Rock and Roll Myth and the Truth About the Rooftop Concert


“While some accounts have the police actually raiding the place and the band disposing of all their drug paraphernalia with choruses of toilets flushing simultaneously throughout the building, other accounts suggest the police merely told them to turn down the volume. Well, tapes don’t lie, and the evidence as heard in George’s voice, is that the Beatles created their own myth to surround what became their very last performance together.”

by Mike Derrico

While on tour during the 1970s, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page sat in his hotel room with a photographer who was clicking a slide projector. The lights were off, and the darkened room was lit only by a series of photos projected onto the wall… one live image of Page after another. The guitarist was deliberately selecting pictures of himself, but was only looking for the blurry, distorted, and vague ones…the ones where you could tell it was him, but weren’t quite clear. If the image was clear and perfect, he told the photographer to click to the next one.
“What is it you’re looking for?” the baffled photographer asked.
To which Page replied with the now famous line,
“Power, mystery, and the hammer of the gods.”

And that’s one of the many reasons rock music sucks today. No more mystery to capture our imaginations. The element of cool subtlety has been stripped from the creative aesthetic of 21st Century rock. We didn’t see Jimmy Page jump into every photo op or say crazy shit that would keep him in the Blabbermouth headlines, or show up at every awards show just to be seen. There was no over-saturation of most artists. What we did see of Page were those vague images that gave almost nothing away. But we knew it was Jimmy Page by the guitar, the unmistakable clothes, and the iconic pose. Photos and fashion were never criteria for good music from the 60s through the 80s, but the Abercrombie and Fitch look for nearly every rock band in 2017 seems to be the bland and only option for an entire generation of faceless and nameless artists. It is no mistake or coincidence that Dave Grohl is perhaps the only truly huge rock star to come out of the past 25 years, and even he goes back to that era when rock still mattered if we want to include the fact of Nirvana and the circumstances that turned him from a drummer to a celebrity. But we don’t need to. We love Dave Grohl, but let’s face it…there is no mystique to him. Nothing hidden…nothing that begs to be revealed.

But it wasn’t just with fashion. Bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd held a mystique through imagery and the fact that the band members were never seen on their own album covers. There are reasons records like Zeppelin II, IV, Houses of the Holy, Dark Side of the Moon, and Wish You Were Here
remain as powerful in the collective conscience of rock memory, and it’s a lot more than just the music. For years, these bands were known more for their symbolism and visual mysteries than the faces of their members. Yet, when we did see those artists, it was indelible and you knew who they were. To this day, any given stage image of Jimmy Page is far more powerful than 1000 pictures of the guitarist from Nickelback, whoever that is. Sorry Nickelback, I could have used any band from the past 25 years and my point would still stand.

And then there were the actual myths and legends. The little things on the side that accompany the narrative that may have been true, exaggerated, or (gasp) invented…things that often defined a band’s reputation or highlighted entire eras…the Zeppelin fish story, the Million Dollar Quartet, Bob Dylan’s motorcycle accident, Mama Cass choking on a ham sandwich, Alice Cooper ripping apart a chicken onstage, Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off a bat, Paul McCartney’s visit to the Dakota in 1976 that almost resulted in a spontaneous SNL reunion with John Lennon and George Harrison (the VH1 film Two of Us explores this tale extensively), etc… Some if not most of these stories in retrospect were greatly accented to further enhance the mystique of an artist. As the story goes, it was Frank Zappa who advised Alice Cooper not to deny the chicken story because simply put, it would help build his myth. Some artists needed their stories in ways that may not have been intended as myth and mystique, but instead to create diversions. Take Bob Dylan for example. His motorcycle accident in late July 1966 supposedly took him within less than an inch of his life, as he was laid up in bed for months and disappeared from the public eye for years. There is no greater rock myth than this one incident. Yet, as Dylan sycophants had gathered straight back to the late 1967 release of “Drifter’s Escape,” the word on the street was that Dylan wanted out. He wanted out from the godly role his apostles had cast upon him, and the accident was his ticket to get off the road and go home. That became the myth. Only in recent years have we been privy to visual evidence as seen in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, where Dylan, a month away from his accident clearly wants nothing more to do with stardom and just wants to go home. Further accounts of that rainy day in New York State suggest that the accident never happened. Either way, it got Dylan off the treadmill and contributed greatly to his legend.

We now have enough distance from the art form to where we can safely and without guilt crack it open and examine it like an archaeological holy grail discovery. And goddamn it, as someone who believes the rock era of 1954-1994 as something far superior to anything that has or will come after it to be truth rather than opinion, I would much rather investigate these matters myself than trust some millennial for whom Blink 182 is classic rock and Woodstock 99 was something important. With the sale of Rolling Stone magazine, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under scrutiny and criticism in ways it never has been before, and a revealing biography of Jann Wenner just having been released, the powers- that- be that have largely defined rock and dictated the story as we have come to know it, have been under further scrutiny, question, and even re-evaluation. This, however, is nothing new. The current generation of critics and fans have questioned and challenged the Baby Boom generation’s monopoly on rock music and all that is cool, hip, valid, and real. So while I largely agree with the “rock era” assessment, the historian in me isn’t as accepting as the devoted rock fan is of the story as it’s been put in front of us. In other words, putting rock and roll mythology under the microscope can lead to some very telling conclusions.

Learning the truth (or possible truth) about some of these things can be like being told at a very young age there’s no Santa Claus. It can be traumatizing. Even an alteration of the most minute detail could profoundly change the way we’ve seen a particular event for years. Footage of The Beatles during the recording of Let It Be, for example, has been circulating forever. With the advent of Youtube in the past decade and a half, we’ve had access to much of it and still, the little details often escape us. Take this two minute clip of the band caught behind the scenes in a discussion just after listening to the rooftop concert in January 1969. The rooftop concert happened at a time when John wanted out, Paul by many accounts was attempting to run the show, and George, who saw the friction within the band as a creative dead end, wanted desperately to work with other people. That was always the narrative. What we’ve also come to know regarding the historic rooftop concert itself, was that the Beatles played a few minutes before attracting large crowds in the streets below, as well as on neighboring rooftops. Then after only 42 minutes, the performance was brought to an abrupt halt by the police. Or so we’ve been led to believe. The footage is iconic and we know it well. What we hear from this recording though, tells us differently. We hear Paul talking about how to possibly continue the filming project with regard to the rest of the unplayed songs, pretty much remaining consistent with his ambition for the project, as we have seen in the film that we’ve come to know. However, John and George who have always been portrayed as indifferent to the entire Let It Be project show a surprising enthusiasm uncharacteristic of the turmoil that has defined this era of the band. In short, it does not in any way reflect the sound of a band about to break up. In the last few seconds of tape (link below), Paul tries to figure out how to deal with the inconsistency of filming the concert partially on the rooftop and partially back downstairs in the studio, when the bombshell comes from George’s mouth, as he suggests “If we’ve got the police, we could pretend in the film that we had to get down because of them.” “Just the way it happened, “ John cuts in, “That’ll just be it, yeah.” Even Rolling Stone missed this very important detail when they published an article in 2016 relating to “15 things we didn’t know” about the rooftop concert. While some accounts have the police actually raiding the place and the band disposing of all their drug paraphernalia with choruses of toilets flushing simultaneously throughout the building, other accounts suggest the police merely told them to turn down the volume. Well, tapes don’t lie, and the evidence as heard in George’s voice, is that the Beatles created their own myth to surround what became their very last performance together.

I’m not about ripping the mask of the rock and roll myth so much as I am just trying to solve all the mysteries of my childhood. Except for the really good ones. And this Beatles thing isn’t one of the good ones. Getting thrown off a rooftop by the police and staging random surprise concerts in strange places, real or not, became clichés and worn out scenarios within a decade and a half. Just ask the Jefferson Airplane or U2. But the really good ones…the ones I don’t want answered…the question of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey…Was there really a TV ad for Kiss’s Madison Square Garden gig in February 1977? Or was I just remembering the Roosevelt Stadium ad from a few months before, as one Kiss expert has suggested? Did I really see a ghost outside Steinbachs department store on North Broad Street in Elizabeth, New Jersey? And what did she mutter to me as I walked past her on that cold December day in 1980? And who spiked the pickle that gave me food poisoning and fucked me up for several months? Actually, no…I’d kind of like to know what asshole did that to me. I’d really like to know.

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