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Music

Why did The Beatles stop touring?

In 1966, The Beatles made the decision to stop touring and to focus on recording albums. For the next three years, they wound up recording some of the most inventive albums of the 20th century, including a conceptual album that demonstrated the band’s fondness for vaudeville, and a densely produced album, layered with a collection of fierily recorded guitar hooks that showed the band’s progression as a musical powerhouse.

It’s unlikely that the band could have progressed if they were still touring around the world playing to venues with questionable audio standards and equipment. The Beatles might have lacked Wings’ finesse as a live outfit, but they compensated by virtue of their enthusiasm, passion and desire to perform in front of a paying audience.

But they were growing audibly bored by the shrieks and disembodied yelps that were drowning out the band. Drummer Ringo Starr joked that he could only follow the three guitar players by watching the shake of their heads and bums. It didn’t help that some of the songs – particularly ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Rain’ – were proving tricky, if almost entirely impossible, to reproduce live. The band were growing more comfortable in the studios, and the musicians were swapping instruments in the studio, which they clearly could not reproduce.

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McCartney played the opening hook on ‘Paperback Writer’, Harrison played the jaunty bass on ‘Good Day Sunshine’, and Lennon applied the sound effects on the jaunty ‘Yellow Submarine’. Interestingly, Starr was the only one who couldn’t switch from instrument to instrument, but the band relied on his rock-steady beat, sometimes recording almost entirely alone. Starr is the only other Beatle to feature on ‘For No One’, much as his explosive cymbals compensated for the lack of McCartney harmonies on ‘She Said She Said’ (the bassist doesn’t appear on the song, having stormed out of the session).

George Martin was making his presence known on their recordings, adding string and orchestral flourishes to their songs during Help!. He was begging Brian Epstein to let the band spend more time in the studio, and by the time they recorded Rubber Soul, they were finally in a position to exhibit their artistry in the studio.

Harrison was experimenting with sitars, and the instrument was holding more of a draw to him than the electric guitar was. McCartney, by contrast, was performing more of the guitar solos himself (his solo on ‘Taxman’ demonstrates a spontaneity that’s almost breathtaking in its resolve), but was unable to perform the guitar solos onstage, given his position as a bassist. And yet McCartney enjoyed being on stage more than the others did and made the greatest effort to start another band during the 1970s.

But he could sense that Lennon wasn’t enamoured with the experience, as the rhythm guitarist was enjoying other pursuits, such as writing, acting and taking lots and lots of hallucinogenics. Starr didn’t have the same level of interest as the other three, but he had a baby he wanted to spend time with. It was one thing to perform with The Beatles in London, but the weeks spent on tour deprived him of quality time with his wife and child.

But Harrison was the most disenfranchised, and let out a hoot when the band performed their final concert in 1966. “I don’t have to be a Beatle anymore,” he said and spent the remainder of the decade looking for a way to exit the band. He distracted himself with two instrumental albums (Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound), which he recorded outside of The Beatles, before he decided to quit The Beatles in 1969, at a time when The Beatles were preparing to make a live comeback.

He returned to the Get Back sessions, but the damage was done, and in one telling moment during the Peter Jackson series, the lead guitarist admits to Lennon that he’s planning a solo album. Clearly, he was happy to play guitar with the band, although McCartney’s dictation was growing harder to acquiesce to. As was evident from the finished show, The Beatles sounded underwhelming on the roof, and the final recordings demonstrates a band that belonged in the studio, and not on the stage. Good thing they stopped touring so.