Hail to the Freaks
Radiohead's latest gigs have been some of the most spectacular of their career and NME was there for all of them. Here's your definitive guide to the shows of the year - with your Top 20 'Head songs, a look back at their turbulent year and an examination of the band's unique bond with their fans.
One thing we deﬁnitely don’t hear from Thom Yorke on the ﬁrst night of Radiohead’s UK tour. "Give us an 'R" Give us an 'Adiohead""
Similarly, there are no flaming pube tattoos, goofy thumbs-up signs, or pink satin loon-suits. Yet even without the silliness that currently represents showmanship in rock'n'roll, there's an energy being bounced around this enormo-venue no amount of spandex could ever create. And the reason is down to the presence of Thom Yorke, that warped. Otherworldly outsider who just so happens to have nailed every quality we demand in a rock star right on the head.
Truly, few frontmen have ever summoned up his magnetism. The studied showbiz of Justin Hawkins doesn't even come close. The Darkness' series of well-honed clichés is one big salute to their heroes, but Thom's showmanship is in honour of no-one. It's his own warped creation, and transforms these huge, soulless spaces into semi-religious gatherings.
When we arrive, all seems calm in the Manchester Evening News Arena. Teenage fans queue at the merchandise stand, middle-aged men hover at the back quietly supping pints and the strongest substance NME can ﬁnd being peddled is small tubs of ice cream. It’s remarkably civilised, like we've taken a wrong tum and ended up at a ﬁgure-skating championship. Then the lights black out and an explosion of noise threatens to tear NME s eardrums to shreds. Let this be a warning; some Radiohead fans may look like nice, peaceful politics graduates but deep down
they're snarling noise-crazed beasts on a mission to convulse themselves into a thoroughly sweat-drenched mess.
Of course, as the crowd work themselves up during the epilepsy-inducing strobes of There There‘, so does Thom, and by the hard-drive meltdown of '2+2= 5' he's rapidly shaking his head like a beat-up ragdoll. Keeping your eyes on him is a conﬂict in itself - you're drawn in yet it's also thrillingly disturbing to watch. When the blur of feedback fades, there's silence again. Thom leans into the microphone and lets out a slurred "Hullo‘, and with that one meaningless word he causes a wave of goosebumps to go surging through the 14,000 souls present.
So what makes this all so mesmerising? Thom recently said that playing live still "gives him the horn” and it’s perhaps this lustful need to perform that separates the band from the current crop of retro-rockers who play like it's a particularly steep gas bill that's forced them onto a stage. But if there's any real sexual chemistry here then it's clearly between the band and their own disturbed noises. Just check out the way Thom shakes his ass in time with the subterranean bass rumbles of Myxomatosis or the way Jonny spends the entire night humping a series of demented squeals out of his guitar. It’s not just ﬁlthy, its positively X-rated.
Yet, whereas this notion of musical masturbation sounds hideously self-indulgent, Radiohead get away with it. They've developed a bond with their fans that’s strong enough for their indulgences to be taken as gestures, the crowd appreciating and identifying with the band's insistence on doing things their way. And judging by the way they capture the minds of Manchester tonight, that bond is only growing. if yesterday's crowd revealed Radiohead fans as being masters of camouﬂage, disguising their inner loons under sane façad, then the people of Newcastle go to no such trouble. Tonight there's a parade of bona tide weirdos wandering around the venue, from the face-painted girl next to us who's so possessed by the music that she loses control of her own limbs, to the grey-haired nutjob who keeps telling NME he's only here to "give poor Thommy Yorke a bit of support" (before screaming “fuck off‘' at no-one in particular for the next two hours). There's deﬁnitely electricity in the air and just as the atmospheres changed, so has the setlist. Tonight we get the bruised heartache of ‘No Surprises’ and the paranoid piano crash of ‘A Punch-Up At A Wedding’ thrown in with set survivors such as ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘Karma Police’.
As with any experiment. it doesn't always work - opening with ‘The Gloaming' in front of a crowd of baying Geordies is a bit like The Strokes opening up with a free-jazz interpretation of Beethoven's Filth at Wigan Working Men's Club. But yet again, just being able to fix your gaze on Thom’s voodoo ritual dancing makes up for any sonic shortcomings. Wearing a ‘No Star Wars' T-shirt, he engages with the crowd way more than he did last night. at one point muttering an anti-Bush rant before propelling himself through ‘The Bends’ as if he's trying to rid his body of some unholy disease, striving to shake it off or sweat it clean out of his system.
Clearly, performing live is still a glorious catharsis for Thom, but the energy ﬂows both ways as he feeds off the crowd just as much as it feeds off him. That's why ‘Karma Police ends gloriously with Thom and the audience singing a cappella, or why Manchester’s ‘Lucky’ was transformed from a harrowing anti-war song into a communal singalong,
Of course, it's these old favourites the audience really want - the opening bars of ‘Paranoid Android‘ drawing the most frenzied shrieks from the crowd in both Manchester and Newcastle. Yet,
just because newer songs lack the explosive choruses that send, say, 'lust' into overdrive, it doesn't mean Radiohead have failed to convert fans to their new material. Nobody here is just holding out for a nostalgia trip through ‘Creep' (which is just as well because it never comes). Rather, they're genuinely geared up for the newies. We know this from the way the crowd threatens to mosh itself into a new orbit during '2+2=5' (which sounds ferocious live). We know this from the roar that salutes 'Myxomatosis'. And we know this from the number of fruitcakes losing themselves in the scattered rhythms of ‘Moming Bell‘. Even the more stark and soulless new songs (the ones that sound like a Game-Boy undergoing emotional counselling) are invested with a passion that's a million miles from the emotional black holes they feel like on record.
In many ways this is the band's ﬁnest achievement, the ability to take distorted electro-warbles, looping samples and shimmering soundscapes to a crowd this huge and still thrill the pants off them. It seems that, like The Smiths or Suede, Radiohead are that rare band who've managed to create not just a body of music, but their own little world, a place that feels separate from everyday life, no matter how heavily populated it really is. That's why this tour already feels like far more than just a series of ‘shows’. And that's why, ten years since their debut album landed. Radiohead are still playing like a band who mean it, still managing to maintain their initial spark while developing their sound - and showmanship – into something even more warped and twisted than ever.
Fandom is undergoing a technical revolution and Radiohead fans are on the cutting edge, using the internet to meet each other, share setlists and communicate with the band.
What does the Radiohead fan nation look like? Grumpy librarians? Paranoid androids? We’re in Manchester for Radiohead’s first date on their British arena tour, and it’s time to denounce those stereotypes. Max (19) and Scott (21), from Leek in Staffordshire, are typical of some of the hardcore who’ve travelled here, co-ordinating fan meet-ups before the show. Armed with the internet, mobile phones, pagers, text messaging and original “My Iron Lung” T-shirts circa ‘94 (the must-have emblem of the die-hard), they‘re here to act as good samaritans of the Radiohead fan nation.
“The Radiohead fan community isn't really like any other," says Max. "They seem to have a really deﬁned ideology that people like us can identify with. That they're expanding that idea via the internet is a really good thing. We can keep up to date with the latest news and things like setlists. And Colin has been dropping hints that they might be playing ‘Creep’ again too...“
That this communication is happening online is only ﬁtting. Cyberspace has always appealed to those of a closeted, furtive nature: the trademark of Thom Yorke's lyrical drift. But what's most striking about the Radiohead/fan relationship is not what the fans get out of it, but what the band themselves have put in. You can trace this behaviour back to the troubled recording sessions for ‘Kid A’ and Amnesiac' when Ed O‘Brien ﬁrst began his worryingly candid online diary entries. Not many rock groups would happily expose their intimal traumas, occasional tantrums and moments of self- doubt to even their biggest fans. But Radiohead did.
"Radiohead might have a special relationship with their fans when comparing it to other big bands, but to be honest, I'm not sure what the situation is with other bands," says Adriaan Pels, editor of Ateaseweb.com, the biggest Radiohead online community in Europe. "My Radiohead site has a very big messageboard with fans communicating from all over the world. Fans arrange meet-ups before and after Radiohead’s live shows. Some of them have met the hand, but the distance is probably the same as with other bands.
"It’s hard to get in contact with them. but they show up at messageboard chats now and then. There have also been several webcasts where they do DJ Sets and play some songs. Of course, this is well appreciated by the fans."
The message is received loud and clear - Radiohead fandom is an international community like no other. Whereas their relationship with the music press has often been difﬁcult, Radiohead have been able to moderate their outward dialogue to fans via messageboards and exclusive webcam broadcasts with a sense of trust (since, of course, they‘re then in control) that happily endures. Talk to the fans and it becomes clear that, rather than icons in the Morrissey mould, the band are simply extremely talented members of the oppositional, non-conformist world that their fans occupy. Just look at the abundance of politicised links on their official site Radiohead.com, from Drop The Debt to lndymedia to Corpwatch. Many of the fans arriving in Manchester for their comeback dates may have taken part in the anti-Bush, anti-war demonstrations earlier in the week, but you could never accuse them of being Thom Yorke-besotted, mindless sheep.
"Hearing Thom Yorke talk about Bush and the war only reinforces my own opinions." says Matt (23), who's travelled from Wrexham to see his heroes. “I think the majority of Radiohead fans are intelligent enough to have their own opinions. But to hear Thom talk so passionately and vocally about politicians helps to complement our views. We‘re a very broad bunch of people."
What kind of chat of occurs within the Radiohead fan community then?
“Oh, all sorts," says Matt. "Politics, music, literature... but there's a fair share of smut also."
Stereotypes well and truly denounced then. And in case you're wondering – no, they didn't play ‘Creep’ in the end. But then, Max and Scott probably knew that already.
Thom speaks out!
Since 2000 Radiohead have been answering questions from fans across the world on spinwithagrin.com
Q: How are your plans coming along for playing that dance event with Sigur Ros and Merce Cunningham?
Julian Marshall, England
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHAHAHAHAHAHHHHHHHHHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. we are in denial. ﬁne. really. ﬁne. not telling you what to expect. not because we dont know. because we do. really we do thom"
Is “2+2=5” influenced by Camus’ The Plague? Any other literary selections that have influenced the material on “Hail To The Thief”?
"Childrens books? maisy. chicken iicken dr seuss. err. very literary me thom‘
Do you foresee that you will eventually use the web as your primary tool for distributing your music?
Mary Louise Harding, UK
“Its all going to morph into one media again isnl it? i dont understand how anyone will make a living necessarily, or maybe lots of people will make a small living. But hopefully people trying to get somewhere wont have to expend so much time and energy dealing with idiot A&R men and crazy corporate shakeups. perhaps it will encourage the DIY thing again. tchocky (ie Thom)"
If MP3s had a public library, and we all had cards, would that change how threated the industry feels? Can something like that ever occur again in the current climate, or in the future?
Michael Christian, Canada
“The record industry is reaping its bad karma for repackaging music in a crap CD format and destroying vinyl, getting away with charging too much for too long, as well as buying the sources of distribution and trying to sew the whole thing up completely. The losers for too long have been the listener, there have been some benefits in reissues and etc but the money the majors made out of it all merits the sprawling abuse of copyright that they will never completely be able to control over then net. Tchocky”
Do you feel that alternative media outlets have a significant impact on the way we view the world today?
Mark Cunningham, Australia
“Yes, it never ceases to amaze me how shit mainstream media has become. Dismissing WTO and the iMF protesters as ignorant troublemakers or anarchists or some such bullshit will some day in the future look very daft“
Your music is like a seventh grader who plays with science. No formulas, just a mess. And that’s a good thing. It’s like those drawings that fifth grade boys make of spaceships or cars from the future. There’s so many parts and labels and detail it’s interesting to look at, but it’s so unreal.
Brooke Mcintosh, Kansas City
“Ha ha you should see our studio or our new drawings and paintings or Jonny in front of his huge patchbay. Or Colin staring at the screen for hours on end. Tchocky”
Any plans to do a U-turn (musically, in media) in the future to make life easier for yourselves in the public eye?
Old Wife, Rocklands
‘If it was so well thought out and planned it would be shite and none of us would have bothered. I would love to make my life easier in the public eye, maybe then i would nt get these pains in my stomach and be short of breath and wake in the middle of the night with these fucked up thoughts going through my head. and maybe everybody gets worn down in the end and there is nothing the british like better than sticking the knife in its infectious we all have it. professional lifestyle opinion demographic tail chasing bullshit. Tchocky”
My father is a conservative Republican. He often criticised the idealism of bands I listened to growing up, saying things like, “Since when does a rock band feel it’s necessary to change the world and tell my song what to think?” Can a rock band change the world?
Gregg LaGambina, USA
“Since when does the Bush family feel fully qualified to run the world?"
In Japan, fortune telling by animals (each person has destined animal such as bear or Pegasus etc which can be told from your birthday) is in fashion. If Radiohead are animals, what animal each member would be?
Yoshito Hirai, Japan
“Animal fortune telling err we are all nice ﬂuffy animals pets that you could take home to your mum."
Is it difficult being part of a major corporation when you despise corporations? What does the Radiohead “brand” represent?
Nathaniel Cramp, UK
"Yes it is. it would be a lot harder though if we didn’t sell any records. as it is we are left alone. The radiohead brand? crrr. oh shit. lm a hypocrit.
What sex is Kid A?
Stu McCarney, Australia
“Hermaphrodite. sex is no longer necessary :) thom"
What interested you most during your study at Exeter University?
Olga Smirnova, Russia
“How I was gonna keep myself in cigrattes, beer and records. my bank manager interested me greatly. i also liked to laugh at young conservatives. Thom"
Where's the 'Head at?
With Coldplay and Travis nicking their moves, Radiohead faced a challenge in 2003: retaining their revolutionary cred while making what some saw as a backwards step into guitar music
No band divided critical and public opinion more sharply in 2003 than Radiohead. And bolshy, stroppy, petulant Thom Yorke inevitably drew the bulk of the friendly ﬁre.
As they marked the tenth anniversary of their debut album, the Oxford quintet officially became rock elder statesmen with the sprawling and controversial ‘Hail To The Thief '. Widely seen as the band's last chance to reclaim their rock throne after their experimental diversions in recent years, some early verdicts on the album were harsh: Radiohead had blown it. Too much avant-garde misery. Not enough Big Tunes. But, as ever with Yorke's angry brigade, the real story looks very different as the gloaming of winter calls time on 2003.
Radiohead undoubtedly abdicated some kind of generational figurehead status with “Kid A” and “Amnesiac”. But much of this was a deliberate manoeuvre to duck the expectations of massive global acclaim that followed “OK Computer” in 1997. “Hail To The Thief” earned back some credibility with guitar fundamentalists, but still retained the group's progressive sound palette. Nor is the album anywhere near as dense or doomy as initial reports suggested. Like all great records, it sounds daunting at ﬁrst but repays on multiple hearings. It will still be yielding treasure when this year's crop of garage rockers are consigned to the bargain bin of fashion.
The power of these songs was emphatically demonstrated at Glastonbury in June, in a blinding headline set to rival their legendary christening of “OK Computer” in 1997. “This is Radiohead in crowd- pleasing world-conquering excelsis," gushed NME. “Any accusations that “Hail To The Thief” is awkward and unfriendly are effortlessly blown away."
Radiohead's current live show ﬁnds them on explosively good form. Yorke has never been this electrifying before, dancing manically throughout the set, while Jonny Greenwoods blowtorch guitar technique is a sense-shredding spectacle to behold. Most importantly, they appear to be enjoying themselves to an almost unprecedented degree.
A Mercury Music Prize nomination lent ‘Hail To The Thief’ extra critical weight, as did Radiohead’s consistently high placings in the NME charts and endorsements from fans like Wayne Coyne. The album may not have left the same huge footprint as ‘OK Computer‘, but 2003 has not blunted the bands creative curiosity. A dance collaboration with the legendary Merce Cunningham and Sigur Ros. The launch of the web-based channel Radiohead.tv, a collection of their music by classical composer Christopher O'Riley - all prove Radiohead’s inﬂuence remains deeply embedded in the wider cultural fabric.
If the band's status as innovators remains intact, their position as rocks most politically outspoken stars was challenged in 2003 by Coldplay and even Travis - ironically, two acts initially dismissed as tame Radiohead copycats. Recently, however, Yorke has proved himself mouthier than either. "Both of these men are liars," the singer said of the Bush-Blair summit two weeks ago. "They are not controlling the terrorist threat, they are escalating it.”
As of now, Radiohead’s future is uncertain. Their contract with EMI reportedly expired with ‘Hail To The Thief", and Yorke has long expressed misgivings about major labels. He also claimed in 2003 that the band he fronts will be "unrecognisable" two years from now. Meanwhile, bassist Colin Greenwood has insisted “having fun" will be a key factor in future recording sessions.
Hmmrn. Don't hold your breath for that long-overdue Radiohead party album lust yet. But what is clear is that only a short-sighted cynic would write off the world‘s biggest cult band at the end of 2003. The ride might get a little bumpy from here, but never boring.