Song remains the same: the appeal of anniversary tours is growing

As U2 embark on their Joshua Tree 30th anniversary tour, we take a look at the trend of bands banking on back catalogues to sell tickets.

Members of U2 kick off their world tour of the Joshua Tree in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, May 12, 2017. Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP
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The Joshua Tree 2017 tour, which kicked off in Vancouver on Friday, already looks set to redefine the concept of your average anniversary tour. Then again, U2 are no average band and The Joshua Tree, released in March 1987, was no average album.

It is all in the timing. Many hugely popular records from the late 1980s and 1990s are now hitting the sweet spots of their 20th, 25th or 30th anniversaries. The nostalgia for iconic music of that era means there is no shortage of ageing fans keen to lap up such tours.

In 2011, for example, Primal Scream played the entirety of their classic album Screamadelica during a 20th-anniversary tour. For fans of songs such as Movin On Up and the wonderful Loaded, this was the stuff of dreams.

Barely a year passes, meanwhile, without rumours of, and demands for, an Oasis anniversary tour. So far, the antipathy between the Gallagher brothers has proved stronger than lure of lucrative Definitely Maybe or What's the Story, Morning Glory anniversary/reunion tours.

That is likely remain the case, given the continued success of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, who will support U2 on the European leg of The Joshua Tree tour.

Despite their popularity, anniversary tours will always be regarded with a certain amount of cynicism. Fans might be ecstatic, but critics will always question whether they are the result of artists falling on hard times, whether financially, creatively or both.

U2 hardly need the money, certainly, but after their last two albums, No Line On the Horizon (2009) and Songs of Innocence (2014), underperformed, some will view The Joshua Tree Tour as an attempt to relive former glory and reclaim fading influence. This "relevance" accusation is one that every successful artist faces over time, but with the appetite for nostalgia undiminished, many see little harm in feeding that demand.

Even fans of the most influential of artists get giddy at the thought of their favourite album being performed live.

Recently, cryptic posters by Radiohead appeared in major cities such as London, New York and Melbourne hinting at the thrilling possibility the band would be touring their legendary OK, Computer album on its 20th anniversary.

It turned out that Thom Yorke and co will be releasing an anniversary reissue of the album called OKNOTOK. That they are not – yet – prepared to embark on an anniversary tour is proof to some that, in terms of live shows, they remain dedicated to performing new, challenging music, rather than deciding the time has come to fall back on their back catalogue.

There is, of course, a cold logic to saving an album’s anniversary tour for an artist’s metaphorical rainy day, but it is increasingly becoming the norm. This year, for example, middle-of-the-road bands like Interpol and The View will also be touring their standout albums.

The waters are a little murkier when it comes to some of the music industry’s most successful, and oldest, artists. Rather than a one-off anniversary tour, their shows have naturally evolved into a greatest-hits parade, with barely a nod to any new material.

Is it a question of relevance, again, or simply acceptance?

In 1990, Paul McCartney finally succumbed to the inevitable by turning his world tour into a celebration of his share of The Beatles' peerless canon. Though nominally in support of his excellent solo album Flowers in the Dirt, the live shows consisted mostly of some of the most adored songs of all time, many of which were being played live for the first time since John, Paul, George and Ringo walked off the stage at Candlestick Park, San Francisco in 1966, and some for the first time ever.

Similarly, since their 1989 Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle Tour, The Rolling Stones have been performing one greatest- hits show after another. From New York, to London, to Abu Dhabi, music fans not even born when (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction was released have in recent years had the chance to watch the self-proclaimed greatest rock 'n' roll Band in the world.

The Sex Pistols, desperately transparent and transparently desperate, called their 1996 reunion tour Filthy Lucre, a brazen admission it was nothing more than a moneymaking exercise for a band whose cultural influence far outstripped their limited talent and meagre musical output.

“We still hate each other,” frontman Johnny Rotten said as he announced the tour.

Some anniversary tours appear out of nowhere. Not many people would have predicted in 1997 that a fleetingly famous, three-piece band of teenage brothers with a single, maddeningly catchy hit would two decades later be announcing a comeback.

To mark 25 years together and the 20th anniversary of Hanson’s first album, Isaac, Taylor and Zac, now 36, 33 and 31, will kick of their Middle of Nowhere 25th Anniversary Tour this month.

Hanson tickets, like those for U2's Joshua Tree tour, will surely sell out – though few fans are likely to remember many songs beyond Mmmbop.

From one-hit wonders, to the greatest band of its generation, it seems nostalgia sells.