From misfiring piss-takes to jolly jangles they immediately regret, quite a few artists have a musical albatross that they just can't bear to perform at their shows
As a band, it must be difficult when one of your biggest hit singles begins to drag you down or drive you round the bend. When it suddenly becomes too taxing to perform a particular song; when the very same banger that has catapulted you into fame is suddenly more annoying than being haunted by an ever-present swarm of un-killable mosquitoes, what do you do: grit your teeth through another rendition of your biggest bête noire, or stubbornly refuse to play it ever again?
Though a few of these artists eventually fell back in love with their most dreaded songs — or, in some cases, learned to tolerate them — they all have one thing in common: for years, they sacked off playing one of their biggest singles live.
Beastie Boys – ‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)’
Written in order to take the piss out of beer pong frat boys with affected bad attitudes, Beastie Boys’ ‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)’ was never intended as a pint-chugging anthem. But despite a jokey, cameo-picked video (featuring Rick Rubin, LL Cool J and Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers) and some silly, satirical lyrics, the 1985 track soon took on a different meaning and became the fist-pumping beast that it was meant to be mocking.
“The only thing that upsets me is that we might have reinforced certain values of some people in our audience when our own values were actually totally different,” the group’s Mike D wrote in the liner notes of their 1999 compilation ‘The Sounds of Science’. “There were tons of guys singing along to ‘Fight for Your Right’ who were oblivious to the fact it was a total goof on them.”
Beastie Boys dropped the hit from their live shows in 1987, and they would only give the accidental bro favourite a couple of rare live airings in the years before their final gig as a trio in 2009.
Led Zeppelin – ‘Stairway To Heaven’
As anybody who has ever watched Wayne’s World will know already, ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is the amateur guitarist’s answer to the ‘Heart and Soul’ duet on piano. In other words, absolutely bloody everyone can pick it up with a tiny bit of practice. The scourge of music shop employees around the world — “No ‘Stairway’, denied!” — Led Zep’s own Robert Plant also got fed up with those ubiquitous melody progressions in 1977.
Save for a brief and charitable change-of-heart at Live Aid Philadelphia in 1985, a performance at Atlantic Record’s 40th Birthday and a one-off memorial show for the label’s co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, the band haven’t touched it whenever they’ve played together since (last time being their 2007 reunion). In fact, the Led Zeppelin tribute band Get the Led Out have now likely performed the mega-hit live more times than the actual band responsible for the song.
Paramore – ‘Misery Business’
Last year at a show in Nashville, Paramore’s Hayley Williams confirmed that the band would be playing ‘Misery Business’ live for the last time. “This is a choice that we’ve made because we feel that we should,” she said on-stage about one of the band’s best-known tracks. “We feel like it’s time to move away from it for a little.”
Williams was likely making reference to one particular lyric directed at another woman: “Once a whore, you’re nothing more, I’m sorry that’ll never change“. Expanding on her own misgivings about ‘Misery Business’ a year before the song was eventually axed from live shows, Williams told Track 7: “The problem with the lyrics is not that I had an issue with someone I went to school with. That’s just high school and friendships and break-ups. It’s the way I tried to call her out using words that didn’t belong in the conversation. It’s the fact that the story was set up inside the context of a competition that didn’t exist over some fantasy romance.”
R.E.M. – ‘Shiny Happy People’
R.E.M. have always had a sense of humour when it comes to their own dislike of the impossibly jolly ‘Shiny Happy People’. At one point, they reformed as Furry Happy Monsters (complete with a Muppet likeness of guest vocalist Kate Pierson) and played the song on Sesame Street. The same can not be said of their live shows, though — there, they refuse to perform it full stop. The band managed to grit their teeth through just two performances of the song in 1991 before ditching it forever.
Michael Stipe hasn’t exactly been subtle about his feelings towards the hit, either. “It’s a fruity pop song written for children,” he told the BBC in 2016. “It just is what it is. If there was one song that was sent into outer space to represent R.E.M. for the rest of time, I would not want it to be ‘Shiny Happy People’.”
AC/DC – ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock n’ Roll)’
Something of a signature song for the late Bon Scott — who infamously delivered one of the best (and, it must be said, only) bagpipe solos in rock ‘n’ roll history on this track — AC/DC cut the song from their live shows following their frontman’s death in 1980.
When Brian Johnson replaced Scott as the band’s lead singer he declined to play it live out of respect for his predecessor. The Australian hard rock band last performed ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock n’ Roll)’ at Hammersmith’s Eventim Apollo (well, the Hammersmith Odeon, as it was known back then) in 1979.
Eric Clapton – ‘Tears in Heaven’
Written following the death of Clapton’s four-year old son Conor, who tragically fell from the window of a New York apartment block in 1991, ‘Tears in Heaven’ is a song that comes from a place of immense grief and sadness. Difficult though the subject matter may be, that isn’t why Clapton retired the track from his live shows for an entire decade. “I didn’t feel the loss any more, which is so much a part of performing those songs,” he explained to Associated Press, speaking about ‘Tears in Heaven’ and another song, ‘My Father’s Eyes’. “I really have to connect with the feelings that were there when I wrote them. They’re kind of gone and I really don’t want them to come back, particularly. My life is different now. They probably just need a rest and maybe I’ll introduce them for a much more detached point of view.”
A decade later Clapton made good on his promise, and the two well-known songs have since returned to his regular set-lists.
Bob Dylan – ‘Hurricane’
Bob Dylan has always done his own thing at live shows: light on stage patter, heavy on deep cuts, and creative when it comes to dramatically rearranging old classics, he’s never been an artist to reel out the back-to-back hits. As you’d expect from such a prolific songwriter, there are plenty of gems that he rarely plays live. That said, ‘Hurricane’ is perhaps one of the most elusive: he hasn’t performed it since 1976.
A topical protest song about the imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (who had been charged with triple murder), Dylan’s song explored racial profiling by the justice system and it quickly became controversial. Several figures involved in the case took legal action over the way they’d been depicted, and decades on from Carter’s conviction Dylan has retired it from live shows. Why? Well, as Dylan himself sang, “it won’t be over till they clear his name”.
Rubin Carter was cleared and freed in 1985 following an appeal after serving twenty years in prison – perhaps Dylan felt the time had passed?
Korn – ‘Daddy’
An emotionally taxing listen, ‘Daddy’ comes from a place of personal pain. Korn’s Jonathan Davis wrote this song about being sexual abused as a child; the song contains a recording of Davis crying. “I went to my parents and told them about it, and they thought I was lying and joking around,” he told Kerrang. “They never did shit about it.”
Though Korn have performed ‘Daddy’ in a few more recent tours, it stayed out of their setlist for years: as Davis put it, it would be a huge challenge to capture the raw emotion of the original recording night after night. “I don’t play that song live because it’s just magic,” Davis told the fan site Korn Underground. “If I play that song over and over every night, it’d lose its meaning. I don’t want people to expect me to freak out like I did on that. That was what happened in that point in time, and that magic was captured, and I don’t want to fuck with it.”
Radiohead – ‘Creep’
It’s common knowledge that Thom Yorke despises ‘Creep’: the dirgey, outsider anthem from Radiohead’s debut album, and, incidentally, the band’s breakthrough single. On one of his more generous days, Yorke called it “crap” – another time, he said that the band had “sucked Satan’s cock” while creating the song. And when a fan dared to request ‘Creep’ at a show in Montreal, Yorke answered: “Fuck off, we’re tired of it”. Radiohead refused to play the song live for seven consecutive years.
Remarkably, the story has a happy-ish ending: Yorke’s view towards ‘Creep’ has actually softened over time, and it’s a fairly regular fixture at their shows again these days.