Radical OK Computer disc boots up UK's magnificent five
With the fleet-footedness of a purse-snatcher, a scalper darts across the street toward two people approaching the Opera House, tickets in hand.
He eclipses the best efforts of his competition by 10 seconds easy and stuns his prey with his daring negotiation of passing traffic.
It's June, and England's Radiohead, passports already dog-eared from yet another hysterical promo trip to Japan, are playing their first North American show in support of their third disc, OK Computer.
This little gig - a combination industry showcase and humble introduction to their newest work - is the most coveted of the year.
The few hundred publicly available tickets have sold out in an astonishing 48 seconds, not just because the affable Oxford quintet has never played such a small house in town, nor because their live shows juxtapose studio-like precision with white-knuckled temerity and include an impressive selection of shakers and claves.
No, the madness stems from OK Computer, a highly complex work, at once beautiful and tortured, sinister and weirdly hopeful, the bounty of endless rehearsals, gigs and post-mortems.
Recorded at Radiohead's Oxford studios and a Bath manor owned by actor Jane Seymour, the disc is a watershed, a Big Rock Record but with better lyrics than most, and fans aren't the only ones blindsided by its arrival.
Smitten critics have struggled to pinpoint the magic rushing through the music -- its themes of disenfranchisement and technological impotence shot through a grandiose landscape of guitars, piano, drums and assorted whazzits, its fearless embrace of darkness and light boiled down to a cold, detached spoken-word centrepiece.
"It's funny when people say to us that it sounds like a complete work, when the way we actually did it was very fragmented," singer Thom Yorke offers. "It was never all one album with one sound. It was really, really random.
"Most of the songs on this record are one performance, with virtually nothing changed but with months of analysis. Because of the instruments we used and because it was the same five people doing it, it has a cohesive sound."
Ironically, in a business that rewards backbiting with slavish press coverage, fellow musicians have been unanimous in their praise of OK Computer. Veruca Salt's Louise Post can't shut up about it. Neither can Courtney Love or REM, the latter ad hoc keepers of the Radiohead flame. Even Echo & the Bunnymen blowhard Ian McCulloch - a man so conceited that only the occaasional mirror receives his praise - allows that the band might be as goodd as his.
Actually, they're better. Yorke, especially, is a rare talent, capable of heart-stopping highs and lows. When he sings, he doesn't just convey emotions, he embodies them, absorbing and distilling sadness, fear, anguish and passion through his skin.
Live, he's electrifying and can literally silence jam-packed rooms. The aftershocks linger long after the guitar-guided Radiohead machine fires up.
And so tonight, in an unprecedented switcheroo on the hallowed concert enterprise, Mr. Scalper isn't selling tickets to Radiohead's concert. He's begging to buy and he can't find any takers. He'll doubtless be on hand for their show at Arrow Hall Tuesday, since 75 per cent of the available 6,000 tickets sold out in a single morning, the rest the next day.
The down-to-earth quintet - singer/guitarist Yorke, versatile guitarist/ keyboardist Jonny Greenwood, elder brother, bon vivant bassist Colin Greenwood, peripatetic guitarist/singer Ed O'Brien and dramatically shorn drummer Phil Selway, songwriters all - may find the hoopla discombobulating, but they're too gracious to proclaim their own preeminence in rock. Fortunately, the queue of those willing to do it for them stretches round the block.
"We're hypercritical within the band, but when you put it out to people, they're more forgiving," Yorke confesses, as he, O'Brien and Colin Greenwood bravely face a conveyor belt of journalists the day after the Opera House gig.
"It's a good job we do go out in public. Otherwise, we'd have given up years ago. Going out and playing shows and hearing what people think of the record means we don't fall into a black hole of our own self-criticism."
"Every song seemed to come from a different direction", Yorke continues, elaborating on the new album. ""Subterranean Homesick Alien" was the product of our buying an electric piano. "Exit Music" is a song that wrote itself."
"The day we did it, we received delivery of a mellotron we had bought. You can buy these remodelled, remade mellotrons that are exactly the same as the originals."
"So we got this thing and the first thing we did with it was all the voices on "Exit Music", and after that the song came together in two days. That was the first thing that really got me, where I said 'Wow.'"
"But lots of songs were really hard, like "Paranoid Android" - just getting all the parts to fit together. We didn't know how we were going to get there, we just knew we would."
"It's true", confirms Greenwood softly. "We kept playing with these new toys. We do this as much for our amusement as for the people listening to the record."
"It's also valid to go off in different directions and not really know where you're going", Yorke says. "The only thing I get worried about is, once you start doing that you can do it endlessly. It's self-perpetuating and it can get quite dull."
"Some of the songs we discarded were ones that worked with just guitar, bass and drums. But because we didn't have that head on, we just left them for now. And that's what OK Computer was all about -- just wandering off down paths and getting lost."
In that light, the fact that the group self-produced the new record - effectively learning how to scream "Stop!" on their own rather than tweaking and noodling on into infinity - is even more admirable. But then, thee writing was on the wall in 1995 with their brilliant second disc, The Bends, which also rattled the craniums of critics and musicians worldwide.
Typically, the group won't cop to any sort of vision. OK, maybe just a little.
"For me", says O'Brien, "the biggest high I got from reactions to The Bends was, I've got friends who do not listen to bands with guitars. They're just into dance music. And universally, they would say they'd come back from a rave or whatever and would stick on The Bends to chill out and--"
"How", snaps Yorke incredulously, "can you chill out to The Bends?"
"I know", O'Brien continues, "but my friends said that even though they weren't into that kind of music it was the only guitar album of 95/96 that they really loved. That was very, very cool."
"Yes", counters Yorke, "but there's also the element of people hearing that a record is cool and feeling as though they'd better say they like it. I'm sorry, I'm quite cynical. There are records every year that are like that."
"The classic example of that", Greenwood gamely interjects, "was Massive Attack's Blue Lines, which was mentioned by every journalist in the UK one year and went on to sell 40,000 copies."
Nice try, but The Bends sold more than three times that in Canada alone. The barely three-month-old OK Computer has already surpassed platinum here and elsewhere. And let's not forget the numbers racked up by their 93 debut, Pablo Honey.
Not that the group is idly hanging around waiting to collect its lovely awards. The work continues, including collaborations between various members of Radiohead and Michael Stipe for the soundtrack to the forthcoming Velvet Goldmine film, and with DJ Shadow for the forthcoming U.N.K.L.E. Mo' Wax label showcase.
If video remains a sore spot with the group - "The videos we made for The Bends", steams O'Brien, "cost twice what the album cost. I can't justify that" - they nevertheless uphold the Radiohead tradition of excellence.
"If we have to do it", gripes Yorke, "we might as well make sure they're bloody good". The plan is eventually to shoot clips for each song on the new disc".
"I think the difference between making The Bends and making OK Computer", surmises Yorke, "was that we weren't answerable to any particular group. When we first, first started, before we got signed, I felt we could do anything and come from any angle and it wasn't relevant. It just didn't matter because no one was watching."
"And that was the one thing about OK Computer that really excited me. It just didn't matter. I know it sounds wanky, but it's like the Beatles - with their good records, you can tell that they just didn't care. That's how to write songs."