(Un)Perfect Day: Play something we like

Lou Reed, rock's great curmudgeonA recent review in the Financial Times* of a Lou Reed show at the Hammersmith Apollo in London by Ludovic Hunter-Tilney** indicated that Reed’s audience may have become even stranger than Lou. Hunter-Tilney writes: “Toward the end of Lou Reed’s concert a man behind me began repeatedly shouting: ‘Play something we like.’ There were boos and catcalls amid the warm applause when Reed and his band took a bow.”

“Play something we like” is essentially a way of saying: “Play your hits.” Which is somewhat odd in the context of Reed, a man who, after more than 30 years on the stage, has never really had a “hit.” Before some of you jump down to the Comments section to blister me for that observation, yes, yes, there was “Walk on the Wild Side,” which he played in London, and to a lesser extent, pieces including “Sweet Jane” and “Heroin.” But nowadays “hit” signifies something that’s far, far beyond the combined sales of those three songs. “Hit” has absolutely nothing to do with influence. Yes, the three aforementioned songs are each arguably influential, but “hits” are often the opposite of meaningfully influential inasmuch as other musicians, looking for their own “hits,” may copy the style of the “hit.” In other words, influential songs have an effect; “hits” tend to be transient (i.e., while there may be individual “hits” that are epochal in their consequence, if the mass number of “hits” is considered, think meteor shower).

So there’s Reed. What’s more than somewhat puzzling is that there were a sufficient number of people at the concert who were disappointed such that Hunter-Tilney noted their reaction to what he apparently considered to be a good outing (he gave it three out of five stars). What were the upset ones anticipating? Selections from Berlin?

What exactly is it that audiences are listening for when they attend concerts by performers whom they think highly enough to spend time, money and effort on? For performers without “hits,” is there a sufficiently common wish list such that there could be a critical mass of people in the audience who would be satisfied with a set, or is it too individual?

One final thing about “hit”-less performers. Reed is out there not in support of a new disc. He is probably out there working because he doesn’t have a heck of a lot of choice. He has made his career move, and chances are it doesn’t come with health care and a 401-K. While he has greater fame than many of us will ever realize, the price of his fame doesn’t entitle him to what many of us take, if not for granted, then as the trade-off for earning our keep.

*While it may see odd to find coverage of rock in a journal devoted to the various economic aspects of global capitalism, there are at least a couple of reasons why attention to the subject is merited: (1) if the performers in question are along the lines of the Stones, then the financial implications are obvious; (2) those individuals who are making and moving markets are just as—or more—likely to listen to rock as opera.

**Beyond the courtesy of mentioning the writer’s name, it is interesting to include it for no other reasons than to point out that (a) people named Hunter-Tilney exist and (b) they actually review rock shows for an august financial sheet.

7 thoughts on “(Un)Perfect Day: Play something we like”

  1. Stephen,

    I find it hard to follow your definition of a hit. But in any case, (jumping to the Comments section to argue) I think Reed does have hits in the sense that he has well known, recognizable songs that his fans love: beyond the ones you mentioned, there’s Satellite Love, Lisa Says, Coney Island Baby, I’m Waiting for the Man (okay, that last one might be VU) and others, I’m sure.

    But I don’t think a performer has any obligation to play his/her hits, even if he is trying to pay his rent. Yeah, I usually want to hear at least a few of the well-known tunes, but an artist has an obligation to do what’s interesting to him, not us.

    When I saw Lou Reed, he played a lot of songs from a new cd none of us had heard. Maybe it was his genial demeanor that sold the show to us, but people were rivetted by his presence and open to the new material. I guess this proves yet again that Brits have a grating obviousness in their taste and that’s why they lost their empire. That said, I do want to see Bright Young Things.

  2. Kristy:

    Just as you are mystified by my notion of a “hit,” I am puzzled by your defintion of “well known.” C’mon, “Coney Island Baby”?

  3. All right, I guess I meant “well known” explicitly to Lou Reed fans. But that’s not an insubstantial number. “I wanna play football for the coach …. wahhhhhh, ah ah…” How many are immune to that?

  4. Well, as a long-time admirer of Reed, I’ve still got to say that you could put all of his fans in an auditorium that would be the approximate size of a lobby for a Jessica Simpson concert. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the point is, Sally would have plenty of room to dance.

  5. Stephen, when you posed the question “What exactly is it that audiences are listening for when they attend concerts by performers whom they think highly enough to spend time, money and effort on?” I think you answered it in the previous paragraph in Reed’s case when you mentioned “Berlin.”

    I think more often than not with an artist like Reed, you’ve got an audience of pretty dedicated fans, not casual fans. (Does Lou Reed even have casual fans?) Anyway, every artist has better known and lesser known material. They have albums that are more generally highly regarded, and albums that didn’t strike a chord with their core audience (contrast “Berlin” with “Growing Up In Public”).

    The point is that, yeah, in the rarified airs of the Lou Reed crowd, there are “greatest hits.” While this might be a significantly different thing between 20,000 Jessica Simpson fans and 1,500 Lou Reed fans, the fact remains that most Lou Reed fans would rather hear “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Kill Your Sons” than most anything off of “Magic and Loss”… as a fer’instance.

    All that said, anyone familiar enough with Lou Reed to go to one of his shows ought to know better than to expect “songs we like.” I don’t think Lou considers it his job to pander to 1,500 people anymore than he would pander to 15,000.

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