Fifty years ago today, The Beatles performed their last live show, at windy Candlestick Park in San Francisco. It was a watershed moment for the band, but it also represented one of those sharp turns that marks an entire musical era.
The Beatles were dying in August 1966, in the third year of their worldwide superstardom and the fifth since their breakout in Britain. Once a vibrant live club band, their concerts were inaudible over their shrieking fans, and they couldn’t even hear each other onstage. Worse yet, they increasingly feared for their lives from violent scenes along their tour stops, worst of all a manhandling in the Marcos-run Philippines. Their commercial success was not in any danger – but their survival as a band was. Yet, the band would be reborn better than ever after their decision to stop touring, with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in June 1967, a record that (along with The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, released in May 1966) is often credited with establishing the rock album as an artistic form in its own right (as opposed to just a collection of unconnected songs). Sgt. Pepper would set the band on the path to arguably the most productive period of any band’s career in history: between June 1967 and May 1970, they would release three single-record studio albums (the others being Abbey Road and Let it Be), a double album (The White Album), two soundtrack albums (Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine), and enough hit singles to fill another album (several of which were released on the 1970 compilation record Hey Jude). It was a startlingly creative and revolutionary musical output over 35 months. And it quite likely would not have happened if the band had kept touring.
It’s interesting to consider whether other bands since would have benefited, creatively, from The Beatles’ decision to abandon the road and head full-time to the studio. Perhaps not: most bands can’t afford financially to abandon live music, don’t own their own record label (as The Beatles did from 1968 onward), and don’t have three fantastic songwriters and four great musicians to share the creative load, ameliorating the risk of burnout. Also, not everyone would respond well to the isolation of recording without touring and never even seeing how their songs play live. But clearly it was the right decision for the band at the time, and it represents part of what makes The Beatles so unique in the history of rock and pop music.
The end of The Beatles’ touring career also marked the end of an era of live music, and the dawn of a much brighter one. Rock’s popularity was born on radio and television, and only secondarily in live performance, although many of the British Invasion bands made their way up playing clubs. But live rock music was also in a bad state in 1966, because the technology wasn’t keeping up with the demand for bigger venues. The Beatles were the most extreme case, but many touring acts had trouble both with their sound systems (often using primitive public address systems at the venues they played, and lacking even the trucking capacity to bring better sound systems with them) and with their ability to hear each other onstage. The technological innovations in speakers that came along over the years 1966-68 turned all that around (again, The Beach Boys were ahead of the curve on this), and June 1967 dawned this new era as well, as the Monterey Pop Festival showed the world what previously lesser-known talents like The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding could sound like live in a large venue before a massive audience. As festival promoter Lou Adler recalled:
Also notable was the festival’s innovative sound system, designed and built by audio engineer Abe Jacob, who started his career doing live sound for San Francisco bands, and went on to become a leading sound designer for the American theatre. Jacob’s groundbreaking Monterey sound system was the progenitor of all the large-scale PAs that followed. It was a key factor in the festival’s success and it was greatly appreciated by the artists — in the Monterey film, David Crosby can clearly be seen saying “Great sound system!” to band-mate Chris Hillman at the start of The Byrds’ performance.
Technology has always mattered in music, from the invention of new instruments to the dawn of recorded sound, and especially in rock: few inventions were more critical than the electric guitar, which came into its own by the late 1940s through the work of Les Paul and others. But fifty years after the most popular rock band in history threw in the towel as a touring act, the reason why even some of The Beatles’ peers are still doing stadium shows is because sound system innovators stepped into the breach to solve many of the problems that killed the Fab Four as a live band.