Once more with feeling
Some bands won’t do them. Others insist you endure two or three. But very few musicians still deliver encores as a spontaneous response to audience demands. Cian Traynor asks what they’re really for
IN PRACTICE, the encore makes little sense: the band pretends to say goodnight, holding the audience to ransom for adulation and applause. Then, feigning spontaneity, they return to the stage and launch into the songs everyone has been waiting all night to hear. These days it’s expected rather than earned, planned rather than ad-libbed. Yet we still feel short-changed when the likes of Al Green or Van Morrison refuse to perform encores.
Manic Street Preachers are one of the few acts to have maintained a no-encore policy from their inception, having performed just one in their 23-year career. But what began as a “deluded manifest to change the world” was tested in 1991 when management goaded them into returning to the stage – only to find that nearly everyone had left.
“From that moment on we realised that it wasn’t for us,” says the band’s Nicky Wire. “Even when we played the Millennium Stadium to 65,000 people on New Year’s Eve, we still didn’t do one. It just seems like a gigantic anticlimax. The encore is like a marketing tool; it’s this idea that you’re getting more value for money when really it’s the same songs with a rest in-between. For us it just seems a bit false.”
However the Manics have found this a difficult ideal to sustain, often seeing memorable performances soured when audience anticipation turns to boos and bewilderment.
“We’ve had a lot of trouble about this, to be honest. Over the years, people involved in the record company would say: ‘We’ve never had this from a band before. Did you hate the audience?’ And we’d be coming off stage thinking it was one of the best gigs we’ve ever done. There have been occasions where a gig has been so rapturous that you do feel that slight inclination. You feel like giving more... but I think we’ve learned from experience. It gives us a little bit of separation as well.
“As long as there’s bands like Coldplay there’s always going to be encores. So I’m actually quite proud of it. Not in a superior way; it just feels honourable. I think people respect it and it’s travelled with us.”
French film-maker Vincent Moon is wary of encores. As someone who has travelled around the world in pursuit of live music, capturing tours by Arcade Fire and REM, he believes bands have a duty to create a bond with the audience. Encores, he believes, have little artistic merit.
“I love when people can distil what they’re doing to a very short amount of time,” he says. “If you’re conscious of creating a special show, you’ll be able to make the audience
accept that they don’t need an encore. And if you have two hours on stage to perform however you want, why would you do the exact same thing that everybody does? It’s pretty stupid if you think about it.”
But disrupting a long-standing tradition is not easy. The encore began in the early 18th century, when audiences would interrupt performances demanding to hear certain movements again. As the industrial age enabled composers to travel around Europe, the idea of not letting them leave the stage altered the formula of the recital permanently.
Pieces were written specifically for encores, and sets were shortened to squeeze more of them in. Despite endless modifications, from the finality of the phrase “Elvis has left the building” to U2 segueing into five encores through a video message from Desmond Tutu, the expectation persists.
Having been to over 5,200 live shows, Ray Morrissey is possibly the world’s most prolific gig-goer. Now 50, he barely resembles the young punk pictured on an early Sex Pistols poster, but he still sees three or four shows a week. Though he misses the days where punk bands would deliver their sets like a brick in flight, Morrissey feels the encore has become too embedded in tradition to disregard.
“These days bands come back on when they don’t even get any applause,” he says. “You can see on the set list that there are three encores coming. But if you just say goodnight, you lose that moment of anticipation.”
One band that unashamedly panders to the audience is Yes, whose displays of 1970s progrock indulgence has earned them a legendary live reputation. Double, triple and sometimes quadruple encores are typically reserved for signature hits such as Roundabout and Owner of a Lonely Heart - tracks they have tried playing in the main set only to be met with disdain from the audience.
“It’s part of the routine,” explains bassist Chris Squire, who has been touring the band for four decades. “The momentum of the show is just geared towards that format. In most places we play they don’t like people standing up during the show. But they give that little allowance for the last couple of songs.”
From an audience’s perspective, Squire recalls being let down by a Black Crowes encore earlier this year. “When they came back on I thought: ‘Well, they’re obviously going to do their famous hit’ ... but they didn’t. I said to Chris [Robinson] afterwards: ‘That’s weird, isn’t it? Not playing the song everyone loves?’ And he said: ‘We’re purposely not doing it for that reason’. But I don’t think people were satisfied.”
In a way, attempting to reward every audience has robbed encores of what made them special in the first place: the thought that your applause could lead to a one-off. Girls, a band from California, are part of a new wave of acts trying to re-introduce that dash of spontaneity.
“I kind of shoot from the hip,” says singer Christopher Owen, who, if he does an encore at all, prefers to play a cover or something new. “I don’t think I’d ever hold back the best songs for the encore. It’s an organic situation that’s probably different all the time. But I don’t think you have the right to call the band back out either; nobody should resent a band for not doing an encore. Sometimes the end has to be the end.”
Music historian Colin Lawson believes the encore will be with us for years to come. Sitting in his office as director of London’s Royal College of Music, the Albert Hall looming in the background, Lawson explains that the encore helps differentiate the live experience from recorded music.
“You can tell your CD player what to play, but it’s not quite the same thing as getting somebody back on stage. There’s a cult of personality in music which makes that inevitable. It’s part of being an entertainer,” he says.