Return of the kings
After six years, Radiohead head back to the big arenas - packing an unexpected punch.
Underneath levitating screens, Thom Yorke is doing a hip-hop swagger across the 02 stage. Behind him is a bank of ﬂashing white light that illuminates the whole band in strobing slo-mo. It’s midway through the fuzzy electro-punk thud of Myxomatosis at the group's ﬁrst indoor London show in over six years and the audience aren’t so much dancing along as standing with mouths agape. A Radiohead live show in 2012 packs a visceral punch.
Almost 10 years had elapsed between their last UK arena tour and this ﬂying visit. Their approach to playing live in their home country had settled into the pattern of a mammoth outdoor show every few years but this, taking in one date at Manchester Arena and two at London’s O2, broke the mould.
With its parade of Starbucks, Nando’s and corporate boxes, the O2 is a far cry from their no-sponsorship tour in a giant tent in 2000. Then, they were inspired by No Logo writer Naomi Klein and brought in the Workers Beer Company to man the booze stalls. Tonight, alcohol is supplied by local brews Stella Artois and Beck's.
Their fans certainly don’t seem to mind. The make-up of Radiohead’s audience has long been set in stone; predominantly males who like their rock with a high IQ. It’s a crowd who know what to expect, at least - long gone are the days where a bloke would spend the gig hollering for Creep. Scott Maslen, who plays EastEnders hardman Jack Branning, is sitting in front of Q and you suspect he could be that man. Instead, though, he sings along to every word of a set that has no songs from The Bends, only two songs from OK Computer and, as has become the norm at Radiohead gigs, leans heavily on their most recent output.
Bar the cancellation of dates in June and July brought about by a tragic stage collapse in Toronto, the band have been on tour for most of 2012. There’s a jittery excitement as they enter the stage; Colin Greenwood bounds on, leaping over a monitor on the way to grabbing his bass. Thom Yorke, dressed in a black suit and sporting a yoga teacher ponytail, marches towards the front and faces the crowd head on. It’s about as close as Radiohead get to saying, “We are quite mad for it, you know.” Yorke’s inter-song chatter,
The stage set-up is their most ambitious yet. In the past, they have settled for aesthetically pleasing but static lighting, but here they’re armed with a living, moving, gliding production. LED blocks frame the stage, a prismatic wall of lights ﬂicker behind them and smaller screens ﬂoat overhead like kites. It adds a ﬂuidity and spontaneity to the show - each song given its own visual identity. During second track 15 Step, the screens hover down and form a neon-lit roof above the band. For a moment, you forget you’re sitting in a deodorised hanger and instead 5 imagine you’re watching them in an industrial basement in Berlin.
The song choices, too, opt for a claustrophobic clang rather than overt anthems. With Portishead’s Clive Deamer playing as a second drummer, the tracks from last year’s The King Of Limbs are so much more beeﬁer and snarling that they make their recorded counterparts sound like sketches by comparison. Where once his spasmodic movements made Yorke look like he was undergoing an exorcism, now he ﬂits around the stage like an A.I. Billy Elliot. When he takes his place at the piano on the slow, bluesy grind of The Daily Mail for example, his rich, melancholic voice sounds better than ever. With his bandmates’ eyes fixed on him, the hushed, reverent gaze is like they’re watching him sing at his own funeral.
The opposite is true, though. In cutting out their most famous songs, Radiohead have given themselves a new lease of life. After a summer of Britain’s biggest bands trading off past triumphs, it’s refreshing to see them basking in the here and now. It’s underlined when they follow Karma V Police with the intestine- rumbling futuristic electro of Feral, making one of their biggest songs sound out of place and out of time.
Punters exit the arena and head towards North Greenwich tube, passing a busker playing Creep at the entrance to the station. He may as well be playing a song by The Wurzels; tonight Radiohead are in a different universe to the band who wrote their breakthrough hit over two decades ago. Another intergalactic leap forward beckons.
Famous faces seen enjoying Radiohead at the O2 Arena...
Who: Emmy-winning US actor who plays Breaking Bad's hapless apprenctice methcook Jesse Pinkman (see p52).
Who: Irish-born actor, fifth James Bond. Keen indie fan who alos unveiled his unique vocal "talents" in film of ABBA-themed musical Mamma Mia! in 2008
Who: EastEnders' rugged ex-copper Jack Branning, Commended by Bruno Tonioli for his excellent jiving while appearing on Strictly... in 2010. Thoughts on Thom Yorke's dancing unknown.
Who: Comedian and frequent Radiohead collaborator. Directed In Rainbows webcast, which included humorous riffs on the final scene in Seven.