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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Why would a band not play their hits? *Any* hit

I was talking to a musician recently. He was in a band that had reformed for a last tour. They had a following but the nearest they'd come to an actual hit was a cover version of a well-known song that they'd recorded years before for a film soundtrack. Reasoning that even the tiniest regional hit was a calling card that reached beyond their tiny fan constituency he suggested they should put it in the set. It was vetoed by the drummer who thought it was somehow "embarrassing". It never occurs to bands that any of their own songs might be "embarrassing" but they are apt to think that by doing other people's songs they are somehow reneging on their deal with the God of authenticity.

In every other area of show business it's pretty much inconceivable that an act facing a crowd who needed entertaining wouldn't reach for every weapon as their disposal. Even an ornery old soul like Bob Dylan does his biggest hits. Clive James told me that his anecdote about the dunny man from the first volume of his memoirs is the "bit" that still makes people buy tickets to hear him read. James Taylor sings about the people who "pay good money to hear Fire And Rain again and again and again" in a song called, with refreshing honesty, That's Why I'm Here.

If I were climbing on stage and had any reason to believe that there was anything the audience wanted to hear for me, I'd make damn sure I played it, probably near the beginning. I'd do that because any kind of performance is a battle for survival. How come bands are the only people who don't know this?




20 comments:

  1. Too true.

    In fact, the only way this blog post could be improved would be if you'd included some of your greatest ever coverlines from Smash Hits in it.

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  2. I think some actors are like that as well; they want to be recognised for their "serious" work and not for, say, the popular sitcom role that made them a household name.

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  3. I'm now picturing Kevin Eldon as Ralph McTell in the very funny Big Train sketch.

    STREETS OF LONDON!

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  4. Just one thought: Hi Ho, Silver Lining.

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  5. I suppose they consider themselves artists rather than entertainers. Misguidedly.

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  6. It has always been extremely arrogant and disrespectful to an audience to deliberately avoid playing stuff that is popular and well-known. I think it must have developed from the late 60s once certain acts found that vast popularity brings with it certain annoyances and inconveniences. Mass adulation led to complacency and they took their eye off the ball. Acts suddenly started finding it necessary to show people there was more to them than just their hits, they were deep, and they were cool. Amazing really, because they were basically saying: "I'm bored with that old song, and I don't care that you've paid to see me perform it. I'd rather play something newer, which suits me and your requirements are not important!"

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  7. There's a balance to be found, and it partly depends on whether the crowd only know the "hits". Julian Cope can get by just fine without playing "World Shut Your Mouth". But I remember Blur being mocked when they insisted on making their most recent (and most difficult) album "13" the basis of their set when playing festivals, and then contrast that with acts like Echo and the Bunnymen, who are reluctant to play anything they've recorded lately, even in front of their own fans.

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  8. I suppose it's a question of making the right judgement call. I saw OMD at Latitude in 2011, when it was miserable and raining and those of us not using artificial stimulants were feeling a tad glum. But Andy McCluskey bounced on stage and immediately announced: "Dont worry folks, no experimental stuff today, we're going to play you 17 hits!" A drenched and subdued crowd went instantly wild and this announcement alone nearly brought the house (tent) down before they'd played a single note!

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  9. Would the band in question hail from New Zealand?

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  10. Famously Elton John at Wembley 1975 when he followed a Beach Boys greatest hits fest by playing Captain Fantastic from start to finish...didn't go down too well.

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  11. It was vetoed by *the drummer*?! Well, there you are then.

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  12. It wasn't Cook Da Books was it?

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  13. What if you are Paul McCartney and can't possibly fit them all in?

    And festivals are a different thing. Hits all the way there are an obligation but if it is a tour to promote the new album... Well it has to be promoted, doesn't it!

    Unbelieveably Jonathan Richman never plays Roadrunner anymore and i always leave feeling just a little cheated as a result.

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  14. It all depends on where the band are in their career, artistically, which of course is very subjective. If they are still on the up, then fans are only to happy to hear the latest stuff. E.g. I saw Richard Hawley recently who played a lot of "Standing at the Sky's Edge" which was superb. Contrast that with REM 3 or 4 years ago - they played a fantastic selection of their extensive back catalogue. They also played a couple from Accelerate, which at the time was a fairly recent release - fair enough but if they'd played all of it and left out Man on the Moon or Losing My Religion, the crowd, including me, would have been thoroughly pissed off.

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  15. It all depends, seeing Morrisey and whatever bunch of bricklayers he has behind him plod through 'How Soon Is Now?' wasn't that good.

    The one time I've seen the Pet Shop Boys they opened with 'West End Girls' which struck me as a "get this fucker out of the way" move to stop people in the crowd shouting out for it later.

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  16. It wasn't Cook Da Books was it?
    I wish they would reform for a tour.

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  17. I saw Dodgy when they performed at The Lexington earlier this year. Their set consisted of songs exclusively from their new album. For the encore they played an old hit and a cover version.

    I remember being very impressed by the conviction they showed in their new material. They didn't sheepishly shoehorn in a few new songs partway through the set. They got up on stage and effectively said: 'This is where we are now as a band.'

    I thought about this on the journey home and reached the conclusion that I don't really care what a band plays. I just want them to play like they mean it.

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  18. Don't Fear The Reaper - which must be the track you mean - is a great cover, so it's really odd the drummer found it embarrassing. Maybe that attitude suffused the band and was the reason they never really made it big. Or at least one of the reasons.

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  19. I assume that David is referring to the Mutton Birds. A great piece of writing and some good responses. My take on it is that music like other art forms is self expression delivered through artisanal means: in music's case, musicianship.

    Many musicians believe they are true artists, and that may be so during the creative and recording process, but becomes another thing when the music is performed to an audience. Then it begins the transition to entertainment.

    David makes the point well with Def Leopard and their re-recording their songs, believing that they are making better versions of the originals. He is right, once it is in the public domain it belongs to everyone.

    So to with the performance. Performance is FOR an audience and that audience must be respected. They have paid their money and given up their time to hear the performer so I believe performer is obliged to deliver.

    Yet some artists instead of respecting their audience, pander to it, thus losing repeat for themselves and their work. The manifestation of this is the sing-along in the middle or the shameless encouragement of the audience to clap. We know the guilty ones!

    The most successful artists like the Stones, McCartney Springsteen, U2, Coldplay to name a few understand that, respect their audiences, give good value in their concerts while maintaining their integrity as musicians and artists. They feel no shame at putting on a show

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  20. I've always been disappointed by McCartney's steadfast refusal to sing any of Lennon's songs. Instead of the obligation filling American songbook album, an album of The Beatles' songs where John sang the lead vocal or, even, Working Class Hero would be the album his followers would *really* want to hear.

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