Australia – land of crap soap operas, koala bears, boozed-out surfers and angst-ridden RADIOHEAD?!? We join Thom and co for a spot of G’dayin’, sun-worshipping and Sheila-chasing. Well, nearly…
THERE isn’t a cloud in sight. Neither the fluffy ones so rare to the Western Australian summer, nor the dark, metaphorical ones which tend to descend in the event of bad news far from home.
Space-time co-ordinates: seven hours and 9,000 miles to the right of the gala Brit Awards ceremony of 1998. Radiohead are a mere 15 gigs from the end of a 10-month world tour, the Australian leg of which concludes tonight, here in Perth. For Ed O’Brien, Jonny Greenwood, Thom Yorke, Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway, a light is finally in view – even if the tunnel they are enduring has been cursed by remarkably little darkness.
Since the tour started in New York last June, virtually every rock critic and music poll known to man, woman and homesick alien has sung the praises of “OK Computer”, But now, there’s a bubble poised to burst in gory Technicolor, as the two Radiohead guitarists submit to their final antipodean interrogation, all four feet perched all their hotel coffee table.
Ed? Jonny? It’s about The Brits last night…
“The Verve?” Ed inquires, drawing nonchalantly on a skinny roll-up.
“Well if ‘The Bends’ wasn’t good enough for them, this isn’t good enough either,” Jonny sighs with an unconvincing parody of regret.
“Not good enough, no. Fair enough,” Ed agrees as the pair exchange broad smiles across the table. “But we’re here!” the tall bloke out of Radiohead shouts, elaborately indicating the interior of the Hilton bar.
“Where would you rather be on Brits night?” he asks as suppressed titters turn to open laughter. “You’ve got a choice of going go-carting in beautiful Perth, or going to The Brits in London…”
“…Watching penguins drink heavily and slapping each other’s backs?” Greenwood concludes with much mirth.
“There’s no discussion, is there?”
On behalf of a nation permanently torn between colonial insecurity and meteorologically-based pride, cheers. But it’s only fair to acknowledge our slightly shameful past here…
RADIOHEAD’S first visit to Australia in June 1994 was a right fizzer. Not the band’s fault, you understand. It was just greeted with a small fraction of the enthusiasm unfurled these past 10 days in the 8,000-12,000-seat arenas of Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide.
“Yes. We did a whole tour of venues that had sticky floors and smelt of old beer,” Jonny recalls, addressing his mate with a bemused stare.
O’Brien remembers playing to 40 people in Adelaide, a rude awakening after their manic Japanese tour which immediately preceded. But “Creep” had come and gone here, see. It was all over for Radiohead, we figured.
Ed: “It was a bit of a shock. It would’ve been very easy to say ‘Oh f*** this is bollocks’, but we turned it around by the time we hit Sydney and it was more like doing the club gigs we’d been doing a year before,”
For the record, the sticky carpet affairs were among the more faith-restoring pub experiences of 1994. Thom Yorke was already introducing “Creep” with open distaste and among the “Pablo Honey” material was a batch of new songs that pointed to a brave new future indeed.
Almost four years on, Australian audiences have taken a comparable quantum leal), Radiohead’s first show, a sell-out at Melbourne’s Festival Hall. was received with a rapture summarised thus b}’ The Age newspaper’s Gary Munro: “This is rock for the !lew millennium and Radiohead are in a league of their own.” This. despite a blutal heati’l’ave which had Thom Yorke exclaiming: “We’re going to have to pretend we’re in a sauna_ .. with a Walkman on:’
Tonight in Perth, Radiohead are given a major-league welcome which quickly swells as “Airbag” unveils a huge. immaculate sound that reflects every gig of the band’s eight solid months on the road,
The punters who caught the’94 Perth show are gobsmacked to note the spectacular recreation of the technophobic atmosphere of “OK Computer”, the band engulfed in dim stage lighting and a permanent haze of smoke, cut by ingeniously manipulated beams of colour. Jaws hang limp as, beyond the smoke and glare, the five silhouettes telepathically unite and “My Iron lung”, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” and “Paranoid Android” are executed flawlessly, without a single musician falling over.
For two solid hours, the energy and emotion contained within the 8,000-seat venue is somewhere on the explosive side of intense. And yet, in accordance with the band’s wishes, nobody moshes. Huh?
“We were getting too used to walking offstage to all these casualties Jonny Greenwood explains. “There was one incident especially last year in Chicago. This 12-year-old girl who had been wearing glasses got a boot in the face and had broken glass in her eye.”
“It was great in Melbourne,” Ed interjects. “Right at the front there was this 11-year-old kid with his older brother and… the look on his face! Normally at a gig he wouldn’t have been able to stand at the front. That’s really cool. He was this little fella, looking up at the stage and you could see in his eyes this... elation! That says so much more than any mosher.
Jonny: “I remember finding it annoying at fall concerts in 1987, 88. It’s 10 years on and people are still spreading their body odour around…”
“Moshing is too much about ego,” Ed concludes. “These people want to get a rise out of you. ‘Look at me! Here I am! I’m going to give the bird to the lead singer!’ It’s also distracting for us. I don’t think we’ve done really good shows when we’ve had all that moshing ‘cause we’ve been too concerned about what’s going on down there.”
OF course, a Radiohead gig will keep you far more occupied than mash-tolerant rock show. OK, so rock’n’roll ain’t brain surgery, but some artistes come a lot closer to wielding the scalpel than others. As Bernard Zuel put it in the Sydney Morning Herald, “Separating the physical and cerebral of our response to Radiohead is not only unwise, it is not possible.”
Throughout the tour, audiences’ stunned appreciation appears to support the theory. Quite apart from the awe-inspiring sound and vision, it’s Obvious to the mainstream Australian punter that this is a band whose chosen concerns demand pensive responses, occasional philosophical debate – and, inevitably, pretentious interview questions.
The decidedly ill-advised one which follows takes a left at “social relevance”, pulls a wheelie at “personal isolation” and incorporates the word “statement”, before hitting the handbrake in a state of alarm, suddenly wishing it had stayed at home.
“I don’t know,” Jonny mumbles. “I’m very shy of words like ‘statement’. I don’t think there are any statements on this record, are there? I don’t think there’s any ‘Talking ‘Bout My Generation’…”
Well, not in slogan-shaped block-capitals, perhaps. But compared to “Be Here Now”, “OK Computer” stands up as a finely tuned political platform. Surely there’s something about “The Tourist’s” climactic plea of “Idiot slow down”, for instance, that speaks volumes about the concerns of our own generation?
“Yeah, I think there’s a lot of songs about speed which that song sort of sums up,” Jonny replies. “People have been leaping on the technology side of the album a lot, calling it futuristic, which has always baffled us, because it’s all about neon lights and airbags and plane crashes or whatever. It’s not particularly futuristic. I don’t know. Pick a song.”
OK, “Subterranean Homesick Alien” then… but oh dear, it only leads to a long-winded, three-way ramble taking in “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind”, “Star Wars”, the Pixies, Philip K Dick, and the industrial revolution which nobody appears to enjoy at all. Such are the pitfalls of making meaningful rock music.
Jonny: “In a good record or a good film, the reason why they’re good is usually not because they’re telling you anything new, but because they’re telling you something you know or suspect, but in ways that you don’t expect, making you recognize things. When people do that, it bridges a gap and it becomes a sort of communal experience. I think that’s why people find it so valuable.”
VALUABLE. A relative concept if ever there was one. “OK Computer” has just been voted “The Greatest Album Of All Time” by the readers of Dad magazine, a suggestion which seems rather ahead of itself. As the album’s immediate life-cycle draws to a close, how much does the band’s own perspective intersect with that of the public and critics?
“My initial reaction to that poll, to be honest, was like winning the FA Cup,” Ed O’Brien says. “But the hysterical laughter soon turned to ironic laughter. It was too hilarious. How seriously can you take it?”
“I blow hot and cold on it,” Jonny says. “I read a review and think ‘Well, even if it was the album of the year, I wouldn’t realty trust this particular [music] journalist or whoever it is to recognise it as such. You read 10 good reviews and one bad one and the bad one seems to make more sense to you. You remember it more, anyway.”
Ed: “I think what’s cool about it is that the initial feedback we got from the American record company was that people weren’t going to get it. The best thing about all these readers’ polls is that our fears have been allayed about that. There’s a tendency within the record industry to underestimate what the public are capable of appreciating.”
Jonny: “Time is always the great leveller. If you look at polls from 1973 you’ll find you’ve got Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones up in the top five with Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes. Half of these band are irrelevant and awful and the other ones aren’t.”
“Which ones are we?” Ed wonders aloud.
“We don’t know,” sighs Jonny. “We have no way of knowing.”
History’s perspective on rock’n’roll highs and lows – while crucial, of course – is perhaps less intriguing in the long run as the political and sociological events that the music shadows.
From this geographical distance, the fever pitch of manufactured optimism which swept New Labour to power seemed indivisible from the Oasis hysteria which most Australians tend to regard with a certain dubious amusement. As a band with something rather more grim and substantial to say, do Radiohead find this kind of blinkered nationalism from the rock’n’roll wing a touch alarming?
“Not really,” Jonny says, “‘cause there was no centre to it. Everybody was getting very excited in swinging London, but about what? There were no people at the centre and the bands that were supposedly involved had nothing at their centre either.”
Ed: “London is a good place at the moment, but you do have to wonder how much this is a media-led thing. The linking of Damien Hirst with Jarvis Cocker and Alex from Blur... you just wonder how relevant it is to the rest of the world. You wonder how much is manipulated, whether that feel-good factor is part of putting on a brave face: ‘This is great, we’re living through great times’, and just papering over the cracks.
“You know what I think is another part of it?” Ed asks Jonny eagerly, on a roll now. “Cocaine. There’s cocaine everywhere in London at the moment. That is such a ‘me-me-me’ drug and I feel sometimes that a lot of what’s going on in London is fuelled by that.”
“In the Eighties, listening to The Smiths and stuff, cocaine was so unfashionable! That was all glossy Seventies bullshit. I’m sure people in the next decade will look back at the Nineties and say ‘Jesus Christ, they were f***ed-up. They took far too many drugs and basically sensationalised their lives’.”
“The wrong drugs, anyway,” Jonny adds softly.
LATER, Radiohead’s final Australian concert justifies all of the elated reviews of its precedents. Yorke’s extraordinary voice is in flawless form, from crushed murmur to powerhouse falsetto, space-defying operatic projection standard. Ed O’Brien pitches the occasional back-up vocal to perfection while Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway keep reins on the band’s astonishing rollercoaster of dynamics.
Critically, Radiohead’s slick professionalism makes room for all the human emotion which songs like “Exit Music (For A Film)”, and “Climbing Up The Walls” demand. The audience responds in kind, spontaneous roars of appreciation inserted wherever they fit, not just at the end of a song.
“Bones”, “Just” and a stunning “Fake Plastic Trees” end the main set on a high enough note to warrant half an hour of encores which range from B-side “Polyethylene” to “Creep”. The latter is surprising given that in Adelaide two nights ago, Yorke stopped the song mid-way due to general lack of interest.
A man of few words throughout, tonight he turns effusive as the two-hour show draws to a close, thanking us profusely and sharing his longing for home prior to a solo acoustic version of “Thinking About You”. As he did during “Karma Police” earlier on, he thinks nothing of stopping during the first verse and starting over – with feeling.
Yorke’s bizarre, sideways whipping motion is a memorable visual image of the show, but it’s wild card Jonny Greenwood who carries the brunt of Radiohead’s live brilliance. All fringe and bony angles, he spends the gig dragging his slight frame from synthesiser to organ to xylophone, then casually strapping on his guitar for another of the astral riffs which make “Lucky”, “You” and “Paranoid Android” such eye-watering events.
To say the very least, the guitarist’s modest insouciance is at odds with reports of a growing Cult Of Jonny Greenwood taking hold back home.
“There’s a dangerous cult in Japan: The Cult of Phil Selway,” Ed interjects by way of decoy manoeuvre.
“Oh yes, ‘Phil Is Great’,” Jonny says. “Which I find a very peculiar choice of word. Curiously flat.”
“Yeah, ‘Phil Is Great’, ‘Colin Is All Right’...”
“So you’re saying you heard I’m regarded as something of a cult?”
Oh yes, of Manic Street Preachers intensity, apparently.
“Are you sure it was the word cult? That Greenwood he’s a... cult... figure? How would I know?” he concludes, a trifle embarrassed. “I’m a bit scatty. I’m not that observant sometimes...”
No sad pop perverts hanging around your doorstep then?
“I haven’t seen my doorstep for so long. There may well be people there, starving to death. Ask me at the end of the summer.”
AFTER Australia, the band were rumoured to be playing the 40th Annual Grammy Awards in New York, but Thom Yorke, in his solitary Australian interview appearance on Triple J radio, laid that whisper to rest in a tone of unconcealed contempt.
“No, we pulled out of that. They said we weren’t good for the ratings, so we said OK. It was cool, man. We were so happy you wouldn’t believe it.
“We kind of went into it thinking it would be Quite interesting to go on and play ‘Exit Music’ in front of a lot of people who just won’t get it at all, sing ‘We hope that you choke’ and then walk off the stage. But given the context of it, I think actually it probably wouldn’t even translate. Then they started saying things like ‘Well, we don’t think you’re appropriate really ‘cause you’d lower the ratings’...”
According to Yorke, The Academy then had the gall to ask if Radiohead would present an award to somebody else instead. They declined.
Better things to do? Well, yes and no. After their final US leg winds up in New York on April 17, Radiohead are officially on leave, with pre-production for album number four a fairly remote option.
“No idea. We’re not discussing it...” Yorke tells Triple J’s Richard Kingsmill. “We’re gonna walk away from this and then, when we can’t stand it anymore, then maybe we’ll start work. But that could be a year. I’m not convinced that we’ll do another one before the year 2000, necessarily.
“It’s like the end of a cycle for us and if we don’t attempt to integrate ourselves into real life again now, then that’s it. We never will. We’ll carry on doing this and turn into monsters.”
Sounds like a great name for an album.