You can pinpoint the precise moment that Julian Casablancas realises he’s made a potentially gig-trashing error. It’s in the pause that comes after the fan he’s just invited on-stage at Lytham Festival to sing ‘Ode To The Mets’ – a six-minute song from The Strokes’ 2020 album ‘The New Abnormal’ that isn’t exactly a big sing-a-long moment anyway – admits that, despite waving a sign in the crowd asking to sing said song, she’s not exactly Maria Callas. “You’re not that good of a singer?” Casablancas replied to the fan. “You’re being humble, right?” Then, like a Top Gun trainee watching a mountain-side approaching too fast, he ejected himself from onrushing disaster, fleeing for the wings to (jokingly) “do some blow”.
What followed next was by no means a car crash, but certainly fell short of the oh-my-gosh-she’s-the-next-Amy Winehouse moment we’ve become accustomed to from sign-waving fan videos. The young woman in question has what could best be described as a passing acquaintance with the words and melody of ‘Ode To The Mets’, does rather more dancing than singing and, when she does throw herself into the vocals, might be under the mistaken impression that she’s singing with Interpol, given her rather wobbly, funereal timbre. And it certainly adds a much-needed sense of risk to the practice of granting the ultimate in fan requests, considering you’d have to be something of a nutter to want to make your first faltering steps into music at stadium level, live on Insta.
This isn’t something that happens in any other branch of the arts. You’d have to have the social death wish of an #IStandWithPrinceAndrew hashtag to, say, interrupt a televised Frankie Boyle routine to tell the nation what you think Boris Johnson looks like that week. Nor would you ever dream of barging your way to the front of the Globe stage during Macbeth with a sign reading ‘PLEEEEASE let me play Banquo’s ghost!’. You wouldn’t turn up at Centre Court to harass Novak Djokovic until he lets you play a set for him, or rock up to a David Blaine stunt demanding to do 10 minutes on top of the pole yourself.
There is, by and large, a tacit understanding between performer and audience that the ones who’ve practiced and rehearsed what they’re doing to reach the very peak of their game should do the entertaining, and the ones who’ve had a quick go on TikTok beforehand should probably take a seat. Not so at live gigs. Here it’s become common practice for fans to bring along home-made signs pleading to actually join the band for a specific song, and for the band – knowing they’re guaranteed a viral ‘moment’ whichever way it goes – to welcome them on board. Minus any publishing split.
Heroes and legends have been born this way. Who could forget 15-year-old Alex Mann stealing Dave’s set at Glastonbury 2019 by rapping along to ‘Thiago Silva’ like a born bucket-hat hype man? Or ‘KISS Guy’ owning the Foo Fighters’ stage in Austin in 2018? And what about the 19-year-old German piano lad who wowed Munich’s Olympiastadion by leaping up to play a faultless ‘Everglow’ with Chris Martin in 2017? Ed Sheeran, Adele, Johnny Marr, Billy Joel and Post Malone are among the numerous acts that have also answered the call of the cardboard in recent years, while bands like Green Day and The Killers have made it a regular practice to let their fans play an active part at their shows. Child prodigies particularly welcome, for cutesy, internet-star-making appeal.
There’s a certain security for The Killers and Green Day in allowing fans on-stage. They’ve had high-profile viral successes with the standard of fan participation before, so anyone offering their cymbal-battering services on ‘For Reasons Unknown’ knows full well that they’d better at least know how to turn the sticks on, or they’re going to end up looking like the Nadine Dorries of drum-playing fans. Most acts, in fact, are on pretty safe ground – ever since a bloke called Scot Halpin jumped on-stage in California in 1973 and finished an entire Who set after Keith Moon passed out, examples of bad musicians making it on-stage to play with their heroes are few and far between.
Amy Macdonald, for instance, was most unfortunate when a Swiss fan asked to play a song on-stage with her, only to fumble his way through ‘Wonderwall’ on guitar like – as she herself described it on Twitter – Joey being taught his first chords by Phoebe on Friends. And The Strokes had every reason to believe that their unexpected guest might at least know all the words to ‘Ode To The Mets’, rather than lay into the song with the no-surrender attitude of Boris improvising a speech after having his tiny mind scrambled by the brilliance of Peppa Pig World.
Frankly, I’m all for real amateurs tricking bands into giving them their moment in the spotlight. The frisson of danger that someone might be invited up, only to try to sing into a guitar lead or strum a snare, is what makes it all the more thrilling when they turn out to be a guitar god-in-waiting. If you don’t have the nightmares, the revelations lose their wonder. For bringing an edge to the summer, and many more to come, I salute The Strokes’ plucky new vocalist and urge more of her ilk to blag their way into bands in the future. For the larks and the infamy, let’s make it a cardboard minefield out there.