Edmonton Journal

Stairway to Heaven is Plant’s hell

Performing fans’ favourites can be painful

- NEIL MCCORMICK London Daily Telegraph

Acker Bilk, who died Nov. 2, grumpily admitted in 2012 that he was “fed up” with his signature tune, Stranger on the Shore. By then, to be fair, he had been tootling it on the clarinet for 50 years.

Every musician dreams of creating a classic hit, a song that embeds itself in popular culture. It is surely the ultimate validation of musical significan­ce. Plus, the money’s not bad. On the down side you are going to be expected to perform it for the rest of your life, even long after you yourself have got utterly sick of the damn thing.

Many musicians have a love-hate relationsh­ip with their most famous songs. They love the money and the fame. They hate having to play it again and again and again. Bilk referred to Stranger on the Shore as “my old age pension” and, at a conservati­ve estimate, he probably played it well in excess of 10,000 times. Which is, let’s face it, quite a lot. No matter what else he composed, how many pieces of music he carefully crafted through his long career, every time he walked out on stage he knew audiences wanted to hear one thing, and wouldn’t be satisfied until they did.

Imagine going to a Kate Bush show and not hearing Wuthering Heights. Well, that’s what happened to everyone who went to see the reclusive chanteuse’s much heralded comeback, in which she played only three hits amid two hours of less-familiar work. It’s the kind of set list that forces you to confront the person on stage as an artist rather than a mere entertaine­r, but it can certainly backfire.

Is there anything more likely to strike fear in an audience at a live show than the words: “Here’s one from our new album?” Usually it means it’s time for a washroom break, sparking a mass rush for the exits.

Robert Plant has called Stairway to Heaven “that bloody wedding song” and declines to sing it in concert. Chris de Burgh knows people would feel shortchang­ed if he didn’t perform his 1986 hit The Lady in Red, so he turns it into a singalong, “that way the audience do all the work.” Canadian jazz flutist Moe Koffman would introduce Swinging Shepherd Blues as “a medley of my hit.”

Frank Sinatra could often be seen mouthing “I hate that song” while acknowledg­ing applause for Stranger in the Night. But at least, being an old-school trouper, he gave the audience what they wanted, however begrudging­ly.

Radiohead have long refused to play Creep, their 1993 breakthrou­gh hit. But then Radiohead pretty much refuse to play anything their audience actually want to hear. “Eff off, we’re tired of it,” singer Thom Yorke once snapped at a concertgoe­r who had the temerity to call out for his favourite tune.

Often, the problem is that the song the public likes is the kind of simple, catchy tune the artist has outgrown, and possibly regrets having ever recorded. REM rather sneakily didn’t include their breakthrou­gh 1991 hit Shiny Happy People on their own Best Of album, perhaps in the vain hope that people would forget it existed. When questioned about it, they were defensive.

“People are just looking for something to poke holes in us with and they grab on to that song,” said bassist Mike Mills. “But gee, sorry we were lightheart­ed for three and a half minutes. Well, excuse us!”

“I don’t like it, and I don’t ever want to hear it or see it again,” admitted singer Michael Stipe glumly.

Pity Billy Joel, whose biggest hit, Just the Way You Are, was written for his first wife before a particular­ly bitter divorce. “I hate that song,” he once said. “My mind wanders whenever we do it. I start it: ‘Don’t go changing … nah, nah, nah, nah … and I forget the words. So I look to the drummer to tell me the words, ’cause he always sings along. And he goes ‘She got the house, the dog, the car.’ I actually sang that one night. The audience were not happy. It’s safer not to play it.”

Leonard Cohen gave the best answer to the question of whether he gets tired of singing songs he wrote a long time ago.

“We are all involved in this struggle every moment, because we lead the same lives over and over again and there always is this problem of making it new and making it significan­t,” he said. “So it’s the same struggle we have in our daily lives, the same struggle that we have with people we know very well and their habits and idiosyncra­sies. You just have to find a way into the centre of the song, the centre of the person, the centre of the activity.”

In other words, that’s the job. Or as Noel Gallagher, not a man afraid of a hit, once said about Radiohead:

“You can’t argue with that guy’s tunes, man. Experiment all you want, Mr. Yorke. But at the end of the day people will always want to hear you play Creep. Get over it.”

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 ?? ERIKA GOLDRING/ GETTY IMAGES ?? Robert Plant refers to his enormous hit Stairway to Heaven as “that bloody wedding song.”
ERIKA GOLDRING/ GETTY IMAGES Robert Plant refers to his enormous hit Stairway to Heaven as “that bloody wedding song.”
 ?? IAN LINDSAY/ POSTMEDIA NEWS ?? Leonard Cohen thinks it’s part of an artist’s job to try to reinvent familiar songs every time out.
IAN LINDSAY/ POSTMEDIA NEWS Leonard Cohen thinks it’s part of an artist’s job to try to reinvent familiar songs every time out.

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