RADIOHEAD, RDS, DUBLIN
I ALWAYS hated Radiohead.
They pissed me off. They were always so obviously U2-in-waiting, always so student. They’d veer from under-achieving indie bluster (“Pablo Honey”) to irritating pomp rock (“The Bends”), Thom was so clearly in love with the sound of his own voice, forever subjecting the listener to his choirboy wail, echoed out for maximum stadium-filling effect. Their guitars borrowed heavily from the two dullest white boy indie groups of the last two decades (the Bunnymen and The Chameleons). “High And Dry” was pure Simple Minds, no messing. “Just” was a song only a wanker could like. Genius debut singles aside (God, it must be annoying knowing that you can NEVER better your very first record), Radiohead, to me, were just another obvious LCD (lowest common denominator) arena rock band. No connection made, none intended. God, it wound me up when a few lame-ass critics bracketed them alongside Nirvana.
I saw ’em once a few years back, was stunned at their ability to mess with their fans’ emotions and… left it at that, actually. F*** ‘em. Anyone can manipulate a crowd live, given a little volume and some cheekbones. Anyway, isn’t one Bono-head more than enough? Radiohead and I could lead our separate lives very easily, thank you very much. I received my advance tape of “The Bends”, tossed it straight in the bin and proceeded to steer well clear...
Until a few weeks back. Until – by chance – I heard “Paranoid Android” and started laughing. “Jesus!” I thought, “either Radiohead are taking the piss, have lost their marbles or given up. What is this? Not only does the middle section sound like full-throttle Queen, but the five or so sections involved don’t seem to have any relevance to one another, there’s no discernable tune and…” Etc. Second time in, I was completely hooked – still am – by Thom’s scared, alienated voice at the heart of all the guitars’ bluster. I loved the way the song slams from one dynamic to the next and – I gotta confess – the, “When I am king/You will be first against the wall/With your opinions which are of no consequence at all” line. Sassy!
Shocked, I investigated the album, “OK Computer”. I quickly found myself mesmerised by Thom’s full-on sense of disaffection, lost and rapidly slipping beneath the half-muttered words, the music’s impending sense of doom. Thom’s open-throated, angelic voice sounds almost swamped by... by what? Confusion? Sex? Paranoia? Pre-Millenial tension? Cool. Radiohead were no longer writing deliberate stadium-fillers – the fact that several songs fill that brief seems to be mere happy coincidence – but had gone back, retreating deep into themselves, for their muse. Whereas Bono is currently finding recourse from fame in a dark, deep irony which owes way too much to cynicism, Thom Yorke and Radiohead have found solace in rediscovering their humanity, the scared, lost child that lurks at the centre of all of us. “No Surprises”, in particular, resonates with a real empathy for the lumpen mass, stuck in dead-end jobs, wanting and wishing for a change, but knowing that it’s far beyond their means.
Which is why I find myself here; standing at the front of a cold horse-racing track in Dublin on a cold Saturday evening, rain dripping onto my bare feet, a spine thrilling down my back, as the opening, spoken, airport-Tannoy-like slogans of “Electioneering” – “Fitter happier more productive/Comfortable/Not drinking too much/Regular exercise at the gym (three days a week)/Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries” – burble out the speakers, heralding Radiohead’s imminent arrival. Which is why the opening song (“Lucky”) sounds almost holy to me as it soars its way across the impressively enthusiastic crowd. Which is why the next three songs (“My Iron Lung”, “Airbag”, and an achingly lonesome “Exit Music” from “OK Computer”) completely blow away my reservations, leave me open-mouthed and trembling. If this is LCD music, then please God let me part of the lower masses. There ain’t nothing so annoying as a born-again convert, right?
It’s not so much that Radiohead have suddenly started to shy away from crowd-pleasing gestures – they’d be churlish fools if they did, faced with such an overwhelming tidal wave of emotion from 25,000 steaming fans – but the fact is, they can still make their songs believable, put across the feeling of confusion that is at the heart of their music, even in such impersonal surroundings. (Some feat, transferring alienation, when 25,000 voices are singing along with your every word – but then, we all know about the ultimate loneliness off fame, right?) And when they don’t feel like doing that... hell, you can still bounce up and down like a good ‘un (cf: “Just”, “Planet Telex”, “Climbing Up The Walls”).
I once saw U2 on their Zooropa tour of the US and was left feeling achingly alone, insignificant. Friendless – a feeling no one should experience, 3,000 miles from home. Tonight, Radiohead prove it’s possible to make even the largest of venues feel like the Dublin Castle… which is the biggest compliment of all. Connection. It’s gotta be said, also, that Radiohead do look superb on stage; Ed and Johnny and Colin rushing back and forth, hunched over keyboards, stripping off tops and yelling encouragement like they were born to the stage, like they’re Team Radiohead. Which, I guess, they are.
Radiohead manage to mix celebration and alienation together like they make the most natural pairing in the world. And the astonishing thing is, it works.
Well, mostly. There are still moments when I’m left wishing I was tucked up warm in bed listening to some Daniel Johnston or Joy Division, far away from the inane posturing and guitar interplay that virtually every band over a certain status likes to indulge in (ie: most of “Bones” and “Nice Dream” from “The Bends”, that appalling contribution to the “Romeo And Juliet” soundtrack, “Talk Show Host”, which sounds like bad Charlatans). There are still moments when my critical faculties go, “A-ha! Cod Jim Kerr” (particularly during first encore “Street Spirit”, also “Fake Plastic Trees”).
And there are still moments when a tiny voice mutters “prog rock” in my ear as Thom holds his guitar straight up in the air and his band blusters noisily behind him.
But, to counter all that there’s a pathos-laden, almost solo “No Surprises”, the forthcoming single “Karma Police”, the celebratory set closer “The Bends”, an absolutely rampant “Paranoid Android” and… and – yes, there’s “Creep”.
Thom might well deprecatingly (and rightly) announce it with the words “It’s karaoke time”, but I can’t remember the last time I was so f***ing moved by a crowd, by the way its collective voice soared and soared upwards and onwards into the chill night air. Wonderfully un-self-conscious of the irony lines like “I don’t belong here” take on when shouted en masse. Not for the first time tonight, I wonder how the hell I could’ve been so wrong about Radiohead.
Still, that’s enough from me. There ain’t nothing so annoying as a born-again convert, right?