Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Francis Poulenc: “a bit of monk and a bit of hooligan”

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) in Paris, circa 1955
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) in Paris, circa 1955

We mark the death on January 30, 1963 – exactly sixty years ago today – of the French composer and pianist Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc, in Paris.  A Parisian from head to toe, he was born in the tres chic 8th arrondisement in that magnificent city on January 7, 1899.  He died of a heart attack not far from where he’d been born, in his flat opposite the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris’ 6th arrondisement

Before we can get down with the magnifique Monsieur Poulenc, we have an important event in rock ‘n’ roll history to mark.

The Beatles rooftop concert, January 30, 1969
The Beatles rooftop concert, January 30, 1969

On January 30, 1969 – 54 years ago today – the Beatles, joined by the keyboard player Billy Preston, performed their final live concert.  The venue was unusual: a hastily constructed stage on the rooftop of their five-story Apple Corps (their record company) headquarters, at 3 Savile Row: smack dab in the middle of the fashion district in London’s tony Mayfair neighborhood. 

(I cannot resist the joke: how do you get a rock band onto a roof?  You tell them the beer is on the house.)


A couple of weeks before the rooftop concert eventually took place, Paul McCartney had suggested that the Beatles should perform a concert:

“in a place we’re not allowed to do it … like we should trespass, go in, set up and then get moved. Getting forcibly ejected, still trying to play your numbers, and the police lifting you.”

The shock value of such a “concert” was sure to generate awesome publicity for the Beatles just released (on January 13, 1969) Yellow Submarine album.  Still, it wasn’t until January 26 – just four days before the concert – that the Beatles and their management decided to go ahead with their impromptu, rooftop recital.  

No announcement of the event was made ahead of time.  Instead, the Beatles and Billy Preston took their places on the rooftop stage and started playing at around 12:30 pm, smack-dab in the middle of London’s lunchtime break, with lots of people out and about.  Word quickly spread that a sensational event was taking place on Savile Row, and it wasn’t the opening of a new haberdashery; after all, The Beatles had not played in public for 2½ years: not since their performance at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29th, 1966.   

Crowds quickly began to assemble in the surrounding streets, and in the windows and on the roofs of surrounding buildings.  (So much for George Harrison’s fear that they would be performing “only for chimneys.”)  Soon enough, streets became impassable and the doors to businesses blocked.  Given that the blocked streets included Savile Row and Regent Street (the latter a major thoroughfare); and that the blocked businesses constituted some of the ritziest in the city, not everyone was overjoyed with the spontaneous concert.  …

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