As venues are beginning to open back up, so has the road for many bands looking to make up for a year and half of absolutely no touring. Even before the pandemic, it was no secret that streaming’s financial inequity has left many artists with no choice but to be tethered to the steering wheels of their Econoline vans, grinding it out on the road in order to cobble together a living while supplies last on their merch tables. But as the pace was forced to a halt, many artists have been forced to reevaluate what makes the most sense for them for fear of stretching themselves too thin.
Longrunning Philadelphia indie-rockers Dr. Dog shocked many of their fans earlier this month when they announced an extensive tour starting this fall and running through the end of 2021, revealing that this expedition would be their final voyage as a touring act, though it wouldn’t constitute the outright end of the group. “It’s important to us that you understand that this is not a break up or anything like that,” the post read. “We don’t know what Dr. Dog will do, we just know it won’t include going on tour, except the tour we’re announcing now, which is going to rule.”
While it’s too early to know what the future holds for the band, it recalls similar situations with bands who have chosen to ease up on touring in favor of yearly extended runs in popular markets—like The Hold Steady or OSEES, to a degree—or artists who have left the road behind altogether in favor of focusing on the studio. The former groups have crunched the numbers and worked it out that extensive U.S. tours no longer make sense for them financially, so it makes sense to be strategic when they head out to promote releases.
In many cases, the weight of audience expectations and the journey to be in front of them can be all too overwhelming. Artists get burned out and depleted sometimes even before they reach soundcheck. It can take a lasting negative toll that eventually seeps into the art once it’s amplified and presented for the world to see. It’s a sense of losing control of what you have created that plagues all performers. In the parallel world of comedy, it caused such huge talents like Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy and, most recently, Bo Burnham to give up the stage for long periods of time in order to re-evaluate their relationships with those they were trying to entertain.
It all begs the question: When do you lose ownership of your art and what are the steps you need to take to regain control of it? With how the world operates these days, simply throwing a song you’ve been working on up on Bandcamp or SoundCloud could potentially put you in front of either no audience or a massive, global one in no time at all. We’ve seen it happen more and more where young viral sensations make their live debuts on large festival stages after racking up likes and plays without ever grinding it out on the road.
With Dr. Dog being such a beloved and phenomenal live band, now is the time to take a deep look into some other artists who have decided—for their own unique reasons—to leave the road behind in order to let their records do the talking. While it was tempting to include musicians who have decided to take a backseat from their bands to focus on behind-the-scenes business—like Epitaph Records founder and Bad Religion guitarist and songwriter Brett Gurewitz or, similarly, Superchunk bassist and Merge Records co-founder Laura Ballance—this list sticks to bands or artists whose projects retired from the road altogether. That means artists like Harry Nilsson, who never toured or played live to begin with, are also exempt. So without any further ado, and in no particular order, here are 10 notable acts who decided to pump the brakes and stop touring in some shape or form.
Perhaps the most recent example of an artist retreating from the road aside from Dr. Dog is Mitski Miyawaki—known more widely as Mitski—who decided to take an indefinite break from touring after supporting her masterful 2018 breakthrough album Be The Cowboy. Taking to her Twitter—which has since been deleted—to clarify her decisions after the initial sting, Mitski assured that she would be gone, but not forever. “I’ve been on non-stop tour for over 5 years,” she wrote. “I haven’t had a place to live during this time, and I sense that if I don’t step away soon, my self-worth/identity will start depending too much on staying in the game.”
With two massive celebratory hometown shows in Central Park in the fall of 2019, Mitski made good on her word and bowed out from performing. She wasn’t quiet for very long, as she collaborated on the song “Susie Save Your Love” with Allie X from the 2020 album Cape God, contributed the song “Cop Car” to the soundtrack for the film The Turning, and resurfaced again in May with a soundtrack for the graphic novel This Is Where We Fall by Chris Miskiewicz and Vincent Kings.
2. Prefab Sprout
The influential English sophisti-pop band Prefab Sprout made two of the best records of the ‘80s with Steve McQueen—otherwise known as Two Wheels Good in the States—and From Langley Park to Memphis. While the band never did much full-blown touring at the height of their popularity, mounting health issues for the band’s mastermind Paddy McAloon made it increasingly difficult to do any.
Even though the band released two albums in the ‘90s, 1990’s Jordan: The Comeback and 1997’s Andromeda Heights, the band remained pretty inactive on the road. But in 1999 McAloon received news that he suffered from detached retinas, seriously impacting his vision. If that wasn’t enough, he would soon be diagnosed with the incurable, vertigo-inducing hearing issue known as Meniere’s disease, which would cause him to officially retreat from the public altogether. The band would release three albums throughout the 2000s—2003s I Trawl the Megahertz, 2009’s Let’s Change the World with Music and 2014’s Crimson / Red—but remained absent from the stage. In a 2019 interview with Tony Clayton-Lea of the Irish Times around the reissue of the 2003 Prefab Sprout opus Megahertz, McAloon explained the situation as being stuck between a rock and hard place. “To play live, where you have volume involved, and amplification of volume, is courting disaster, so that’s really gone,” he confessed. “I can’t say that I miss the gigs, but I don’t like the option being taken away from me.”
3. Tom Waits
Tom Waits’ touring announcements used to be just as legendary as some of his performances. In 2008, a hilarious video surfaced online where Waits, in front of a chalkboard, addressed a fake audience of press to outline the meandering itinerary of small theaters he would be hitting for his historic Glitter and Doom tour. If you haven’t seen it, the four-minute clip perfectly outlines Waits’ patented brand of strangeness and it is a perfect companion while listening to him and his band performing at devilish heights with the live album that came from that famed tour. But none of us who had thought about making the drive out to the Brady Theatre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from Upstate New York considered that this would be the last time anyone would see the poet laureate of the junkyard perform live in all of his glory.
After the release of his last album Bad As Me in 2011, fans were left wanting as he only promoted the album with a few late-night performances, but alas, no tour. Since then, Waits made one special performance at the 2013 Bridge School Benefit Concert and a 2015 televised performance to honor David Letterman’s retirement from The Late Show. Most recently, he and his wife and songwriting partner Kathleen Brennan were honored for their Lyrics of Literary Excellence at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in 2016, where he performed the song “You Can Never Hold Back Spring.”
Waits hasn’t commented on his absence from the road or whether he would release any new music in the future, but he has kept busy with various acting roles, including the 2018 Coen Brothers film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. While his film roles are always memorable, it’s high time the man treated the world to a little more “Glitter” and “Doom.”
(For further evidence of Waits’ greatness live, check out the surreal concert film Big Time or his many late-night television performances.)
4. Talk Talk
With the release of their 1986 album Colour of Spring, the Mark Hollis-led band Talk Talk had begun to soak the synth-pop foundation of earlier albums like It’s My Life and The Party’s Over with a sense of unrestrained experimentation and striking emotional weight. But nothing would prepare fans and critics for how far the band would take things with their next release, 1988’s Spirit of Eden.
Now heralded as an unrivaled masterwork that laid the groundwork for slowcore and post-rock, the album took everything that the band had worked towards up to that point and blew it apart to create something completely fresh. Their new glacially paced and avant-garde direction received sour receptions from many prominent outlets at the time, including a one-star review from Rolling Stone. The band would explore this direction even further with their equally masterful final album, 1991’s Laughing Stock.
The band and Hollis were reaching their artistic zenith, although they were misunderstood. Perhaps performing these songs in front of audiences would have solidified their importance—after all, Talk Talk was a band with honest-to-goodness “hits.” In an interview with Melody Maker (found by NME), Hollis explained that performing the music of Eden—which required so much patience and silence—in front of an audience would only do the material a disservice. “Silence is the most important thing you have,” he explained, “one note is better than two, spirit is everything, and technique, although it has a degree of importance, is always secondary.”
After Laughing Stock and his under-appreciated 1998 self-titled solo album, Hollis retreated from the industry altogether, deciding to focus on family life. “I choose for my family,” Hollis said in the same interview. “Maybe others are capable of doing it, but I can’t go on tour and be a good dad at the same time.” Hollis remained true to his decision before his untimely passing in 2019 at the age of 64.
5. Scott Walker
Gaining “teen heartthrob” status as the rich baritone-voiced leader of The Walker Brothers in the mid ‘60s, Scott Walker would go on to take pop music into the darkest depths possible with his own solo releases. From his 1967 debut Scott to his final 4AD release Soused in 2014, Walker rarely performed his music in front of an audience before losing his battle with cancer in 2019. As the story goes, Walker became so pissed off during a 1978 performance in which a trumpet player played a solo out of tune that he gave up the stage altogether in defiant “fuck-this-shit” fashion.
Walker went on to release a number of game-changing records that would go on to stand the tests of time and melt the edges of the form. But that single moment would lead to a crippling bout of stage fright that would follow him for the rest of his career. His final public performance was in 1995 on the musical roundabout variety show Later … With Jools Holland where he played an unrelentingly tense solo performance of Tilt closing track “Rosary.” Accompanied only by a clean Telecaster and that ghostly voice, Walker made his thoughts on the performance known with the song’s final line: “And I gotta quit,” he sang.
6. Kate Bush
Is there an artist who has more of a fingerprint on the current art-leaning mold of pop music than Kate Bush? It’s easy to see that without some of her enduring classics, such as 1982’s The Dreaming and her 1985 follow-up Hounds of Love, we wouldn’t have artists like Bjork, Portishead, or even Lorde. But after touring behind her second album Lionheart, the British singer gave up touring altogether, leaving the year of 1979 as the only time she ever took her songs out on the road.
Bush remained active, however, releasing albums that showed considerable jumps in artistry at a slow pace that would only elevate her elusive and influential presence in the realm of pop music. After nearly 35 years of no official live performances—aside from the occasional televised performance—Bush broke her silence in 2014 with a 22-show residency at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, titled Before The Dawn. A full-fledged piece of multimedia theatre, the show included dancers, puppets, dialogue from Cloud Atlas novelist David Mitchell and, of course, selections from Bush’s historic career.
In a 2014 interview with The Fader, Bush explained why it took her so long to finally retake her mark under the heat of the spotlight. “The original show was of the first two albums that I’d made, and I had hoped to do another show after I had another of two albums’ worth of material,” she said. “And as I started getting much more involved in the recording process, it took me off into a different path where it was all about trying to make a good album. It became very time-consuming, so I moved into being more of a recording artist. And every time you finish an album, there’s the opportunity to make visuals to go with some of the tracks. So I became very involved in that, as well.”
Aside from the accompanying 2016 live album for Before The Dawn, Bush has not released a new album of original material since 2011’s 50 Words for Snow. Let’s hope that if she ever chooses to release another album, it will inspire her to take the stage once more.
XTC’s brainy mastermind Andy Partridge has always maintained a healthy distaste and skepticism for, well, most things. But his repulsion for performing live seems to have stemmed from a force that is totally out of his control. While on tour in March of 1982 supporting their massive album English Settlement, Partridge suffered a mental breakdown mid-song while performing at the Theatre Le Palace in Paris. Partridge attributed this crippling event to a mixture of pressure and exhaustion from touring, as well as symptoms from withdrawal from valium he had taken for hyperactivity. The band was able to play a couple more shows up until their final “real gig” at the California Theatre in San Diego on April 3, 1982.
Though the band went on to release several classics over the next decade up until 1992’s Nonsuch, XTC would make only a select few radio and television appearances with their final performance on Letterman on June 30, 1989, featuring the Colin Moulding-sung “King For A Day,” off their album Oranges and Lemons. In the performance, Partridge looks as though he is having an absolute blast, sporting a comically large top hat and sporting a shit-eating grin that, in hindsight, suggests he knew this would be the last time he would be participating in the charade of late-night promo.
In an interview with Paste’s Brent Dey back in 2006, Partridge seemed content with the decision to give up the road and explained that it helped the band to focus on the real goal: the studio. “These days, you have to have a ringtone or be in a soap to make it in the music biz,” Partridge said. “Back then you had to perform live. When we quit touring, people thought we’d either died, split up or moved into a nunnery.” Later in the interview, Partridge elaborated, “Quitting touring allowed us to go Technicolor.”
8. Steely Dan
There is no way you could make a list of artists who gave up touring to focus on tightening their studio skills without mention of the crabapple-core sultans of smooth, dildo-referencing songwriting savants Steely Dan.
While dynamic duo Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had toured quite a bit in their early days, they decided to no longer waste time on long, drawn-out tours. After their 1974 album Pretzel Logic, the two decided to disband their backing band to focus on recording, and would not play another full show until they took the stage at Philly’s Spectrum Arena in 1992. They would head out on the road the following year with a full-fledged tour and would consistently play out up until—and after—Becker’s passing from esophageal cancer in 2017.
In a 1993 interview with the LA Times, Fagen explained their initial dismissal of the road pretty succinctly ahead of their return to the stage. “When we went out [on tour] in support of the first album, the record company in a way forced us out,” he said, adding, “Although the players were good players, we wanted to do a variety of types of music and work with other musicians. And they basically—and very justifiably—wanted to go out and play and make money. And so we decided to disband and concentrate on recording and writing music, which takes a lot of time and thought, and to eventually put another band together, perhaps, and go out. But I guess inertia set in, and we ended up just making records.”
9. Brian Wilson
When Brian Wilson decided to let his brothers in arms—and actual brothers—in the Beach Boys hit the road without him so that he could work on his timeless masterpiece Pet Sounds, he laid the groundwork for more artists to explore the endless possibilities and rules that could be broken with a little more emphasis on strenuous hours in the studio. Wilson’s struggles with mental illness are pretty well documented at this point. Diagnosed with schizoaffective and mild manic depression—all made worse by extensive heavy drug use—Wilson became one of rock and roll’s most notable tragic reclusive geniuses.
After a terrifying mental episode aboard an airplane in 1964, he would retire from touring until he was fit to return with the band onstage in 1976. Wilson believed the road was causing his rapid decline during that period. “I felt I had no choice,” said Wilson. “I was run down mentally and emotionally because I was running around, jumping on jets from one city to another on one-night stands, also producing, writing, arranging, singing, planning, teaching—to the point where I had no peace of mind and no chance to actually sit down and think or even rest.”
His return to the stage after such a dark and reclusive period would be relatively short lived. Wilson’s continuous mental-health struggles would be a constant throughout his career, leading to long breaks from recording and the road, both with the Beach Boys and as a solo artist. Most recently, Wilson had to cancel a tour in 2019 due to a resurgence of these issues. In a note to fans, he detailed the unfortunate circumstances: “I had every intention to do these shows and was excited to get back to performing,” the message read. “I’ve been in the studio recording and rehearsing with my band and have been feeling better. But then it crept back, and I’ve been struggling with stuff in my head and saying things I don’t mean, and I don’t know why. It’s something I’ve never dealt with before, and we can’t quite figure it out just yet.”
10. The Beatles
Many fans—wrongfully—placed the blame for the demise of The Beatles over the years on John Lennon’s infatuation with his wife and artistic muse and partner, Yoko Ono. But by the time the band finally called it quits for good on April 10, 1970, the reality was they had been functioning more as a recording project for the previous four years. While the band was dabbling in recordings that would become difficult to reproduce in a live setting, their fame was way too big for the live music infrastructure to support at that time. The Beatles could no longer match the hordes of screaming teens who crammed into the stadiums they played, as their constant waves of shrieks drowned out the miniscule racket they were helplessly attempting to bash out onstage.
The line of communication was no longer defined between artist and audience—between Beatle and -mania. As a result, their final shows were public appearances, rather than rock concerts. In a hilarious moment in the 1966 concert film The Beatles At Shea Stadium, a defeated Lennon mutters some gibberish into the microphone while introducing the next song, knowing full well that the audience was too busy screeching their lungs out to hear what he was saying. He could have been saying there was a million dollars hidden underneath the visitor’s dugout and no one would have noticed.
In a 1969 interview on the BBC radio show Scene and Heard, McCartney explained that the band had reached the point where playing to such large audiences became much too overblown. It had become a far cry from those fun early days performing at Liverpool’s The Cavern Club. As the venues grew, the band began to rely on an “act” when playing to these massive crowds. For McCartney, that song and dance routine was beginning to feel a little bit stale.
“When we played The Cavern, when we played in the really early days, we really enjoyed performing,” he said, adding, “For us, we’ve done all that you can do with performing. We can get bigger audiences, we can get bigger in quantity. But in quality of performance, it’s difficult. I personally, if we were to do anything, would prefer to go right back to a small club and just have 50 people and just sing to them. Have a bit of a sing-song. I’d get more fun from that.”
This need for the industry to catch up with the rock and roll phenomenon would be fulfilled within the next decade with the rise of stadium-rock acts. As venues would modernize their sound systems, they would make damn sure that whenever Paul McCartney and Wings rolled through town, the poor saps in the nosebleeds could sing and clap along to “Jet” in unison.
Pat King is a Brooklyn-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.