NEW YORK NEW YORKE
RADIOHEAD, HAMMERSTEIN BALLROOM, NEW YORK CITY
FROM A DISTANCE, AT THE BACK OF the hall, up in the mezzanine, Thom Yorke looks like a quizzical bird, his head bent hard to the left as he sings, as if in deep, odd thought. At particularly agitated points, which come more and more often as the night goes on, Yorke’s head bobs vigorously from side to side as if attached to the rest of his body by a metal spring.
There are moments – particularly during the guitar-seizure episodes in ‘Paranoid Android’, as the brittle aggression and hardened desire in ‘The Bends’ escalate to a heady climax – when it seems like Yorke’s noggin will bolt free of his body and come to an ugly end, crushed like a grapefruit in the mad surge of fans at the foot of his mike stand.
But Yorke is also visible in tight focus. This is a live MTV broadcast – part of the channel’s new series of concerts, Live At The Ten Spot – and your correspondent is sitting a few rows behind a NASA-control-like spread of computer keyboards and TV monitors.
On the screens, the multiple images of Yorke, up close and personal, are even more thrilling, and chilling. He’s unshaven, his hair roughly brushed up and forward in a weird spike: part Pee Wee Herman, part old-school punk. As Yorke sings, his eyes shut tight and his gaunt features screwed up in heavy reverie, you can see the intensity – and the eight months he and Radiohead have spent on the road since the release of ‘OK Computer’ – etched long and deep in his face.
And when, just two songs into the show, Yorke snakes into that great line in the middle of ‘Karma Police’ – “This is what you get/When you mess with us” – with Jonny Greenwood pounding the piano like a cross between a tortured classical prodigy and a ‘60s garage-rock fop, the effect is high rock’n’roll drama. On the little screens and right there in the room. This is Radiohead, and that wounded middle-aged beast called rock, at their finest in ‘97.
The constant touring has had a tangible, potent effect on Radiohead’s live attack. ‘The Bends’ is a very different beast than it was last August, in this same hall, and back in June during the band’s mini-set at the Tibetan Freedom Concert. The cutting, angular character of Greenwood and Ed O’Brien’s guitar interplay is even tighter, pressing into ‘Just (You Do It To Yourself)’ from ‘The Bends’ and the swollen climax of ‘The Tourist’ like barbed-wire mesh. The rhythms, executed with workmanlike sobriety by bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway, are sharp, martial in meat and tone, almost clairvoyant in the way they seem to portend great violence or major depression in that verse or chorus just coming round the bend. The ballads often pack the most menace and despair: the utter feeling of surrender in ‘No Surprises’ (“This is my final bellyache”); the bitter Beatles-esque pill, ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, with Yorke perched at a piano as if he’s singing ‘The Fool On The Hill’ instead of “I’m just up-tight, up-tight, up-tight...” like some kind of self-help mantra. Although Oasis and Radiohead are rarely mentioned in the same breath when it comes to premillennial Beatlesmania, Yorke and Liam Gallagher actually sing with a disarmingly similar mix of Lennon-like bite and angst. Yorke’s voice doesn’t have that defensive Gallagher edge; it’s more rounded with wear, even boyishly thoughtful at points. But he knows how to pour on the poison and in the patchwork marvel called ‘Paranoid Android’, it comes out in both trickles (the stately, deceptively subdued opening) and torrents (the prolonged anguish in his enunciation as he sings “Rain down, rain down on me”).
It’s hard to believe that much of this is really coming across on television. But from this vantage point, it’s possible to get both shows, the live-action and broadcast versions, and frankly there are times when it is difficult to tear your eyes away from the monitors. There are also times when the music is so blinding – like the long dark howl of ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ – that it doesn’t matter whether you can see anything at all.
Oh, and there’s no ‘Creep’. And to be honest, nobody seems to miss it.