1968. The White Album: the album design became important – the music was all over the map – would it cohere as an album? At the very least, The Beatles needed to create a visual theme where a musical one may or may not exist.
Paul McCartney spent a week going to the artist Richard Hamilton’s home every day to put this non-theme album art concept together.
A white album with no title other than The Beatles, a poster of collected photos, and four iconic portrait sized photos of their faces.
It was the antithesis of the splendor of the previous album Sgt. Pepper.
The White Album is indeed a place you initially go to on your own. I remember receiving this album (and Sgt Pepper too) at my grandparents house on a farm in rural Minnesota. The Beatles’ London could not have been more remote. But somehow it was an internal, strange, magical island visually and aurally calling to curious 10-year-old.
Two months after The White Album was released in November 1968…
It was a cold January 1969 winter day in London when the Beatles took to the roof of their headquarters in London’s street of tailors, Saville Row, to play their latest unreleased (at that time) songs. Down below in the street, the bankers and their secretaries could not see who was playing on the roof (the fab four were filming for a movie) but they knew it sounded like the Beatles.
The temperature was in the 30s Fahrenheit – cloudy, blustery winter in London – you can see John blowing on his fingers in the footage from the Let It Be film. Each of the Beatles (except Paul), borrowed their wives’ coats, but the Beatles could pull this off. John is rocking a fur coat and somehow it works – some insulation as he stares out across the universe.
Just before they went up to play, the boys were huddling behind the roof access door. “Should we really do this?” they asked each other. It had been almost three years since they had played in public. “Let’s go” they said and we are glad they did…. Those tens of thousands of hours playing together across Britain and Hamburg could not be denied as the magic poured out through their nerves and the cold.
They were not showbiz. They could have never emerged from American Idol or The Voice. They had no stage patter or dance routine. The act was a non act. It was about the music. They tossed their greatest source of income, touring, out the window, to follow the Muse. A muse to music that never wavered from genius level in the nine-hour legacy of officially released music.
They grew up in a non rock-and-roll era. Until they were 15, rock and roll did not even exist. They were not blues purists like the Yardbirds or the Stones. They grew up in an era when the weekend entertainment was the family sing-along. And everyone, even the kids, had to sing a tune.
There will never be another Beatles.
The rooftop concert reminds us how great they were. Within a year, the Beatles would be no more.
Here’s a nice summary of the day courtesy of Rolling Stone:
And here’s a blog dedicated entirely to these sessions in January 1969:
And finally, some YouTube analysis about the rooftop performance: