Musical familiarity breeds artistic contempt

My friend Todd Lohenry passes on Mental Floss‘ amusing “10 Artists Who Hated Their Biggest Hit”:

Just because certain songs are fan favorites doesn’t mean the artists who made them famous feel the same way. Motorhead’s Lemmy isn’t terribly fond of “Ace of Spades,” Slash writes “Sweet Child o’ Mine” off disdainfully as a joke—and that’s just the tip of the self-loathing iceberg. …

2. BOB GELDOF, “DO THEY KNOW IT’S CHRISTMAS?” AND “WE ARE THE WORLD”

It’s tough to imagine hating a song that united Michael Jackson, Sting, and Phil Collins, but at least one season a year, Irish singer Bob Geldof apologizes profusely for co-penning “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” “I will go to the supermarket, head to the meat counter, and it will be playing,” he told the Daily Mail. “Every f***ing Christmas.”

Geldof is busy paying double penance for his hand in a second star-studded charity singlet too: “I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history,” he admits. “One is ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ and the other one is ‘We Are The World.’”

3. LED ZEPPELIN, “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN”

In 2002, Robert Plant pledged a donation to a Portland, Oregon radio station that announced its refusal to play Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” a song Plant dubs “that bloody wedding song.” Plant’s disdain for the song put the kibosh on reunion talks for decades, simply because the singer had it up to here with singing the hit.

Plant put up with the song for at least 17 years after he wrote it, before finally telling the Los Angeles Times, “I’d break out in hives if I had to sing that song in every show” in 1988. When the band played a one-off concert in London two decades later, Plant demanded the song not be played as a finale, and for guitarist Jimmy Page to “restrain himself from turning the song into an even more epic solo-filled noodle.”

5. BEASTIE BOYS, “(YOU GOTTA) FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT (TO PARTY)”

The Brooklyn rappers come right out and say the song “sucks” in the liner notes of their 1999 greatest hits album, The Sounds of Science. But the dislike stems more from a lost sense of irony and parody than the song itself. Some fans took the song—and its outlandish pro-partying music video—totally straight.

Beastie Boy Mike D only had one qualm about the song that put the group on the map: “The only thing that upsets me is that we may have reinforced certain values of some people in our audience when our own values were actually totally different.”

6. THE PRETENDERS, “BRASS IN POCKET”

Frontwoman Chrissie Hynde thought the 1979 hit—a song she “hated with a vengeance”—was anything but special, so special. Her bandmates, manager, producer, and record label smelled a smash hit with “Brass in Pocket,” and so did Hynde; that’s precisely why she hated it. She dismissed the tune as “so obvious.”

The song pushed the band’s self-titled album to platinum sales, but Hynde told the Observer in 2004 that she released the song very reluctantly. “I wasn’t very happy with it and told my producer that he could release it over my dead body,” she said.

7. FLOCK OF SEAGULLS, “I RAN (SO FAR AWAY)”

The ‘80s one-hit wonders get remembered for two things, and Flock frontman Mike Score dislikes both of them: “I Ran (So Far Away)” and Score’s eccentric hairdo. In VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of the ‘80s, Score acknowledged his loathing for the song, saying that he only performs it live for fans: “Every time I perform live, everyone just wants to hear ‘I Ran.’ I’m sick of it.”

The ‘do wore out its welcome quicker: Score got tired of reporters asking more questions about the haircut than the band’s music. Score, a former hairdresser, told the Daily Record that he basically shaves his head to shirk questions of whether he’ll ever bring back the signature look (and probably also because he doesn’t have much hair left). “I think that haircut owns me,” he says. “I don’t own it.”

8. JOHN MELLENCAMP, “JACK AND DIANE”

John Cougar can’t name two people in rock ‘n’ roll more popular than his titular pairing (at least according to a 2008 interview with The Sun), but as life goes on, even the Americana singer’s gotten tired of the duo long after the thrill of writing about them was gone. In the same interview, he said, “I am a little weary of those two.”

“Jack and Diane” notched the only #1 in Mellencamp’s career, so the singer begrudgingly owes the fictional high school sweethearts for a sizable chunk of his 35-year career. “I’ve been able to live on my whims, that’s what Jack and Diane gave me,” he says. “So I can’t hate them too much.” …

10. REM, “SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE”

Lead singer Michael Stipe isn’t too fond of his group’s 1991 hit—in fact, he appeared on a 1995 episode of Space Ghost and announced “I hate that song.” Today he tempers his dislike a bit, saying that he prefers not to say anything bad about songs he doesn’t like because there might be a fan out there to whom that song is very important and has a particular meaning. Instead he now says that “Shiny Happy People” has “limited appeal” for him, and adds that it was the one song that the entire group agreed should not be included on their Greatest Hits compilation.

This dovetails nicely with my list of The Worst Music of All Time, because of something said by Linda Clifford, the lead singer of the ’90s group 4 Non Blondes, about their only recognizable song, “What’s Up”:

“I wasn’t really a big fan of my band,” she said. “I didn’t like the record at all. ‘Drifting’ was the only song I loved. I did love ‘What’s Up?’ but I hated the production. When I heard our record for the first time I cried. It didn’t sound like me. It made me belligerent and a real asshole. I wanted to say, ‘We’re a fucking, bad-ass cool band. We’re not that fluffy polished bullshit that you’re listening to.’ It was really difficult.”

(It’s apparently really difficult for Clifford to speak in appropriate-for-all-ages English, too, but never mind that. And if she hated the production of the original version, her reaction to the dance mix version should be unprintable.)

You can gue$$ the rea$on why the$e $ong$ rank as the$e $inger$’ mo$t popular $ong$. That may be part of the reason for the artists’ antipathy, sticking it to the man and all that (which means, of course, sticking it to themselves), but the comments show other potential reasons:

From what I remember hearing from Buffett in an interview, he dislikes the fact that he has so many songs that he “has to play” at every concert (Margaritaville, Cheesburger, Fins, Volcano, etc) that he doesn’t get to play a lot of his other material. The set list gets filled up with the classics that everyone wants to hear at a Buffett concert, and he gets stuck playing the same songs for decades. …

Warren Zevon felt that Werewolves was easy and that a lot of his music had more meaning than that song, which was basically composed in a couple of hours around a guitar riff. It wasn’t an important song for him (and I don’t think it was his best song but what do I know?) …

Unless you’re a songwriter you won’t understand this. Anyone who creates likes to be known for their best work. For fans to go ape$hit over an embarrassingly bad song while your best work is ignored twists up the mind. It’s like an actor being typecast for one role and character. Think [Max] Baer as Jethro Bodine. Any artist wants to be able to perform each of his/her songs with passion, and to have to go through the motions on a song you don’t like or that you feel is not your best work makes you feel like a cheap hooker faking orgasms. The whole point of becoming a songwriter performer is to escape from drudgery and rote through the creative process, and for that process to put you right where you didn’t want to be in that sense is maddening. …

Frank Sinatra hated “Strangers in the Night,” even though it was his first number-one hit in over a decade and stayed on the charts for almost four months. He tacked on that “doo-be-doo-be-doo” ending to show his contempt for the song, only to have it become a signature for him. …

That’s a big reason I’m hesitant to go to concerts. “And here’s a little something from my NEW album!” Lots of musicians want to do the whole show on new stuff without doing a few of the songs that made them famous. Then, when they do it, they’re resentful and don’t really get into it. …

Most of these people would be living in the gutter without this song that they hate.

I can’t really comment on the “creative process,” since I neither write nor sing songs and I’m not very creative. (Regular readers are now thinking: Since when has that ever stopped you, Steve?) I can relate the experience of three Chicago concerts over three decades. The first, in 1987, included a combination of then-current music and what one of the members called “the old stuff.” The latter two concerts, in Fond du Lac in 1997 and in Oshkosh in 2010, featured the old stuff, which suited fans just fine.

However: Now that I think about it, I have performed songs. Somehow I managed to forget I was in the UW Marching Band for five years. (You’d think creaking knees and feet would remind me daily.) I had no input into song selection, of course, and as a trumpet player I was, well, very replaceable. (As a marcher I was too. The UW Band continued just fine without me after I graduated in 1988.)

The UW Band played at every home football game I attended, starting in 1972, when Mike Leckrone was on his fourth year. (UW 31, Syracuse 14, by the way. Our daughter is going to her first game Saturday.) My ambition started about the time I realized I could be in the UW Band, somewhere around 1980, and when I met real live band members, and then Leckrone himself. (One of his field assistants was our band director for two years. He brought out Mike to a rehearsal.) So watching the band got me interested; my ability, such as it is, to play and march as demonstrated by six Registration Week rehearsals in August 1983 (yes, 30 years ago) got me into the band.

I wanted to get into the UW Band because they looked like they were having a blast. I didn’t see the hard work that went into it, but, yes, it was a blast. My enjoyment of being in the band made worthwhile all the hard work, as well as the less-than-great moments, such as playing songs you don’t like. (I’m not a huge fan of “If You Want to Be a Badger,” but it goes fast.) After graduating I discovered that I enjoyed playing in the band, being part of the musical mayhem, than watching the band.

Back to rock and, specifically, “Brass in Pocket,” which nicely straddles the line between rock song and power ballad — good beat, memorable guitar (though not really a riff), simple girl-wants-boy theme. (The words are here for those who, like me, spent decades not knowing what Hynde was singing.)

Hynde herself noted the irony of her quote several paragraphs ago when she said, “I was a single mom with two kids. What else was I going to do? It was either be in a band or be a waitress.” Hynde also said, “Look, as long as we can make records and sell enough so we can do some shows, that’s all I want. You know what? I just want to play guitar and be in a band.”

That quote about creative types wanting to be known for their best work is interesting based on who’s defining “best.” That in turn poses another question: Why — or, perhaps more to the point, for whom — do you do what you do? Because you demand the right to self-expression? Because you’re good at it? Because you like making music? To do something other people enjoy? To make money at it or gain fame from it?

I learned a long time ago that in the world of news, what the reporter/editor/publisher thinks is important is not necessarily what the reader thinks is important. That was described by my high school journalism teacher as “what you want to know vs. what you need to know.” The journalist is more plugged in than the average reader, but you ignore or dismiss the reader, or listener, or viewer at your own professional peril.

It is possible, I suppose, that some musical artists were too idealistic and assumed that their fans would want to hear whatever the artist wanted them to hear, instead of what the fans want to hear. It’s non-monetary economics — either give your fans what they want, or they won’t be your fans, or at least won’t show up at your concerts and buy your new music. To quote a group that has five decades of songs to choose from for their concerts, you can’t always get what you want.

In most of the cases listed, the group has, in my opinion, better songs, which you can find with the search function on this very page. (Hint: They’re in the “Presty the DJ” pages.) And whatever Plant said about “Stairway” before, his reaction to this version was quite different:

Rick Nelson wrote about the phenomenon of wanting to play new stuff when your fans don’t want you to …

… which ironically turned out to be one of his most popular songs.

This is also where I express my regret that of Chicago’s three number one singles, 2½ are sappy ballads:

Economics has a lot to do with this. Hynde once said, “Yeah, the industry has always been both the enemy and the best friend of the artist. They need each other. That’s the bottom line.” A musician unconcerned with making money can play whatever he or she wants. A musician dependent on sales of concert tickets and recordings better pay attention to his or her market — that is, fans.

The other half it, again, comes down to the motivation for being a musician. If any part of that motivation includes others’ enjoyment of your music, then you have to include what they like, and record sales and chart numbers are reasonably good indicators of that. Chicago is still producing new music; most of its fans seem to want the older stuff, and the band seems to be reconciled to that based on the fact they’re still touring 45 years after first getting rock music’s attention.  I don’t decide whether I like something based on its popularity, but I’m announcing a football game tonight, not embarking on a concert tour.

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