At noon on this day, January 30, in 1969,the Beatles strolled out onto the roof of their Apple Corp building on London’s Saville Row to perform a concert for assembled friends and family.
It was a bitterly cold day, with winds whipping across the sky, but as the group began to play, people in the streets stopped in their tracks, certain of the familiar sound they heard. Elderly shoppers, dignified businessmen and young professionals on their lunch breaks crowded the street, craning their necks for a look at the Beatles, until police finally entered Apple and brought the concert to an end.
Roughly 42 minutes had passed. It was the last time the public would hear the Beatles perform again. The concert itself would be seen by no one until more than a year later, when it provided the climax to the group’s last film, Let It Be.
Legendary engineer and musician Alan Parsons remembers that day quite well. He was there, assisting engineer Glyn Johns with the recording of the rooftop concert. In the following interview, he gives us his firsthand account of that very special day.
Beatles engineer Alan Parsons recalls how the Fab Four got their act together for the group’s final performance, up on a London rooftop.
Alan Parsons has been known to classic rock fans for decades, both for his engineering and production work and his own albums with the Alan Parsons Project. It was Parsons who engineered Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and produced and engineered Al Stewart’s 1976 breakthrough, Year of the Cat. Over the course of his distinguished studio career, Parsons also scored several hits of his own with Project tracks like “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” and “Eye in the Sky.”
What many Beatles fans don’t know is that Parsons worked with the group in 1969, their final year together. In addition to serving as second engineer on various sessions for Abbey Road, he assisted producer/engineer Glyn Johns on nearly all the tracks that appeared on Let It Be. Parsons’ role on the latter album began on January 22, when the Beatles moved their recording sessions from Twickenham Film Studios to their own Apple Studios, located in the basement of a five-story London townhouse that served as corporate headquarters for Apple Corps Ltd.
At the time, Parsons was an engineer at Abbey Road Studios, the EMI-owned studio where the group had made nearly all of its previous recordings. “The Beatles hadn’t employed anybody yet to run the Apple studio, so I was brought in from Abbey Road to serve as tape op,” Parsons explains. “I got the job for no special reason. I was a just name on a list at Abbey Road. It was just a matter of the studio sending whoever was available.”
On January 22, he duly reported for duty. “It was quite a moment for me,” he says, “walking into that room, and there was George Martin and all four Beatles—and me, blushing from head to toe.”
But Apple was unequipped for recording. The studio’s design had been entrusted to “Magic Alex” Mardas, who headed up the Apple Corps’ consumer electronics division. Mardas had no electronics background, but as a charlatan of the first order he’d enticed the Beatles with his promise of a 72-track tape recorder and sonic force fields that could create an invisible audio barrier around Ringo Starr’s drum kit. To their surprise, the Beatles discovered Mardas had built only a mixing console for Apple’s studio—and it didn’t even function. George Martin made a call to Abbey Road and requested that proper recording equipment be sent over immediately.
As Parsons recalls, “Abbey Road’s technical engineers brought two old tube consoles in: one from the mobile [recording] units and one from a room at Abbey Road that wasn’t booked that week.” An eight-track tape deck was procured as well, though Parsons isn’t sure if it came from Abbey Road or belonged to George Harrison.
Although the Let It Be sessions were notoriously unhappy, Parsons says it wasn’t all misery all the time. “They were fun, on occasion,” he says. “The Beatles were pranksters, and they were always ready for a gag or two.”
The highlight of the sessions came on January 30, when the Beatles, with guest keyboardist Billy Preston in tow, took to the roof of Apple Corps for an afternoon performance, their last public showing as a group. “I think the reason for the rooftop session was to generate a little excitement,” Parsons says. “They were sick of just playing the same tunes over and over again. They just wanted to get a solid performance recorded, and I think that, until they did go on the roof, they hadn’t really achieved that. Or at least they didn’t think that they had.”
Parsons had little time to prepare for the sessions. “They announced it just the night before,” he says. “It was just, ‘Let’s go up on the roof tomorrow morning.’ So we worked late into the night to get it happening. Part of my job was to run multiple cables from the basement up to the roof.”
He also had to deal with windy weather conditions that could have wreaked havoc with the microphones. “Glyn sent me out to buy some pantyhose to stick over the mics to minimize the wind noise,” Parsons says. “I walked into this department store and said, ‘I need three pair of pantyhose. It doesn’t matter what size.’ ” He laughs. “They thought I was either a bank robber or a cross dresser.”
In his capacity as second engineer, Parsons was able to remain on the roof during the performance while Johns ran the console in the basement. “And as you can no doubt imagine,” Parsons says, “it was a really exciting thing to see them perform.” The following day brought one more recording session for the album, back downstairs in Apple’s studio. And then it was over.
Parsons returned to Abbey Road, but over the following summer, he had an opportunity to work with the Beatles again when they recorded Abbey Road, their final studio recording. Glyn Johns continued editing the tapes recorded at Apple the previous January, trying to assemble an album that would meet the Beatles’ approval. “I remember Glyn dropping in on the Abbey Road sessions,” Parsons says. “But at the time we didn’t know Let It Be would be anything more than put on a shelf.”
By the time Parsons heard anything from the Let It Be sessions, producer Phil Spector had taken over the project and begun overdubbing lush and often garish orchestra and choir arrangements onto the Beatles’ spare, unadorned recordings. “I remember dropping in to the orchestra session with Phil on ‘Long and Winding Road,’ ” Parsons says, referring to the overdubs session that took place on April 1, 1970. “But aside from my work at Apple, I didn’t really have any other involvement with Let It Be.”
Given his intimacy with the project, it's perhaps not surprising that Parsons dislikes the finished album that Spector produced. He prefers Let It Be…Naked, the 2003 album that presented the recordings as the Beatles had originally intended, with minimal overdubs and none of Spector's gloss. “That closest to the version of the record that we made back then,” he says. “Glyn is well known for saying Let It Be was a great album before Phil Spector puked on it.” Parsons laughs. “I kind of go with that philosophy.”