For a band that cut their teeth early on in the live bar circuit, it is hard to imagine how such a group could stop touring altogether and still manage to survive – such was the case when The Beatles decided to retire from the road in 1966. The short life span puts things in perspective for the Liverpudlian group. Put differently; you could argue that The Rolling Stones are still around today because they never quit the road.
Although they didn’t formally announce this retirement, by 1966, it was clear as day for the Fab Four that they wouldn’t last much longer as a touring entity. In an interview with Mojo, Ringo Starr said, “The Beatles were never gone. And they could have come back.” They did come back for a quick reprise when they played on the rooftop of the Apple headquarters on Saville Row.
The group embarked on their fearful third North American tour in 1966, which consisted of 19 dates. By this point, the Liverpool band of humble beginnings were facing the wrath of global mass hysteria.
Ultimately, why the Fab Four decided to quit the road can be boiled down to three main reasons. Firstly, the group had outgrown the venues; the development of sound systems couldn’t keep up with the sheer size of Beatles shows. Secondly, the group were exhausted from non-stop performance. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, their 1966 North American tour came at the heels of John Lennon’s extremely disparaging comments about rock ‘n’ roll outlasting Jesus Christ and Christianity. The Fab Four were simply terrified for their lives, and considering one scary moment in Asia, the group’s fears were not unfounded.
The Liverpudlian lads had their ‘aha’ moment during the last show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 1966. Because of security reasons, the group were being carted around from airport to venue and vice versa in an armoured vehicle. “Now this is like some weird sci-fi thing from 2001 or something,” Paul McCartney said according to NME. “It was a very weird place. What it reminded me of was… you know these rough rides that police do where they put you in the back of a van but you’re not strapped down?” he added.
“And they were accused of killing that guy,” Macca continued. “Well, that’s what it was like. We’re suddenly sliding around in the back of the van and it was like, Oh, fuck this! And finally. The guys, John [Lennon] and George [Harrison] had been a little ‘Oh murmur murmur about touring and, finally, all of us, were like ‘Fuck this!’ So that was the moment.”
Why did the Beatles stop touring?
The Beatles stopped touring because they couldn’t hear themselves. It becomes somewhat of a problem when the drummer of a group has to take cues from the wiggling behinds of the band’s frontmen. Such was the case when Ringo Starr couldn’t hear what his bandmates were playing due to the rudimentary amplification that would normally have sufficed in a smaller venue.
During the early half of their careers, the Beatles became a well-oiled machine playing clubs like the Cavern in Liverpool and other music clubs in Europe, most notably in Hamburg. In his book, How Music Works, David Byrne of the Talking Heads made a poignant observation that how and why music is created is heavily dependent on the type of available performance venues.
He wrote: “In a sense, the space, the platform, and the software ‘makes’ the art, the music, or whatever. After something succeeds, more venues of a similar size and shape are built to accommodate more production of the same. After a while, the form of the work that predominates in these spaces is taken for granted— of course, we mainly hear symphonies in symphony halls.”
In other words, artists create their music – from writing a song in their bedroom to taking it into the recording studio – with a vision of how that song may eventually be performed live if they even intend to perform it live. That vision is usually confined and defined by what our environment allows for and sometimes, as is the case with The Beatles, out of necessity, they revolutionised the need for larger venues. Back in the early 1960s, the Fab Four were the first band to move a rock show to a full-size sports stadium to accommodate the exponential growth of their popularity.
Before this revolution, sound equipment along the lines of PA systems and guitar amplifications were therefore only designed for smaller venues.
The Beatles play Shea Stadium – the first-ever stadium rock show
The phenomenon known as Beatlemania propelled the Liverpool lads to astronomical, never-before-seen, global success. From dark and seedy nightclubs with an audience of nefarious mobsters in Hamburg to sports arenas, they had eventually become the first rock band to play Shea Stadium in New York City in 1965 – a surreal difference, to say the least. It revolutionised the live show experience.
There were over 55 thousand people in attendance, the biggest concert at the time. It remained the highest concert attendance in the United States until 1973, when Led Zeppelin broke the record at a show in Florida, pulling in a few more hundred attendees than the previous record.
The Beatles got exhausted
“In 1966 the road was getting pretty boring,” Ringo Starr recalled in the Beatles Anthology documentary. “It was coming to the end for me. Nobody was listening at the shows. That was OK at the beginning, but we were playing really bad,” Starr added. While, to the untrained ear the band may have seemed like they were in full working capacity, according to the Fab Four themselves, they thought their chops had become somewhat stale.
It wasn’t from lack of performance as they had plenty, but as mentioned previously, they couldn’t exactly hear themselves. The Beatles played pretty much non-stop from 1961 to 1964, with very few days of breaks in between. It is no wonder then, by 1966, they were beginning to wear thin.
“We’d always tried to keep some fun in it for ourselves. In anything you do you have to do that, and we’d been pretty good at it,” said McCartney according to Ultimate Classic Rock. “But now even America was beginning to pall because of the conditions of touring and because we’d done it so many times.”
Their exhaustion didn’t just stem from years of playing to an ever-increasing audience that outgrew their primitive sound equipment. An important factor that led the Fab Four to ultimately stop touring was that their lives were in danger, one that didn’t just stem from fanatical fans but from people who wanted to intentionally harm the lads – in particular, John Lennon.
Did The Beatles fear for their lives?
A contentious moment arose for the Fab Four, and especially for Lennon when he made a controversial remark. “Christianity will go,” Lennon slyly remarked. “It will vanish and shrink….We’re more popular than Jesus now.” Lennon told a reporter for the London Evening Standard on March 4th, 1966. While the interview covered a wide range of comments, it was only one sentence that made it into an American magazine: “We’re more popular than Jesus.”
It wouldn’t be until five months later, on the eve of their final North American tour spanning 19 dates, when this one sentence sparked outrage among many God-fearing Americans, particularly in the Bible belt in the Southern states. Not to mention, things were starting to get heated in other countries, and their security wasn’t the greatest.
All chaos breaks loose in the Philippines
One of these times that brought the Fab Four’s security into question was during their one-day stay in Manila, Philippines, where the lads were scheduled to play two shows at Rizal Memorial Football Stadium. It was the last stop of their 1966 world tour on July 4th.
Things were a little precarious from the moment they landed at the airport on the 3rd. “We arrived there with thousands and thousands of kids, with hundreds and hundreds of policemen – and it was a little dodgy. Everyone had guns,” Starr recalled according to Ultimate Classic Rock.
What ensued was a misunderstanding and unfortunate example of how ferocious mob mentality can transpire when fueled by the press. The Beatles were invited to attend a breakfast press conference with the First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, this was not properly communicated to the guys, and Brian Epstein had informed the officials that they would not be attending.
The next day, the Manila Times newspaper carried a front-page story accusing the lads for ‘snubbing the First Lady and the three Marcos children.’ “We put the TV on, and there was a horrific TV show of Madame Marcos screaming, ‘They’ve let me down!'” Starr said. “There were all these shots with the cameraman focusing on empty plates and up into the little kids’ faces, all crying because the Beatles hadn’t turned up.”
From the moment the boys got into their car to head back to the airport, right up until boarding the plane, their lives were being threatened. With police protection gone and roadie Mal Evans being beaten up, the Beatles seriously questioned if it was all worth it anymore.
When their plane took off, applause broke out, relieved that they had escaped the danger. Their escape plan involved a nice vacation in India, hoping to enjoy a reprieve from the chaos, but upon their arrival in New Dehli, things weren’t all that much better. It seemed that hatred for Beatlemania was becoming just as prevalent as the love for it.
A month later, the Beatles were headed to the States on the heels of Lennon’s Christianity remarks catching fire – once again, their safety came into question. This was a pivotal factor that led the Beatles to stop touring.
When was the last time the Beatles played live?
The last time the Beatles officially played live was on January 30th in 1969, when they played on the rooftop of the Apple headquarters. The lads had a bit more fun when they did this, and the only reason why they did the show was for a film they were shooting, Let it Be, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hoog.
Before this, The Beatles decided unanimously amongst themselves to quit touring after their last date for their 1966 North American tour at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
Lennon said after this concert: “I was thinking this is the end, really. There’s no more touring. That means there’s going to be a blank space in the future. That’s when I really started considering life without the Beatles; what would it be? And that’s when the seed was planted that I had to somehow get out of the Beatles without being thrown out by the others.”
Along these lines, we explore how the Fab Four’s decision to stop touring played a deciding factor in the dissolution of the band itself. Why did the Beatles break up?