The Beatles’ Final Concert: An Eyewitness Looks Back
“It was another day at the office,” Ken Mansfield says, recalling the Beatles’ impromptu rooftop concert in January 1969. There’s not even a hint of sarcasm in his voice. The group staged the gig atop Apple Records’ London office at 3 Savile Row, 50 years ago today, with the intention of shooting the ending for what would become their Let It Be film. It was an item on a checklist. Mansfield, who was born in Idaho, was the label’s U.S. manager at the time. “Some of the people in the Apple office didn’t even try to come up, because it was just another day.”
Mansfield was invited to watch the historic performance, the Beatles’ last live gig, at the urging of the band’s roadie, Mal Evans. “I think Mal just liked to take care of me, so he made sure I was up there,” he says. When he found out about the afternoon gig, Mansfield ran out and bought a white raincoat, since it was in the low 40s outside, and huddled on a bench with Yoko Ono, Ringo’s then-wife Maureen Starkey and Apple staffer Chris O’Dell to watch the quartet perform nine songs, including multiple retakes of “Get Back.” “George had me light some cigarettes for him for a few minutes just so he could hold the tips of his fingers up against the coals so he could feel his strings,” Mansfield recalls. “And I know John was really complaining about it, about the cold and how he couldn’t feel his hands.”
Late last year, Mansfield released a book about the experience, The Roof, which chronicles how a job at Capitol Records’ Los Angeles office led him across the pond to Apple and up onto the roof. Along the way, he also explains how he got to know the band members and offers a glimpse of what life was like working for the most famous group in the world. The Roof contains his personal memories along with contributions from Beatles scholars and information he found from researching this monumental day.
“I just happened to be working in the offices that week,” he says. “And Mal just happened to say, ‘Hey, come on, Ken, we’re going up in 15 minutes.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘We’re going on the roof, and so come on.'” The rest, he says, is history.
What comes to mind first when you look back on the rooftop concert?
There was a lot of dissension with the Beatles at the time. I went up to the dressing room — the offices they were using just before the concert — and it looked like they were nervous, like a young band getting ready for an audition. I thought maybe it was because they haven’t played in a while and there’s a lot of tension. I found out later on that when I walked in, they weren’t nervous; there was just a lot of tension amongst them. They were deciding if they should even go up. Somebody told me later that even when they got to the door to go on the roof, they were still deciding and that John said, “Oh, come on. Let’s do it. We need the footage.”
So they came out and started playing. I’m four to six feet away from the band, so I’m virtually looking in their faces. When they started playing, at some point — and this is something I’ll never forget — there was this moment where Paul looked over at John or John looked at Paul and there was this look of recognition. It’s like they were saying, “You know what? No matter what’s going down, this is us. This is who we are. This is what we’ve always been. Stuff’s going down right now, but we are what we are, and that’s a good rock & roll band.” I wrote in my book that I think they went up on the roof without a soundcheck but left with a soul check.
You said you were four to six feet from them. How many people were as close as you?
There were only four of us up there that were what you would call an audience: Yoko and I, Maureen and Chris. Otherwise, it was the four Beatles and Billy [Preston], and then there was Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director, and a couple of soundmen and film guys. The area was rather small. They’d built planks in what I call the sweet spot, and that was like 12 feet wide and 15 feet long. So there were maybe 11 or 12 of us right there and then around the edges, there were maybe eight more people, so there were probably close to 20 people on the roof at the time.
You say it was just a day at the office. When Mal asked you up on the roof, did it seem like a significant event?
Well, it did from the standpoint of the fact that it was going to be the first time they played together again. But it was done for a purpose, the film. So maybe just because of that, I didn’t really think too much about it. But when they were playing, I started getting this feeling like, “Wait a minute, something’s going on here.” I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was the strangest feeling. It wasn’t like, “Oh, gee, this is the last time the Beatles are going to play together” and “Oh, gosh, they’re going to break up after this and Apple’s going to change.” It was just feeling something. The next day, I got on a plane and went back to L.A. and Chris and I didn’t talk about it for maybe 20 years. But when we did, yeah, it was something.
What was the vibe on the roof like? With all the crew there, I imagine it was very professional, but you can hear a little clapping here and there.
Well, the sound guys and film guys were totally, 100-percent professional. They were getting their job done. They didn’t have time to fool around.
From your perspective, how did Billy Preston fit in with the band?
Billy was really special to the band at that time. I think George was very wise for bringing him in, because Billy was a calming effect. They were all really big fans of Billy and loved Billy. He was really important to the whole thing. When they were in the studio, they would play something and Billy would look over at me with his eyes just as big as saucers and go, “Wow, did you hear that?” And they’d turn to Billy and say, “Hey, why don’t you do this here?” and Billy would go, “Wow, that’s great.”
Let’s talk about the songs. The concert was about three months after the White Album came out. Had you heard the tunes before? What did you think of them?
I only know what I’d heard in the studio, and I can’t remember which ones, because they were just working on things. But no, they were all new to me.
Do you remember your impressions of hearing these songs live for the first time?
Yeah, I had ones I actually liked, which were “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Get Back.” I was a little disoriented because the White Album didn’t feel like the other albums did to me. I felt like it didn’t have a concept and later on I realized, “Wait, that was their concept, to do something different.” Let It Be was a little bit of a continuation of that. Then they turn around and do Abbey Road, which was really what the Beatles were like, for me, more than the previous recordings.
The one thing I’ll say is, when I heard what Phil Spector did to “Let It Be,” I went, “ugh.” Then when they did Let It Be … Naked, I almost got chills again because it was like, “That’s what I’d heard.” I think Paul wanted the Let It Be … Naked thing from the beginning. He always wanted people to see the band like that.
The other songs they did on the rooftop were “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “One after 909” and “Dig a Pony.”
I liked “I’ve Got a Feeling.” I don’t know. You like some songs better than you like others. It’s almost blasphemy not to like individual Beatles songs, so you’re not gonna trap me there. I like them all.
When did you realize a crowd had gathered downstairs?
I was totally unaware. We couldn’t see anything down below, unless you went right over on the edge and looked down. Of course, the street couldn’t see us up there either. What I did notice was how people started gathering on the buildings, and they were virtually hanging out of windows and on ledges. So that was pretty interesting.
One of the guys who worked at Apple said he didn’t know there was going to be a concert on the roof that day, and he showed up around that time. He said he turned onto Savile Row and it was like a wall of sound coming down the street. He saw all these people and the traffic was stopping. Some people were mesmerized and some people were mad. The businessmen were really ticked off because they were a bunch of bankers and upscale tailors and didn’t really dig that. It was just a bunch of mixed emotions.
A bobby came up and tried to stop the concert. What do you remember about that?
That was way overblown. Mal had locked the door before they started and, of course, after a while there were so many complaints that Mal let them in. He talked to them down there and if you look at photos of it now, you’ll notice there were only a couple of guys up there and you can see Mal and the policeman just standing side by side watching the show. I think Mal just schmoozed them. I don’t remember any drama up there of any kind. When it was over, everybody went on their way.
I’ve read that Mal unplugged John’s guitar but John plugged it in before “Get Back.”
Yeah. Maybe that was because the police had told Mal to unplug it, but it wasn’t very dramatic. That’s for sure.
Well, on the last take of “Get Back,” Paul jokes about how “You’ve been playing on the roofs again, and you know your mama doesn’t like it. She’s gonna have you arrested.”
Yeah, that just shows how casual and how much fun they were having.
Michael Lindsay-Hogg has said he thought the Beatles wanted to be arrested for playing loudly. Did you have that impression?
There was something about that, like a five-and-a-half–second meeting with Peter Brown and Mal or Michael. Like, “Wouldn’t it make more news if we had them arrested now? Would that make it more dramatic?” I remember something being bantered about, about that.
What happened when the concert was done and the cameras stopped filming?
Everyone went downstairs. It was like pulling the plug on the bathtub and the water goes away.
What did you think of the Let It Be film when you finally saw it?
For me, it felt a little dark. I’m just one of these people that likes things to be happy. It wasn’t all that bad all the time. There were really a lot of great things going on and a lot of happiness. So I would like to see another edit of that.
Did you keep up with the Beatles after they broke up and Apple dissolved?
Yeah. George finished up the Bangladesh album in L.A., and I was with him during that time in the studio. His wife and my wife were friends, so we would go shopping for jeans together and stuff like that. But then Paul, I only saw him once later, at the Grammys. And I was at Ringo’s house one time when John came over. So I saw everybody over the years. I represented Ringo in the Nineties for his Time Takes Time album. So our relationship went on and on.
It must be different for you to see them performing live solo, after seeing them together in the Sixties a few times.
What’s fun are Ringo’s concerts, because he’s smart enough to bring in all these guys from great bands so everybody gets featured. It’s just so exciting and it takes the pressure off him. He once told me, “The first time I became a solo act, I walked out on the stage and I was stunned at the feeling. That’s because I was always behind the guys and the kit.” But he said, “When I was out in the very front, I didn’t have any of that filter between me and the audience,” and he said it was so overwhelming. He said, “I felt like I could fall forward and the vibes coming back would just hold me up and keep me from falling into the audience.” It really took him back for a second.