Baby Your Mind is a Radio
By Oliver Bayliss
May 27, 2004
May 27, 2004
1. Got a Receiver Inside my Head
Radiohead: miserable, tedious, plagiarising, puerile, apologetic, self-obsessed, guilt-ridden millionaire music for homesick students, with the occasional clumsy and cringing political rant masquerading as relevancy. They don’t do coke from 15-year-old half-formed cleavage backstage; they do the Guardian crossword. Should you despise them, you would have reasonable cause. But you’d be wrong, of course, completely and embarrassingly wrong. Radiohead are vital, and should you disagree, then this article should help ease your confusion on this matter.
For more than 10 years now, the collective entity of Radiohead, comprised chiefly of five men from Oxford (along with their various associates to complete the franchise) has been held captive on countless cassette, vinyl, CD, video and DVD recordings across the planet, their cries often swimming invisible around us in the electromagnetic ocean we only know through receiving aesthetic mediums, sinking up through the stratosphere and out into the void to interfere with alien navigation systems. Radiohead symbols can be seen gracing many a young acolyte in both anomalistic record shops and amoebic coffee chain outlets. Their afferent racket is centred around the English words of Thom Yorke but transcends many a language, and occasionally the physical composites coalesce for brief periods of performance across various continents, these days invariably to instant sell-out crowds in some form of telepathic conspiracy to ensure that the likes of your correspondent never live to hold another Radiohead concert ticket with trembling hands again. They roost atop magazine polls at certain times of year, grin and mumble on television with Jonathan Ross, are clapped at by Jools Holland, soundtrack student communal kitchens, swirl above engine noise in company cars, awake bewildered on “The Best Rock Album in the World … Ever” compilations, gasp suddenly over segments of Blue Peter, self-efface themselves on South Park, get beaten up in the street by those they bemuse, are attempted to be danced to by children on Top of the Pops, are dissected by classical musicians and reassembled for stark and bewildered Frankenstein concerts. As mainstream bands go, they are of the foremost, deemed to be one of the most important, and given apparent artistic free reign by their employers.
The real question is “why?”
Why is such an unoriginally awkward bunch of whingers so culturally dominant? And why is such a vital EMI commodity apparently allowed to record and release, at the cost of millions, whatever noise they like as “proper music”? And why does it always sell while being so adverse to the concept of “pop,” with the members clearly hating the process of pedalling themselves. A band that find themselves everywhere mainly because of a song they recorded about not belonging “here,” meaning wherever it is when they play it. It’s something most Radiohead articles and bios take for granted. When looking back at the crude middle-middle-class posers in their earliest photo ops, inept agents of contempt standing about in the street like idiots, one fails to see how they even got through their first gigs without being beaten back by cultured laughter and kinetic glass, let alone through city-hopping tours stretching around the planet like some miserable version of the Jormungand serpent. It’s a curiosity we shall explore here.
First, let’s meet the band.
Oxford, 1991: Four graduates and one student reform their schoolboy band, On a Friday, so called either as a tribute to the Norse fertility goddess Freya to ensure artist proliferation and sensual luxuriance, or possibly because they used to rehearse after school on a Friday. They are Ed O’Brien (lanky guitarist, whose classic handsomeness curses him to be the waiter of a trendy restaurant); Phil Selway (the oldest member of the ensemble, working for a publisher and playing the drums with strident dignity); the brothers Greenwood, Colin (small affable bassist with curious features, putting his English degree from Cambridge to good use from behind the counter at Our Price) and the younger Jonny (bizarrely beautiful and awkward multi-instrumentalist currently at Oxford Brookes and somehow finding himself playing guitar); and, finally, the pivotal piece, Thom E. Yorke.
While the others can be regarded as aspiring musicians, Yorke is the gestating pop star. After having clambered through adolescence within a skinny and diminutive frame, with irregular teeth, mismatching eyes and obvious but as-yet-unformed musical talent, he has developed both a planet-swallowing ego and an attitude problem. By all accounts, he made few friends while at Exeter University, despite notoriety as a singer/songwriter and indie DJ (although he did get a girlfriend, illustrating the problem to be beyond sexual frustration). Yorke is simply one of those characters unable to slot into any other social function other than the Carnivalesque. His current employment of assisting in a men’s clothes shop is a case in point: When asked why he is failing to sell clothes by his manager, his reply is “because they’re crap.” He’s on course for the dole queue, where he will surely flitter back to in the years to come unless artistic success is forthcoming. On the street, he’s an obnoxious little upstart but perhaps in a similar way to how the Elephant Man would have been a demigod had he been born in India instead of England, Yorke is a rock star on stage.
The would-be famous five move into a shared house together and proceed to drive each other nuts. Soon enough they play regular local gigs, have a demo tape (the profoundly titled “Manic Hedgehog”), A&R interest, and suddenly from the void they have an eight-album deal with Parlophone. The reasons for such an enormous break are unclear; clearly the “Manic Hedgehog” demo must have been at least competent and endowed with potential, and the recent Thames Valley music scene (Ride, Slowdrive, etc.) around Oxford couldn’t have hurt either. Such a development occasions an upgrade of identity, and On a Friday change into Radiohead (a moniker appropriated from the Talking Heads’ “True Stories”). A couple of EPs are snorted up and spat out but remain in impulse buy boxes by the tills of Oxford’s record stores. At this time, Radiohead themselves stride proudly into one such store to see many units they’re shifting, only for the manager to attempt to unload the undesired CDs back onto them for free. Under the pressure of label investment, little appears to be happening for the band, and then something does.
2. Baby I’m Tuned to Your Wavelength
The songs of Radiohead at this time are largely sarcastic or, at best, ironic. Modernist clichés of symbolism are sneered up from the little lungs of Yorke, telling us we are “the sun, moon and stars” to him with doubtful sincerity. Any honesty that finds its way out is stark and forlorn, twisted with contempt and rejection so as to disable any listener empathy. The songs are largely of the standard indie-rock formula, striking but without depth and ultimately not that interesting. One song in particular leaps out as conventional rock but also as being sufficiently melodic to be the next single. It’s a linear tale of unrequited love and obsession which ends with the realisation that nothing will come of it; hardly fresh waters. At the label’s instance, the band dutifully rehearses and prepares to record, and then it happens.
Jonny Greenwood is not fond of the song, with its simplistic chord progression and snide metaphors, and the more he is obliged to play it, the more he hates it. When the band plays it in the studio, Jonny crunches on his strings before the first chorus in a half-arsed attempt to ruin the take, and unwittingly casts magic. “Creep” is a song of self-hatred, of unattainable ideals and being unable to operate in the world as one would like, and with Greenwood’s guitar jagging into the first verse, disrupting the indulgent imagery and wistful flow before spewing overdrive chaos across the chorus, a new layer of meaning is added: It’s also a song that hates itself, wishing it didn’t have to be played, wishing it could be proper music. In the studio, the power of the effect is clear on the playback, and made even clearer by the subsequent sales of the “Creep” EP (with a certain lyric replaced with the word “very” for the purposes of commercialism), especially as slacker vogue in the USA, and Jonny, with an irony worthy of Oedipus, has sealed the band’s fate by trying to avoid it.
With the band’s first LP, “Pablo Honey,” Radiohead is established as an up-and-coming rock act, even though the popular opinion is that they only have one “cool” song. The album has life but is too concerned with rock ’n’ roll references to be a decent listen. Their live act, on the other hand, displays a great deal more fire, and the band begin playing to impressive crowds in medium-sized venues but despairingly see the numbers dissipate once the evening’s rendition of “Creep” is out of the way and the casual fans sod off down the pup early. Radiohead continue to promote themselves, playing their hated song of self-hatred that hates to be played, chiselling themselves a career with gritted teeth. They play the exclusive Hell of an MTV beach party, miming their misery to large pairs of breasts with models attached. Thom attempts to get into the spirit of things by jumping into the swimming pool, still wired up with his microphone, monitor earpiece and electric guitar. Members of the production crew scrabble over each other to hook him back out, possibly screaming “stop that Creep guy, he’ll kill us all!” Of course, you can’t die in Hell, and the strings continue to jerk them into performances.
Following singles “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” “Stop Whispering” and the appallingly optimistic “Pop is Dead” simply serve to remind people that the album with “Creep” on it is still available in all good record shops. They support Tears for Fears in Las Vegas and bury their faces in their respective hands when they hear the headliners cover “Creep” in their own inimitable style. While being batted across the planet and seeking refuge between inane interviews, they go for a drink at some back-street dive in Bangkok only to hear the resident band start up behind them and slowly realise that they too are covering that dreaded song of theirs. By 1993, “Pablo Honey” has shifted millions of miserable units. As crass as it sounds, success is hollow. Better than selling crap suits, and excitingly strange, but still hollow. In their own words, Radiohead are a professional one-song jukebox. No artistry, no credibility.
3. Let Me Tell you what it Says ...
For the band, success brings such bacchanalian excesses as new Walkmans, bass lessons, the odd spliff with the roadcrew, and a barn. This barn, part of a converted fruit farm, bears the first signs of the band’s new music, with an immediately different flavour. The record label executives swinging by are uncertain, suspicious of what sounds like progressive rock from their promising teenage angst pseudo-indie enterprise. Simple guitar refrains are entwined in overdubs, just out of reach of the ear. Disconcerting rhythms rumble in the distance. Vocal tracks are anonymous whispers from the undergrowth, the lyrics delirious babble. Every effort is clearly being made to grow something wild and unfamiliar.
The new single is still recognisable, and morbidly so. “My Iron Lung” is “Creep” on its deathbed, renouncing its life with dispassion and snotty self-reflexivity, hissing that “this is our new song, just like the last one, a total waste of time ... ” before falling into overdrive mockery. The structure is marginally more elaborate and elongated, strung around a sarcastic riff and a sniggering inaudible chorus, which suggests slight growth but not exactly the stuff of epicurean salivation. The video is taken from a live set at the London Astoria and shows the band as saliently happy, joyously dancing on their own graves, with three guitars comfortably playing off each other, knowing something we don’t about what’s to come. In the charts, the single rises to number 23, the magic number. It will prove to be a good omen.
The next single to come is more intriguing and further removed. “Fake Plastic Trees” fittingly has a title implying deception. The song is akin to a beetle with crude glaring eyes depicted on its wing case to fool predators, before the casing flicks open with a delicate little flutter and flies away before its true character can be fully appreciated. At first, it’s a lighters-aloft, mullet-wavering-in-the-breeze, white-flag-planting rock ballad. Acoustic guitar strings are brushed with romantic restraint and the vocal is humourlessly passionate. The “He” and “She” are introduced. It appears tittering on the verge of silliness, and totally generic. The listener can already hear the song’s upcoming chorus and climax and the criticisms being agreed on over pints later. However, after the first couple of bars the song begins to befuddle. The lyrics continue to be vague, abstract, and then the drums don’t beat with the stadium definition, the accompanying guitars are strikingly subtle, and then comes the chorus with a sad shuffle instead of a scissor kick, if it is the chorus, then it’s clear there isn’t a chorus, and we don’t know where we are. There’s a cello playing somewhere, apparently. And then, after a climax shuddering with futility, for some reason the song continues with burnt-out grace, and the lyrics utter of an exhausted meaning paled in the sun and the pretty bullshit of promises with a small but sudden display, and as the song flitters away we know Radiohead are now something worth catching. The single is a double A-side with “Planet Telex,” an Eno-induced oddity of guitar delay and rippling reverb, with a voice sounding intoxicated by empty communication (in actuality intoxicated by wine, Thom singing on his back). Not a great piece of music when removed from the collective, but it does serve to advertise the mother-album as something new.
“The Bends” emerges in 1995 to see only the three-colour swirl of Britpop, with the occasional “new lad” adjusting his testicles here and there. This era is a media-orgy of self-importance, a coloration of guitar bands and artistic endeavours handling British identity with varying degrees of pretence, with various chancers and cash-ins shovelled on to give the impression of a grand movement. American music has splattered and congealed against the wall; Britain now is conveniently the place to be. Retroactive journalist fantasies are whipped out unashamedly and played with until bedtime. Oasis are noble savages, the working class Northern Ying, with Blur the frightfully ironic upstarts, the art-school Southern Yang. The associations are shifting the units. Bands actually making decent music dealing with class issues are doing all right out of it too, with Pulp and the Manic Street Preachers being led blinking up from the recesses of cultdom to Chris Evans-endorsed heights, rewarded with perfect circles of platinum. Basically, people who don’t really like guitar music are buying guitar music too. For fetishists of pop reference, and employees of IPC, it’s an exciting time, a sense of being back to the good-time rock ’n’ roll their parents insist they enjoyed. Unfortunately for Radiohead, their new album is too bereft of party choons to be aided by this epoch, and too concerned with other matters.
“Planet Telex” comes in like some deranged switchboard operator, the voice addled by static, telling us “everything is broken, everyone is broken” while fumbling with the jacks and sockets, but sounding far more comfortable as the opening act rather than an A-side. A moment of crosswire babble and then we are connected to the album and the reassuring power chords of the title track, a steady bopping rock number steaming ahead with lyrics informed by Douglas Copeland’s “Generation X” and Thom’s experience of transatlantic business travel. The most significant element here is humour, with wry ’60s nostalgia (amusing, considering the Britpop context of Beatles revival, although probably not a deliberate reference) and images of U.S. Marines and CIA agents descending upon our singer for no apparent reason. Not entirely miserable so far. We stay in rocky waters for the next track, “High and Dry,” a previous single, again beginning with a genre intro, a nice bit of standard song-writing with Jonny Greenwood, in a work of alchemy, making his guitar sound like a violin. Approving nods from the listener, self-satisfaction at a sensible purchase. Engagingly, there has been a tangible effort to write these songs with depth, with intricate production and careful balancing, and for those already initiated there is also the exciting evidence of real growth since “Pablo Honey,” a great improvement in the craftsmanship. The instruments are confident enough to avoid standing out; the nasal sneering has disbursed to reveal warm subtlety. Here we should note the production of John Leckie, previously at the helm of LPs by The Fall and Magazine, and The Stone Roses’ debut, which has clearly allowed the band precious elbow room while keeping them on course. Also at work in the bowels of the studio is an upcoming engineer by the name of Nigel Godrich, but more of him later.
“Fake Plastic Trees” returns, almighty as ever, and suggests a new bearing. Sure enough, the curiosity of “Bones” follows, an inside-out corpus of noise with a juddering spine of a bass line, an ode to physical pain. The pain is not self-inflicted, or indeed inflicted by anyone else; it’s medical; it’s just there. The lyrics (based on Thom’s own weak-limbed infancy) describe an infliction as something terrible and losing an idyllic state of being, but also imply something wholesome about as intense a feeling, amusing crying “you’ve got to feel it in your bones” and recalls Arthur Schopenhauer’s line about life without pain having no meaning. Perhaps surprising depth for an indie-rock album track. Next we dissolve into a “Nice Dream,” with pleasant squeaks along guitar strings from human fingers, a gentle swirl of rhythm and surreal worlds washing away consciousness, before a frustrated clawing of electric guitar finds nothing there. It’s just a dream, and it stops, and we break against rock music again. “Just” solidly berates its subject about his/her self-indulgence, inspired by a character who threatened to kill himself at a party attended by members of the band, and was evidently met with little sympathy. Just in the background of the song is the figure of “Creep,” taking it all personally. It’s a fine heavy tune, with a fresh Greenwood solo to seal the deal, but seems a little clumsy in light of the promises made by the LP’s first half. Ditto with the aforementioned “My Iron Lung,” which follows.
The next three tracks, “Bullet Proof ... I Wish I Was,” “Black Star” and “Sulk,” are intriguing and understated works, far removed from Radiohead juvenilia. Tales of mundane, unspecific failings in relationships help ground the LP but are too general to be moving, as nameless noises scatter about the unfamiliar tones of instruments. All three songs appear quite forgettable following the opening antheming, but the tangible promise beneath the surface is most encouraging. Still, the virgin listener may fear anticlimax. Then, simple stark notes fall from the speakers, Thom’s bare voice wafts with a cold melody, and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” is all around us in a mysteriously wordless chorus. A tick-tock drumbeat brings a sense of urgency, some dreadful realisation is about to surface, urban imagery crumbles, and this is something great, something sublime. Romantic sentiment of immersing oneself in love is delivered with sincerity this time but also with a sense of finality, of growing down with the ship. The forlorn pitch of Thom’s voice is suspended; a gift unwrapped from its language. Something big is being attempted. The notes fade out and the CD clunks exhaustedly to a stop. And that’s “The Bends.”
The album materialises onto the shelves with striking artwork (despite a certain likeness to that of U2’s “Zooropa”) by Stanley Donwood, Oxford artistic oddball. It immediately stands out from the group photography of standard Britpop sleeves, and obviously does not contain many ditties about being all right, feeling supersonic, living in a big house, feeling alright, riding a riverboat, getting drunk, living forever and being generally all right. Not that “The Bends” is in any way morbid or sullen, it just isn’t inanely happy. Reviews are enthusiastic and generous with praise, probably due to low expectations, and “The Bends” leaves the commercial outlets for people’s homes in a steady trickle. The climate of guitar-authenticity helps pick up the odd casual listener, and soon “Street Spirit” appears shoved between the likes of Paul Weller and Cast on Best-Album-in-the-History-of-Northern-Hemisperical-Civilisation-Ever style compilations. Much touring is done, including a stint supporting R.E.M. across Europe and over the pond, Thom watching how Michel Stipe handled his job and learning the tricks of the trade. Although President Clinton was rumoured to be a fan, “The Bends” went unnoticed at the back of U.S. mainstream record stores, the difficult second album by those “Creep” guys, singles such as “Fake Plastic Trees” ill suited for commercial radio, though it does burble up for an instant in the film “Clueless.” Thom has the novel experience of filming a performance of “Fake Plastic Trees” for the Conan O’Brien talk show, going out with the band afterwards and getting drunk, staggering into his hotel room, eventually finding the on switch for the TV, and then seeing himself on the television performing “Fake Plastic Trees,” a sleek and polished piece of music removed from himself and in the public domain, entirely beyond his control.
Back in Blighty, “The Bends” is not an instant smash hit but now spreads respectably. By the end of 1995, sales are still rising and brake as high as No. 4 in the charts. This is due to the single “Just,” and much more so to the following EP “Street Spirit” and accompanying video, and also the publicity of dominating the various magazines’ end-of-year polls, many proclaiming “The Bends” as the acme release. Thom is a notorious enough character for the music press to indulge in necrophilia by predicting his mythical suicide. The album is a slow-burning success, spread by word of mouth like some delightful disease. In Japan, there are rumours of young female fans following the band on international tours and financing their passion with prostitution, and Phil Selway is the subject of an appreciation society. “The Bends” swiftly progenerates to over a million copies, and is to be found in people’s collections serving as part of the jolly Britpop canon, or as a serious beard-stroking antidote to the Oasis vs. Blur nonsense, or sound-tracking undergraduate existential crises, as the come-down stoner special after a night’s raving, or as a decent bit of epic arms-in-the-air rock with real instruments made of the realest wood from trees that made the most real of sounds when they fell over, or even just as a pretty good record. The band celebrate by playing an entertaining (if not definitive) rendition of Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does it Better” on various occasions, including a session for MTV, before concluding that covers are not their forte.
The band begins to slow down after two years of work, separating for holidays and recreation. Though the human element has halted, the incorporeal art continues to be at work. The B-side “Talk Show Host” is remixed and, along with an original composition titled “Exit Music” (a mainly acoustic track of doomed love, interesting in that it shimmers with bitterness and vengeance rather than being dripping with cheap sentiment), included in the Shakespeare-with-car-chases cinematic revision of “Romeo and Juliet.” The band comes together again for a few hours to record an original number for the “War Child” charity LP (the entire record to be completed in a week), casting aside the easy option of recording a jam or cover version with a conviction that eludes most of their fellow contributors. The fruit of this brief liaison is a slower song akin to “Bullet Proof ... ” by the name of “Lucky,” a song of what sounds like delusional triumph and a deranged fantasy of being superhuman, but again with a subtle humour in the imagery. The structure sounds elaborate and straining to contain its numerous desperate effects, but actually, on paper, is a simple bit of chord progression played with cunning. Perhaps the reason it sounds so bizarre is that Radiohead are trekking even further out from their time’s musical frame of reference. The song will not age, as it does not sound as if it belongs to its age, nor does it sound anything like its age’s concept of retrospection or futurism; it just sounds different. The song is the most striking part of the “War Child” LP by some distance and, though it could not sound more unlike “Feed the World” if it tried, it is chosen as the promotional single, and performs appallingly in the charts. Innocent lives saved and money made, Radiohead withdraw once more to work on their next long player, which will certainly take a while.
Back at the barn, ideas are forged into sound, moulded into music. The record company, seeing an upcoming major act and appeased by still-rising sales, allows Radiohead almost total freedom. Previous engineer Nigel Godrich is promptly bought back and promoted to producer. The band, specifically Thom and Jonny, are sick of typical guitar noise and verse-chorus-verse-chorus lethargy, and the entire band is profoundly influenced by trip-hop and the static beats of DJ Shadow, and also the jazz nausea of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” and Johnny Cash’s captivating “Prison Tapes.” The new numbers are recorded in Jane Seymour’s country mansion, which the band members isolate and time-slice themselves within for weeks on end. Thom swears the place is haunted. Jonny decries the enormous library as being crap.
The songs being practiced and recorded are again a massive leap beyond the latest work. Songs are clearly conceptual, with guitars played to sound like the signified object of the songs rather than to any genre presetting. The new “Airbag,” conjuring motorised chaos, for example, is constructed to sound like a car crash, with a swerving riff and violent finish. This has, of course, always been an element of Radiohead’s music, but not so much by design before. The band returns to touring to round off the new songs in a more human environment, supporting Alanis Morissette and baffling her audiences with vaguely progressive-rock mayhem. In the meantime, “The Bends” has continued to grow across a broad spectrum of music listeners, and news of Radiohead’s impending return gets many a mouth salivating. The band are concerned that the music press will pan the thoroughly non-trendy music they’re knocking up to such expectation, especially since Thom’s relationship with the music press is only faintly civil. They elect to confront the problem head-on by releasing a single that is seven minutes of style-hopping strangeness unburdened by a chorus.
“Paranoid Android” appears in May 1997 like a multi-segmented insectoid alien crawling out from some ’50s-paranoia B-movie, sounding unlike much else and with a rather unclear meaning. The lyrics shift from fear and anxiety to royal death threats and vain indication to howling despair and to assuming the will of God, and are childishly silly at all times. It certainly sounds nothing like music press’ treasured signifiers of coolness such as ’70s garage rock or pure ’60s glory, and thus one would expect it to be slated faster than a church roof. But in actuality, it’s instantly smothered in accolades and stamped as Single of the Week left, right and centre. Britpop has faded by this point, with Oasis inspiring only tabloid tedium; Blur pursuing an overtly American direction and Pulp toning themselves down. There is no mass movement to promote, and Radiohead are presented with an open door. The press are thankful for something that sounds important. The video by cartoonist Magnus Carlsson featuring pornographic mermaids, ping-pong in Heaven and the melancholia at the European Parliament is less than helpful in clearing up the subject matter. The monstrous single goes straight into top five.
5. Oh! Picking up Something Good!
Around this time it dawns on Radiohead that they’ve somehow become one of the biggest bands on the planet. They launch their new LP with a massive show in Barcelona, sell out a UK enorm-o-dome tour in days and have the entire first-world press all asking them what the most stupid question they’ve been asked in all the interviews they’ve done. They headline “Later with Jools Holland” and cause a similar reaction to a last-minute equalising goal, and that’s nothing compared to what follows. “OK Computer” is 50 minutes of experimental awkwardness without obvious single material and utterly different from their previous hits, and as soon as the promotional copies hit the doormats it’s proclaimed as brilliant with every superlative that can be scraped out of the respective language.
Opener “Airbag” accelerates out of the silence and weaves along with fractured drumming and breaking bass, its driver proclaiming he’s “back to save the universe” having been saved himself by his erratic motor. Violins are sampled blurts rather than sweeping accompaniments; the whole affair sounds stripped down. An arty, expressionist trip-hop guitar fusion compact that careens into the outland of “Paranoid Android,” which is introduced by a electronic metronome sounding like the open-door warning beeping from a bleeding car wreck. Following the nonsense opus, we are driving again with “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” a tale of wanting to be taken up by the notorious alien greys and removed from humanity. These aliens, in terms of folklore, are the modern equivalent of the faeries, strange and often malevolent creatures in the woods tempting in the naïve traveller with bright lights for their own amusement. The song is of hopeless longing, with wicked guitar effects darting in and out of the headlights. The comedy is still present, until the next track, a slight reworking of “Exit Music.” Conspicuously synthesised human voices form a dispassionate choir suggesting the suicide pact of the lyrics will go unnoticed. Fuzz bass creates an ugly rhythm, and a last feeble cry of defiance is swallowed by ghostly whispers. The listener must surely appreciate the quiet intelligence of the album so far, resisting anything safely commercial to ensure the money will keep rolling in and instead communicating with it’s audience on a human level like a work of proper grown-up art, the type of art commonly unattainable by the great unwashed and sentenced to galleries, but in this case easily affordable at approximately 12 quid.
Transportation returns in “Let Down,” a bright and glittering community of beeps and plucks and notes, with lyrics at first reminding one of Baudelaire’s “Flaneur,” the silent observer of civilisation avoiding all involvement, with childish descriptions of mass transit and the automatic emptiness of travelling with a destination, and then is reminiscent of Ovid and Kafka with the metamorphosis of the character into an insect, the voices separating and accompanying themselves, fantasising about the destruction of his new body by some semiconscious commuter. The general impression is of a world beyond control of the individual; civilisation as a great idiot machine god composed of people and their symbiotic technology, and those who are aware being merely redundant cogs clattering to the ground. Not that that is the “truth,” just an impression, no truer than anything else. This is nothing as barren or indulgent as the concept albums of the ’70s, but one can see where the music press are using comparisons of King Crimson and Genesis, despite Radiohead perpetually reiterating that they can’t stand progressive rock music; their LP is about self-contained music.
The next single is “Karma Police,” which is to have a video featuring driving yet again, and it’s a marginally more conventional alternative number. The guitar is more prominent in carrying the melody, along with a modest stand-up piano. The mention of “fridge buzz” relates to the monotonous guitar sound of alternative rock (for example, in songs such as, oh, let’s say, “Creep”). The Hindu/Buddhist enforcement agency of the title is a comical creation of the band, a fictional outfit they will to correct their indignities. Here the lyrics relate of following into revenge and regaining control. As an anthem it’s a rather refreshing substitute to the quasi-fascist ilk of “We are the Champions.”
The most orthodox piece is followed by a jarring interlude: A voice box (most commonly associated with Professor Steven Hawking’s self-described “Dalek voice,” which gives the effect a certain authority) provides mindless instructions for self-improvement and self-justification to a backdrop of sci-fi dystopia dialogue and sounds of industry. Images of success are offered in script format before the diatribe unfolds into the surreal cat on a stick and pig in a cage, on antibiotics. The band had considered starting off “OK Computer” with this peculiarity but feared that it might deter casual buyers by making themselves sound like pretentious wankers. Certainly part of why “Fitter, Happier ...” works is that it just pops up out of the blue as a distraction rather than a declaration. Again, it’s actually quite funny, for reasons anyone who’s had complete strangers approach them to suggest physical improvements will appreciate. Radiohead themselves, however, will soon tire of the track, ceasing to use it as walk-on music at their live shows, and consider it one of the multitude of things that seemed a good idea at the time.
Next is a blessedly up-tempo guitar workout, “Electioneering,” a blast of noise describing that state of first-world democratic politics without ranting and getting self-righteous, twisting the glitz and glam of campaigning into something vicious and voracious. References of “cattle prods” are understood by those who know, as are mentions of “voodoo economics” and “the IMF.” The pragmatic chorus suggests that all political creeds are centred on the same desires and ambitions, and by going forward or going backward, you’ll end up in the same place, and the cynical conclusion that whoever you vote for, it’ll be the same old shit. It’s a good bit of angry fun, and tastefully done, before a return to the more consistent themes of the album. “Climbing Up the Walls” chatters in with a nervous, shivering bass distortion and pounding, compressed tom-toms, flickers of guitar, a voice barely comprehensible coming from a darkened corner saying he is a “key” and can walk into your home, fondle the toys in your basement, stalking your essence unhindered by matter, advising you to remove your children’s eyes to save the horror of what is to come. It’s an unsettling piece, far beyond any hackneyed melodrama of stalkers and series killers; it adheres instead to more classical concepts of the furies and malignant spirits, with a staggering, fevered rhythm that finds its way between the listener’s eyes.
Then, a ray of relief as shining argent notes chime from Ed O’Brien’s Rickenbacker, cushioned with sympathetic bass. “No Surprises” opens like a music box and is a bright moment of clarity, when the stolid clamour of the world is finally shut out and simpler pleasures appreciated, “the quiet life” with “no alarms and no surprises.” It’s an exquisite effect, a very clean and soothing song of humdrum suburbia that is a great change from most rock music’s abiding of urbane bohemia. A glockenspiel is employed to complete the sense of the song being some rediscovered artefact of childhood. Next, “Lucky” dispels the nostalgia slightly, receiving the appointment it deserves as a track on such a startling LP. Finally, “The Tourist” arrives, or rather is left behind, pleading for calm and order in the face of chaos. The song is described by its author, Jonny Greenwood, as a last-minute effort that surprised him by ending up on the LP, but even a fleeting listen will reveal the usual level of detail and effort in the structure. The pace is slowed for an understated finish, a slow-walking blues-style riff coming to its rest. The last cry of “idiot, slow down” completes the circle that began with the speeding German car of “Airbag,” and a last ting of what could be a triangle brings the journey to its end.
Now, this is an intentional work of minimalist art, not a party record or something to wind down with after a long day’s duties as a desk monkey. Its cerebral music explores whatever the human condition might be, not the airborne anodyne of mainstream culture’s radio stations. Surely it’s destined for art-school admiration and cult formation. Well, no, it’s going to be the biggest record of the year. It’ll go platinum in a couple of months. It’ll condemn the responsible band to playing to identical seas of heads in the biggest venues that dozens of cities can offer. And the reason basically is that everyone has got a brain, and most people enjoy using it.
Stanley Donwood’s art returns, this time white and clinical, with public symbols and logos removed from their contexts and in a semiotic jumble pasted across the record sleeve with disconcertingly unspecific meanings. The record does very well, appealing to various tastes, as well as the buy-two-records-a-year middle-aged types. There are few other major records that year, with only the Verve’s over-hyped comeback “Urban Hymns” and Spiritualised’s “Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space” receiving the same sort of enthusiasm, and neither of those are considered anywhere as important. Radiohead then headline at Glastonbury, the year the famous weather turns the entire site into a quagmire, and perform a legendary set that, despite constant technical problems that blow up the monitors and leave Thom singing without being able to hear the rest of the band, they play to a magical standard that even when watched through the oracle of television seems lucid and direct, not just going through the motions to promote the new record; the resulting leap in sales confirms how much the buying public responds to such sincerity. During the performance, Thom asks Andy the lighting man to switch on the front lights to illuminate the audience he hasn’t been able to see yet. Andy obliges, and the band sees a vast crowd of thousands cheering at them, stretching back up the hill off into the blackened horizon, a sight they won’t forget. After Glastonbury, it’s all downhill.
As chronicled by Grant Gee’s rockumentary “Meeting People is Easy,” Radiohead tour their record for over a year, subject to the same uncontrollable machine of civilisation the prophetic LP depicts. You, gentle reader, may consult this film for further details of this period, but suffice to say that playing to hundreds of thousands of screaming devotees, shifting millions of copies of their art, receiving endless kudos, affecting countless young lives and making vast sums of money that will support them for life is in reality a fairly tedious existence, because it is all done dutifully without any free will, without any sense of autonomy, just as parts of the machine. This time there is far greater success in America, although ultimately they’re still the “Creep” guys. During this period, your young correspondent sees Radiohead live at the Birmingham NEC, with DJ Shadow and Teenage Fanclub, and is awestruck, the most memorable moment being the second encore when Jonny begins to strum out “The Tourist” only to completely cock it up and the rest of the band to make wanking hand gestures at him in fits of laughter. Up on the distant stage, Jonny leans across to a microphone and says, “I’ll get me coat.”
6. Hey Radio Head! The sound ... of a Brand New World ...
So, now one of the biggest bands in recorded human history, avatars of rock ’n’ roll fantasy, Radiohead decide to make a new record as completely different as possible. Actually, a B-side to “Karma Police” titled “Meeting in the Aisle” hinted at he way they were going, being a haunting instrumental of trip-hop beats and phased keys, with no discernable guitars or indie-rock elements. Thom in particular now considers guitar rock offensively stale and is repelled by his media image of the miserable mouthpiece of middle-class fender-fetish apathy. He consumes the back catalogue of Warp Records, letting Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada take over his home. The pressures of recording a follow-up to a record that had been voted “Best of All Time” by the readers of Q magazine a few months after it was released were already very obvious. Efforts to record on the hoof during the never-ending “OK Computer” tour, with days off in local studios (even to the extent of flying in Nigel Godrich), had proved fruitless. Thom’s collaborations with, among others, UNKLE, Drugstore, PJ Harvey and Björk help keep the creative juices following but do little to inspire new Radiohead songs, and writer’s block settles in for an extended stay.
In chemistry, a system approaching its end is subject to entropy, its deterioration and dismemberment caused by a depleted energy supply, resulting in a messy end. Anyone who had fallen out with flatmates following a period of tension knows the feeling. As the “OK Computer” promotional duty circus begins to wind down, Radiohead are feeling themselves begin to come apart. They are all too aware that after the press’ ecstatic hyperbole over the last release a massive backlash must be in the wings awaiting the next one. It’s time they were hated as artistically sterile complacent dinosaurs, or something. Initial practices and rehearsals are torturous, lashed by colossal pressure, writer’s block and the unspoken desire to be a completely different band, with five different concepts of what that band should be. Ed wants to make garage rock, Thom wants to make electronica, and so on. Radiohead are almost unable to operate as a unit and are on the verge of splitting.
The solution is to have a “house meeting.” In the terribly awkward nature of these occasions, worries are voiced, criticisms are offered, insults are exchanged, tears are shed, love is reaffirmed and compromises are reached. It is clear that a completely new process is required, a leap into the unknown with the risk of humiliation and expensive failure, a terrifying proposition in any career.
With Godrich as their anchor, Radiohead move into a new studio and uncharted waters, playing with new instruments, new technology, experimenting with voice distortion to reduce the role of the singer to the level of just another instrument, writing lyrics using William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique by picking words and phrases out of a hat, constructing songs layer by layer with overdubs instead of through jamming, producing each other’s tracks, trying anything they can not to be the previous Radiohead. Over the next few months, songs begin to emerge, and a spot of touring over Europe helps give them identity. By 2000, an LP is on its way. Enough tracks are mixed and done for two LPs, in fact, but first things first.
Immediately, it is clear that things are different to avoid the Heart of Darkness promotional passage of “OK Computer.” Titled “Kid A” in reference to the fictional (or non-fictional, if you like) first human clone test-tube baby, and as a reference to its laboratory method of song-writing, the album is ready, but there will be no singles, no videos. Instead, there are 10 40-second segments from the LP aired as commercials between the standard promotional videos, with appropriate animation. The new killer-bear logo, based on Hello Kitty, appears on the television spots. The UK main tour is to be conducted without advertising or corporate sponsorship through the use of a large, portable circus tent for their gigs, travelling about the country in mock-Romany fashion. As imaginative as it is, this last gimmick causes the most controversy, the perfectly valid counter-argument being that without the advertising to supplement ticket prices, the price of such purity is paid for by the punter, with tickets on sale at around 40 quid. Still, enough fans will dig into their pockets, or somebody’s pockets at least, to sell out the tour very quickly. Anticipation is high but already sceptical.
“Kid A” is met with widespread reviews of bafflement and indifference almost before it is heard, the presumption being that it is a work by desperate turncoats, artificial and deliberately severe listening. Grand and familiar brilliance is demanded instantly to justify the band’s lofty position and the media’s previous grovelling, not a maiden venture into different genres. “Everything in its Right Place” opens the LP with a snappy strain of synthesised piano, setting a tone of dance music, before Thom’s voice comes in through sampled burbles with eventual words palpable but purveying no linear rock narrative, no themes, just self-contained blather. It might well be a song from the perspective of a foetus. The voice is warped and looped and disfigured in a masochistic flurry, distancing this new consonance from the authorship of the old Radiohead, but with the joshing line of “... I woke up sucking a lemon” and the intellectual application of deconstructionist theory, and the presence of a good tune, we know it is indeed our beloved outfit returning to the fore. Thom’s voice, technical effects aside, sounds far more mature than it did on “The Bends” or even “OK Computer,” and clearly has more to say, even if it’s reluctant to actually say it. The voice is even more reluctant on the second track, “Kid A,” a conspicuously Aphex Twin style (but without the pseudo-sociopath tendencies) of robotic lullaby, vaguely Orwellian, with the only discernable words being “the rats and children follow me out of town,” which suggests a comment of Thom’s image of a rock star. Again, the authority of pre-established Radiohead is being subverted: so far, so introspective. The music is intriguing, less avant-garde and more simplistic than most artists on the Warp label, but comprises fuller songs instead of the usually flat gadgetry of the genre. They’re obviously not out to impress with how many knobs they’ve learnt to twiddle; the emphasis is still on the son-gwriting craft rather than the neoteric technicalities.
“The National Anthem” provides a bit of action, a rolling bass line chugging past flashing signals of programming and jazz panic, with chattering symbols and deadening drums. Sounding akin to the kraut-rock rhythmics of “Neu!” and “Can,” the track is a more formulaic song, the lyrics of existential faltering, with a daemon brass section breaking up through the ground and imitating Miles Davis for the song’s helpless passengers. Off into the night it goes, and perhaps the LP’s most conventional song takes its place. “How to Disappear Completely” is a song obviously written on a guitar, and indeed has been kicking about for a while. An epic Scott Walker effect is achieved by the blurred rushes of strings, horns and estranged guitars, and it’s a mesmerising work of music that insists that it’s not really there, convinced that it’s not really playing. It’s an ambient limbo.
The instrumental “Treefingers” follows in a similar vein. No tune, no beat, no singular instruments, no movement, no form, a static wash of entrancing noise that could be compared to sections of Talk Talk’s soundscape albums “Laughing Stock” and “Spirit of Eden.” It’s both relaxing and disquieting. A skeletal guitar breaks the stasis and “Optimistic” begins, which reveals itself to be two shows glued together in the middle, strange quantum rhythm fading in and out. Themes of apathy and an inability to confront the world murmur up, but efforts to proposition meaning for the song feel futile; the album strives to be an entirely separate entity, and the self-imposed isolation makes for some fairly extraordinary music, but the distance makes communication difficult.
The tumbling “In Limbo” is another masterwork of production, but smacks of experimental filler, which only works between tracks. “Idioteque” is more striking and feels like a fully embodied song, a rippling doomsayer dance track of ecological disaster, with an unsettling use of common phrases, Thom wailing “I laugh until my head comes off” with what sounds like a literal meaning. Cynical advice is offered for all the bewildered children in indie clubs, and is even complete with a faintly romantic chorus. If singles had been released, this would surely have been one, and so would the next track, “Morning Bell,” possibly the most distinct track here with definite drumming, bass and tune. Images of children being cut in half float among disconnected sentence fragments with a fast but gentle pace. The band are taking care not to venture opinions, not to tell a story, wary of the gruelling response of such efforts with “OK Computer”; they’re just making some noise, and you may make of it what you will. The closing “Motion Picture Soundtrack” does indeed sound like a soundtrack, not a whole song in its own right, which does seem to work within the confines of “Kid A.” An electronic organ plays a variant of a death march while Thom’s voice may as well be singing in Norwegian for all the sense it makes. Harp strings signal the end, except that once the song has faded out, some electrocuted whale song swims back out from the silence for a few seconds, and then that’s the end. If viewed chronologically, “Kid A” does at first seem quiet – in terms of grandeur it is a great deal smaller than “OK Computer” and “The Bends,” and even “Pablo Honey,” when one would predict this latest LP to continue the ascent of scale, but instead it cuts short such musical convention. If anything, “Kid A” feels a bit like the “Airbag” compilation of “OK Computer” B-sides, errant and experimental works without a common thread. As with all their previous work, they have not pioneered the sounds they play. All the bleeps and thuds and squeaks can be found in abundance down in the electronic underground, but the compositions are still of a classical song-writing mentality in that the artistic sensibility supersedes the rhythm and the medium. It’s a satisfying work, self-referential, certainly, but that’s always been an element to Radiohead, and a bold if unsteady step. The album is released with artwork of unnatural ice-age landscapes, again by Donwood, significantly without lyric sheets printed, and with a cunningly concealed booklet beneath the plastic CD tray with memorable images of cartoon-bear death squads and a Tony Blair caricature. Reviews are muted, unsure whether they should be enjoying the album, but obviously the record initially sells, as it’s the first Radiohead album in over three years. Rolling Stone magazine slates “Kid A” with an utterly hilariously alphabetical list of snipes, and even the more favourable articles imply that it’s just a phase the band will grow out of, like a dopey adolescent in need of a shag. Then the LP goes to No. 1 in the American charts and stays there, and nobody, least of all Thom Yorke, can figure out why. Tours follow, success seasons and blooms, but without the vividness or choking pollen of “OK Computer” because everyone knows whom Radiohead are now.
It’s widely known that Radiohead’s label is already gravid with the next LP, with tracks mainly conceived, recorded and mixed during the same period as those which appeared on “Kid A” (not that “Kid A” was the pick of the litter but merely a set of songs deemed to work as a whole). And sure enough, just under a year later we are blessed again by another little bundle of joy, this one christened “Amnesiac.” Singles shall be released, videos shot, publicity agencies paid obscene amounts of money, all to illustrate that “Amnesiac” is a separate life, not a sequel or the second act of the last record. Thom promises “... glossy magazine photo-shoots, children’s television appearances, film premier appearances, dance routines, and many interesting interviews about my tortured existence.” Before long the single “Pyramid Song” laps across the hospital floor, a bright and bobbing song structured around a light piano refrain, surprising with its decorous tones. No chorus, of course, impossible to dance to, and a string of skewered images such as “black-eyed angels swam with me” rather than any lyrical narrative; it’s not exactly a return to an earlier mentality but hardly in the vein of their last straying long player either. Nor is it a progression as it of the same creative phase. “Compromise” is rather a pejorative word but perhaps the best suited to describe the sound of “Pyramid Song.” It’s a very pretty, free-flowing number. Its video of computer-animated divers exploring a drowned city plays perpetually on MTV, and a live performance on Top of the Pops is met with mild confusion but game enthusiasm by the prepubescent, captive audience. Water has broken, anticipation begins to contract, and we are prepared.
Packaged in a mock library book of Donwood artwork (and with references to Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”), “Amnesiac” is immediately a new album. Briskly titled opener “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” does recall “Everything in its Right Place,” bereft of guitar and with electronic melody and beat, but the locals are clear, without being freaked by distortion. Thom mutterings of persecution and fatigue are not a million miles away from sentiments voiced on “OK Computer,” and significantly the meaning in the lyrics is direct in the classical sense. In fact, many fans are already familiar with some of these tracks from their live performances over the past year, adding to the intimateness. The sensation continues through “Pyramid Song,” and then not so into “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors,” which is a similarly impenetrable gaggle of electronica as the title track on “Kid A.” Next, “You and Whose Army” has been cited as a return to confrontational rhapsody, a la “Electioneering,” but is a far slower, softer song (actually filtered through an egg box, maybe as a reference to the non-coup-inducing ammunition of student protestors), the vocals feeble and vague and only the term “cronies” associates it with the current Labour administration. The guitars sound almost Pacific, like some very lip hula, bringing a slight drizzle instead of slaking rain. A crashing of pianos adds drama, and then that’s it. Far stronger is “I Might Be Wrong,” a possessing throng of guitar riffs, intercontinental drumming and fiddly bass, and it comes as a great relief. Meaning is still elusive, but it’s a groovy moment of confusion for all. Stronger still is “Knives Out,” future single and already a fan favourite, a momentous tumble of tingling noises, plucked notes messed with shimmying symbols and Thom’s comforting wail. A different version of “Morning Bell” comes up behind, and is nice enough but maybe pointless. The next three tracks, “Dollars and Cents,” “Hunting Bears” and “Like Spinning Plates,” are a detour back to calculated soundscapes, all flickering with intrigue and craftsmanship, perhaps closer to moments of “OK Computer” than “Kid A,” vocals spliced, guitars grotesque and organs droning, Rupert the Bear fleeing for his life as his scarf snags on tree branches and is torn away.
“Spinning Plates” is the most successful effort, hypnotic and vertiginous yet startling in its clarity. There is a great sense of tension in the imagery of keeping those plates going but also an absence of time, a lonely bypass of causality, and indeed it is actually a blend of backward- and forward-playing recordings. The album closes with the jazzy sing-a-long of “Life in a Glass House,” a jaunty celebration of the fragility of friendship, once a plain acoustic lament but now matured with the assistance of Humphrey Littleton (once booked by then Cambridge Students Union officer Colin Greenwood). It’s a happy ending this time, and “Amnesiac” goes to the No. 1 spot around the Atlantic rim with seasoned ease. Radiohead soon play an open-air show at South Park, Oxford, supported by unsigned natives and local peers such as Supergrass, complete with Matt Stone and Trey Parker “designed” T-shirts (the most entertaining featuring Eric Cartman with the “Kid A” bear logo face). During the final encore, Thom begins to play the opening notes to their final number, only to have his keyboard sputter and die on him.
“Booger,” Thom declares comically, looking around at his giggling band-mates, “Err, right then, let’s try something else ... ” And, to the surprise of everybody, including Radiohead themselves, they finish the night with a joyous blasting of “Creep.” It’s a fine and affirming night.
7. ...You Can’t Help the Way You Sound
And that brings us to here, 2004, and “Hail to the Thief.” With a title taken from an anti-Bush placard and recorded during a period of imminent warfare, it’s a fresh and trashing different fettle of fish. As with “Amnesiac,” the band members are to throw themselves into the promotion and the business of being professionals. Publicity photos of band members holding up requests for airbrushing and digital enhancement are plastered in public places (Thom’s demands “make my eyes the same!” while Phil requests “give me hair so I can remind myself why I shaved it off”) and the new uncanny faces grin down unnervingly. Thom even gives personal press interviews to the much-despised NME, and both he and Jonny are subjected to the wit of Jonathan Ross on prime-time television, shifting in their garish seats like children visiting relatives. There is a sour episode when studio recordings of the new LP find their way online, which riles the band, as the exposed tracks are not even mixed, only half dressed. But the LP proper is to arrive a few weeks later. New single “There There” is foretold by a superb video of Grimm horror, depicting Thom wandering into a wood to espy Cosgrove Hall-style anthropomorphic forest creatures attending weddings and reading broadsheets, before he steals a shining golden fleece in the form of a GAP jacket from a tree, is pursued by ravens and then transformed into a tree himself. The song itself is somewhat reminiscent of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” with its ’60s guitar lines, but with a steady delta-blues rhythm carrying the doubting anxiety and disbelief of one’s own senses conveyed in the lyric. Mythical references pop up and add a Jungian flavour to the endeavour, like a dream of a boat ride through a steaming swamp, with archetypes lurking in the rushes. It’s catchy, and with a gentle chorus and rocking-out climax, and also highlights the maturity in the voice of Thom (now a father).
The full LP is here now, with bastardised psycho-geographic roadmap artwork via Donwood, complete with alternative titles for the LP and all its tracks, and it opens with a short, sharp burst of “1984”-inspired vitriol, “2+2=5.” Essentially, the track is a tribute to the old maxim “if you ain’t angry, you ain’t been playing attention.” A rapid strike at complacency in the face of unilateralist policy, musically succinct and precise, it quickly vanishes back into the undergrowth. “Sit Down, Stand Up” continues with the power theme but again does not cheaply snipe at public hate figures, choosing instead the more demanding task of addressing the culture which elects them. The song is a seamless fusion of rock and dance, illustrating how much of a vital learning curve the previous LPs were. After an ominous hush and the suggestion of corporate weather control, delirious drums and bass heave through the programming and beeping apparatus; visceral as well as cerebral this time, and handled with an expert sense timing and restraint only previously hinted at on such tracks as “Fake Plastic Trees.” So far, there is a much leaner outfit at work. “Sail to the Moon” slows things down, a sleepy and isolated song floating by, sounding a bit Icelandic, with “Backdrifts” left nodding nervously afterwards. “Go to Sleep” is a more determined sound, tightly structured and snappily delivered with an imaginative beat and far too many touches to take in at once and subtly flipping over halfway through into a different song, destined to be a single release. “Where I End and You Begin” jugs up from a different direction, finger noise bass and gusting guitar effects, breathless vocals, falling debris of riffs. It’s a remarkable basilisk of a song, ending with the promise of “I will eat you alive.”
The pace is lost somewhat with “We Suck Young Blood,” a whiney dirge save for the use of handclaps and the sudden stumble of piano. Matters improve with “The Gloaming,” an electronic affair of buzzing percussion and almost Lovecraftian warnings of dark forces, and then a peak with “There There,” with your correspondent swaying in his seat to the hungry beat as he listens and types right now. “I Will” is musically a rather forgettable 2-minute lapse following such a strong song. Still, strikingly schizophrenic vocals suggesting Middle Eastern destruction are an interesting distraction before “A Punch-up at a Wedding,” a title to inspire scenes of biting Mike Lee melodrama (the song’s alternative title being the more amusing “No No No No No No No”). Lifting Snoopyish piano and melodic bass lead the way through this effective and beguiling mash of noise, before the thick fuzz of the malignant “Myxomatosis” clogs the ears. The album so far has been a great mess, a deluge of ideas and a searing heat of humans playing music together. Guitars are back but have been shaved and brainwashed. Genres are blurred, styles are incestuous, and mayhem hails supreme. “Scatterbrain” is a breath of air, calm in the context, although it would sound frantic on most other albums, guitars attempting to hush and comfort. “Wolf at the Door” is waiting as we reach the exit and clasp the handle. A barely recognisable Thom unleashes frustrated babble about loss, fear, peer pressure, privilege and social obligation between the eerie chorus, based around desperate attempts to placate a kidnapper, furiously conveys being, as a simulated voice once put it “concerned but powerless,” cornered by chaos, managing political relevancy without the use of a high horse. And that’s that. Not perfect, not a cynical regurgitation, no pandering to the vogue, no pretentious attempt to ensnare the epoch, no attempt at any unattainable ideal of the perfect LP, just a fascinating and thrilling assemblage of sounds.
And now, Radiohead continue to be a massive art franchise, talented and stable enough to operate in the commercial mainstream and still maintain their collective personality, heretics in their confidence that people do actually like the music rather than the brand.
Oliver Alexander Bayliss slopped into being in Royal Leamington Spa, on the night of Joy Division’s final gig. Since then he has experienced physical growth of approximately 20,000% and has consistently employed his time with scribbling this sort of rubbish. In certain London haunts, his karaoke version of “Creep” is still discussed in cracked sleep-deprived whispers.
Related link: Radiohead's official website