There's something about the lure of an audience, however tiny, that keeps a musician performing. It's why so few retire. Giving up that applause? That nightly adulation? It must be tough.
Some love it so much they continue to perform even when they're not contracted to do so, popping up in public to provide unannounced, frequently unrewarded versions of the songs we know and love. Here, we salute them.
For Aerosmith man Steven Tyler, clearly all the world is a stage. In Helsinki, in May 2014, he spotted a street musician making music from wine bottles half-filled with water, so he booted him off and just about stuttered his way through Aerosmith’s 1973 hit Dream On (opens in new tab). A few days later, in Lithuania, he joined a violinist and an accordion player to sing Crazy – not entirely hitting all the notes, or indeed remembering all the words, but giving it some welly nonetheless.
Bruce Springsteen rarely needs a second invitation to nick a street musician’s guitar and whip through his back catalogue. In Copenhagen in 1988 (opens in new tab), he politely ignores requests to play Born In The USA, instead playing I’m On Fire, The River and Dancing In The Dark to the surprisingly tuneful backing of the crowd. The Danish busker who joins him still, presumably, dines out on the day he sang with The Boss. Twenty-three years later, Springsteen was at it again – this time in Boston, though in somewhat more staged-looking surroundings.
The Beatles’ Paul McCartney has ‘busked’ a number of times recently, all largely to promote new records. A recent effort in Covent Garden involved him erecting a stage, which isn’t strictly within the spirit of the thing. But back in 1984, while making the musical film Give My Regards To Broad Street, Macca donned make-up, rubbed dirt in his hair and set up shop outside Leicester Square Station for a scene in the movie – but the busking was for real.
He was totally ignored – despite banging out Yesterday a good 14 years after The Beatles had broken up. “I was standing there plunking chords, doing this silly version of the song, and no one noticed it was me,” McCartney said. “No one wants to look a busker in the eye cos then they get his life story. So they’d toss coins and I’d be going ‘Yesterday, all my troubles – thank you sir – seemed so far away’ … it was a great feeling, just me and the music.”
After playing St John’s Church in London in 2007, Arcade Fire took to the steps outside and simply carried on the show to play Wake Up from their debut album Funeral. For extra drunken-busker authenticity, the performance was augmented by the crowd unevenly joining in on the chorus.
Back in 1994 and 1995, Jon Bon Jovi would regularly take to the street (albeit with pre-arranged microphone and PA) to rattle through his songs. Famously, he busked in Covent Garden in 1994 and then in Moscow’s Red Square, but he also pulled out the flat cap and acoustic in Glasgow and Cardiff on 1995’s These Days tour.
Christmas Eve on Grafton Street, Dublin, wouldn’t be quite the same without Bono turning up to regale the drunks with a few tunes. In 2009 he and the musician Glen Hansard rattled through Bob Dylan’s Knocking On Heaven’s Door (opens in new tab). By 2013, the duo’s act had become tradition. The pair whizzed through Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody before Bono suggested a more a low key O Come All Ye Faithful. The mood was only somewhat ruined by one reveller yelling “Put your balls into it!” as Bono got into his stride.
Oddly enough, Lenny Kravitz found himself in New Orleans with a camera just as a 30-strong street choir in full uniform, complete with band, happened to have set up on the sidewalk. Coincidentally, they also started playing his song Fly Away. Kravitz needed little urging to jump behind the kit. The choir’s guitarist then took the opportunity to effortlessly deliver a solo better than anything Kravitz has managed in 20 years. As easy as it is to be cynical, however, it does look like all concerned were having the time of their lives.
As departure boards flicked from delayed to cancelled, the mood in Buenos Aires airport in March 2011 threatened to turn ugly. Fortunately, Cyndi Lauper was in the lounge and waiting for a flight for the next leg of her South American tour. So, without further ado, she commandeered one of the tannoy microphones and blasted through Girls Just Want To Have Fun. Airport staff who, very possibly, should have been working to alleviate the delays instead got out their camera phones.
Children Of Bodom
Finland is a tolerant country, but one thing they’re not keen on is heavy metal singers busking on the streets of Helsinki. When Children Of Bodom’s late frontman Alexi Laiho took to the pavement for an impromptu performance, the Finnish police received a handful of complaints. Their reaction was to bundle Laiho off into the back of a police van, saying “People just can’t take this anymore!”
Credit to the fan who walked in front of notorious shredder Yngwie Malmsteen and started playing air guitar when the guitarist set up shop on London’s Denmark Street to divebomb, fret-tap and generally show the hell off as he played an al fresco Purple Haze. There are laws about masturbating in public in London but, as yet, the beak appears not have caught up with the Swede.
It’s easy to mock Cliff Richard, which is no reason not to do it. However, when Sir Cliff was put on the spot in 1996 at a rain-affected Wimbledon and asked to entertain the crowd he rose to the occasion. He has been roundly mocked since for doing so, but the story is that he agreed to do an interview to help pass the time while a storm went over and, at the end of it, the interviewer said, “Before I let you go, they would never forgive me if I don’t ask you to sing.”
It would have been churlish refuse. Frankly, getting up to do the likes of Summer Holiday, All Shook Up and Living Doll with no preparation, no backing singers and no band takes guts (or ego).
It’s not often you see four of the biggest glam rockers of all time standing outside in the middle of Soho, so imagine our surprise when Steel Panther burst into song – to the bemusement of passers by. Treating London to acoustic renditions of Party Like Tomorrow Is The End Of The World and Community Property, the Panther guys quickly attracted a crowd all equipped with phones to capture the unique moment.