Uncle Thom's Medicine Show
RADIOHEAD Empress Ballroom, Winter Gardens, Blackpool: Throw down your crutches and walk, for Radiohead have the balm for the soul
As Radiohead prepare to take to the stage amid the sweeping opulence of the empress ballroom, a fellow entertainer prepares for his own curtain call. Standing calmly outside an adjoining theatre in the Winter Gardens' multi-roomed Victorian entertainment arcade, this figure is at once deeply familiar. Yet he remains unacknowledged by the steady stream of passing Radiohead fans. More existential diversions may be their bag, but surely they can't totally ignore the star of 1987 Thames TV chauffeur-based laugh-feast, Home James. and even if they're too young to remember 1983's equally riotous small-screen production, Up The Elephant And Round The Castle, how can they fail to double-take when faced with the perma-cheeky host of Big Break?
At last, one Thom Yorke acolyte bends to temptation and approaches the family favourite. "Jim," she enquires, "are you going to see Radiohead?" Mr Davidson's rejoinder is immediate. "Nah, sorry love," he grins, "I'm more of a television man, myself, heh heh." Hoorah.
EVEN BEYOND THE SURREALLY mournful sight of shops selling black-candied Princess Di memorial rock, Blackpool is perhaps a strange place to see a Radiohead show. If you take Thom Yorkes brow-furrowed angst at face value, his playing a show alongside The Hilarious Chuckle Brothers ("mirth guaranteed") amounts to a bewildering Dadaist package. The Manics were able to home in on Blackpool's ultra-poignant collision of British working-class kitsch and spurious American glamour on 'Elvis Impersonator/Blackpool Pier'. But when Radiohead start tonight's show with the Stephen Hawking-voiced man-machine musings of 'Fitter Happier', they can claim no specific emotional connection with this Northern seaside funspot.
As Radiohead's exquisitely understated lightshow picks out the start of the gorgeously enveloping 'Airbag', this band remain in a middle-class, public-school, even Southern English tradition. And by the time 'Airbag' gives way to 'Karma Police', with the crowd beginning giant lateral saying movements, the Yorke lexicon is writ large - urban alienation, technophobia, the kind of casual misanthropy anyone can get when confronted with humanity gathered in an anonymous, amorphous mass.
They're notions that clearly aren't a million miles from the themes of paranoia, social control and suspicion of technology that were hysterically aired on Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' and Roger Waters' 'Radio K.A.O.S' solo album.
Viewed in this light, Radiohead can easily be shunted into the area where a certain strand of future-fixated prose meets progressive rock - JG Ballard sitting alongside the Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here' (the title track of which Thom Yorke has covered with US art rockers Sparklehorse for an EMI Records centenary compilation). But as the 'Head swing through the B-side 'Bishop's Robes' into 'Paranoid Android', the estimable achievement of the 'OK Computer' album becomes clear. Technofear is nothing new - pamphleteers and politickers began railing against the industrial revolution as soon as the rural population began to migrate city-ward. And, just as some 19th Century rustic troubadour might have penned a universal lament on the demise of the rural idyll and the advent of the spinning jenny, Radiohead's songs plainly aren't self-pitying Waters-esque bleats about a world gone mad. Yorke's canon amounts not to a bitter commentary on the modern world, but rather a balm for its ills - redemptive meditations allied to tunes of the most blissfully cathartic melancholy.
It's a situation made crystal clear when tonight's crowd launch into the giant soothing, communal chorus of the middle "rain down" section of 'Paranoid Android'. It seems that working as this kind of emotional touchstone has helped make 'OK Computer' the phenomenon it is - a record that delights long-term admirers, casually seduces doubters and wins over dance-world practitioners stretching from David Holmes to, apparently, all of the Mo'Wax crew.
Radiohead follow this with 'Creep', Thom dedicating it to Mirror editor Piers Morgan and then, somewhat belying his dour repute, flashing his torso when he gets to the "I want a perfect body" line. There were similar light-hearted airs earlier in the week when Radiohead played a low-key fan-club show at London's Astoria. Despite having spent the day throwing up after a bout of food-poisoning, Thom had been a welcoming host. according to the Radiohead camp, nerves were shredded prior to the band's first UK headline shows in two years, but come showtime at the Astoria, Thom was clearly glad to be jigging in front of the 'Head's people. In this mood, Radiohead had provided myriad Epicurean delights - alongside the likes of 'Just' and 'My Iron Lung' came the odd treasured B-side like 'Maquiladora'. But the highlight probably arrived in two parts. First a solo Yorke rendition of new post-'OK Computer' composition 'Motion Picture Soundtrack' ("cheap sex and sleeping pills" goes one line) and then with a glorious take on 1977 Carly Simon Bond-theme 'Nobody Does It Better'.
Back at the Empress Ballroom, things are moving toward the peak of the most gently building crescendo. Jonny Greenwood's bewitching axe postures personify the chicane-ing tempo changes of 'Just' and then the set closes with the imperiously desolate 'Exit Music'. The encores ('Lucky', 'No Surprises', 'Street Spirit (Fade Out)' are climaxed when persistent hollering brings about another outing for 'Nobody Does It Better'.
The aftershow drinks reveal the off-duty Radiohead in their utter lack of standard rock behaviour patterns. Guitarist Ed O'Brien avuncularly chaperones a quartet of young fans, sounding just a little like Hugh Laurie's King George character in Blackadder: "Shall I get you some water? Yes, I'll get you some water. Is that what you'd like? Water." Colin Greenwood ambles through looking detached but utterly free of self-conscious enigma. Thom Yorke sits apart from the main hubbub, talking earnestly for half an hour with one of the band's longest-standing fans.
Having said goodbye to his young charges, Ed then sits down at a trestle table and begins to roll a joint. He spent the previous day further demonstrating non-rock attitudes by climbing the mountainous Scafell Pike in the Lake District. Sparking up his doobie, talk turns to the planned Massive Attack remix of 'OK Computer' in its entirety: "We met them in Dublin recently and they genuinely seem to want to do it, which, of course, is hugely flattering." Then the conversation touches on plans for Radiohead's November UK arena shows. "Yes, our light people are working on ideas at the moment," informs Ed. "Are we going to be having giant inflatable computers? Hmm, perhaps not. Actually, I fucking hate Pink Floyd. Terrible stuff." U2? Pink Floyd? However invidious the comparison you throw at Radiohead, it seems they're perfectly prepared to rise above it. Radiohead, then: the new Jim Davidson.