New songs are "music you can imagine shagging to" says Thom Yorke.
Radiohead recently spent two weeks in Spain and Portugal unveiling a batch of powerful new songs intended for their sixth studio album.
Following their recent electronic experiments there have been whispers of Radiohead's "return to rock". But how does a group famed for never repeating themselves "return" to anything? The new material's unstrained dynamism goes a long way in answering this question.
Kicking off the tour in Lisbon's beautiful Coliseu dos Recreios on 22 July, the group opened a two-and- a-half hour set with a first section consisting solely of eight unreleased numbers, all based around guitars and/or piano. To open the show, guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien each walked on carrying a large pair of beaters and pounded out the driving tribal rhythm of ‘There There’ from tom-toms at either side of the stage. Meanwhile, Thom Yorke scratched out a psych-rock riff on a semi-acoustic guitar.
The songs that followed took in surreal soul ballads, Bob Dylan-ish ranting, funky rock riffing and what Thom Yorke describes as "music you can imagine shagging to": a claim rarely made for Kid A.
Far from reviving the monumental anthems of OK Computer, this nimble, brazenly emotional music suggests a more sensual, groove-based progression from recent guitar-based tracks such as Optimistic and Knives Out. Yorke's vocals are full-blooded and often unashamedly lovely.
After a short intermission, the audience were treated to a marathon selection of older material until well after midnight. The following night, after deciding that this first set was too long, the band repeated the block of new material but dispensed with the intermission. Returning for a second encore, the volume of the audience's roar forced Yorke to clasp his hands to his ears.
When a faulty sample halted proceedings, he advised the audience: "Just go and cop off with somebody". After a volley of screams, he replied: "I'm afraid I'm busy."
Returning to their hotel bar, Yorke absent-mindedly picked out chords on a white grand piano while unwinding from the show. "Thats two-and-a-half hours plus two hours soundcheck. Four hours onstage!" he mused. "My throat's going to be shot tomorrow."
The new tracks, he explained, were picked from 16 songs worked up over nine weeks of rehearsals. In marked contrast to the improvisational techniques employed for Kid A and Amnesiac. Yorke sent some bare ideas he'd prepared earlier to each band member. There were no ground rules for the sessions, but he said, "We've got this idea that we don't want to use computers."
Last year's live mini-album, I Might Be Wrong, presented recent Radiohead material in a different light, and in the same experimental spirit these 14 Iberian shows were partly planned to expose the nascent songs to public scrutiny. However, given that the band have still to enter a studio, the songs appeared well developed.
"They still might be half-formed, we don't know yet," says Ed O'Brien. "That's why it's so important playing them to an audience. Apart from Kid A, it's the way we've always done it. You find out Paranoid Android's not good at 14 minutes. That four-minute organ solo at the end doesn't work."
Given their apparently relaxed state, is this Radiohead in-laid back-album-sessions shocker? "Those nine weeks in rehearsal weren't easy at all," countered Yorke.
Recording begins in September with a fortnight booked in Los Angeles. According to Parlophone boss Keith Wozencroft, producer Nigel Godrich hopes to complete the recording in that time. Yorke remained more cautious; much could still change in the studio, particularly as his current listening tastes switch between glitch techno and Bob Marley. He even expressed a longing to attempt Jamaican dancehall. "I'd love to be able to do that, I'd love to skank," he exclaims, before approximating some ragga toasting.
Indication, perhaps, of both singer and band in rude good health.
If you want spasmodic-jerking, FX-fizzing, life-rejecting rock’n’yowl... go see
Ideal setting: A European enormo-dome. Radiohead are one of the few bands that can make the experience both communal and emotionally intimate. What to expect: No between-song jokes, no cute heckler put-downs and, despite a new found fondness for ancient cabaret act The Ink Spots, no tap-dance routines. What you get instead is a truly intense experience. People cry at Radiohead gigs.
And not just because Thom Yorke's called them "anally retarded" for requesting old favourite ‘Creep’. lf ever there were an argument not to see Radiohead live, it's the band-sanctioned l998 tour documentary, Meeting People Is Easy. Yet, despite the almost crippling loathing of their fans, the press and promoters that was expressed on the video, the Radiohead live experience has become an evermore huggy affair with each passing year. Hey, they even play ‘Creep’ these days.
Guitarist Ed O'Brien recently told Q: "We're a different band, even from last year. We're not scared anymore. We used to be fraught with tension before we went onstage, but now we're fairly relaxed. If you're looking for the full-on mental fuck-out that we used to do, then you'll be disappointed."
Those "full- on mental fuck-outs" were certainly memorable experiences. Who can forget Thom Yorke booting out the "eminently kickable" stage lights in Las Vegas in 1 993 on the Creep tour? Or the 1995 Munich gig which promoted their second album, The Bends, when Yorke blew a fuse and hurled the amps and drum kit around the stage before blacking out. By 1997 the histrionics were restricted to the occasional "fuck off", before the OK Computer tour became an exercise in contained, clench-toothed fury as the sullen, unspeaking Yorke became a magnetically unpleasant sight, while a narrow-gauged, steel wound Jonny Greenwood dogged him every step of the way. Smiles were as rare as impromptu renditions of ‘I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing’.
What's changed since the release of Amnesiac last year is the increased live presence of "the other three". If, as Ed O'Brien admits, they're marginalised in the recording process, onstage they're crucial in humanising the deliberately mechanized music Radiohead are now making.
Nowadays, Colin Greenwood provides solidity both via his John Entwistle-proportioned bass playing (giving entirely new life to ‘I Might Be Wrong’ and ‘The National Anthem’) and his general aura of affability.
The sight of equally genial drummer Phil Selway competing with his live gadgetry as if it's about to put him out of a job is an equally engaging one. And Ed O'Brien? He probably provides the nearest thing Radiohead will ever get to sex appeal.
Meanwhile, the band's onstage rearrangements of recent tracks such as ‘Like Spinning Plates’ have added to the excitement. "In comparison nowhere we've just gone out and basically done carbon copies of what's gone before, this is much more challenging”, says Selway.
Following last year's European arena shows, even Thom Yorke was sounding chirpier about the Radiohead concert experience. “The weird thing about going out and playing live," he says, "is remembering that the best thing about being in a band and making music is responding to the moment and allowing things to grow of their own accord." Group hug, anyone?
Look out for: Idioteque, one of Kid A's most divisive tracks, has become a surprising live success. The nearest thing to actual "dance music" on Radiohead's fourth album, it also featured one of the album's strongest melodies plus Yorke doing that up 'n'd own falsetto thing everyone apparently loves so much. lf the LP version is a jerky stumble into electronic terrain, live it becomes a skittering tour de force. Yorke sounds like he's got an endoscopic tube down his throat to suck out every last drop of bile. As Selway does battle with the ticking machines, Jonny Greenwood looks like a telephone exchange operator who's finally flipped, arms and teeth full of wires, randomly jamming plugs into guitar sockets then yanking them out again.
Recommended listening: I Might Be Wrong (live album, Parlophone, 2001). Bringing together the best of the "difficult" Kid A and Amnesiac albums, while including an unreleased Bends-era track, True Love Ways [sic], which has guitars, a tune, a chorus and everything.