'WE'RE BRACING EVERYBODY FOR THE GLOOM AND ARRIVAL OF WINTER WITH OUR TOUR'
Radiohead returned to live action last weekend in Newport… and then talked to us about their new avant-garde material
Here's some news just in. Despite constant accusations, neither JJ72, Muse nor Coldplay are the new Radiohead. No matter how many times you listen to their albums and notice a familiar tremor in a delicate voice here, a vague sense of déjà vu in a serrated guitar there, that albatross will have to die a quick and painless death. The simple truth is that Radiohead are the new Radiohead. Because the band that are to spend this weekend unveiling songs from “Kid A" - an album so eagerly awaited that grown men are staking a patch outside their local record shop to get it first - bears about as much relation to “Pablo Honey” as Anthea Turner to a dignified bride.
It was all so much simpler back in 1993. Grudge was ruling the world and for the majority of the record- buying population, Thom Yorke was that cartoon duckling “Creep” guy. How were we meant to know that when he sang “Anyone Can Play Guitar", he intended to prove that guitars aren't enough any more and to take Radiohead to the point where their new, fourth, album is the most inventive and least usual thing to have appeared this year? And to cap it all off, they're not playing the industry game any more either. Shunning the traditional tour route of soulless arena after soulless arena, they've decided to make like Frank Sinatra and do it their way, taking a huge tent on the road with them: their own portable venue.
So the question is, has all that time in the studio finally seen the plot pack its bags and leave forever, or is the new stuff the work of genius? Do they really have anything to say, or are Radiohead just the latest in a long line of pretentious British eccentrics? And if the new album truly is a work of art, is a tent really the place to experience it? Tracey Emin would say that it is, but since she’s the woman who made her bed an exhibition, she’s probably not a reliable source of advice. The answers are waiting in Newport.
BEFORE setting off, The Maker is treated to a playback of “Kid A". Nothing is left to chance, the CD never leaving the sight of the band's press officer. The only way this is going to end up on an MP3 is if they decide they want it there. Radiohead take control, part one.
What it contains is the sound of five people who really aren't bothered about writing actual songs. Instead, they have locked themselves away to produce the most twisted electronic beats and sounds, creepy space noises battling it out with jazz flourishes. "The National Anthem", especially, stands out as being completely without a tune, the bass and drums the only things to stay constant, as the jazz brass gets more and more chaotic, until it ends up sounding like a herd of elephants on a pub crawl.
The other big influence, and big departure, to run through "Kid A" is a newly explicit love of the darker, more disturbing end of dance, Thom's collaborations with Björk (on her forthcoming album) and UNKLE hinted at this new direction. And the overwhelming impression is that, rather than being self-obsessed, Radiohead are looking to the music they enjoy away from the hand for inspiration. Guitars have been ditched, machinery, often a source of fear in Thom's lyrics, has been welcomed into the field, rather than shunned as untrustworthy. And if that takes them away from commercial hits, then so be it. The trappings of fame have only ever seemed to make them unhappy, anyway.
Which is where the big top comes in. The idea, as bassist Colin Greenwood explains later in the evening, is to be completely in control. No corporate logos to detract from the people onstage, no freezing aircraft hangar of a venue smelling of rancid hot dogs and with all the atmosphere of the moon. Just Radiohead, and Radiohead fans. Control is something the band have been obsessive about for a while now, and even extend, on this tour, to rules about how you should be dancing. "Please note," reads a vaguely ludicrous sign outside the lent, “RADIOHEAD kindly request no crowd surfing or moshing. THANK YOU!" Imagine trying to crowd-surf to "Karma Police" anyway!
The decidedly left-of-centre nature of "Kid A" goes a long way towards explaining the choice of support act for the weekend, as they've consciously picked a band who work beyond the confines of the three-minute pop song. Sadly, though, Sigur Ros are so motionless and intent on staring at their shoes, you have to wonder if they've died onstage and just haven't keeled over yet. Whatever's going on at their feet is obviously much more interesting than what we're watching, because while some of the noises they make (they don't really "do" songs) are absolutely beautiful, and probably quite useful if you're attempting to mate with a blue whale, their live show redefines tedium. On one occasion there's even the sneaking suspicion that Enya has had a sex change, a Linguaphone course in Icelandic and nightclasses in Slowdive somewhere in the early Nineties. But only the once. It was during that one that goes "eeeeoooooaa ahhhhoooohh haaahheeeeoooh".
Time for the main attraction.
MAYBE it's us, maybe it's them, or maybe it's just the rain outside, but for some reason, the first of the two Newport dates is lacking something important. The band are tearing into their songs like a dingo with an abandoned baby. Thom shaking his head as he sits at the keyboard for the new, Flaming Lips-esque “Morning Bell", like he's trying to get the monsters out. But nothing they do seems to really ignite the polite and subdued audience. Of course, they cheer wildly in all the right places, a boar going up for "Lucky" (still one of their most perfect songs), but when people clapping along to the hits sounds more like a "Des O'Connor Tonight" audience, you know something's not quite right.
The Tardis-like tent, strewn with fairy lights and buzzing with hypnotic green lasers, shows Radiohead's future-obsessed mindset. A feat of persistence over physics, it is twice as big inside as out. It is made up of strangely broken angles that mean that wherever you stand (unless the omnipresent, unnaturally tall gig-goer picks you as today's victim), you will be able to see the stage, and it's never as far away from you as it would first appear. It provides a feeling of intimacy you could never recreate in a big, permanent venue, without redefining all the rules of architecture. In fact, it's only slightly marred by the unmistakable smell of dung that seems to rise up as the place gets warmer. Rumour has it that there was a mix-up when that order was put in for absorbent wood clippings, and that we are now all ankle-deep in manure.
Up above, grainy screens arc provided for those at the back, the static cameras adding to the feeling that we've all in this together, showing whatever happens to come into their field of vision, as if the band are in a "Big Brother" fish bowl, under constant, discrete but noticeable surveillance. The result is yet more intimacy. We get shots of Radiohead you'd never expect - Ed's feet as he reaches for his effects pedals, Colin's back, Jonny's hands playing the xylophone during "No Surprises" - and, ironically, the placing of the screens means that the best place to stand for these shows is actually at the furthest point from the band. Yet more subversion, then.
The screens are a small sign of how far technology has infiltrated the band's lives. They flicker into life as Thom manically shakes his head from side to side at a battled upright piano for "You & Whose Army", his voice buzzing off the canvas walls as it's visually beamed on to the back of the stage in the form of a wavering laser beam. "How To Disappear", meanwhile, proves that, no matter how far away from conventional pop songs Radiohead ever felt, they will always be able to match the beauty of "Street Spirit". It's gorgeously, hauntingly perfect, casting a lull over the heads of the crowd as they stop moving, almost stop breathing, and just listen to Thom's violin-string voice picking its way over the delicate melodies.
"Motion Picture Soundtrack” manages to equal that, despite the machines grinding to a belching halt to Jonny's despairing cry of "Oh shit! It's f***ed!" When someone puts 10p in the meter to get it all up and running again, it turns out to twist mournful church organs into something much more wild and dangerous, Thom gently lamenting, "I think you 're crazy, baby" to no one in particular, totally wrapped up in the sounds he's creating. Then, towards the end, it all clicks into place. The stripped-bare melody and Björkish bass of “Idiotech” [sic] is rumbling around Britain for the first lime ever, and on the stage something odd is happening to Thom. His limbs are flailing about, unconcerned with where they end up, and he's… dancing. And so is everyone else. But while the band are giving it everything, something about tonight just feels like we're in the middle of a practice for the real thing.
"Oh, we were very nervous," Colin Greenwood admits, struggling through a stinking migraine after the show. “But it was alright, we enjoyed it. When we did the last tour with 'OK Computer', it was like a band out of a box every night, playing at the NEC or Manchester Nynex, and everything was the same every night, so it was like putting the record on every night. We're just trying to think how we can maybe do things differently, and introduce an element of risk to it. I think what we've done is Radiohead doing the post-summer post-festival comedown tour. We're sort of bracing everybody for the gloom and arrival of winter with our concert tour."
“It's a relay tour like the ones the Rolling Stones do," guitarist Ed O'Brien chips in, smiling on his way past. "As we speak, someone is setting up a tent in Copenhagen."
The tent is obviously something the band are very proud of. Since day one, they have been striving to cut out the middle-man, and get directly to their fans without outside factors to distract attention. This allows them to call the shots, even down to their own website-based Waste Products taking over the merchandise stall (although some might say that £30 a go for a yellow cagoule is a bit steep), and allowing the World Wildlife Fund to recruit onsite.
“We wanted to have our own space that we could change things every night and make it feel special for us onstage listening to each other play music," says Colin. “And it's also special for people to come and sec it. The difference is, we can go and bother Andy who docs our lights or Jim who does our sound every night, and try different things. And there's no corporate sponsorship. There aren't any big logos for Coca-Cola or McDonald's or Manchester Evening News, or radio stations. It's just like a space to try and communicate directly to our fans, without all the other crap about being in a band now, with all the business side of it getting in the way."
EUROPEAN audiences were recently the first to hear the new Radiohead material. In a way that would probably turn Lars Ulrich blue with horror, the live versions of the songs appeared all over the Internet almost before the band had even had a chance to unplug all their equipment. Which is why those listening to the album before its release date are more closely guarded than most state secrets.
“People who've heard the album are unsure at first," says Colin glancing around the not-at-all-glitzy, shed-like environment of the aftershow party. “The one problem we've had with people hearing the album is we've had to play silly buggers with journalists because of the Internet. And it makes us seem like we're some corporate act, like Sony inviting you to hear the Springsteen album in the office in the Eighties, then having to go away again, it just seems so precious. Not that I'm slagging off Bruce Springsteen, because he's brilliant!"
It's worth noting that this is a band who've embraced the Internet, which Colin sees as a “good market research thing", because it allows them to talk to fans directly, and to find out what they like and dislike. Radiohead.co.uk is a useful base for the band to keep people updated and to put across their political views (there are a lot of links to Jubilee 2000, the campaign to drop Third World debt). So Colin is in a better position to talk rationally about the whole Napster debate than the trampling meathead approach of Metallica.
“Obviously if we've worked really hard to do a good record, we don't want it all to be going on the Internet without people buying it," Colin says. “And the reason why that's important, it's not just because of commercial reasons, but it's because we've spent so much time and work with all the imagery and the artwork and the strength of it as a whole. If you like the music and you download it, you should get the album, because it would be like reading a really good, beautiful story, and then just speed reading it and going, 'Oh that's good.’ And to experience it properly and to appreciate it you should see all the amazing things that have been done with the artwork for the record."
Are people going to be surprised by the album? It's very avant-garde and nowhere near as rock as you'd expect.
"I think we're lucky, because people who like our music expect it to be different and a bit strange," he says, as Thom makes a brief appearance before scuttling away again. "When we started with 'OK Computer', the first single on it was 'Paranoid Android', which was six and a half minutes long. So that was a bit weird at the time, but people seem to like it now. So we're lucky because the people who like our music are patient and give us the benefit of the doubt, and I hope they'll think it's good, because we spent a lot of time trying to make it just so. A lot of that was trying to work out what we hated about the last record, with regards to what happened when it was released and the touring. We spent a long time trying to work out how we could enjoy playing live concerts again."
You're rumoured to be releasing another album of more tuneful songs next spring. Is that true? "Well, we've got a lot of songs that we want to release next year," Colin says. "We don't know how. We're playing them live, and some of the songs are very beautiful on the next record. But we want to try and release more music more frequently to get away from an album every two years. That's the plan."
So you'll just release what you want when you want?
“Yeah, and people should be into that, and not see us as some sort of Stone Roses for the 21st century every two or three years. We should demystify it. And it's good for us, because it makes us listen to new music as it happens.You don't have to watch MTV and stuff to see that there's something exciting happening all the time."
SATURDAY night, and Radiohead are proving Colin's right. Yesterday's jitters have evaporated, to be replaced with a much more obvious, electric crackle of genuine excitement from the crowd, as they let out an earth-shattering roar the minute the lights go down. Bearing in mind the way this band are considered the epitome of angst-ridden disconsolate complaint rock, it's amazing how much happiness and love their audience can scatter.
A furious “My Iron Lung” seethes, Thom throttling his guitar to bring it under control, and everyone is grinning as it unfolds, as far away from navel- gazing as it's possible to get without bending over backwards. Even Thom, the man commonly believed to live under a small grey cloud can't help smiling, introducing a surprisingly jangly new track as “a song called 'Knives Out', I guess it's about making a meal out of a corpse. Alrighty!" Or wryly smiling as "Paranoid Android" is presented as being "about the benefits of cocaine use". He still looks like a little boy up there, whirling about, biting at his guitar strings, pecking an exaggerated bow every now and again, letting his limbs go in whatever direction they feel like.
Forget about the tortured artist, this is a rock star - no matter how much he claims to dislike the limelight - having an absolutely brilliant time, and making sure everyone else does too.
"Dollars And Cents", one of the new songs Colin was talking about, looks set to grow into something huge over the tour, its massive bass and tribal drums causing the band to hunch up under its weight. "Everything In Its Right Place", meanwhile, is already legendary. As it buzzes quietly into life and Thom asks "Is everybody happy?", Ed - busily making raver hand gestures and grinning - and Jonny are on their knees fiddling with small pieces of equipment, while Thom hammers away at a battered old upright piano. As he sings, "Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon", his voice breaks into pieces and comes back at him from a million places, as Jonny samples and distorts what was an astonishing sound in the first place. Layers and layers are added, until eventually there's as much of his voice as the place can take, and he's left free to prowl the lip of the stage, knocking the mic stand flying, making eye contact with the front row and generally radiating enough energy to power South Wales.
Mashed together in a setlist, the four ages of Radiohead make perfect sense as a whole. It took the second day for them to really hit their stride, but when it happens, it's like a smack in the face, bringing you to your senses, forcing you to wake up and have a look around you. Perhaps if more bands took their fate into their own hands, and were brave enough to take responsibility for who they were, life would be this exciting all the time.
RADIOHEAD PLAY LONDON VITORIA PARK ON SEPTEMBER 23, 24 AND 25