When did the first rooftop concert happen? Probably not long after construction of the first rooftop. How could early humans resist such an opportunity to project sound over the heads of a crowd? But if we’re talking about a Rooftop Concert, we’re talking about a special genre of gig defined by The Beatles’ farewell rooftop show in London on January 30, 1969. Since that historic moment, each time musicians take to a rooftop, they inevitably face comparisons with the Fab Four, even if their rooftop concert happened first.
Before Paul McCartney sang “You’ve been playing on the roofs again” in an improvised “Get Back” in London, Jefferson Airplane “performed on a New York City rooftop in 1968,” writes Rajesh Kumar Jha at The Citizen.
“The context for the concert was provided by events like the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the accelerating Vietnam War.” The affair was organized by Jean-Luc Godard, who “wanted to film the radical mood of the times under his 1 AM. Project, for which the Airplane were best suited.”
Grace Slick opened “The House at Pooneil Corners” by shouting from the roof, “Hello, New York! Wake up, you fuc&ers! Free music! Nice songs! Free love!” They made it 7 minutes into a set before the police broke it up and made arrests. Godard ended up abandoning the film, leaving it to D.A. Pennebaker to finish and release it as 1 P.M. Can we credit Godard for the rooftop concert as a thing? Or did he steal it from an even earlier antecedent, Brazilian singer Roberto Carlos, nicknamed “the Elvis Presley of Brazil”? Carlos staged a rooftop concert living room set below for his song “Quando” in 1967.
Whoever invented the rooftop concert, by the time U2 did it on an L.A. rooftop — legally — playing “Where the Streets Have No Name” to kick off the Joshua Tree tour, the trick had become old hat. Acknowledging their debt, Bono joked in an interview, “it’s not the first time we’ve ripped off the Beatles.” Little did he know, perhaps, that they were also ripping off Jefferson Airplane, who themselves were only imitations, when it came to rooftop concerts, of “the Frank Sinatra of Latin America.” Roberto Carlos might be lip synching, and seemingly sans audience in his appearance on a São Paulo rooftop, but we must admit he set a stylish standard for the genre of the rooftop concert all his own, two years before the Beatles made it theirs.