UPDATE: After more than 250,000 people expressed their support when the show was initially cancelled due to zoning issues, the concert has been moved inside. It will be an acoustic show live broadcasted on Hippie Radio starting at noon.
Live music at lunchtime isn’t exactly the Nashville norm, but then again, neither is local band The WannaBeatles. No wigs, pointy boots or vintage Vox amps are employed by the cheekily named quartet, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It’s just four musicians serving up classic songs with a surplus of energy and good humor, the way The Beatles themselves did it back before superstardom and the cyclical chaos of concert tours had drained the Fab Four of their famously jovial character.
On Monday, Jan. 30, the four musicians will crank it up on the second-floor deck of midtown’s Soulshine Pizza Factory for the lunch crowd and interested onlookers below on the cordoned-off Division Street. The occasion will commemorate the 48th anniversary of a somewhat dreary event in Beatles history―the band’s one-off, final live performance on the roof of their London headquarters, Apple Corps, initiated by a hopeful Paul McCartney as part of a project intended to re-energize the group in the face of burgeoning Beatle boredom.
“McCartney was the one eager to perform live again,” notes local Beatles authority Richard Courtney, who hosts the Beatles-themed “From Me to You” every Sunday morning at 9 a.m. on Hippie Radio (a co-sponsor of Monday’s WannaBeatles event at Soulshine, starting at 11 a.m.). “And I think Ringo was fine with it either way, but I think John and George were both ready to move on, and they were just going through the motions.” Even so, allows Courtney, “it was a pretty good show. I think it shows that they could still perform, and they could still get along for the most part, and have some fun.
Fun was in short supply throughout January of 1969, when―minus a short hiatus during which George Harrison briefly left the band―The Beatles rehearsed and recorded new songs and rehashed old ones in front of movie cameras, joined mid-month by African-American keyboardist Billy Preston, who’d been invited to augment the sessions and provide a welcome distraction for the then-fraying foursome.
The 1970 “Let It Be” album emerged from these sessions, as did the companion documentary, a gloomy glimpse into the band’s disintegration. The now-out-of-circulation film concludes with portions of the ragged but exhilarating midday London concert, which drew surprised and mostly delighted Londoners out onto the streets and roofs of nearby buildings to catch the impromptu, history-making 42-minute set.
Former Capitol Records executive and longtime Nashville resident Ken Mansfield, who worked closely with The Beatles from 1965 until the band’s official breakup in 1970, was one of few insiders fortunate enough to witness The Beatles’ 1969 rooftop performance. Mansfield’s reminiscences can be heard on The WannaBeatles’ Grammy-nominated 2011 spoken-word album “Fab Fan Memories,” an audio memoir capturing Beatles stories from fans and personal associates of the band alike.
As Mansfield begins in his taped excerpt, “One of the plans for ‘Let It Be’ was to have live footage of The Beatles, and so that was going to be a real special thing. We booked a club in Germany and announced that . . . the next hottest band out of England was gonna be there that night. We gave them the name Ricky and the Red Streaks, and then The Beatles would come out, and these unsuspecting patrons would get to see The Beatles live, and we’d film it. But we couldn’t keep it a secret,” Mansfield says.
“We even talked about maybe setting up on a desert, and then invite everybody in the world for free. Well, that was one of our most crazy ideas. I think that the two things that shot that down were insurance and Porta-Potties.”
For all the grand plans that had been considered, which included the suggestion to buy an island and do the concert there, the ultimate refusal of the band’s four members to agree on a performance location led to a practical compromise. “So we’re in the office,” recalls Mansfield, “and we’re running out of time. Somebody said ‘we’re going up on the roof.’ It was freezing cold. But I tell you what, you could’ve hosed me down with ice water and I wouldn’t have left that roof that day. That was just such a phenomenal thing. There was great import in the moment.”
As it happens, in fact, this Monday’s show will also commemorate an earlier and presumably much merrier, if less auspicious, Fab Four anniversary―one that more closely matches the spirit so readily summoned by The WannaBeatles, who will perform a wide swath of Beatles favorites after kicking off their set with the original five songs The Beatles played in multiple versions on top of London’s Apple Corps building on Savile Row.
Exactly six years earlier, on Jan. 30, 1963, The Beatles stood on the stage of Liverpool’s now-legendary Cavern Club, playing another of their lunchtime shows for the hometown crowd they’d soon have to leave behind as fame permanently beckoned them to London and Abbey Road Studios. Less than two weeks away was the Feb. 11 recording session during which they would complete the first full-length Beatles album, “Please Please Me,” named for the song that had recently become their first No. 1 hit in the U.K. . . . while an unsuspecting America went about its business.
The music and global impact The Beatles would create in the mere six years between that routine Cavern Club lunch date and Jan. 30, 1969, when a bedraggled, barely intact Beatles hauled themselves out into the wintry chill, are, of course, the stuff of pop music’s pinnacle years. Not even the darkest aspects of The Beatles’ troubled final months can diminish the abundant joy their music brings to multiple generations of fans worldwide.
“People who weren’t born at the time, and the children of people who weren’t born at the time, know all the words to [the rooftop-performed 1969 hit] ‘Get Back,'” adds Richard Courtney. As Courtney sees it, “What’s great about this performance is that it can take us to the rooftop, and there, The WannaBeatles, through their magic, can take us back to a place where The Beatles themselves couldn’t go at the time on the rooftop―to when The Beatles were fun and having a blast and just starting to enjoy the fame and writing all these great songs that have endured for 54 years. Like Lennon always said, it’s all about the music. So if you keep it all about the music,” affirms Courtney, “it’s fine. It’s wonderful.”
Ken Mansfield’s poignant remembrance of the 1969 rooftop concert verifies the music’s power to overcome whatever difficulties might be burbling beneath the surface, now or then. “This was the worst time in our lives with The Beatles. Everything was just crazy, it was fighting and financial things . . . it was just a rough time. But when they started singing, and if you look at that look between John and Paul, you could see that they were thinking, ‘This is us―we’re four guys that have been together for a long time, and here we are, we’re playing live and we’re good, and it feels good.’ And I think we all sensed that. I mean, we didn’t know it was their last concert, or anything like that. We knew something special had happened. That to me,” says Mansfield, “is one of the most historical days in rock ‘n’ roll.”
The WannaBeatles free rooftop concert takes place Mon., Jan. 30 at Soulshine Pizza from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.