Should Bands Just Shut Up And Play The Hits?

Frank Turner ruffled some feathers last week when he called Radiohead “petty” for refusing to play “Creep” at the band’s live shows. This comment pissed off legions of diehard Radiohead fans, but there is a more interesting debate at hand: Do bands have an obligation to play their hit songs at live shows? 

Are Artists Obligated To Play Hits Live?

In an interview with Gigwise, Turner opined that musicians are entertainers, and if they are charging money for a live show, they should play what the audience wants to hear. Though it seems like a novel concept, this issue is far more subjective than Turner lets on.

While “Creep” is easily Radiohead’s biggest crossover hit, most fans who like Radiohead enough to see them live are probably fine with the band skipping that song. Radiohead has not been a radio-friendly band for the past decade or so; it would seem silly for the band to pander to that crowd at this point.

Radiohead – “Creep” at Reading Festival 2009

Plenty of well-established bands hate their most popular songs for a variety of reasons. The Beastie Boys stopped performing “Fight For Your Right” live because they felt the irony of the song was lost on its audience and did not want to reinforce a message they did not agree with. It is hard to fault a band for omitting a song that they no longer stand behind.

Sometimes artists simply outgrow songs. Robert Plant frequently refers to “Stairway To Heaven” as “that bloody wedding song.” In fact, his feelings regarding that song have reportedly been a major roadblock to a proper Led Zeppelin reunion. The idea that one commercially successful song could keep a legendary rock band from reuniting certainly is “petty,” to use Turner’s words.

Maybe Robert Plant should just suck it up and sing the song. Maybe the rest of the band and behind-the-scenes forces should accept that most core Led Zeppelin fans could care less about the song if it meant seeing the band together again.

Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven” Live

In Turner’s defense, there is something inherently wrong with certain acts that pack arenas and headline festivals on the strength of their back catalog, but refuse to play their more popular material live. I have seen Red Hot Chili Peppers twice and both times the setlist featured a handful of obscure deep-cuts and new material, yet omitted songs like “Higher Ground” and “Under The Bridge.”

This was probably great for the RHCP diehards in attendance, but for the majority  of the crowd, it was a bit of a bait-and-switch from a band that has been a rock radio staple its entire career. It seems even more deceitful in a festival setting where audiences are far more varied. Though it was disappointing for me personally, I have a hard time saying the band cheated its audience. Both shows were solid performances.

This is the biggest issue with the “just play the hits” mentality. How does it affect the quality of the performance? I have no interest in watching a band half-heartedly perform a song just because it is “what the people want.” With all due respect to Mr. Turner, I would much rather watch a band perform material that it enjoys playing. It makes for a better show 100 percent of the time.

Article by Jason Schellhardt

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