Thank you and good night? The art of the farewell gig

The farewell might often be false, but as bands from Cream to LCD Soundsystem prove, final gigs hold a special place in rock history
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James Murphy has shown a knowing sense of pop history ever since his debut single as LCD Soundsystem, “Losing My Edge”, in 2002. LCD Soundsystem’s farewell concert at Madison Square Garden on 2 April 2011 was a typically self-conscious nod from this electronic pop pioneer to rock history. The show was first commemorated by a documentary, Shut Up and Play the Hits, and a DVD. The Long Goodbye: LCD Soundsystem at Madison Square Garden, the five-LP box-set he has just announced, suggests the whole affair is a tribute to the rock farewell concert’s pinnacle, The Band’s multi-media blow-out The Last Waltz.

Last concerts are more often accidental, and these days provisional, as almost every band seems prone to reforming. Whether permanent or not, here are some of rock’s most notable live goodbyes.

Cream Royal Albert Hall, London, 26 November 1968

By 1968, Eric Clapton, hating the music Cream were making and caught in the middle of the constantly warring Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, wanted out. This concert, filmed for the BBC, was one of rock’s first formal career full-stops. At least, until the band reformed to play the Albert Hall again in 2005.

The Beatles Savile Row, London, 30 January 1969

The Beatles hadn’t played live since 1966. Three years later, an attempt to rekindle the now dimming spark between them by making a back-to-basics album just made things worse. The Let It Be film captured this, but there was a last, impromptu concert on the roof of the band’s Apple Corps building in London’s West End.

The sound of the most famous musicians in the world stopped the Thursday lunchtime traffic, people peering up amazed as The Beatles gamely played in the face of driving winter wind. The police famously pulled the plug. A further album, Abbey Road, would be recorded before Let It Be was released. But this gig was a brief, happy reminder of the raucous rock’n’roll band The Beatles once were.

The Band Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, 25 November 1976

The Band were touched with genius. But by 1976 their leader Robbie Robertson was exhausted, and decided they should quit touring with an all-star farewell concert. Signing up Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Van Morrison, Robertson envisaged a celebratory wake, like a New Orleans funeral. Martin Scorsese’s documentary The Last Waltz and a triple-vinyl box-set immortalised a gig far more bloated than The Band had ever been in their prime.

Kate Bush Hammersmith Odeon, 14 May 1979

“The most magnificent spectacle ever encountered in the world of rock,” Melody Maker declared after Kate Bush’s first tour, an ambitious theatrical spectacle, precisely planned by the 20-year-old. She danced, sang (often inside a velvet-lined, womb-representing egg), and changed costumes and characters 17 times, alongside magicians and poetry. This was also her last tour, with only guest spots since (singing “Comfortably Numb” with David Gilmour was the last to date, in 2002). Whether because of the death of young lighting director Bill Duffield early in the tour or her studio-based perfectionism, Bush quit touring almost as soon as she’d brilliantly begun.

Elvis Presley Market Square Arena, Indianapolis, June 26 1977

Three weeks before Presley’s death on August 16 1977, two Midwest gigs were filmed for a TV special. Elvis looked like “a creature from a Hollywood monster film,” his biographer Peter Guralnick wrote of the tragically swollen figure the footage showed, although singing “Unchained Melody”, Guralnick still saw a kind of “grace”. Five days later, Presley ended his last show with “Hurt”, introduced his father to the crowd, and reluctantly left the stage.

Sex Pistols Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, 14 January 1978

The Sex Pistols’ embattled tour through a USA indifferent or dangerously hostile ended in the symbolic home of the hippies. The writer Greil Marcus recalled the gig felt “as close to Judgement Day as a staged event can be”. An impassive Sid Vicious’s nose was bloodied, and Johnny Rotten clung to the mic-stand as coins and shoes were hurled at him. “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” he sneered into the darkness. He quit the Pistols, and his Rotten persona, after this punk apocalypse.

The Smiths Brixton Academy, London, 12 December 1986

What would prove to be The Smiths’ final tour was already over as they played this Artists Against Apartheid benefit, intended for the previous month, but postponed after Johnny Marr crashed his car. It being a politicised 1980s gig in Brixton, rows of mounted police waited outside. I was there, and there was a happily violent energy as the crowd smashed into each other, inspired by Morrissey and the band’s underestimated rock force. They’d make their final album, Strangeways, Here We Come, the next year, still at full creative strength. But Marr was burnt out. The Smiths split in 1987.

Take That Istora Senayan, Jakarta, Indonesia, 17 October 1995

Boy and girl bands tend to finish when their fans outgrow them, as JLS have just done. Take That were fatally holed by Robbie Williams’ departure, and Gary Barlow’s expectation of a similar solo success. They finished a long way from home, before reinventing a boy band’s life expectancy by plugging into thirtysomething nostalgia with a 2006 comeback.

The Kinks Norwegian Wood festival, near Oslo, 15 June 1996

Ray Davies’s solo career was tentatively beginning and his guitarist brother Dave was tired of The Kinks, as the band entered their 32nd year. Going on after a uninterested Van Morrison, their final gig was a typically haphazard affair. “You never know it’s the last gig,” latter-day Kinks drummer Bob Henrit recalled. “The band played full of spirit… if Ray thought it was the end, he never mentioned it.”

Mötley Crüe 2015

Nikki Sixx’s LA hair-metallers have stoked interest in their next world tour, and acknowledged the way everyone from Meat Loaf to Barbra Streisand enjoy repeated, money-hoovering “farewells”, by signing a “legally binding” contract to never tour again after 2015. Sixx has dubbed the arrangement “genius marketing”.

Wilko Johnson Koko, London, 10 March 2013

Wilko Johnson’s unexpected second coming had begun with Oil City Confidential, Julien Temple’s 2009 documentary about Essex R&B band Dr Feelgood, for which Johnson was guitarist. His cancer diagnosis in December 2012 seemed grim news. The farewell tour that followed was, though, joyous. This Sunday night show was overflowing with fans and good feeling, and Wilko responded with his most ferocious playing in years. Having since comfortably outlived the six months his doctor gave him, this is one false farewell that should make everyone happy.

‘The Long Goodbye’ by LCD Soundsystem is out on 19 May on Parlophone. ‘Wilko Johnson: Live at Koko’ is out now on DVD