Shut up and play the hits?

Music and Art

“I don’t care if it hurts, I want to have control”. No, it’s not Christian Grey, it’s Thom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead in their (worryingly sadistic) smash hit Creep. If I say Radiohead, that will probably be the first song which comes into your mind, with 105,682,500 Spotify streams and counting (to put this into perspective, that’s 30 million more than Jessie J’s irrepressible “Domino”, but three times fewer than her (absolute banger) “Bang Bang”).

Funnily enough, Creep is rarely played; it’s barely been performed this century – most recently at Reading 2009. So here’s the question – why don’t Radiohead play Creep?

Maybe it’s because Creep is just too good a song, one containing moments of lyrical genius like Yorke’s  foray into sadism mentioned above, and, “She run run run run…Run…”. It’s like listening to Dylan.

Indie singer/songwriter Frank Turner has a theory –bands are “not just artists”, they can’t play whatever they want at their shows – they’re there to entertain too, and Radiohead just don’t accept that. Instead, like David Cameron forcing John Whittingdale to tone down the BBC White Paper, they deny the fans the thing they so angrily desire. According to Turner, it’s “petty” – especially when fans at shows have shelled out £40 a ticket to see their favourite songs. Turner will keep on playing songs from across his career at his shows.

He raises an interesting issue, for when bands and artists get successful, the makeup of audiences at gigs changes. It’s no longer just the faithful who follow every release, know every B-side; but it’s also the casual punters who have heard the single on the radio. A dilemma occurs – to continue playing for the diehards, or to do the populist deed, shut up, and play the hits.

In truth it’s difficult to strike the right balance. You could do a Springsteen and play for three hours, but there’s a point at which a gig becomes just too long. You could do a Muse and tour in clubs, playing only deep cuts, but these venues are so small it’s very difficult for fans to get tickets. Coldplay’s solution on their current tour is a request slot, which seems a simple way of allowing one lucky fan to hear their favourite song. But it’s arguably an insubstantial bone tossed to fans who want to hear their earlier songs in a set filled with recent singles.

At heart, Turner’s comments demand a discussion about the relationship between an artist and their art. Should a band play whatever the hell they like just to prove a point? Or should they bow to the will of the crowd, playing only their most successful songs? I can’t claim to make much insightful comment here, but I have an alternative theory:

You see, when you look at the songs Radiohead play, they’re not really averse to playing their best know songs at all. In their most recent shows they played songs spanning over twenty years of their career, including chart hits like Paranoid Android, Karma Police, and My Iron Lung. Interestingly, the latter was the single released following Creep, and disparages it as “a total waste of time”.

Here’s the theory: Radiohead loved playing Creep. And then it hit the big time.  So they did what all good wannabe hipsters do – they decided Creep wasn’t cool anymore.

Radiohead are like the 35 Labour MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn to enter the Labour leadership contest. They thought he/it wouldn’t make much impact, but they loved him/Creep, and thought his opinion/its derivative chord structure should be out there. Four months on, and it was a grass roots hit – what are they to do? They get cold feet – Jeremy/Creep is a bit too cool now. So they turn their back, despite a massive popular mandate/excellent chart performance.

Frankly, this is a cop out; these MPs should stick by their earlier judgement. And so should Radiohead. Creep is a brilliant song, and even if at the time Radiohead felt self conscious about its success despite its angst-filled teenage nature, it now seems like just the first small step in the career of a great band. Come on Radiohead. Play Creep. You know we want you to.