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Bands dropping their back catalogue - a good or bad thing?

Bands dropping their back catalogue - a good or bad thing?

by Ryan Barham, 13 March 2012

Let’s get one thing straight, the purpose of this article is not to be an “I was there first” piece and it is definitely not a feature full of resentment towards bands that have become successful. However, we believe it is a relevant discussion that should be debated. Basically, bands ignoring their back catalogue. Is this a good or bad thing?

A few months ago I was on holiday in Barcelona and, by coincidence, Elbow were playing a show in a casino while I was in the city. I hadn’t seen them for a while with their gigs over here getting to a ridiculous price (thanks 02…but that’s another topic for discussion…), but they’ve long been a favourite and their debut Asleep In The Back definitely ranks in my top five albums of all time. How could it not with songs as beautiful as ‘Coming Second’, ‘Red’ and ‘Scattered Black and Whites’. Anyway, tickets were a not-too-shabby €20, the venue was incredible and for an extra bonus, Howling Bells were the support. The gig looked set to be a fantastic experience.

And it was. Guy Garvey was on fine form throughout, attempting to speak Catalan, telling the audience about his favourite dance move “the lollop”, pointing incessantly and, best of all, telling people who were chatting away during their songs to "Shut the f**k up, you’ve paid to hear us, not you." The set even started with a plea that all the band asks for at an Elbow gig is: "You’re quiet during the quiet bits and loud during the loud parts." The band sounded tight, the hits from the last couple of albums were received rapturously and it all seemed like a brilliant show, lasting over an hour and 45 minutes. But personally, I just felt a little empty on leaving. For a band with such a rich track record of albums, why were songs from the first three completely left out? Well, apart from third album Leaders of the Free World’s track Station Approach, which was greeted by certain sections of the crowd with staggering fondness.

We all know how tours work – the band plays a bunch of shows across countries to promote their latest album, with setlists heavily geared towards that release, but normally they’ll also throw in a couple of songs to keep the older fans happy. Even if it’s just one from their debut – Biffy Clyro, for example, still play ‘57’ at most shows. With the length of Elbow’s set, you’d have thought they’d at least make room for one song off each early album. Especially considering that ‘Newborn’ was always the centrepiece at various festivals and toilet venues throughout the early 00s… But they're not the only band to treat older material this way, how many times have you seen a band and been disappointed they didn't play the song that first got you into them? It's probably more than you think! I saw an interesting debate on TV about comedy shows the other day, Jerry Seinfeld claiming people pay to see the act, not the person on stage. Something Chris Rock, Louis C.K and Ricky Gervais all strongly disagreed with. Could this be applied to music gigs - are you paying to see the songs you know or the people on stage do something different?

Maybe the reason for the absence of older songs in some bands' sets is there’s record label interference, possibly they're bored to death of playing them or it could be the band simply has enough faith in their new material that they believe no one wants to hear old songs anymore? But is this the right way for any band to look at things? Does it not show a lack of respect to those who supported them when they needed floors to sleep on, and sold T-shirts for petrol money? I’m not suggesting that the whole set should be a nostalgia trip, just one or two for old time’s sake. Of course, it’s equally likely these ‘old’ fans are no longer at the shows, deciding it’s not cool to like a band now they’re played in Topshop. But what if some of the old fans are still in the crowd offering their love and support? Why should they not hear their favourites that they’ve spent years listening to and loving?

Bands ignoring their ‘hits’ is not a new trend at all, Radiohead are famed for not playing ‘Creep’ apart from on special occasions, R.E.M. hardly ever played ‘Shiny Happy People’ and even The Bluetones went through a phase of leaving out ‘Slight Return’ – a number two smash in 1995 that is still loved by cabbies today. But did these decisions ever disillusion their respective fanbases? Possibly a small minority, yes, but never enough to stop the bands all having full and successful careers. But on the flipside, some acts have relevant reasons for dropping songs – they might not fit the tone of their set, the subject matter is possibly no longer relevant or has perhaps been misconstrued, and maybe they just can’t fit in their allocated time. Although even a band as notoriously awkward as the Arctic Monkeys know they still have to play ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’. Then again, that was a massive hit, for these bands who have taken their time to work their way up to the arenas and stadium shows, their old songs possibly bring back memories they want to escape. But it could be argued it’s their job to play these songs, people in offices have to do the same thing every day – why shouldn’t bands? But let’s not forget, some people won’t even know about the albums before the big breakthrough – even now, a lot of people still believe ‘Final Straw’ was Snow Patrol’s debut.

I may well have got it all wrong, but I fully believe that if a band has a lengthy set and wants to please fans from all their career that may be in attendance, throwing one or two older songs into the setlist will not hurt one bit. Who knows, playing that song released ten years ago could even make someone’s night?

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