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COME ON ALIEN!
London Wembley Arena
by John Robinson


He's singing a song, a song to keep us warm. His acoustic guitar strapped to his body, the green light passing every now and then over his face, Thom Yorke is warming the cockles of the auditorium with tales from the apex of glum. He's packed, he's got dressed, in fact he's doing an incredible job of 'Exit Music (For A Film)' when, to his horror, something is, quite woefully, up.
Doink. He's out of tune. You might not have heard it yourself, but Thom has, and he's a professional, so he takes steps to remedy the problem. Midway through the first verse of his song, the one that more than maybe any other on 'OK Computer' jumps beautifully from fragility to pure majesty, he breaks off, tunes up and carries on.
"Phhhhhhhrttttttt!" And then he starts to laugh. Not a huge one but, walking away from the microphone, Thom Yorke corpses badly, because what he has done is so very Big Band On Tour. So very sleeper bus. So very breakfast in Brussels, dinner in Bargen Volksrocker, followed by a discreet appearance in the aftershow. It's the action of a man who is part of a going concern, part of a travelling hyper-efficient global music unit. Who is merchandised and downloaded, and maybe doesn't like it. So he's having a laugh.
Evidence of humanity, you might call it. For not since Bowie has the myth of the artist-as-extraterrestrial been studied so assiduously as it has by Thom Yorke. Inviolate, uninterviewable and undoubtedly curious-looking, his songs invite questions while he is increasingly distant and unreachable. Though he speaks our language and lives our worst days, he's not from round here. He comes from another place.
You can understand why, too. Like Michael Stipe before him (the REM comparison doesn't end there: the group are currently following the REM mode for living, recording new tracks in a mobile as they slog around the world) he has learned that you can stand in danger of giving too much damaging information away, so instead retreats from the limelight in order to stand more proudly in it. Dancing his curious one-legged dance, crudely shorn, and in Stipe-issued combat trousers, he's... well, he's an alien.
Except that it only half works, and Radiohead's humanity keeps showing through. You don't get banter. You don't look for laughs (Thom: "I say Jonny, my dog's got no nose." Jonny: "How does he smell?" Thom: "Exceptionally morose."), but in spite of their rigorous professionalism, the extreme complexity of their music (like can you remember all the bits in 'Paranoid Android'?), there's the evidence that they're not just the new Floyd, here to be listened to attentively, but something far more unpredictable and impressive.
Things like the slight prickliness in Thom's voice whenever Jonny Greenwood has to leap from his guitar outpost to behind the keyboard ("Yeahhh... whenever Jonny's ready..."). Or the studied dryness with which they hurdle the inevitable 'Creep' ("C'mon," tuts Thom, "we haven't got all night..."). Or the way that he now doesn't perform that song grudgingly, but laps up the vocal crowd participation, conducting their efforts with an imperious raised hand, the maestro of communal singing. Like the Ian Broudie of the clinically depressed.
These, though, are the comforting points in the Radiohead muse; the bits you grab hold of to anchor yourself in the reality of what should essentially be watching a pop group playing some songs. Because though greatness has always been expected of them, their brief has expanded exponentially. There is a point this evening when it seems like traditional fandom of this band is irrelevant. The lights are dim and you can't see them that well. Yet you know that they're not especially good-looking and don't say anything particularly interesting. They just seem to appear from nowhere and make this quite magnificent, fuck off THING that really it's better to be purely amazed by than think about too deeply.
Above all, you've got to ask yourself: how weird? How weird would a band have to appear for them to seem capable of making music like 'Paranoid Android'? How funny would a singer have to be for you to think he could come up with lines like those on 'Talk Show Host' ("I'll be waiting/With a gun and a pack of sandwiches") all the time?
Like aliens never do, Radiohead finish by thanking the support bands and grinning, anonymous people and happier for that. To live up to the grandeur of their music would be impossible.