Considering the fact that The Beatles really came to the fore during their early tours of the UK’s bars, it is amazing to think that the band stopped playing live altogether in 1966 after just four years. What is perhaps even more amazing is that this decision never affected The Beatles popularity and they remained the biggest band in the world until their ultimate split.
The Beatles’ decision to stop touring was never officially announced to fans, and to this day, fans and music historians still debate about what the genuine reasons were for the decision. When the Fab Four came together for one last performance on the rooftop of Apple Corps on January 30th 1969, the smiles on their faces seemed to indicate that they had really missed playing live, and fans hoped that it might spell a return to touring. But it wasn’t to be, and that impromptu show was famously the last that they would ever play as a band.
So what happened?
Why did one of the greatest bands ever to play in front of an audience decide to become a recording-only group?
In this article we will explain the four main reasons The Beatles stopped touring in 1966.
1. They Had Simply Grown Too Big
When we look back at original recordings of live Beatles’ performances, the grainy black and white footage and poor sound quality makes us wish we could have been there in person. Just imagine being able to listen to Lennon and McCartney’s harmonies live. In fact, while the audience at the time will have obviously have had the advantage of seeing the band in full colour 3D, their listening experience may not have been much better than ours all these years later.
The Beatles had really perfected their sound and performance touring the local clubs in Liverpool and later across Europe in cities like Hamburg. These small venues had an obvious influence on everything from the way the group wrote music, arranged their songs, and set up their equipment. This is typical of how a venue shapes the creative process. Operas are written to be performed in opera houses, symphonies are written for symphony halls. The Beatles had written their songs in, and for, smaller club venues but Beatlemania had seen the band become global megastars in just a few short years. From playing pubs in Liverpool in 1961, to playing what was the biggest concert ever at the time in front of 55,000 people in New York’s Shea Stadium in 1966, they had gone stratospheric.
These days, there are certain bands we label as “stadium bands”. They have big songs that really come to life when they are blasted out at full volume to tens of thousands of people in a huge venue. The problem that The Beatles had as the first band to become so popular they could fill a stadium, is that they couldn’t hear themselves play. The low tech amplifiers the band were using, coupled with the non-stop screaming that came as standard with Beatles’ fans watching their heroes play live, meant that Ringo Starr later joked that he had to judge what song he was supposed to be drumming based on how the other three’s backsides were moving.
The Beatles were so ahead of their time that they just didn’t have the technology to be able to make their sound big enough for stadium venues, particularly when the fans would just scream the whole way through the show. Ultimately, the problem was solved with the development of more powerful speakers, amplifiers, and PA systems, but sadly, The Beatles would only ever get to use them as solo artists. Ironically, the band who ended up becoming most synonymous with stadium shows, were their closest 1960s rivals The Rolling Stones.
2. The Band Were Burnt Out
It may sound strange that a band could get burnt out by playing live after only four years, (especially as the Rolling Stones are still touring today!) but you have to consider the intensity of The Beatles’ tours. By the time it came to their third tour of North America in 1966, Beatlemania was reaching crescendo levels of mayhem. Already exhausted from touring with almost no break during the early 1960’s, the ever-bigger shows were really beginning to take their toll on the band.
As explained above, not being able to hear their instruments through the ineffective speakers was affecting their performance, but that wasn’t the only reason the band’s playing was going downhill.
As Ringo Starr later explained, “In 1966, the road was getting pretty boring…Nobody was listening at the shows.”
The Beatles were musicians, and prided themselves on being musicians, but their shows had become a farce. The vast majority of fans turned up just to scream, which not only contributed to the band’s poor playing, but also began to wear them down emotionally. In fact, the band didn’t even bother to play any new songs on the tour, concluding that the equipment wasn’t up to it, and nobody would hear it anyway. With chronic sound issues, too much drink and drugs, homesickness, creative differences, and growing animosity between band members, things were always likely to come to a head.
And yet despite this, The Beatles just kept on touring. The 1966 US tour had 19 dates, including the Shea Stadium show; 17 in the US and 2 in Canada. It was The Beatles’ third tour of America, and was set to be another rip-roaring success for the band, just like the two that had come before it. However, just a few months before they were set to arrive in the US, it was clear that things were starting to change.
3. There Were Real Security Risks
In typical Beatles’s style, they proceeded their US tour with a casual world tour, the last stop of which was a one day trip to the Philippines. The band was set to play two shows in the capital Manila, but unfortunately the occasion started badly and only proceeded to get dramatically worse.
Ringo Starr later recalled how they had felt uneasy immediately upon arrival to the Philippines, met by thousands of screaming children and hundreds of policemen, with everyone seemingly carrying guns. Already rattled by their welcome, the band endeavoured to make the best of it, play their two shows, and head off back home.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. The problems really started when the band grossly misunderstood the fragility of the political situation in the Philippines. As he had done with similar invitations from other world leaders, Brian Epstein politely declined a breakfast invitation from the wife of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, but the reaction that followed was unlike anything they could have imagined. The following day, the band woke up to the front pages of the country’s newspaper, The Manila Times, exclaiming that they had snubbed the first family, and when they turned on the television, the president’s wife herself was screaming about having been rejected. The cameras panned to a full breakfast spread, empty plates, and the crying faces of the three Marcos children.
Deeply insulted by the unprecedented snub, the residents of Manila began to riot and demanded the band’s immediate apology and arrest. With their lives in danger, The Beatles’ security, which was supposed to be provided by the Philippines police force, disappeared. After their roadie was badly beaten by the mob, the band and their entourage finally managed to escape the country, with relieved applause breaking out as the plane finally left the runway.
Unfortunately, this incident was just the beginning of their troubles on tour.
4. Their Lives Were in Danger
Part of the problem of being world-famous is that everything you say is heard around the world, and quite often ends up getting you in trouble. The Beatles were, of course, no strangers to controversy, like Elvis Presley before them their bad boy image was part of their appeal, but cultural differences between the UK and the US meant that one particular John Lennon joke ended up putting the band in serious hot water.
It was during an interview earlier on in the year, when John Lennon made the now infamous observation, “We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity…Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right … Jesus was alright but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
The comments had barely raised an eyebrow in the UK, but when they were printed in a teen mag in the US a week before the US tour was set to begin, they caused uproar. Politicians and Christian leaders across the American “Bible Belt” demanded the tour be cancelled, while even The Vatican got involved, protesting Lennon’s words.
The Beatles last tour was chaotic from the outset, which is perhaps fitting for the greatest rock and roll band the world had ever seen. With Lennon’s words fueling protests and anti-Beatles sentiment at practically every top on the tour, added to the experience they had just had in the Philippines, the band’s growing boredom and dissatisfaction with touring were giving way to another feeling; fear.
McCartney later described being driven round in the back of armoured vehicles for their own security. Practically all they saw the whole trip was a host of airports, armoured vehicles, hotel rooms, and show venues. The fans who packed out the stadiums were as passionate as ever, but as noted above, this love for the band was communicated through incessant screaming which made playing live a complete waste of time. Finally during the final show in Candlestick Park, the band decided they had had enough. Between the screams, the death threats, and the constant homesickness, the decision was made to stop touring altogether.
You don’t need to be a mega Beatles fan to know that the band did play live again one more time. The 1969 performance on the roof of Apple Corps headquarters is now the stuff of rock and roll legend.
So how did it come about?
The idea had actually been to play a different show, as part of the promotional campaign for a new album. Tensions between the band members had been growing bigger for years, and perhaps in an attempt to try and reset their friendship, Paul McCartney suggested filming a series of rehearsals for a live comeback performance. The other members weren’t convinced but tentatively agreed to the idea.
It was a disaster, as anyone who had seen the relationships between the band members deteriorate could have predicted it would be. The other three members had long voiced their opposition to McCartney’s ever-growing attempts to control the band, and this came to a head during the rehearsal sessions when George Harrison quit the band due to McCartney’s constant criticism and dictatorial attitude. He eventually agreed to come back but only on the condition that the live show part of the project was cut. McCartney agreed, mainly because neither Lennon nor Starr wanted to do the show either.
In reality, this did nothing to improve inter-band relationships, and with drugs, constant bickering, and the ever-presence of Yoko Ono thrown into the mix, it was a miracle that they held it together as long as they did. With all of the fights caught on camera, The Beatles were as good as over.
Knowing that the end had come, and perhaps feeling like a weight had been lifted, the band decided on one last hurrah. The day after the actual gig was supposed to be played, they set up their instruments on the roof of Apple Corps and let rip. With no screaming fans to drown them out, and with beaming smiles on their faces, The Beatles serenaded the people of London one last time.