FOR THOSE ABOUT TO BAROQUE...
RADIOHEAD, Bridlington Spa Pavilion
FIVE FIGURES huddle inside a swirling fog bank of puce and scarlet. Sturdy steel towers loom behind them, a hi-tech vision of Hell as post-industrial nightclub. And, erm, that’s it.
In other words, Radiohead are readying themselves to play the Big Sheds with a minimum of theatrical gubbins. No lurid PopMart insanity here, no Stonehenge models. Not quite yet, anyway. It’s still just about the music, man.
Besides, it’s no longer a question of whether Radiohead can deliver gobsmacking live shows. It’s more whether they do a simply astounding professional job or whether they cut loose and take you on a terrifying tightrope walk across the yawning existential void. Bridlington offers a bit of both.
Radiohead’s swelling legion of fans now includes the sort of bright, well-scrubbed and mildly dysfunctional types who used to follow Blur before discovering the hard stuff. They have their own bona fide anthems in ‘Karma Police’ and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, each inciting a riot of swaying, upturned palms. They also get pogo-mental floorquakes including the seismic spasms of ‘My Iron Lung’ and the guitar nuclear meltdown of ‘The Bends’.
Plus ‘Creep’, of course, which qualifies on both counts and is confidently inserted mid-set like some throwaway trifle. Radiohead are obviously becoming reconciled to this former albatross: Thom Yorke announces it as a “pretty good song” and croons a loving, measured version. Not trashing the past, but not romanticising it either.
Throughout everything, fast or slow, Thom oscillates to his own inner drum beat, a frazzled gonk turned loser messiah. But he’s not choking on self-disgust and pre-millennial nausea tonight. Instead he’s energised, clearly enjoying himself, dispensing effusive thanks and even cracking jokes. Fitter, happier.
Which is healthy, of course, but it means there’s a certain spark missing. Thom plainly isn’t prepared to fake the gnashing turbo-gloom of his most knotted, antagonistic performances. Instead we get Premier League professionals, breaking in their stadium set, hitting all the right buttons. Perhaps being both critical and commercial faves has blunted their rabid attack slightly. It‘s a terrible thought, but maybe happiness doesn‘t serve Radiohead too well.
Whatever, it‘s not a serious flaw. By the end of this tour they are bound to be miserable bastards again, and they will also doubtless have ironed out more lumpy moments like the cumbersome ‘Planet Telex’ or the muted ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’. There’s a sprinkling of B-sides and ‘Pablo Honey’ throwbacks here too which leave most of the crowd cold.
Still, there’s always the mini-backlash to get Radiohead good and riled again. It centres around their alleged prog-rock tendencies on ‘OK Computer’. Which is fair comment, but the implication of aloof muso twiddlers could scarcely be wider of the mark. This is a band who clearly wouldn’t exist without punk, The Smiths and Nirvana; a band who cut right to the emotional bone – and then keep slashing away until there is blood and sinew and shiny wet giblets splurged across the kitchen floor.
So maybe we don’t know what the bleeding arse Thom is yowling about as he teeters through his umpteenth nervous breakdown to the ballistic noise riot of ‘Just’, but we know damn sure he’s channelling huge, scary, high-voltage emotions like some human lightning conductor. And when Jonny Greenwood virtually saws his guitar in half with his violent demolition of ‘Bones’, prog noodling is emphatically not on the agenda.
And yet, ironically, Radiohead shine most when they fully embrace their more pretentious side. If prog-rock means being baroque, unashamedly serious and vaultingly ambitious, Yorke and co should get those ‘Sonic Cathedral’ T-shirts printed up right now and be done with it. Anyone can play guitar – but very few can make it sound like a choir of disgruntled angels.
Because only when they slip the moorings of rock convention and set themselves adrift on an ocean of indulgence do Radiohead hit the celestial heights that their peers simply cannot reach. In the symphonic movements of ‘Paranoid Android’, for example, whose punk-metal blitzkrieg mid-section becomes more heroically flayed with every outing. Then Thom drifts into the eerie “rain down” refrain like some Russian Orthodox bishop, improvising Gregorian chants over ghostly strings.
A similar effect is achieved with his spine-chilling acoustic opening to ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’, which closes the main set, and with the overlapping ghostly harmonies of ‘Fade Out (Street Spirit)’, the final encore. This isn’t rock’n’roll any more, it’s devotional music: secular hymns, heartfelt psalms for a godless consumer culture. Imagine Nick Cave’s ‘The Boatman’s Call’ relocated to a shiny hi-tech supermarket on the outskirts of Prozac City. With a xylophone solo in the middle. No wonder ‘OK Computer’ sounds so majestically fucked-up.
Radiohead evaporate, house lights blaze and you are left pondering John Taverner’s extraordinary speech at the Mercury Awards about “annihilating the human ego” and filling the void with God’s love. God loves his children too...
Rock music hasn‘t dared be this serious for decades. But with the likes of The Verve and Spiritualized as contemporaries, Radiohead are spearheading something brave and magnificent. As long as they don‘t get too happy or too slick, these prog-tastic suburban hymns will keep assaulting the nation‘s nervous system.