10 classic songs that bands have refused to play live

Unsurprisingly, many artists come to hate their own songs or tire of repeatedly performing them live. No one has heard a song as many times as the artist that created it. Inevitably, as is the way of life, artists begin noticing flaws or elements that they would change within their work, no longer identifying with what they once wrote.

For example, Kurt Cobain came to loathe ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, with the musician later telling Rolling Stone: “Everyone has focused on that song so much. But I think there are so many other songs that I’ve written that are as good, if not better, than that song, like ‘Drain You.’ That’s definitely as good as ‘Teen Spirit’. I love the lyrics, and I never get tired of playing it. Maybe if it was as big as ‘Teen Spirit’, I wouldn’t like it as much.”

Although Nirvana occasionally refused to play the track live, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ remained a frequent part of the setlist. However, some bands have grown to loathe their songs so much that they must be persuaded in order to perform them live. Moreover, some bands find playing certain songs too painful or outdated, no longer resonating with or bearing to sing certain lyrics.

From Radiohead to the Beastie Boys, here are ten songs that bands have refused to play live.

10 songs that bands refused to play live:

‘Creep’ – Radiohead 

Although Radiohead’s debut single ‘Creep’ put the Oxford alt-rockers on the map in 1992, the band have come to resent the track. After touring in support of artists such as PJ Harvey and James for two years, performing ‘Creep’ at every show, Radiohead decided to abandon the song. Lead singer Thom Yorke later told Rolling Stone: “We seemed to be living out the same four and a half minutes of our lives over and over again. It was incredibly stultifying. It’s like it’s not our song any more … It feels like we’re doing a cover.” 

Radiohead have rarely played ‘Creep’ since the mid-1990s, even telling an audience to “fuck off, we’re tired of it” when the song was continually requested. Despite the band performed the track a few times in 2016 “just to see how it feels,” it’s unlikely ‘Creep’ will become a permanent fixture of future setlists. 

‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ – Arctic Monkeys 

Sheffield quartet Arctic Monkeys gained unprecedented success with their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. Luckily, the band continued their winning streak and hit number one with their second album, Favourite Worst Nightmare, in 2007. The record contained ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’, a hugely popular hit which peaked at number five in the UK Singles Chart. The song is one of the band’s most recognisable tracks, having been frequently used as backing music for the popular television show The Inbetweeners. 

Although the song was once a regular set closer for the band’s live performances, the track was absent from the Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino tour (apart from a few hometown shows) and appears to be missing from their current tour supporting their recent album The Car. During an interview with BBC Radio 1, Alex Turner discussed how a few tracks make him think, “we’ll probably leave that one out now,” presumably referring to ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’. 

‘Shiny Happy People’ – R.E.M.

R.E.M. were alternative rock pioneers, inspiring the likes of Nirvana and Pavement. Yet, the band’s most recognisable hit is ‘Shiny Happy People’, which hardly represents their innovative sound. Lead singer Michael Stipe described the song as “a fruity pop song written for children”. Detailing further, he continued: “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.’”

The band failed to include the song on their 2003 greatest hits album In Time and retired the track after just two live performances in 1991. Although the track has made its way into plenty of ‘worst songs of all time’ lists, Stipe claims he has been “always at peace” with ‘Shiny Happy People’, he simply finds it “embarrassing” that it became a hit. 

‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock’ n’ Roll)’ – AC/DC 

One of AC/DC’s biggest tracks, ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock’ n’ Roll)’, detailed the hardships of being in a band and attempting to make it big. Released in 1975, Bon Scott sang about getting stoned, robbed, and beaten up, reflecting on his experience in one of the world’s most successful hard rock bands. However, the lead vocalist died in 1980 at just 33 years old from “acute alcohol poisoning” stemming from the wild behaviour he indulged in when he was off the road and “bored”. 

AC/DC’s former bassist Mark Evans once shared: “In time, it became iconic and associated with the band, but oddly enough, the band doesn’t play it.” The band played the track for the final time in 1979, a few months before Scott died. When his replacement, Brian Johnson, took over, he felt it was insensitive to sing Scott’s song about livingly destructively. 

‘All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You’ – Heart 

Heart found significant success during the 1970s and enjoyed a mid-1980s comeback, too. In 1990, the band decided to employ outsider writers such as Albert Hammond and Diane Warren to aid their tenth album, Brigade. The hit track ‘All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You’ was penned by Mutt Lange, a producer who worked with the likes of AC/DC and Def Leppard. Initially written for the Eagles, the song was released in 1979 and sung by Dobie Gray. When Heart decided to sing the track, the lyrics were dramatically changed to tell the story of a woman who uses a hitchhiker to get her pregnant. 

Lead singer Ann Wilson declared her hatred for the track in 2017, explaining: “I didn’t believe in the way the original lyrics were devaluing the man in the story. […] To me, that was kind of an empty, weird, sort of hateful story.” The band refused to play the song live for years, and only recently has Wilson begun incorporating it into her solo performances with updated lyrics. 

‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)’ – The Beastie Boys

When the Beastie Boys penned ‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)’, they intended to poke fun at “party” themed songs. However, the message was lost on most listeners, with Mike D stating in the liner notes of their compilation album The Sounds of Science: “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. 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.”

The hip-hop group stopped performing the song live in 1987, two years after its release, and only brought it out of retirement on a few rare occasions before their final gig in 2009. 

‘Empty Garden’ – Elton John 

Elton John paid tribute to his dear friend John Lennon on the track’ Empty Garden’, which appeared on his sixteenth album Jump Up from 1982. John once described his friendship with the Beatle as a “whirlwind romance,” even telling Sean Ono Lennon: “We did a lot of naughty, naughty things”. The pair recorded a duet together in 1974 called ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’, which gave Lennon his only number-one hit outside his work with The Beatles. When Lennon died, John was distraught, penning ‘Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)’ in response. 

John has only performed the elegiac song a handful of times, telling Sean: “It’s very hard for me to sing it, I get quite emotional singing that song and it moves me so much because it reminds me of how…god if your dad was alive today can you imagine what he’d be doing?!” 

‘Stairway to Heaven’ – Led Zeppelin 

Led Zeppelin’s landmark hit ‘Stairway to Heaven’ defined a generation of listeners, and since its release in 1971, it has been regarded as one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Despite being loved by many, lead singer Robert Plant is not a fan of the piece and gave up performing it regularly at the latter end of the 1970s. Since then, the band have only played it a handful of times, including during a 1985 Live Aid Philadelphia concert. 

In 1988 he told the Los Angeles Times: “I’d break out in hives if I had to sing that song in every show”. He later referred to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ as “that bloody wedding song” and donated $1000 to a radio station that said they’d never play it again if they reached their donation target. 

’21st Century Schizoid Man’ – King Crimson

Despite ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ being King Crimson’s most recognisable hit, the band has gone long periods without playing the frenetic jazz-infused rock concoction. At almost seven-and-a-half minutes long and full of mind-blowing guitar solos, the song is undoubtedly one to be heard live. Yet the band gave the track a 22-year break, temporarily retiring it in 1974 and picking it up again in 1996. Due to the lineup changes in the 1980s, the song came to represent an older version of the band. 

Guitarist Adrian Bellow told Rolling Stone in 2019: “From the very get-go, wherever we went in the world, there would be someone shouting, ‘Play ‘Schizoid Man!’ Play’ Schizoid Man!’ It got to be almost frustrating to us, because we didn’t want to do that, and I remember in particular, Robert [Fripp] would not do that at that point. So it got be a joke in the band: ‘If you don’t play ’21st Century Schizoid Man’, how can you call yourself King Crimson?” 

‘Tears in Heaven’ – Eric Clapton

For many years, Eric Clapton refused to play the personal ‘Tears in Heaven’, only recently reintroducing it into the occasional setlist. The track was inspired by the death of the musician’s four-year-old son, who tragically fell from a window in 1991. Although the song was Clapton’s best-selling single in the United States and appeared on his live album, Unplugged, in 2004, Clapton decided to stop playing it for a while.

He told Associated Press: “I didn’t feel the loss anymore, which is so much a part of performing those songs”. Detailing further, he continued: “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 a different life now.” 

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