London On The Ground
The Beatles, the rooftop & London
Updated: Feb 13, 2022
London was the Liverpool band's backdrop and stage.
This picture, taken by photographer Ethan Russell on 30 January 1969, combines two of my favourite interests: London and The Beatles. It captures the last time all four members of the Beatles performed together in public - on the roof of their Apple Corps building at 3 Savile Row in the heart of London's traditional tailoring area.
The background and context for the rooftop performance and its role in the making of the Let It Be album have been well covered many times and in many formats. The 2021 Peter Jackson documentary, based on footage taken in January 1969 by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, adds hugely to this with its fly on the wall coverage of the Beatles at that time.
My main interest in posting this photograph on this blog is the details of the skyline visible beyond the Savile Row rooftop. Before focusing on that, there are also some details about the people on the roof that the picture captures.
There's Yoko Ono, ever present at this late stage of the band's career, on the right of the group sitting below the chimney stack next to Ringo Starr's wife Maureen, whose red mac he is wearing, while John Lennon is wearing Yoko's fur coat.
Reflecting the fact that the Beatles were playing unreleased songs that were then still new, John is prompted on the lyrics (to Dig A Pony) by a crib sheet held by a kneeling assistant. In spite of the cold January weather, George Harrison (in green trousers) is finger picking his guitar.
Although this period was characterised to some extent by disputes and friction among the band members they played together well that day, just as they always had in the past. It is interesting to see that Paul McCartney, who sometimes seemed most distant from the other three Beatles, was then at his most hirsute at a time when hairiness was also favoured by John, George and Ringo.
Unfortunately - given Billy Preston's huge musical contribution to the Let It Be album - the keyboardist is hidden by the corrugated iron roof in the foreground (but the back of his keyboard can be seen).
But to get back to London, the slice of urban landscape displayed in the picture transforms an already absorbing and unusual scene into something much more meaningful.
As Ethan Russell said in an article published in The Guardian on 10 February 2019, "I like that picture as there was nobody bigger in the world, yet they really were quite small in the context of the city of London. The photo shows they were mere mortals after all.”
The backdrop can be seen as a metaphor for the Beatles' time in London and how the UK capital evolved in the 1960s. It is also a reminder that it was London that provided the stage on which this Liverpudlian band scaled its dizzy heights.
Just beyond the Savile Row rooftop, the building towards the right of the picture (with three stone figures on its parapet) is the back of Burlington House, the home of the Royal Academy of Arts and an enduring symbol of the cultural establishment.
This seems appropriate given the leading part the Beatles played in establishing pop music as an art form in the 1960s, themselves becoming part of the new London cultural establishment.
Ethan Russell's camera is looking almost exactly due south, with Piccadilly beyond the Royal Academy running from left to right towards the top of the picture. The roofs of two Piccadilly landmarks can be seen: Fortnum and Mason is on the left hand side of the photo, the Ritz Hotel is at the right.
Much of the architecture in that part of London dates from the Georgian and Victorian periods (18th and 19th centuries). However, the mainly low rise skyline in the photo is punctuated by a sprinkling of what were then recently built towers in the modernist/brutalist style. Every one of these towers was built after the Beatles arrival in London in 1962 and before the rooftop concert.
Across the top of the picture five modernist/brutalist buildings from the 1960s are visible, from left to right: The Cavendish Hotel (1966), New Scotland Yard (1967), the Economist Building (1964), Westminster City Hall (1965), Portland House (1963).
There are also two other London landmarks on the horizon, which predate the Beatles' time in London and which are still around today: the tower of Westminster Cathedral (1903) and Battersea Power Station (built in two stages between 1929 and 1941).
A visitor to the roof of 3 Savile Row today (it is now an Abercrombie and Fitch children's shop and its roof is not open to the public) would see essentially the same view, both in the foreground and on the horizon, looking due south.
The London skyline has changed significantly in other directions, but not in this direction. It is as if the photograph's magic has preserved this view not only on film, but also in bricks, stone, steel and concrete.
Nobody would suggest that the Fab Four had anything to do with the design or construction of these new buildings. Nevertheless, the buildings are a symbol of the many new, more modern, cultural influences that transformed and updated London in the 1960s. The Beatles were huge among those influences.
London adapted itself to move with the times in that famously swinging decade. At the same time, the unchanged view is also a reminder of London's constancy.
The five photographs above are sourced from Wikipedia.
*The Metropolitan Police headquarters building was completed on Broadway at its junction with Victoria Street in 1967. It was demolished in 2016, when the Met HQ moved back to the Victoria Embankment, keeping the name New Scotland Yard.
**The Economist Building was built in 1964 for the Economist Newspaper, which vacated it in 2016.
Walks available for booking
For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here.