Thom Yorke: M15 Star?
Radiohead vocalist Thom Yorke has continued his attack on Tony Blair, asking whether he "reserves a file at MI5".
Yorke has posted a secret message on his page on the official Radiohead website, www.radiohead.com/thom.html. The text, reading, “I reckon I maybe deserve a file at MI5 now Tony, what do you think?” is written in black on a black background, and is only visible by highlighting what appears to be blank space at the top of the page.
Yorke’s latest comments to come after it was revealed that the first pressings of Radiohead’s album, “Kid A”, contained a hidden booklet with the dedication “For Leo”, presumably a reference to Blair’s son, as well as a caricature of Blair himself. Elsewhere in the booklet are a series of Orwellian slogans, which include: “He’ll take the money from under your nose. He’ll tell you all you want to hear,” and, “He says he’s always been on our side.”
Lyrics to some tracks recorded during the “Kid A” sessions, but not included on the album, also take a swipe at Blair. The track “Follow Me Around”, played at the band’s show in Toronto on October 17, features the lyrics: “Did you lie to us Tony?/We thought you were different/Now you know we’re not sure”.
New Yorke to LA
Britain may have greeted 'Kid A' with a shrug, but from coast to coast, America has gone hysterically Radiohead crazy. As gigs sell out in minutes and record sales soar, this is a tale of how the US of A got the bends...
The release of Radiohead’s “Kid A” in the UK was a relatively unremarkable event. Certainly, there have been sold-out shows, a kerfuffle in the NME Angst pages and enthusiasm and disappointment in equal measures. None of this, however, is any match for the reception the band has received in America, where the last few weeks have been marked by what is being called “Radiohead Hysteria”.
Their return after a three-year hiatus has taken on an almost messianic aspect, prompting exaggerated displays of devotion. “Kid A” went straight to Number One in the Billboard 100, selling 207,393 copies in its first week, making it the first British album to top the US charts since Prodigy’s “The Fat Of The Land” in 1997. The announcement of Radiohead’s three North American shows sparked frenzied all-night queuing and an unprecedented trafficking of tickets over Internet auction site eBay. Someone actually forked out $5,200 dollars to attend their LA concert, which is a pretty good indication that something monumental, if not downright insane, is afoot.
The fact that “Kid A” achieved such staggering success in the US (a country built on the belief that you need massive advertising campaigns just to get noticed) with possibly the most anti-promotional campaign in music history, is extraordinary. There were no advance album copies, only puzzling “listening parties” and a handful of interviews. The album has no singles, no videos, and retails for the steep price of $18.99 in most shops. Hundreds of thousands of fans had already downloaded it from Napster long before its official release, so the phenomenon can’t be blamed on the lure of mystery. Americans knew that they were being offered an obtuse, artfully uncommercial album, yet still they bought it in droves. How did this happen? Where did it all go right?
“Kid A” was helped, perhaps, by months of industry speculation and critical hype. American journalists embraced the album with unreserved enthusiasm, with Spin heralding it as “the best anti-rock album of the year”, and Rolling Stone awarding it four stairs, calling it “music of glistening guile and honest ache”.
The album’s appeal was no sure thing, as the band’s Stateside history has been marked by inconsistencies. “Pablo Honey” initially entered the US album charts at an underwhelming Number 184 in May 1993, but shot up to Number 32 the following August after the MTV-bolstered success of “Creep” (which made Number 34 in the Billboard Hot 100). “The Bends”, however, sold only half as well as their debut, and when “OK Computer” was released in 1997, Radiohead were still considered a one-hit wonder. It disappeared from the charts pretty quickly after debuting at Number 21 but support from big names like Michael Stipe and Brad Pitt (whose opinion, believe it or not, really matters in America) and the heavy rotation of “Karma Police” on MTV gradually made a difference. By the end of the decade the album had been awarded a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance, and was voted Number Nine in Rolling Stone’s 90 Greatest Albums of the 90’s.
Critical acclaim, however, is no guarantee of popular success. Radiohead’s current position as America’s favourite British band can only be attributed to the peculiar ardency of their fans, who, unlike the British, seem intrigued rather than put off by Radiohead’s air of preciousness. Could the country which upholds cartoon characters like Fred Durst and Eminem as cultural icons finally be tiring of the dumb? Or does it find “Kid A” appealing because it combines the emotional depth of a rock album with the atmospherics of an ambient dance record? Either way, the point is that Americans don’t care whether “Kid A” is an Aphex Twin rip-off or an ungenerous gesture by a band who whine too much about their fame (accusations which have been levelled at Radiohead in America). They simply love it. Radiohead, a band who don’t want to be big, and who have fashioned an album seemingly devised to evade adoration and alienate fans, have instead whipped them up into a frenzy.
The first indication of the alarms and surprises in store for Radiohead in America came on September 5, when “Kid A” was unveiled at a “state-of-the-art, multi-media presentation” at the Sony Imax Theatre in New York City. Over 150 fans were turned away from the venue.
In comparison to the mania of the last few weeks, this seems minor. Tickets for the band’s October 11 date at New York’s Roseland Ballroom sold out in three minutes, leaving many fans who had camped out in bitter 34-degree cold for 48 hours tearful with disappointment. The situation was worsened by widespread ticket confusion, including ticket lottery system at the venue. Hundreds of fans showed up on the night of the concert to buy from touts, who were charging up to $250 for tickets – many of them counterfeit. Afterwards, NME received hundreds of e-mails from disgruntled fans, describing queues which stretched from city blocks and scenes of mayhem when Roseland released 40 more tickets at the original $32.50 price after the show had begun.
Blame was placed on promoters, the venue, ticket agency Ticketmaster and even the band themselves, who were derided for playing so small a venue (3,500 capacity). Some fans wrote bitterly about radio stations announcing the gigs to “all the suburbanities and weekend fans”, and one even suggested that “perhaps ticket-buyers should also have to present all four Radiohead albums in order to purchase their one ticket” to allow only “true fans” into the concert.
One fan who couldn’t get tickets hung around outside the venue listening through an open side door and got a pleasant surprise: “We waited outside a couple of hours for Radiohead to leave, and we were able to meet most of them. Thom Yorke shook my hand! He was walking away and all I could think of to say to him was, “Please just touch me or something”, and he did! The whole experience pretty much made up for the fact that I wasn’t able to see the show.”
There were some problems even for those lucky enough to get in. New Yorker Chris Gawrych described the scene thus: “There was a huge wave of people from left which pushed us sideways. My girlfriend, who is 5ft 3ins, was nearly on the ground from the force of the group. She was screaming for me to help her because she was afraid of being trampled. Not a single person helped, and I was forcing people back and barely keeping them from flooding into us again, they kept pushing into us as I was trying to get her out.”
The majority of people who wrote to NME after having seen the show, however, were effusive with praise. It was described repeatedly as “the best show ever” and “beyond words”. One wrote, “I’m not much of a religious man, and I find my spiritual fulfilment mostly through art. Last night Radiohead gave me enough nourishment for the rest of the year.” Another gushed, “Radiohead is the greatest band on the planet. I suppose on the outside it may seem that all the shit I went through to get these tickets could never be repaid by a mere two hours of music. Certainly there were many people in the cold street that night who were royally fucked by the gigantic dildo of incompetence brandished by those “in charge”, but for those lucky few, Radiohead delivered an overwhelming experience; one of urgency and unflagging respect for those who had gotten them there, and two very large fingers for those still in doubt.”
On the same day as the Roseland spectacle, Radiohead found out that “Kid A” had gone to Number One, knocking rappers Mystikal off the top slot. Colin Greenwood commented to NME that the band’s US success was “madness, fucking brilliant” and mused, “it will be interesting see what happens in Europe now after America and all the press here.” Thom Yorke, however, was characteristically unimpressed. In an October 13 interview on MTV, he described his reaction to having a Number One album thus: “I think a lot of people maybe saw “Kid A” as representing something for a lot of people. I’m not quite sure what that is, and I’m not quite sure whether the record actually fulfils that or not, right? It’s not for me to know, really, and I cannot get my head round the fact that it’s Number One in America at all. It just doesn’t mean anything. It’s just la-la.”
The band’s next stop was Toronto, Canada, where proceedings were more orderly but the excitement was undiminished. One fan wrote that a woman in a record shop offered, in all seriousness, to sleep with him for his ticket. Another testified, “The Radiohead show is the most talked-about, highly anticipated event to visit this city in recent memory. Indeed I can only think of Toroto’s winning of the World Series in baseball in ´93 and ´94 as rivalling this.”
By the time tickets went on sale for Radiohead’s third and final show in North America at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre on October 20, things had reached fever pitch. Ticketmaster realised that tickets were set to go on sale at the same as those for a Dixie Chicks show, so opened up lines for Radiohead slightly early. The tickets were sold out in less than one minute. At one point there were 35 pairs of tickets up for auction on eBay, beginning at $150 and climbing, preposterously, to a pair of fourth-row seats which went for ¤5200 (an amount reached after only one day, from an opening bid of $1). Hundreds of fans sneaked up into the hills surrounding the open-air venue and watched from the trees, prompting Thom to dedicate “Pyramid Song” to “the people in the woods”.
One week after “Kid A” debuted at Number One, it dropped to Number Ten in the Billboard chart. There have also been isolated backlashed – for example Rolling Stone has lampooned the album on its website with an A-Z of “Kid A” (“A” is for “arse”, etc). Nevertheless, enthusiasm for the band seems undimmed. The Radiohead website has been deluged with e-mails from fans who were unable to see the band, begging for more shows, and even their second week sales of 89,000 were more than it took to get them to the top slot in the UK.
All this for a band who are always wondering “How To Disappear Completely”. With America’s gaze fixed firmly on them, Radiohead aren’t likely to be doing this any time soon.