor and there was no apparent way on to the roof, so I settled on being mere feet beneath where the Beatles played. I might not had made it to the roof, but a Gramcracker was in the same building, damn it.
I looked through a window in one of the display rooms, down at the roofs of the buildings across the street. “I Dig a Pony” began playing in my head and I wondered if this Abercrombie and Fitch sold kiddie fur coats, miniature green pants, or toddler-sized red macs.
A raw version of “Get Back” echoed in my head and I imagined the people around me as the crowds of onlookers who congregated in the streets and on the roofs of local buildings as the music continued.
I pictured the Beatles in front of a backdrop of chimney tops and television antennas. Paul McCartney appeared almost dapper in a dark sports coat, white shirt and a bushy black beard and hair that I copied in college.
John Lennon and George Harrison both wore fur coats and sneakers, and the latter had on the greenest pants I’ve ever seen. Ringo donned a red plastic mac and had what writer Albert Goldman called a “fruit vendor’s mustache.”
Keyboardist Billy Preston hunched over his electric piano and dutifully played fifth Beatle for the day, rounding out the band.
Everything about the scene, from the Beatles’ long hair blowing in the cold winter wind to the constables inquiring about the noise, laid the groundwork for a rock and roll archetype.
At 42 minutes, The Beatles’ final public performance clocked in longer than any shows they did since Ringo joined the band. They performed nine takes of the five songs Get Back, Don’t Let Me Down, I Dig A Pony, I’ve Got A Feeling, and One After 909.
The lunchtime rooftop concert turned out to be the finale of their film “Let it Be” and was the first fruit of their labors for the somewhat ill-fated “Get Back” project.
The project was an effort to get back to their roots after the disharmony of the White Album sessions. They holed up for the month of January as cameras captured them jamming, laughing, composing and fighting.
Things originally began Jan. 2 in Twickenham Studios, but the soundstages proved to be too cavernous and cold to create, so the project was moved to 3 Savile Row where a mobile recording unit was set up in the basement.
My eyes looked at the stairwell down to the former studio, and I thought about the gems recorded there: “Let it Be,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “The Two of Us.”
I thought back to when I received the Let it Be album for my 13th birthday. I remembered looking at the depressing, almost funereal cover with the four separate pictures of the Beatles in front of a black background.
George, the one who actually walked out and temporally quit the group, is the only one smiling. I listened to the record dozens of times over that weekend and though the collection of songs were not my favorites, I still liked them and appreciated the false starts and studio chatter that gave me a more intimate experience.
There is an obvious and ultimately unavoidable sadness to the album, as a whole, if one knows the context in which it was recorded and produced.
I listened to “Let it Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” and found myself actually becoming a little depressed, wishing there was a way to stop my favorite band’s breakup.