Arts feature

The musical benefits of not playing live

Many performers hated playing live. But freed from the stage they often made their best and wildest work, argues Graeme Thomson

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

Glenn Gould considered audiences ‘a force of evil’. ‘Not in their individual segments but en masse, I detest audiences.’ He retired from public performance on 10 April 1964, at the age of 31, having given fewer than 200 public recitals. The Canadian classical pianist had longstanding philosophical objections to the ritual of performing live. He found applause automatic and insincere, and often asked spectators not to bother. He even wrote a (partly) tongue-in-cheek manifesto, the Gould Plan for the Abolition of Applause and Demonstrations of All Kinds, in which he called for clapping to be banned. Gould believed that the most useful and honest response to music came following a period of solitary reflection, rather than as instantaneous public display.

In the age of lockdown, we’ve been handed an opportunity to test his theory. The current absence of live music instinctively feels like a grave loss, but Gould was far from alone among musicians in his dislike of it. Whether through nerves, perfectionism, paranoia, boredom or aesthetic objections, many artists have harboured similar reservations, either stopping entirely or performing on stage only rarely.

Scott Walker, who died last year, played his final concerts in 1978. Although an out-of-tune trumpet at a Birmingham show proved the bathetic final straw, Walker was plagued by stage fright, a fact that seems obvious watching his last public appearance, on Later… With Jools Holland in 1995, where he practically ran off set after singing the raw, riveting ‘Rosary’. In later years he preferred to outsource performances of his music. During three shows at the Barbican in 2008, Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker sang his most recent works while Walker masterminded proceedings from the wings.

Walker’s belief that he made his most satisfying music after renouncing the stage is not unusual. Tracey Thorn, who performed with her husband Ben Watt as Everything But The Girl before becoming a solo artist, stopped playing live almost 20 years ago. ‘I’d struggled with stage fright, and singing live had always been an effort, so there came a point when I was happy to have a break,’ she says. With three children under the age of three at the time, she found ‘my priorities changed. It wasn’t really a conscious decision to never perform live again.’

Thorn has found the shift in focus ‘really liberating. I remember in the past, recording songs and thinking, “This one’s going to be a bugger to sing live,” because of the range, or dynamics. Now I just don’t have to consider that at all.’

A decision that can at first seem like a retreat can instead stimulate bold new creative adventures. After April 1964, Gould focused on studio work, embarking on ‘a love affair with the microphone’. The record the Beatles made immediately after stopping touring in August 1966 — they’d grown to loathe the tinpot sound quality and freak-show element of playing to audiences who came to scream rather than listen — was Sgt. Pepper, an album that simply wouldn’t have been made had there been any intention to perform it.

Mark Hollis didn’t play live in the final 33 years of his life, having taken his band Talk Talk off the road in 1986. Freed by the knowledge that nothing they recorded would ever need to be replicated on stage, the band’s extraordinary final records, Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock, ebb and flow with a wild fluidity they would not otherwise have possessed. In the 35 years between the Tour of Life in 1979 and her return to the stage in 2014, Kate Bush played no concerts and made only a handful of brief on-stage cameos. It’s doubtful she would have found the time, energy and imaginative freedom to craft albums as daring as The Dreaming, Hounds Of Love and Aerial had she been shackled to the album-tour-album cycle.

Bush, clearly, has no trouble performing when she feels inclined. Other artists simply seemed temperamentally ill suited to the task. The tiny band of people who saw the English singer-songwriter Nick Drake at one of barely 20 live performances often felt that they were intruding on a private ritual. Paul Wheeler, Drake’s friend at Cambridge University, recalls him as a student playing informally in friends’ rooms. ‘Nick would play his songs perfectly, very much as they appeared subsequently on recordings. He would look down, not catching anybody’s eye, and simply pass the guitar on when he had finished.’

What was mesmerising among friends fell flat on the few times Drake played publicly. Supporting Fairport Convention on 24 September 1969, at the Royal Festival Hall, ‘he sang a bit off mic and didn’t lift his head much,’ recalls the folk singer Linda Thompson, who was a close friend. ‘I loved it. I knew the music very well and in spite of him not being very loud, he sang and played beautifully. The audience wasn’t interested.’

One reviewer described watching Drake perform as ‘an hour of sheer tedium’. It wasn’t that he couldn’t play, and play well; he simply seemed to lack the ability to meet the audience somewhere near halfway. Perhaps Drake’s deeply personal music was always meant to be consumed as it was created: alone.

Other renunciants, like the garrulous Harry Nilsson, who had hits with ‘Without You’ and ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ and was beloved of the Beatles, seemed more suited to charming a crowd. Yet Nilsson tried playing live a handful of times in the late 1960s and hated the experience. ‘He didn’t want to perform — he was insistent on that,’ says his friend, the great American songwriter and arranger Van Dyke Parks. ‘He still wanted to entertain through recorded music, but he didn’t buy into the idea that you must go out and get clapped at and approved of in public to make a living. He wanted to be Hitchcock in his own great movie.’

Nilsson’s gung-ho studio vocals at least challenge one prevailing orthodoxy: that a live performance is somehow more deeply felt than a recorded one. ‘I actively think it’s utter bullshit,’ says Thorn. ‘I believe that as a singer you often perform in the studio in a very pure way. You’re not playing to the gallery, or doing your tricks for an audience response. You’re singing the song the way it needs to be sung. I absolutely love singing in the studio, and find it really meaningful and emotional.’

Live performers can get tired, or bored, or jaded, falling into patterns they know will elicit an instant response. They mess with your favourite song, twist the melody, add drum solos. You are cajoled into clapping and chanting when sometimes, frankly, you’d rather not. As Gould recognised, generally we are pre-programmed to respond positively, whatever the quality of the performance. Often, we are simply applauding the fact that someone we admire is standing in front of us. How else to explain the growing popularity of hologram shows?

What concerts provide — aside from, these days, the lion’s share of an artist’s revenue stream — is an arena for emotional connection. The music serves as a pretext for wider communion. This is the contact we are currently missing so badly, and which artists and fans are looking to replicate with the online gigs and virtual festivals currently occurring all over social media. All they lack — and it’s a significant absence — is a physical audience. ‘Sometimes that’s the best bit of a gig,’ says Thorn. ‘Not the performer on stage, but the being in a crowd. The communal experience.’ It will come again. Until then, ’til things are brighter, thank goodness we have the records.

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