Karaoke Coldplay: When Are Backing Tracks OK?

Following the controversy surrounding Ed Sheeran‘s use of loop pedals at Glastonbury this year, SFN‘s Simon Harper took a look at when it’s okay to use backing tracks. 

Ed Sheeran’s performance at Glastonbury this year once again prompted discussion over the use of backing tracks during supposedly live performances. In fact, Sheeran’s performance was entirely live but the absence of other musicians on stage raised the suspicions of many and he was forced to explain his use of a loop pedal.

Those who saw Coldplay’s finale to last year’s Glastonbury could be forgiven for thinking they had just witnessed a flawless live performance. For those watching closely, however, it was evident that not all of the music coming out of the speakers than was being produced by the musicians. Some background strings here, an extra guitar there, some piano when no-one was sitting at the piano. I’m not suggesting that Coldplay were lip-synching; merely that their live performance was augmented to a considerable degree by backing tracks.

Perhaps Chris Martin doesn’t trust in his audience’s ability to appreciate a genuine four-piece live performance with all its spontaneity and rough edges. Perhaps he thinks they can’t appreciate a performance that doesn’t sound exactly like the record. In which case, why not hire some extra musicians? He can certainly afford them and they would give Coldplay the fuller live sound that they seem to want.

My argument with Chris Martin is not that there is never a case for using backing tracks (They can be and have been used to great effect by better bands than Coldplay). It is that the tracks were used covertly and with a lack of respect for an audience who had paid to see a live performance.

Backing tracks go back a long way. The Who used one for the looped synth part on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” as early as 1972 but there are two key differences with Coldplay. Firstly, the reel-to-reel tape player was visible on stage so there was no deception. Secondly, the track concerned was a looped synth track which could not be easily performed live, rather than just a recording of an extra instrument.

Later in the 1970s, OMD used backing tracks on stage and indeed on the Old Grey Whistle Test but again the tape player was prominent on the stage and used for synth loops.

Coldplay is certainly not the only band to use unacknowledged backing tracks. Artists as diverse as MUSE, Dolly Parton and ZZ Top have used supplementary instruments on tape. 10cc used backing tracks in the 70s as did The Cars in the 80s. None of these acts needed to cheat. They are all competent musicians able to put on a live show so why do it? Presumably, the answer is the desire for their songs to sound like the recorded version. But why? People pay their money to see a live performance. They can listen to the record at home.

Queen was a band who made full use of studio techniques on their records which featured 64 part harmonies, twinned guitars and any number of effects. On stage, however, they were always a four piece and with no backing tracks and their live performances are legendary. The songs were arranged differently from the recorded versions and were rightly seen as being a different entity. When they did, at one time, decide to use the recording of the middle section of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in their show, the band always left the stage so there was no mistaking it as part of the live performance.

In the 1990s, The Boo Radleys encountered problems after they had recorded “Wake Up!” with multi-tracked harmonies and other studio effects which they couldn’t reproduce live.  Their previously lauded live shows received poor notices and criticism from new fans who had been attracted by the album. Unlike Queen, the simpler arrangements used on stage didn’t cut it with audiences outside their core fan base. Subsequent albums returned the band to simpler arrangements which worked on stage but they were unable to sustain the success that the Wake Up album had brought. It is hard to imagine, however, that such a fine live band would have ever considered using backing tracks, or indeed that backing tracks would have improved their shows.

In the mid-60s when the Beatles started to record songs with more complex arrangements using strings, brass and multi-tracked harmonies, they generally chose to leave these songs out of the live repertoire. Eventually they decided to stop playing live altogether and while there were many reasons for this decision, one of them was because they were unable to do justice to songs from Rubber Soul and Revolver as a four piece.

Hip-hop and electronica are, of course something entirely different. They come from a tradition of creating the music through sampling and the electronic beats. The music is created through virtuosity in technical and literary disciplines rather than in music and the rules are quite rightly very different.

I have alluded to the historic use of backing tracks and the beginnings of this goes back to the 1950s when pop acts started to perform on TV shows. Initially acts were asked to mime to pre-recorded versions of their songs because of the technical difficulties of televising a live performance. Having established miming as the norm, acts who were under-rehearsed or even totally un-rehearsed were able to perform their latest song to millions of people without ever having to sing or play a note. By the 1970s, this had led, through programmes such as Top of the Pops, to a situation where totally manufactured acts with no musical or creative ability were able to mime their way through songs that had been recorded by session musicians. This unhappy situation also resulted in the creation of stables like those of Micky Most, Chinn and Chapman and Stock, Aitken & Waterman which produced bland, undemanding pop music for bland, undemanding radio stations while talented musicians found it difficult to reach an audience. This sad if unintentional consequence of what was initially no more than a technical expedient is at the root of the debate over whether the use of backing tracks is ever OK.

The advent of punk in 1976 went some way to redress the balance in favour of bands who played live. Improvements in technology led to the arrival of programmes like the White Room, The Tube and Later with Jools Holland on which musicians gave genuinely live performances.

These welcome developments together with the collapse in sales of recorded music with the arrival of downloading have gone a long way to restore the health and vitality of the live music industry and music is the better for it. Music at grass roots level is thriving with more bands, more venues and more festivals. The bigger festivals are attracting the World’s top bands and their live performances are being broadcast around the world live on TV.

Which brings us back to Coldplay. What are they thinking of? Why doesn’t every fibre of Chris Martin’s being rail against the use of backing tracks? Why doesn’t a great bunch of musicians like Coldplay want us to hear them as they are? And if they want a bigger sound, why are they not employing musicians to help them create it?

There is a place for backing tracks when they are used overtly. There is a place for backing tracks to augment a musical performance with sounds such as synth loops or for a created sound in hip hop.

The use of backing tracks as a covert way of adding extra musical or vocal tracks to what the audience believes is a live performance is not only misleading and deceitful. It also detracts from the spontaneity of the live performance turning the most creative performance into a bland rendition of the recorded song. But most importantly, the use of backing tracks changes a live performance by musicians into a show that can be acted out by anyone and that moves the power in the music industry from musicians to entrepreneurs.

Words by Simon Harper, photographs used credited. Featured photograph credited to ©  GETTY IMAGES SAMIR HUSSEIN/REDFERNS


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