Okay, we've all heard the stories: band writes killer song, killer song becomes very popular, band get bored of killer song, band enter existential crisis about killer song, band resent having to play killer song live.
The mental tussle described above can perhaps account for why, for many bands, their setlists can be full of surprises – and in some cases, disappointments – with an equal number of curveballs and surprises bedded in among the fan favourites, and some bands refusing to play those fan favourites at all (here's looking at you, Radiohead – but more on that below). It's not always the case, of course – plenty of bands understand the power of a crowd-pleasing mega-hit when they hear one – but some just can't resist the allure of wheeling out the deep cuts live.
Here, with a little help from the data-hungry boffins at Setlist.fm, the most-played live songs from some of rock's most iconic names.
U2 - I Will Follow (1061 times)
When considering the sheer amount of globally-adored radio-friendly unit-shifters U2 have produced over the course of their career, it’s fair to say I Will Follow isn’t one of their most obvious hits. Written in tribute to Bono’s late mother and released as a single on debut album Boy, it is, however, the only song U2 have played on every tour since Boy’s release in 1980. Racking up 1061 documented live outings, it’s been performed hundreds more times than beloved mega-hits With Or Without You, Beautiful Day and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for.
Foo Fighters - Everlong (1126 times)
Some songs are fan favourites for a very good reason, and this is one of them. The tender not-quite ballad, written about the breakdown of Dave Grohl’s relationship with his then-wife, was released as the second single from 1997 album The Colour And The Shape – the album that took them from “the drummer from Nirvana’s new band” to chart-bothering global superstars in their own right. It’s no surprise it’s the Foo Fighters’ most-played live song – it’s their most-streamed by a country mile too.
Nirvana - School (292 times)
“School?! Never heard of it!” Well, chances are you have – it’s that mid-paced one from Bleach that goes ‘No recess? No recess!’ – but anything other than Smells Like Teen Spirit might feel like a surprise here. Until you consider, that is, that Nevermind was released relatively late in Nirvana’s career – only two-and-a-half years before Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994 – while tracks from Bleach were being performed live since the band’s formation in 1987 (School got its first outing in 1988) and were included in their setlists until the very end. Teen Spirit, for what it’s worth, only made it to number 10 in the band’s most-played live tracks.
Red Hot Chill Peppers - Give It Away (1038 times)
When you think of Anthony Kiedis, you perhaps picture him singing wistfully about California (which is fair enough, as Californication and Under The Bridge battle it out for number one when it comes to the band’s most-streamed songs), but it is in fact this funky little number from Blood Sugar Sex Magik which takes top spot when it comes to their setlists. It’s been a live staple for the band since its release as a single in 1991, but it’s not just legacy plays which cement its spot here – it’s been played live 40 times in 2023 alone, while Under The Bridge has had a measly 17 live outings this year.
Blink-182 - Dammit (765 plays)
Is this Blink-182’s most popular song? No, it is not. Is it their best song? Yes, obviously it is, and the fact it’s their most-performed live song suggests that’s a statement with which the band fully concur. Released as the second single from Dude Ranch – eg from a time when drummer Travis Barker was still a mere glimmer in the band’s eye – Dammit became the band’s first hit single, propelling them onto MTV, a major label and bagging them plenty of much-coveted rock radio airplay.
Weezer - Buddy Holly (1348 times)
If you've spent time in enough rock clubs, listened to enough rock radio, and watched enough MTV2 back in the day, you may feel like Buddy Holly is a song you never need to hear again, live or otherwise. So just imagine how Weezer feel, having played the Blue album hit over 1300 times live (and counting). The song first appeared in their setlists in 1993 and still gets wheeled out pretty much every time they perform – over 50 times in 2023 alone.
Green Day - Longview (996 plays)
Released as the first single from the band’s major-label debut, Dookie, in 1994, it’s fitting that Longview should top the list of their most-played tracks. Their most popular? Nah, not by a long shot, but it was arguably the moment the band locked their eyes firmly on the mainstream and dragged the rest of punk rock along with them. A lifetime of being called “sellouts” later, and with enough arena-filling hits to shake a stick at, Longview remains a set staple.
Pearl Jam - Even Flow (906 times)
Pearl Jam’s relationship with Even Flow is a tricky one – the band themselves felt the track’s spark had been lost by the time they committed the version which appeared on Ten to tape. Perhaps they’ve been trying to recapture that original spark each of the 906 times they’ve bashed it out live. Infamous for their unpredictable setlists and their refusal to simply wheel out their 90s hits, it may be surprising – if a little heartening – to learn that their top three live songs are all Ten numbers. Even if one of them is Porch.
Radiohead - Street Spirit (Fade Out) (462 plays)
There was a time in Radiohead’s career when, daunted by their snowballing success and particularly that of their hit single Creep, they just… stopped performing it live. Famously telling a Montreal audience to “Fuck off, we're tired of it” when the song was requested during their OK Computer tour in 1997, the band stopped playing it completely from 1999-2003, and have never performed it more than 10 times in a year since. Which deftly explains why Creep – yes, their most popular track by almost a billion Spotify streams – doesn’t even make the top five Radiohead songs played live. Instead, that accolade goes to The Bends track and fan favourite Street Spirit (Fade Out). Street Spirit also became a live favourite for The Darkness, who’ve played it as part of their live sets since 2003.
Smashing Pumpkins - Bullet With Butterfly Wings (920 plays)
Altogether now: ‘Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cagggeeeeee’. This 1995 track, the lead single from that year’s Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, is perhaps the most perfect distillation of teenage angst and rage, of relief and release and catharsis ever committed to tape – which obviously makes it a prime candidate for being a song that will absolutely rip live, too. And if there’s a better feeling than being part of the crowd when this chorus kicks in, we wanna know about it.