On January 30th 1969, The Beatles shocked the city of London and the world when they climbed up on the roof of Apple headquarters at Number 3 Savile Row, and performed an impromptu concert. Ever since that day, musicians everywhere have aspired to repeat this act. Nobody really knows why but the urge to drag instruments up several stories to the top of a building seems to be irresistible to musicians.
Not that playing on roofs was unknown before the Beatles. There is a long history of rooftop dance halls all over the world, and most famous dance bands and jazz musicians performed there during their careers. The main difference however, is that those venues were indoors.
I’m not completely clear on the attraction of hauling musical equipment up to the top of a building, then standing precariously hundreds of metres above the ground, wind whistling in your face, and attempting to perform a concert. Still, The Beatles iconic moment remains a touchstone for musicians everywhere.
Ironically they weren’t even the first band to do this. That honour goes to Jefferson Airplane, who on December 7th, 1968 climbed up to the roof of New York’s Schuyler Hotel, shouted obscenities at the crowd below, and performed a couple of their hits. And get this – their 7-minute concert was caught on film by none other than Jean-Luc Godard, the famous French film director.
Surely their performance, which inevitably ended in their arrest by the NYPD, would have been the one to go down in history, if not for the fact that about one month later the most famous band in the world at the time copied their stunt. I guarantee that if the second concert had been by a lesser band, say The Monkees, Jefferson Airplane’s 2-song set would be the one we would all recall.
Still The Beatles remain the rooftop concert to emulate. Whether its U2’s 1987 show on the roof of an L.A liquor store, Homer Simpson and the B Sharps atop Moe’s Tavern, or even Paul McCartney himself performing on top of the Ed Sullivan Theatre, it’s fair to say every one of these performances was compared to that windy day in 1969 London.
What do all these rooftop concerts have in common, besides exposing valuable instruments and sound equipment to the harsh elements? None of these musicians played the piano. Sure some of them used electric keyboards but nobody was dragging a baby grand up to the roof to serenade the city.
There was a time when every theatre, concert hall or restaurant had its own piano, and the professional musician’s job was to show up and play. Somehow over the past 30 years or so, this has morphed into the expectation that pianists bring along their own fully tuned Steinway.
You may think the very concept sounds ridiculous but I guarantee it doesn’t matter where I’m playing or how much I am getting paid, at some point I will hear the question, “Are you going to bring the piano?”
And before you assume they mean a nice lightweight electric version, I can assure you that I have shown up with just such an instrument on many occasions only to be greeted with, “Oh – I thought you were bringing a real piano.”
I have always envied the guitarist, sax player or violinist, who shows up, perhaps via public transit, instrument case in one hand and a coffee in the other, warms up for a few minutes and is ready to play. Meanwhile the keyboardist loads hundreds of pounds of equipment into a vehicle, drives to the gig, spends an hour unloading and setting up, only to repeat the process in reverse a few hours later.
Don’t get me wrong – I know I am very fortunate to be able to make my living as a performer. I’m not so much complaining as pointing out the absurdity of the situation. Whether in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, up in the wilds of the Yukon or on the roof of a small town motel, I count the seconds until I hear the words, “Did you bring the piano?”
There was one memorable time I recall not being asked this; I was offered a contract playing aboard an adventure cruise ship that took tourists to the South Pole. Sadly it sank on its second trip – hopefully not due to the excessive weight of their real piano.