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by Sylvie Simmons

WHOEVER PUT “GREAT” AND “OUTDOORS” in the same sentence was not a rock fan. Rock needs four walls and a roof. In the case of Radiohead, four very-close-together walls and a roof, preferably with a bed and headphones. Doomed, fragile, introspective English-boy rock does not, whatever promoters might think, cry out for cold, wet fields full of piggy-backing, air-punching, velvet-hat-wearing, “Yayyy!”-yelling, Japanese-noodle-and-lager-fuelled punters. But this is what we get.
From duvet to drizzle in one large leap for Radiohead, one small leap for rock-kind. It’s getting to the point where in Britain, in summer, the only way of seeing any band who’ve sold more than 10 copies of an album is to risk sunburn or hypothermia and other people’s vomit on your shoes. What used to be a one-off celebration, an annual triba1 gathering, has become a nom-adic roadshow with the same old interchangeable acts, dodgy food and hippy merchandising stalls, shunted from park to park, come rain or, occasionally, shine.
And then there’s Radiohead. What they’re doing at a festival at all is one question. (Songs about solitude and alienation for a tribally-gathered crowd of 30,000 – the Moonie-wedding equivalent of a circle wrist-slash?) What they’re doing at this one is another. Rumour has it that they were offered big money to headline Reading and join the great outdoors circuit, but opted for T In The Park in Scotland and The Galway Arts Festival (the rock equivalent of a village fete). Insiders say they did it to be different, to chill out and not play the corporate game. Their self-disgust at having gone along with a mammoth US tour to capitalise on Creep is no secret. The fact that they’re headlining, just two albums into their career and two years after getting the lunch slot at Glastonbury, seems to have as much to do with rarity value as with musical brilliance. After the success of The Bends, they’re taking a break to spend time on a follow-up. Seven new songs were given a work-out at their Pink Pop festival appearance in Holland. Tonight we get three. Plus some of the best of Pablo Honey, and as good as all of The Bends.
A mystery, up there with why people want to spend good money to stand under grey skies and inhale cheap takeaways while the wind whips the musical around like a busker in a tube-tunnel, is: how come Radiohead got to be so big and, more to the point, so good, without going through the usual press-darlings channels? Without fitting in? Sandwiched chronologically between Suede and Britpop, owing nothing to either, there were no contemporary comparisons. OK, U2 at a pinch but without the pomp, but their nearest connections were American – the self-loathing, navel-gazing, Nirvana-type bands or R.E.M. Hardly surprising then that American college audiences latched onto Radiohead first, Creep sending Pablo Honey Top 40 in the States, while Britain wavered between scorn and suspicion. It’s no exaggeration to say that critics were taken by surprise by The Bends – one of last year’s best albums, crammed with melodies and mature, muso playing.
Live, their musicianship is excellent. Bleak never sounded so big, so brilliant. Standing under the deepest blue stage lights with corny-but-nice flashes of bright white stars, vocalist Thom Yorke looks so thin and sharp-edged you’d cut yourself if you touched him. His hair has been de-oranged in favour of a more natural rodent colour; he looks like an amphibian who, kissed by a beautiful maiden, would turn into a hamster.
The music is a vast, spiky sweep of melancholy and drama. Delicate, sinewy melodies, atmospheric, dramatic, a diabolically spine-chilling build-up never far away.
So many musical highlights. First up, a flawless My Iron Lung, spookily graceful, pulsing with pain and irony – not exactly a get-‘em-up-and-moving Rockin’ All Over The World-style festival set opener, but starting as it means to go on. The purity and longing of Yorke’s voice is complemented on songs like Anyone Can Play Guitar by some wonderfully screeching guitars and Hammer Horror sounds – Pink Floydy and prog rock elements that pop up here and there, and which are also used to lesser effect on the first of the new selections, Electioneering. More instantly Radioheadesque are newies Lift and No Surprises Please, with its innocent, musical-box intro and mocking resignation.
There’s not much in the way of between-song spiels. Thom says, “I guess you’re wet and pissed off. Good, because this is a song called High And… No, that’s too corny for fucking words,” before High And Dry, a piece of perfect pop. He thanks King Tut stagers Drugstore for covering Black Star earlier (though, regrettably, Radiohead don’t do it) and moans about “some wankers behind us hammering and banging” – the overspill from the NME tent; Beck had already drowned out second-on-the-bill Alanis Morissette. Another hazard of mid-’90s festivals: too many events in a sometimes too-small space.
Occasionally Thom waves his arms about like he’s shadow-boxing invisible demons, but more often he just stands there, leaving the visuals to the ever-watchable (and listenablc) Jonny Greenwood and the dazzling lights.
Planet Telex is desperately beautiful. Looking through my notes on the train home, handwriting spidery from imminent chilblains, the words “beautiful” and “desperate” pop up frequently, attaching themselves equally to Bullet Proof, Lucky, Street Spirit, Just and the first two encores, Fake Plastic Trees. The second, Thinking About You, is a sweet, poignant piece, with Thom all alone with a big guitar.
Creep is hidden away in the middle. “If we don’t play this,” says Thom, “there’ll be a riot.” And suddenly Radiohead turn into a festival band – people clambering on shoulders, wielding lighters, arms-out, Freddie Mercury gestures, singing along. Then again, a lot of the crowd sing along with just about everything. Thom admits they were nervous about this show all last night. They needn’t have been. The wind howls, the drizzle drizzles, but somehow, miraculously, Radiohead make it all seem all right.

My Iron Lung
Anyone Can Play Guitar
Bullet Proof
Planet Telex
High And Dry
No Surprises Please
Nice Dream
Street Spirit
The Bends
Fake Plastic Trees
Thinking About You