15 June 2000
“Fuck off! Fuck off!” Thom Yorke yells mid-soundcheck at the stormclouds rolling over from the lush Provence hills above Vaison La Romaine. Deeply stricken new song How To Disappear has just been essayed as lightning forks danced closer towards tonight’s Roman amphitheatre venue.
“Alright, let’s do Talk Show Host quickly,” he resumes. But from the off, sheet rain batters the uncovered stage, soon cascading down the arena’s granite tiers. The band exits rapidly. On this mini-tour of Mediterranean beauty spots – conceived partly as a holiday, partly to help dispel the irritating weight of The Future Of Rock from their shoulders – they’re doing things defiantly differently, but not dangerously.
After an emergency meeting, Yorke returns to the catering area, a finger-across-throat signal resignedly indicating cancellation. “We really don’t have a choice,” he mutters.
Last night’s opening show at nearby Arles, despite eventually going ahead, had been bookended by smaller downpours. Today, though, the whole region is instantly submerged in a violent flash-flood that kills power and turns roads to rivers. Rain down, indeed.
“We’re like that car in the Wacky Races that had a stormcloud over it everywhere it went,” guitarist Ed O’Brien muses.
When Radiohead go Club Med, even the Med turns doomy.
“On day one in France, the first interviewer got in his first question,” O’Brien says the following day, after playing dry Barcelona’s roofed Tivoli Opera House. “He just goes, [adopts tone of Gallic vituperance] So... why ‘ave you not split up? And that’s right, really. Why haven’t we?”
The answer is long, complex and inextricably bound up in the music unveiled earlier this evening. Only through these extraordinary new songs did Radiohead overcome existence-threatening disillusionment with enormodome anthemry.
“We almost split up three or four times,” O’Brien confirms. “We just thought, What’s the point in doing the same thing all over again?”
Superficially, it’s the same band from 1998 that – before a reverently seated audience – breaks into an opening Talk Show Host. Noisemaker-in-chief Jonny Greenwood still looks heroically busy; O’Brien still looks as if he’s bought a guitar several sizes too small; Yorke still does his best Ian Curtis impression in Bones.
From the third song in, though, it’s clear Radiohead have taken another creative leap, perhaps even greater than that from The Bends to OK Computer. Optimistic’s searing voodoo groove suggests, bizarrely, Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds recasting Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home. But, like the other new additions, it’s familiar only in the sense of something half-glimpsed during a disorientating dream.
After an incandescent Karma Police, Yorke exuberantly surveys his velvety surroundings. “Ever get the feeling you’re in a film? Popcorn will be served in a half an hour!” he exclaims before adding, comically, “Rock!”
Based around Yorke’s free-floating Rhodes keyboard chords and drummer Phil Selway’s (newly central, along with bassist Colin Greenwood) stuttering accompaniment, Morning Bell highlights how, where last time they overcame the guitars’ limitations by treating them beyond recognition, this time they’ve overcome the guitars’ limitations by, well, not playing them.
“I remember coming into the studio one day,” says Selway later, “seeing Ed actually holding a guitar and thinking, Ooh, that’s strange. They’re on there, but not that much.
How To Disappear follows, it’s name taken from a self-help book for people wanting to run away and establish new identities. A ghostly waltz-time folk song redolent of The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder, it again sees verses and choruses supplanted by circling fragments that feel less tragic opera than magic incarnation.
Jonny Greenwood scrambles around on the floor as if he’s lost something. “Everything was breaking down,” O’Brien explains later. “I think he got the soldering iron out at one point.”
Street Spirit follows, its instinctive momentum helpfully indicating a jumping-off point for this new dynamic. Next, National Anthem sees a gloriously fuzzed-up groove vying with Yorke’s totalitarian yelping. It could be Nirvana circa In Utero attempting funky exotica. The recorded version apparently ends with a cacophony of brass. It’s going to be strange.
The following greatest hits selection (including My Iron Lung, Lucky and No Surprises) is punctuated with Knives Out. With their trademark three-guitar assault jangling around a chord sequence that refuses to settle, it resembles a mortally panicked Byrds.
The metropolitan pulse of set closer Everything In Its Right Place, very bizarrely, recalls Joe Jackson’s Stepping Out. His climactic croon having been sampled and looped by an ever-tinkering Jonny Greenwood, Yorke gets up from the Rhodes and ambles across to sit at the edge of the stage. Then, suddenly, he jumps off, sprinting right down the central aisle and off out the back exit.
Supping vodkas in the balmy wee hours at a bar off Las Ramblas, O’Brien and Selway reveal that the next album’s final cut will see 11 tracks (chosen from 26) running to a concise 45 minutes. “Album Number One is finished,” Selway confirms, rather enigmatically.
Pushed on a definite title and whether the remaining tracks will form Album Number Two, both clam up.
“We want those other songs to be heard. That’s all we’re saying,” O’Brien concludes. “We definitely want to have some fun with them.”
Leaving tonight’s venue, he and Yorke had practically thrown themselves at the waiting autograph-hungry fans. They’re obviously happy to be back but are determined to make it different. Indeed, their forthcoming big tent tour is a subtly subversive way of throwing out the rule book. Hinting at the group’s current fixation with Naomi Klein’s anti-corporate treatise No Logo, O’Brien explains, “It’s about controlling our environment. It’ll be good to get to play somewhere that isn’t covered in logos.”
After months that included much floundering, endless re-recording and a Beta Band phase, the band has apparently learnt how to relax. So when did you finally realise the worth of what you had?
“About a week ago,” O’Brien admits.
“They found me and dragged me back in,” Yorke claims, returning to the stage for four songs – Just, Egyptian Song, Lurgee, Paranoid Android – from each of their four periods. The latter’s finale underlines exactly how much of a brilliant dead-end OK Computer actually was: every second so caught up in its own greatness that it ultimately felt strangely self-sealing, airless even. “OK Computer really was pretty indigestible,” Selway concurs.
That album’s ornate desolation has, then, been replaced by a warmly organic darkness that naturally defies conventional labelling. Lyrically, too, the “yuppies networking” have been discarded for stark, sparing lines seemingly grabbed from unconscious depths. Electronically enhanced reveries for an emotionally blasted age, anyone?
“I’m still getting my head around the lyrics,” O’Brien admits. “Thom usually talks about them... he didn’t this time.”
These are clearly people who still love themselves considerably less than they love music. Revealing this most fully is the currently (though not finally) titled Egyptian Song – on tonight’s evidence the new album’s flickering centrepiece. Beginning with Yorke murmuring hushedly over just three awkwardly juddering, repeated piano chords, it slowly swells into a strange mantra that continually assures, “There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt”. It’s spooky, resonant and awesome.
Back in 1993, Michael Stipe was moved to declare, “Radiohead are so good they scare me.” Tonight, he’d be downright petrified.