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The new governors of California
Move over, Arnie: Radiohead rule Coachella with the final date of the 'Hail To The Thief' tour - but, like the man said, they'll be back. Plus NME rounds up all the gossip and best live action from the first festival of the summer.
by Conor McNicholas | Additional reporting by Julian Marshall | photograph by Sebastian Artz

On a sun-bleached plain surrounded by grey-brown mountains, three hours down the Interstate from Los Angeles lies a town called Indio. Actually, “town” is too strong a word: Indio is more a collection of buildings that have lost the will to go anywhere in particular. Dust blows endlessly from one set of traffic lights to another.

On the western edge, just where it seems that the scrub and date palms are about to give in completely to the desert, a professional polo club rises glossily into view. Boasting 175 acres of lush grass, manicured rose gardens and sculpted haciendas, it’s like a monument to the true values of California: decadence, ego and cash. It’s also the surreal setting for the annual Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival and, in a wry twist, the location where Radiohead will lay to rest their “Hail To The Thief” album in a headlining performance on Saturday night.

It’s an ending that brings Radiohead full circle. Their sixth studio album was conceived in California – Ocean Way Studios, Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood to be exact. It’s a place with which they have a perverse affinity. While it’s bright and brash, macho and pumped-up – a state with a Hollywood muscleman for Governor, no less – beneath the tanned veneer Los Angeles is a fucked-up and spun out as Thom Yorke’s darkest lyrics. As well as being similarly obsessed with perfectionism, Radiohead feed off the energy that drives the city – bingeing on the empty ambition, the mammoth billboards and the shiny Cadillac Escalades – then purging it in their angry, elliptical music.

“Hail To The Thief” is an anti-Hollywood blockbuster; that’s why California loves it. Ever since “Creep” burst onto MTV in the mid-´90s, Radiohead have allowed Californians to embrace something that’s often in short supply out here – depth. Tonight, thousands of them stare standing out in the desert looking expectantly towards the coloured lights surrounding the stage at the end of the field and holding their breath, waiting for the mothership to land.

Coachella marks the end of one of the most significant chapters in Radiohead’s already remarkable career. Since its release in June 2003, “Hail…” has sold some two and a half million copies worldwide. The band have played its songs live to cover a million people in 14 countries from Japan to Ireland. All of Radiohead’s post-“The Bends” albums have had an air of importance – importance being one of the things that the band do best – but this album was their most significant yet. Its predecessor, “Amnesiac”, had been Radiohead’s first disappointing release in over a decade, an ever-diminishing journey into the scratchy world of electronic art project. Radiohead were seemingly less interested in breaking down barriers than erecting them and were in severe danger of disappearing up their own fancy hardware.

Furthermore, for the first time since they defined ´90s rock with “The Bends” and “Ok Computer” and then redefined themselves with “Kid A”, Radiohead had some difficult questions hanging over them. Had they run out of ideas? Where did they fit with the new wave of American bands, led by The Strokes and The White Stripes, that were changing the face of alternative music? And what e2ffect would Coldplay, about to unleash “A Rush Of Blood To The Head”, have on the band’s “The Bends”-loving mainstream audience?

In an attempt to avoid the problems and power struggles that hindered the “Kid A” and “Amnesiac” sessions, the band went into the studio at the beginning of 2002 with a new approach. More experience and less insecure, the five band members agreed that contributing to a Radiohead record didn’t necessarily have to involve playing on it.

Meanwhile, friends close to Thom Yorke reported that his character had changed following the birth of his baby boy Noah in 2001. He had started listening compulsively to Bob Marley’s “Uprising” album and interpreted its opening track “Coming In From The Cold” as a metaphor for Radiohead’s renewed vigour. Keen not to lose focus, the band imposed themselves a July deadline for writing new songs, which they would then debut on a small tour of Spain and Portugal. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood described the dates as a chance to “get shit together”.

For those fortunate enough to get tickets, Radiohead’s Spanish gigs were as captivating as they were shambolic. Embryonic versions of 16 songs were played for the first time. The tribal drum-led “There There” and the almost acoustic “I Will” became instant classics; “Up On The Ladder” was never played live again. The success of these shows buoyed the band’s spirits, and when they flew out of LA to start recording, reports returned of Radiohead driving down Sunset Strip in open-top cars and – gasp – joking.

By the time they returned to Oxford a few months later, Radiohead were unexpectedly using words like “sunshine” and “swagger” to describe their sixth album. At the end of the year, the band dropped a massive clue as to what 2003 would hold when, as a Christmas present to fans, they started webcasting from their studio. Thom and bassist Colin Greenwood DJed, previously unheard songs were played and members of the band fooled around Bush, Saddam and Blair masks. At the end of the broadcast a sign was held up to the camera. It read: “Hail To The Thief”.

The 2000 American election was the most controversial in history, George W Bush effectively claiming power on the strength o just 537 votes cast in Florida - a state governed by his cousin Jeb. (In the preceding months, Jeb Bush had overseen the cancelling of voting rights for thousands from traditionally Democrat voting groups, and on the night of the count many pro-Gore ballot slips were deemed ineligible.) While Thom claimed he appropriated the anti-Bush slogan “Hail To The Thief” because he liked the contradiction his real reasons were transparent.

He told NME: “It did strike me that things were going to kick off and at the same time there was a rise, politically anyway, in ignorance and stupidity. All that lovely euphoria after the Berlin Wall came down had disintegrate into this global political and economic anarchy.” He also spoke out against Blair and Bush at every opportunity.

A year on, and the dissent Thom articulated is growing. Images of humiliated Iraqi prisoners run endlessly on California’s news channels and the American bands playing Coachella are angry enough to comment from the stage. Tomorrow, !!! singer Nic Offer will say: “What’s going on out there, people piling up bodies? I just don’t understand it. I’m so far from comprehending it.” Even outside the festival’s liberal bubble there’s the feeling that Americans care finally becoming sick of the post-9/11 bloodlust. CNN’s news reports lead with the headline: “Shame On Display”.

The aftermath of Bush’s takeover of the White House indelibly colours “Hail To The Thief”. Even at the original time of release, four weeks after allied forces first went into Iraq, it was easy to dismiss its lyrics as the ravings of a paranoid man but the turbulent 12 months that followed proved them utterly prescient. The continuous allusions to chaos spiralling out of control, to tension and violence now form an unhappy soundtrack to the lootings and lynchings in an imploding Iraq. “It’s the devil’s way now/There is no way out” sings Thom on “2+2=5”.

“Hail…” was partly born out of a stolen presidential race and its onstage life is ending in another US election year. For once, Thom is silent on Bush tonight, but then the songs on “Hail…” – probably the most potent political statement in modern rock – say it all. While Thom steers clear of calling out the villains, he’s happy to praise heroes. Just before the end of his set Thom asks, “Weren’t the Pixies great? When I was a teenager the Pixies and REM changed my life.” Radiohead are changing some lives here too. Coachella has never sold out before, but it did this year. Officially that means 50,000 people are in attendance, but the crowd crammed shoulder-to-shoulder feels bigger than that, and there’s an incredible sense of anticipation charging up the still night air.

Eventually the lights drop, electronic noises fill the air and Radiohead take the stage for their final gig for the foreseeable future. Jonny, Ed and Colin take up beaters on individual drums at the front of the stage and the polyrhythmic introduction to There There’ bounces off the mountains, Thom hunched over his mic centre-stage singing, “In pitch dark/I go walking in your landscape”. As an opener, it’s like tipping over the front row and seeing the entire field toppling backwards like dominoes.

“2+2=5” follows, then “Lucky” and “Myxomatosis”, and hearts melt across the field. One of them belongs to Jodie, a 29-year old resident of Long Beach who works “in packaging”. She tells NME she loves Radihead because “they’re just so beautiful”. Near her is Jon, 30, a Sony employee from Hollywood. He says he loves Radiohead because, “They cut it up! Like, chaos cuts, man! It all makes perfect sense.” Which is more than he does. As Jon talks, the opening strains of “Creep” float out. Radiohead are playing it more now than they have in years so the novelty’s worn off a little, but not for Jon. He pauses to think about why he loves Radiohead again. He swallows and adds: “Cos they’re romantic as hell.”

Tonight is Radiohead at their best, cruising through a set that has shifted and changed since the “Hail…” material first aired in Lisbon back in July 2002. Throughout “Myxomatosis” and “Paranoid Android” Thom dances frenziedly; during “Idioteque” he gurns for the tiny camera placed on his piano, his contorted face blown up on a massive screens either side of the stage. “He’s such a freak!” exclaims one girl, excitedly.

Once the encore of “Everything In Its Right Place” opens up, we know that Radiohead are about to leave us. The track has concluded every major date they’ve played since the mid-August, 2003, and it’s a relatively optimistic note on which to end. The band exit the stage one by one until just Jonny is left, crouched at the front playing with his boxes of audio tricks. He remains there for a minute or two, and with the lights shining out into the desert sky, it’s a strangely private moment. Then, finally, with a raised hand, he too leaves the stage and the music fades away. Radiohead have finished- for now – with “Hail To The Thief”.

As the word “FOREVER” scrolls endlessly across a screen at the back of the stage, thoughts turn to what Radiohead have in mind next. “Hail…” was the last album they had to deliver under the terms of their contract with EMI/Parlophone, and they’re officially free agents again; free to sign a deal, free to set up their own label or free to give it all up entirely.

Typically, the band are keeping their cards close to their chest. “I used to think it’s all going to end tomorrow, every day, but I don’t think about that any more because it’s really unhealthy,” said Colin Greenwood last month. “Am I ready for it to end? Probably not.” With their millions of fans they’re in a uniquely unassailable position. If the sea of smiles at Coachella are anything to go by, Radiohead already won. By a landslide.”