On my way to Edinburgh the other day, I was absent-mindedly flicking through the free Metro newspaper, and there was a small piece about Radiohead’s gig at Meadowbank Stadium in Edinburgh that night.
It got me thinking; Radiohead are one of the very few bands that I’ve at one point been a huge fan of, and then gone off them. I’m not normally that fickle when it comes to music. My theory is that if you like a particular band’s music this means the chances are you have a similar taste in music as the artist and any changes that occur in their taste will be mirrored in yours. I therefore find that any new direction an artist I like takes, I’m able to appreciate it.
I first got into the Oxford five piece in 1997, and at that time, a lot of talk was about ‘Pre-millennium tension’, which might seem like a spurious concept, but it has it roots in the fin de siecle arts movement at the end of the 19th century; at that time the great cultural minds were obsessed with the dawn of the next century and how fit humanity was to face it (there was mention of eugenics and selective breeding). Ultimately, the earliest science-fiction was to emerge from this period, perhaps as a direct result of the consternation the Victorians were going through.
A century later, the same existential doubts raised their heads again, perhaps amplified by the rumours of the Millennium bug and the very fact it was a new millennium we were facing, not just a new century. Magazines (yawn) were full of editorial content at the time, and PMT (no, not that kind) was the buzz abbreviation of the day. And no album better summed up what it was like to live in those times than OK Computer. I say that, making it sound like it was released during the middle of a war or something, but it was a very strange time; the Tories had just been voted out of power, and Dubya and Drop the Debt were yet to come. The general atmosphere was that of the calm before the storm; New Labour promised much, and while the present seemed assured, all we had to do was contemplate our navels as we waited for the big odometer to click round to 2000. And round numbers have a strange hold over the human psyche.
OK Computer seemed to just sum up this uncertainty; it encapsulated the lack of direction many people felt at the tail end of the 20th century the same way that U2’s Achtung Baby described the emergence of new media at the start of the 90s. And as the album started to take hold of my consciousness, I began to buy the older Radiohead material, the two previous albums (Pablo Honey and The Bends) and the My Iron Lung E.P. that I was aware of, but hadn’t really heard.
And then there’s ‘Street Sprit (Fade Out)’. It took me a while to appreciate the recumbent beauty of this particular song, but once you’re through the barrier, it’s there forever. Thom Yorke’s original composition might not have made the same impact it did without the benefit of Ed O’Brien’s disenfranchised, kinetic, ethereal guitar riff, but underneath it all, the bare bones of the song showed someone with an innate grasp of melody. Consisting of just three chords, the verse is carried by A minor and E minor, but the switch to the mediant chord of C major for the chorus gives the song added impetus, and is the font of its beauty.
Radiohead would build on the success of The Bends with the release of OK Computer (their only release in the intervening two years was the contribution of ‘Lucky’ to the Warchild album), which proved to be a logical progression of the musical and lyrical themes of the previous album. Yorke was still writing about psyches that could be considered ‘damaged goods’, but the structures of the songs themselves had become a little more ambitious and complex, even going so far as to be described by some observers as being ‘prog like’, though to be fair, ‘Paranoid Android’ was probably deserving of these comparisons, being made up of several sections, and lacking what would be considered a traditional verse or chorus.
With the release of OK Computer and the accompanying tour film Meeting People Is Easy Radiohead managed to become the defining soundtrack of what people were feeling at the time; confusion, frustration and uncertainty. We were about to enter the computer age in earnest, and as it turns out, so were Radiohead.
The world didn’t end on the 31st December 1999. No, even computer designers couldn’t have been that stupid. Although, the fact that machines were as excited about the odometer clicking over as we were raised an interesting ecumenical point I feel. Anyway, computers didn’t falter, they prospered, and before long even the luddites of Radiohead were using them to make music. Inspired by the work of Aphex Twin and the releases of the Warp label, Thom Yorke had decided his band’s next album would follow the path blazed by these electronic artists, much to the bemusement of Ed O’Brien, who felt a concise album of short, bright pop songs was the way to go.
Around the time of release of the resultant album Kid A, and its companion recording Amnesiac, consisting of songs recorded at the same sessions but released a year later, Yorke made the slightly strange comment that ‘all melody embarrassed him’. Perhaps this new attitude towards music wasn’t apparent at the time, as even Kid A and Amnesiac for all their avant-garde clothing had some strong melodies buried beneath the pro-tooled soundscape.
With the release of the band’s sixth album in 2003, however, those remarks of a few years previously began to make more sense. Hail to the Thief was initially hailed as a return to the traditional band line up Radiohead had used on their first three albums, while retaining the strong electronic influence of the infamous Kid A session recordings. However, when I first heard the lead single from the album, ‘There There’, I was immediately struck by how little I was struck. While the song was pleasant enough, it was pedestrian compared to the 90s material. Damnit, it was pedestrian compared to the Kid A and Amnesiac albums. I still bought the album, and my considered opinion on one listen (and that was generous; I was bored stiff) was that the band had tried to create an album as ‘edgy’ as Kid A while being as musically puissant as OK Computer only to fail miserably on both counts.
I suppose what disappointed me the most about that particular album (and the feeling returns on the half-dozen or so times I’ve tried to listen to it since) is that, for me, it represented a massive leap backwards for Radiohead, after the progressions from The Bends to OK Computer, and from OK Computer to Kid A. Hail to the Thief goes nowhere and does nothing to me. Thom Yorke’s comment that melody embarrassed simply sounds like the masked confession of a man who has lost faith in his ability to do the thing he does best. ‘Street Sprit (Fade Out)’ rivals the Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in its impact in relation to the simplicity of its composition, and I think that’s the main reason why I don’t derive any pleasure from their latter releases. It wasn’t the diversification into different methods of making and arranging their music that broke the back, it was the stripping away of the scintillating melodies and the evocative lyrics and vocals to be replaced by passive, abstract, mashed up sound.
I caught a few seconds of Radiohead’s set at the 2006 V festival on TV recently. Their set at Glastonbury ’98 is regarded by some as being one of the greatest music performances ever, and Radiohead are especially at home playing live, so I have to confess to being surprised at what I saw and heard. Playing ‘Just’, a popular song from The Bends (which incidentally furnished us with one of the greater music videos in history) they just didn’t sound like a band anymore, like they hadn’t played a song together in eons; they seemed out of sync and tune and Thom’s singing was painful to behold. I switched channels soon afterwards, genuinely upset, especially considering the musical prowess of the individual member.
Thom Yorke has also recently released a solo album entitled The Eraser. I haven’t heard it, but according to all accounts, it sounds a bit like Kid A. It’s also the first Radiohead release I haven’t bought upon release since I became interested in them, so perhaps its title is oddly appropriate in the circumstances.
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