NEWPORT TREDEGAR HOUSE
(Presentation of the article in the NME Originals issue about Radiohead from 2003)
Radiohead are spinning off on a space odyssey while other bands are still throwing their jawbones in the air. For the bands it’s a leap forward; for their audience it’s also a leap of faith.
The unspoken question hangs heavy in the air: are you, or have you ever been, a Radiohead fan? And then: well, we shall see about that.
Don’t think for one second that we are all in this together. Don’t imagine that, as this most valued of bands finally returns to the live arena, it’s time for celebration. And don’t, God forbid, go looking for communion.
“Welcome to the big tent,” says the compact rock icon with the utilitarian T-shirt and blunt-cut hair, but, somehow, you just aren’t made to feel at home.
For tonight, it seems, is very much an exercise in dividing the rock sheep from the avant-goats, in scouring away the misapprehensions that proliferated in Radiohead’s long, trying three-year absence. To a certain extent, it’s about time: the world is awash with bands who have missed Thom Yorke and companions to woeful effect, reworking those songs, as cold and as wonderful as a satellite shower, as nothing more than high-pitched glumness about girls.
As the band stalk on stage under the fake plastic sky and crash into the immense foundry riff of ‘The National Anthem’, you instantly realise what we’ve been missing. Something a little other, from Thom Yorke’s choral keen through ‘Bones’ and the superb jazz-funeral creep of ‘Morning Bell’, to the mental-timebomb tick of ‘Karma Police’. All dazzingly encoded. All fundamentally unknowable. For a minute there, you’ve lost yourself.
Highlighting the fact that they’re spinning off on a space odyssey while other bands are still throwing their jawbones in the air is noble enough: trying to make the same point with your fans, however, doesn’t feel quite right. OK, so you don’t expect Thom to reel up with a cry of “Take my wife – please someone just take my wide”, but even compared with their recent Meltdown show, which features chinchilla jokes, abundant hits and – sharp intake of breath – open laughter, the vibe is a little morose.
For Radiohead, all this is a leap forward; for their audience, it’s also a leap of faith. It would be nice to think that instead of pushing them over the edge, the band might jump with them.
Yes, the scrabbling hands of stardom repulse them but Yorke’s stage presence can’t help but play the myth-making star-card. His jerks and spasms are reminiscent of Michael Stipe’s ‘Green’ tour specials, and as he strides in twitchy circles for the discoloured disco of ‘Idioteque’ or stands with his back to the audience, you realise a bald of their calibre don’t need this obscurity. The music occasionally struggles with the same affectations: Radiohead, quietly decompressing at the end of the world, have always been a band steeped in the techno age without ever needing to go techno.
The most overt signs of ‘new direction’ – the warp-speed bleep and scree at the end of ‘Dollars And Cents’, the Underworld-under-par clunk of ‘Idioteque’ – sound brutal, bolted on with cowboy-builder bravado. Yet with ‘Optimistic’, soft-bodied song lurking under a spiny drone, with the piano-and-bile-duct duet of ‘You And Whose Army’, with the infinity-looped ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, their intelligence and depth are unshakable. Like the visionary fervour of ‘Paranoid Android’ and a luminous ‘No Surprises’, these are weightless, effortless, pristine. Everything might not be right with the world, but with this band back in action, the skies are looking a little clearer, the horizons a little nearer.
Are you, or have you ever been, a Radiohead fan? Oh, you won’t get rid of us that easily.