THE PERFECT STORM
(Presentation of the article in the NME Originals issue about Radiohead from 2003)
If Radiohead controlled the weather, they could have made the stormclouds above South Park piss all over their hometown teddy bear's picnic right at the crucial point in 'Paranoid Android' when Thom pleads "rain down on me..." Instead, the storm breaks three songs later, unleashing a downpour of Biblical proportions. So it's official: Thom Yorke is not god after all.
Rewind an hour and Radiohead are wired from the start - nerves, maybe, or pure adrenaline. Opening drone projectile 'The National Anthem' is taut and fraught, surfing on dirty scuzzfunk bass. Then 'Airbag' is raw and rugged, its DJ Shadow clusterbeats stoned on heady space rock. Thom spins like a broken gyroscope, words vomiting from his unshaven jaw. The others follow suit, Colin spazzing like a speed-freak, Jonny fizzing with sonic fireworks, Ed a jack-knifing juggernaut. They're clearly aiming for visceral garage-rock rather than cerebral avant-jazz.
The staging is puritanically minimal, foregrounding Radiohead's keep-it-real art agenda. The gamble pays off, mainly because they play with guts and masses of hits: a howling 'Lucky', a shimmering 'No Surprises', a toweringly anthemic 'Fake Plastic Trees'. Meanwhile, grainy video screens flicker with monochrome up-the-nostril close-ups of Thom hunched over his piano. He looks like an angry anchovy, eyes screwed tight, quaking with emotion. On good form, Radiohead do choking intensity better than anyone.
'Amnesiac' holds up well against heavyweight competition. For anyone left cold by the album's wheezing, antique textures and cryptic sentiments, most of these tunes grow sharp claws and gnarly attitude in public. 'Packt Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box' is wiry and animated, with Thom growling "I'm a reasonable man, get off my case" through gritted fangs. The skimming melancholy of 'Knives Out' becomes a full-blooded lament, while the caustic 'Dollars And Cents' scuttles and hisses like an insect army on the march.
But the opaque jazzerama side of 'Amnesiac' gets lost in the rush. Only the fractal time signatures and seasick piano swells of 'Pyramid Song' allow Radiohead to indulge their Thelonius Monk tendencies. The silvery spine-tingler 'You And Whose Army?' is delivered on a low heat, without the usual Blair-baiting preface or Billie Holiday sob. And one sad absentee is the album's splendidly splenetic, brass-driven finale 'Life In A Glasshouse', despite guest player Humphrey Lyttelton sharing the South Park bill. A missed opportunity, since one of the teasingly unresolved threads of 'Amnesiac' is 21st century big band jazz, an alternative pop history where trombones outlast guitars. Shame. Maybe next time.
Althought noticeably more relaxed as time wears on, Radiohead remain sharply focused. 'Idioteque' is leather-clad speed garage, a precision-tooled metallic missile. 'Karma Police' seethes with bracing black humour. 'The Bends' goes off like a nuclear device, a welcome reminder of simpler, rock times.
Complaints? Nothing serious. Only that South Park functions more like a great gig than a full-on, jaw-dropping Event. We might have expected Radiohead to reinvent the live experience with the same vigour and intelligence that they have applied to orthodox notions of what bands and albums can be. Instead, they play pretty straight. No covers, no radical rearrangements, no new material, and almost no communication with the crowd.
This is essentially the same set Radiohead have been slogging around Europe for two months, with the sole and significant addition of 'Creep' as a rousing, incandescent encore. But in fairness, for most of South Park's sodden souls, this rarely revived landmark single is the icing on a flawless evening. A beaming Thom seems to offer it as an afterthought, a reward, a cathartic affirmation. Everybody within 30 miles of Oxford sings along, soaked to the bone, bonding in the Biblical downpour that even Thom Yorke was powerless to prevent. Because Radiohead are not gods. But for these two hours, at least, they were godlike.