Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Heritage acts and the hits

It has been a busy month for heritage acts visiting town to say hello, sing a couple of songs and go home with a bit of cash in their back-pockets. Of course, visits from the stars of yesterday who are …

Tue, Jul 31, 2012, 09:26


It has been a busy month for heritage acts visiting town to say hello, sing a couple of songs and go home with a bit of cash in their back-pockets. Of course, visits from the stars of yesterday who are still very much the stars of today is now the norm. This is not about rock’n'roll getting old or any of those other tired memes which are usually dragged out on occasions like this, but rather a statement of facts. Acts like Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Chic and Madonna are still touring in 2012 because people are prepared to pay over large sums of money to see them and hear the old songs.

Chic (left) bring their hits and Madonna brings her guns

But the issue of heritage acts and old songs sometimes makes for uneasy bedfellows. Una Mullally’s fine piece on last week’s Madonna show in Dublin catches the mood music of that night perfectly: you had an audience who were soaked to the skin who wanted to hear the hits and you had an artist who was there to push her new album and not play the songs everyone in the audience wanted to hear. A friend of mine who was at the show talked about the audible gasp of expectation which came over the stadium when some videos of her golden hits were played, followed by a burst balloon of sighs when it became apparent that Madge was going to play something newer and less heralded instead.

Now, that’s Madonna’s call and the contrarian in me says “good for her”. But the contrarian in me didn’t pay a lot of euros to sit in the rain in Dublin 4 and couldn’t be bothered to do so for an artist who now tries desperately to be hipper-than-thou as she struggles to write more tunes like “Ray Of Light” or “Holiday”. At what point does an act have a responsibility to their audience to play the hit tunes which attracted that audience in the first place? Or does such a thing – like a promoter’s duty-of-care to a paying audience to ensure inebriated punters with naggins, hammers and knives are not allowed into a gig – only exist in theory rather than practice?

Most acts know the drill. You’ll always get a large smattering of the old classics at a Springsteen show (though it was newbies “Wrecking Ball” and “Rocky Ground” which were my highlights from his recent Dublin gig). When Chic play a show (and they’re in Dublin, Belfast and Liss Ard this week), their set is wall-to-wall classic disco hurrahs. Paul Simon’s triumphant O2 shows were all about the “Graceland” hits rather than concentrating on a large bunch of songs from his current album. Even The Waterboys stuck to the favourites when they played at the Iveagh Gardens the other weekend.

These are, after all, the songs which put them up where they think they belong. Without the hits, they wouldn’t be able to collect a large fee from the promoter at the end of the night. Without the hits, there wouldn’t be punters out front to pay for the ticket to ensure that large fee. Without the hits, they wouldn’t still have a career. And if they want to play just the tunes from more challenging or less well-known albums, well, there’s also a night at the Olympia or Vicar Street where the hardcore will be glad to pay a whack of cash to see the whites of their eyes.

After all, the audience are no fools. Word from the Madonna show is that there was a lot of unsold seats in the stadium because she’s been well and truly rumbled. People want the hits because they’re the tunes which remind the audience of the good times. If the act is not playing them, the punters will stay at home. As U2 found out when they went out flogging that dog of a last album, punters don’t want a ton of tunes from some album which only the act and street teams are interested in. People want the hits. Simple as. Sure, you’ll have a hardcore following who are prepared to go gaga for the new stuff, but that’s a much smaller constituency. If you were still producing hits and actually having hits, it would be a different matter.

Which brings us neatly to another nub of the issue and why acts rarely have hits after the initial bloom of success. Be it Springsteen or the Stereophonics, there’s a certain period when the act’s star is on the rise and shining brightly and the act attract huge audiences as a result of writing and releasing blockbuster tunes, but that eventually wanes. It may be hard to believe now that the Stereophonics were once big enough to headline a show at Slane Castle such has been the gap since they last wrote a hit tune. Even when the act does produce a work of note in the autumn of their careers – case in point, Simon and last year’s “So Beautiful or So What” album – it’s the hits from the good old days which the bulk of those who flock to the arena or stadium or park or big field want to hear.