Although the concert was unannounced, the Beatles had planned on performing live during their Get Back sessions earlier in January. It is uncertain who had the idea for a rooftop concert, but the suggestion was conceived just days before the actual event. George Harrison brought in keyboardist Billy Preston as an additional musician, in the hope that a talented outside observer would encourage the band to be tight and focused. Ringo Starr remembered:
"There was a plan to play live somewhere. We were wondering where we could go—'Oh, the Palladium or the Sahara'. But we would have had to take all the stuff, so we decided, 'Let's get up on the roof'". The audio was recorded onto two eight-track recorders in the basement of Apple by engineer Alan Parsons, and film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg brought in a camera crew to capture several angles of the performance—including reactions from people on the street.
When the Beatles first started playing, there was some confusion from spectators watching five stories below, many of whom were on their lunch break. As the news of the event spread, crowds of onlookers began to congregate in the streets and on the roofs of local buildings. While most responded positively to the concert, the Metropolitan Police Service grew concerned about noise and traffic issues. Apple employees initially refused to let police inside, ultimately reconsidering when threatened with arrest.
As police ascended to the roof, the Beatles realised that the concert would eventually be shut down, but continued to play for several more minutes. Paul McCartney improvised the lyrics of his song "Get Back" to reflect the situation, "You've been playing on the roofs again, and you know your Momma doesn't like it, she's gonna have you arrested!" The concert came to an end with the conclusion of "Get Back", with John Lennon saying, "I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we've passed the audition".
The rooftop concert consisted of nine takes of five Beatles songs, including:
"Get Back" (three takes) "Don't Let Me Down" (two takes) "I've Got a Feeling" (two takes) "One After 909" (one take) "Dig a Pony" (one take)
The first performance of "I've Got a Feeling", and the recordings of "One After 909", and "Dig a Pony" were later used for the album Let It Be. In 1996, a "rooftop" version of "Get Back", which was the last song of the Beatles' final live performance, was included in Anthology 3. An edit of the two takes of "Don't Let Me Down" was included on Let It Be... Naked.
The Beatles' rooftop concert marked the end of an era for many fans. They did record one more album, Abbey Road, but by September 1969 the Beatles had unofficially disbanded. Several of the rooftop performances, particularly that of "Dig a Pony", showed the Beatles once again in top form, if only temporarily. Fans believed the rooftop concert might have been a try-out for a return to live performances and touring.
The Rutles' "Get Up and Go" sequence in the film All You Need Is Cash mimics the footage of the rooftop concert, and uses similar camera angles. In January 2009, tribute band the Bootleg Beatles attempted to stage a 40th anniversary concert in the same location, but were refused permission by Westminster City Council due to licensing problems.
In The Simpsons fifth season episode "Homer's Barbershop Quartet", the Be Sharps (Homer, Apu, Barney and Principal Skinner) perform a rendition of one of their previous hits on a rooftop. George Harrison, who guest-starred in the episode, is shown saying dismissively "It's been done!" As the song ends and the credits begin, Homer repeats John Lennon's phrase about passing the audition and everyone laughs, including Barney until he says, "I don't get it."
In the 2007 film Across The Universe, a musical made up entirely of Beatles' music, Sadie's band performs a rooftop concert in New York City which mimics the original. It is interrupted and closed down by the New York Police Department.
U2 also referenced the concert in their video for "Where the Streets Have No Name", which featured a similar rooftop concert in Los Angeles.
McCartney played a surprise mini-concert in midtown Manhattan on 15 July 2009 from the top of the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater, where he was recording a performance for Late Show with David Letterman. News of the event spread via Twitter and word of mouth, and nearby street corners were closed off to accommodate fans for the set, which duplicated the original Beatles gig.