20 Songs Rock’s Biggest Stars Refused to Play Live
For some artists, the thrill of a hit song never dies. But for others, that enjoyment fizzles out completely.
Fans may continue to celebrate certain songs, but sometimes enough is enough for the people who make them. Occasionally that has do to with a song's massive popularity weighing on them or the monotony of having to perform it live over and over and over again. And occasionally time just renders songs pointless.
Whatever the case, in the below list of 20 Songs Rock's Biggest Stars Refused to Play Live, we take a look at some popular fan favorites that have been cut from set lists over the years. Sometime it's just a temporary break, but other times they're cut for good.
Pink Floyd - "Echoes"
After the death of Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright in 2008, guitarist David Gilmour retired "Echoes." In addition to running almost 25 minutes, with extended instrumental passages that makes playing it live a tricky task, the song just isn't the same without Wright. "Yes, it would be lovely to play 'Echoes' here," Gilmour told Rolling Stone ahead of his 2016 performance at the Amphitheatre of Pompeii. "But I wouldn’t do that without Rick. There’s something that’s specifically so individual about the way that Rick and I play in that that you can’t get someone to learn it and do it just like that. That’s not what music’s about."
Genesis - "Abacab"
When Genesis reunited for a 2007 tour and discussed set-list options, some classic songs didn't make the cut. "That happened with 'Abacab,' which I'm sure everyone expects us to do," drummer Phil Collins told Rolling Stone at the time. "Halfway through the first verse, I said, 'I don't really want to sing this. I don't know what it's about.'" The song hasn't performed by the band since 1987.
AC/DC - "Long Way to the Top"
"Long Way to the Top"'s live-performance history lasted only four years from its debut in 1975, but it grew to be one of AC/DC's most recognizable songs over the years. "In time, it became iconic and associated with the band, but oddly enough the band doesn’t play it," former bassist Mark Evans said to Noise 11. "It has become a lot bigger song in time than when it first came out." The reason for its omission from set lists s simple: After the death of singer Bon Scott in early 1980, his replacement, Brian Johnson, chose to never perform the song out of respect for his predecessor.
Robert Plant - Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven"
There's no denying the immense influence and popularity of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." But singer Robert Plant considers it a previous chapter of his career that he isn't keen to revisit. The song has been performed live only when the band briefly reunited for one-off shows in 1985, 1988 and 2007; Plant refuses to sing the song at solo concerts. "I look at it and I tip my hat to it, and I think there are parts of it that are incredible," he told Uncle Joe Benson on the Ultimate Classic Rock Nights radio show. "The way that Jimmy [Page] took the music through, and the way that the drums reached almost climaxed and then continued … it’s a very beautiful piece. But lyrically, now, and even vocally, I go, ‘I’m not sure about that.’”
John Fogerty - Creedence Clearwater Revival Songs
In perhaps one of the music industry's most bitter ironies, John Fogerty doesn't own the rights to the songs he wrote while in Creedence Clearwater Revival, thanks to a bad deal with the band's old record company head. When CCR broke up in 1972, Fogerty, unable to get out of his contract, still owed the label songs. "I found myself in the horrible position of having to give any new music, any new records, to Saul Zaentz," he told UCR in 2019. "That was why I stopped." Fogerty quit playing CCR songs and refused to make any new music until 1985, when he released Centerfield, but he still doesn't own the rights to the music he made a half-century ago. "Hopefully, I'm going to live long enough that they finally revert to me," he said. "It's a period of about 56 years, and so far, we've been celebrating the 50th anniversary of 'Proud Mary,' so you do the math. It should be pretty soon."
Elton John - "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)"
Elton John rarely plays "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)" live, but it's not because he's grown weary of singing the song. It has to do with the subject matter and the painful memories it brings up. Written as a tribute to his late friend John Lennon - with whom he had collaborated a number of times, including Lennon's last ever concert appearance in 1974 at Madison Square Garden - "Empty Garden" has been performed onstage only a handful of times since its debut in 1982.
Heart - "All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You"
The original version of "All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You" sung by Dobie Gray was relatively straightforward and harmless. Heart's version, which weaves a tale of a woman who seduces a hitchhiker with the intention of getting pregnant, was less so ... and proved more and more controversial as the years went on. "Like, you're a hitchhiker, I don't know you, so let's get in the car and exchange fluids, and now, get out," Ann Wilson said in a 2015 interview with Dan Rather. "I mean, that's hideous." Needless to say, the band won't perform the song anymore.
Billy Joel - "Just the Way You Are"
Written for his first wife (and former business manager) Elizabeth Weber, "Just the Way You Are" lost much of its luster after the couple divorced in 1982. Occasionally, Joel's drummer, Liberty DeVitto, would jokingly substitute lyrics: "She got the house, she got the car." Joel rarely performed the song from the late '80s onward. "Every time I wrote a song for a person I was in a relationship with, it didn't last," Joel said. "It was kind of like the curse. Here's your song - we might as well say goodbye now."
King Crimson - "21st Century Schizoid Man"
King Crimson went 22 years without playing the classic "21st Century Schizoid Man," the opening track from their 1969 debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King. The last time they played it before taking a break was in New York City's Central Park in 1974. After that, the song came to represent an older version of the band that had little in common with the reimagined Crimson lineups of the '80s and '90s. “From the very get-go, wherever we went in the world, there would be someone shouting, ‘Play 'Schizoid Man!' Play 'Schizoid Man!'” guitarist Adrian Belew told Rolling Stone in 2019. “It got to be almost frustrating to us, because we didn’t want to do that, and I remember in particular [leader] 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?'” The band finally returned to playing the song live in 1996.
Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was so prevalent after its surprise success, it even got under Kurt Cobain's skin. "Everyone has focused on that song so much," he told Rolling Stone in 1994. "The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains.” The band became less and less inclined to play the song live; things finally came to a head at a 1992 concert in Buenos Aires when Nirvana's opening band, Calamity Jane, got booed off the stage. When Nirvana appeared, they decided to teach the audience a little lesson. “Before every song, I’d play the intro to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and then stop,” Cobain was quoted as saying in the 2004 book, Nirvana: The Chosen Rejects. “They didn’t realize that we were protesting against what they’d done. We played for about  minutes, and most of the songs were off [the odds-and-ends compilation record] Incesticide, so they didn’t recognize anything. We wound up playing the secret noise song [‘Endless, Nameless’] that’s at the end of Nevermind, and because we were so in a rage and were just so pissed off about this whole situation, that song and whole set were one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.”
Foo Fighters - "Big Me"
The music video for Foo Fighters' "Big Me" famously featured parodies of Mentos commercials. Apparently the concept resonated so much with fans that they picked up the habit of throwing the disc-shaped mints at the band when it was performing. "We did stop playing that song for a while because, honestly, it's like being stoned," frontman Dave Grohl recalled in 2006. "Those little ... things are like pebbles — they hurt." But when Weezer's Rivers Cuomo approached Grohl about covering the song during a joint tour, Grohl had a change of heart. "[Weezer] played it every ... night," said Grohl. "And we actually started to miss it. So, once that tour ended and we went back out on our own, we kinda threw it back into the set list."
Styx - "Mr. Roboto"
"Mr. Roboto" was pretty much singer Dennis DeYoung's song. So, when he left Styx in 1984, the rest of the members didn't feel comfortable performing it live without him. But after three decades of prodding from fans, the band finally started performing the song at shows. “For the most part, it gets a huge response," guitarist James Young told AZ Central in 2019. “I mean, we’ve had a few people giving us the finger in the first row but not many.”
U2 - "Exit"
It isn't exactly clear why "Exit," a song from U2's 1987 breakthrough album The Joshua Tree, disappeared from the band's set lists, but there's one stark possibility: It was cited in the trial of Robert John Bardo, who was convicted of the 1989 murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer. A psychiatrist testifying for the defense said that Bardo told him in interviews about the song's influence on him and his actions. Perhaps to calm the waters, "Exit" didn't return to U2's sets until their 2017 tour, where they played The Joshua Tree in its entirety.
Prince - "1999"
As Prince himself notes in "1999," parties aren't meant to last. Also, there's the little problem with the song's built-in expiration date. “This is going to be the last time we play it,” he said on CBS' The Early Show in 1999. “We’re going to retire it after this, and there won’t be [a] need to play it in the '00s.” That wasn't entirely true: Prince performed the classic song at his 2007 Super Bowl halftime show and eventually included it in concerts until his death in 2016.
R.E.M. - "Shiny Happy People"
"Shiny Happy People" was a hit song for R.E.M., but it really wasn't a creatively fulfilling one. "It's a fruity pop song written for children," singer Michael Stipe said in 2016. "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 pretty much quit playing the song live and even refused to allow its inclusion on the 2003 compilation album, In Time.
Eric Clapton - "Tears in Heaven"
The death of Eric Clapton's four-and-a-half-year-old son, who fell from a New York apartment in 1991, inspired "Tears in Heaven," but by the early '00s, he no longer wanted to relive those painful memories onstage night after night. “I didn’t feel the loss anymore, which is so much a part of performing those songs,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “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.”
Sinead O’Connor - "Nothing Compares 2 U"
Sinead O'Connor's second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, was a blockbuster, reaching No. 1 and earning four Grammy nominations. The 1990 LP contained her most famous song, a hit cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U." But she retired the song after decades of performance, saying she had lost the emotional connection to it she once had. “I don’t want audiences to be disappointed coming along to a show and then not hearing it, so I am letting you know here that you won’t,” O’Connor wrote on Facebook in 2015. “If I were to sing it just to please people, I wouldn’t be doing my job right, because my job is to be emotionally available. I’d be lying. You’d be getting a lie. My job is to give you honesty. I’m trained in honesty. I can’t act. It just isn’t in my training. I have ceased singing other songs over the years for the same reason.” She did, however, offer one more performance of the song in the wake of Prince's 2016 death on The Late Late Show.
Radiohead - "Creep"
Radiohead stormed out of the gate strong. "Creep," the band's most successful single, appeared on its debut LP, 1993's Pablo Honey, and while it certainly launched Radiohead, it also became a chore to play live. “We seemed to be living out the same four and a half minutes of our lives over and over again," guitarist Jonny Greenwood told The Times in 1995 (via Rolling Stone). "It was incredibly stultifying." "Creep" was so popular that fans would occasionally request the song at shows and then promptly leave once it was over. At one particular concert in Montreal, singer Thom Yorke reportedly yelled back at the audience: "Fuck off, we're tired of it." The song didn't appear on set lists again until the 2009 Reading Festival and then again at the 2017 Glastonbury Festival.
Korn - "Daddy"
According to singer Jonathan Davis, "Daddy," the closing track from Korn's 1994 self-titled debut album, was written about his experience being molested as a child - a heinous act not believed by his parents. Given that heavy theme, Davis chose not to perform the song live. "He's already emotionally drained when he leaves the stage after our set," guitarist James "Munk" Shaffer said. "So, I couldn't imagine him leaving the stage after playing that song." It wasn't until 2015 that Davis felt comfortable enough to perform "Daddy" live.
Megadeth - "The Conjuring"
After dabbling in black magic as a teenager, Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine later committed to Christianity. So, that meant "The Conjuring" - which includes references to the occult, hexes and the devil - was no longer going to be in the band's sets. Beginning in 2001, Mustaine refused to perform the song. "When I was 15, I got into witchcraft and black magic, so I've known for over 30 years the power of the dark side, and it took me forever to break those chains," he said to Decibel in 2007. "There's no cool way to sing about Satan — you look like a punk." Years later, though, he reconsidered. "When I first did the whole, 'You know what? I'm not gonna be a heathen anymore. I'm gonna clean up my life' thing, I kind of put some brakes on things I would and wouldn't do," he told The Morning Blaze With Gus & Izzy in 2016. "And as I grow, I evolve in my outlook and my personal journey here, being a positive person and being a positive influence on other people's lives. So, as long as it doesn't hurt anybody, I wouldn't mind doing the song again, 'cause it is a good song." The band reintroduced "The Conjuring" to its set lists for the first time in 17 years in 2018.