Kid A's... Alright
The band are in a big top, the burger van is admirably non-corporate, the new songs are... well, new. And the audience is utterly bewildered: Radiohead, it would appear, are back.
"This is for the band," says Thom Yorke, just before Radiohead play a song called 'I Might Be Wrong', the recorded version of which will not appear until summer 2001 [at least]. "'Cos we had the bloody stupid idea of playing in a tent."
In all fairness, the idea seems sane enough. As a gig venue, the tent easily passes muster: Radiohead promised an upgrade in sound quality vis-a-vis the run-of-the-maill outdoor event, and they have deliveered. The visuals are a little rudimentary, and the three lasers outside that beam a pyramid into the night sky are a bit Pink Floyd, but that's a relative trifle.
Most importantly, the tent is a "non-branded environment". That, more than a love of fresh air and a wish to see unremarkable fields on the outskirts of British cities, is why everyone is standing in the mud-strewn grouds of Tredegar House, Newport, Gwent. Naomi Klein's anti-capitalist bible No Logo is Radiohead's livre du jour; the tent means they are doing their bit.
In a corner of tonight's field, just along from Ultimate Burger and to the left of the admirably non-corporate toastie van, there is the only beer outlet: a compact and bijou version of your average festival bar. Its queues are about ten people deep. It takes 20 minutes to get a drink. "It's bloody Radiohead though, isn't it?" groans one wag. "You're not meant to have a good time."
The wait, however, is not the main issue. The bar, as it turns out, is selling nothing other than Budweiser [actually, you can also get Virgin alcopops, but that's hardly the point]. The beer is served from the can into big red cups - and the cups, of course, are branded. What a dirty Budweiser logo.
Select doesn't want to be picky or anything, but this really doesn't seem right. So, if only for the sake of conversational sport, we sidle up to Ed O'Brien at the brief aftershow soiree. it's being held in an old farm outhouse that rather suggests the kind of room where you once hadbreakfast on a geography field trip. Everyone, incidentally, is drinking bottled Krononbourg.
So, Ed. Why are Budweiser doing all the beer?
"[Genuinely shocked] Are they?"
"Isn't it the Workers Co-op? [ie The Workers Beer Company]?"
No, you can only get a Budweiser. In a branded beer cup.
"Beer cup? OK. We'll sort that out. That'll change. I didn't know that. You carry on learning. [In humorous voice] We haven't changed the beer cups! We've failed!"
Enough about 'branding'. The key reason for the current clamour around Radiohead is - othe imminent appearance of 'Kid A', aka Radiohead's Unfathomably Experimental Electronica Album, aka The Record That Will Save British Rock As A Viable Creative Force. Naturally, it is neither of these things. Ed O'Brien calmly informs Select that 'Kid A' is "just a collection of songs that fit well together on a record, that we made in the last year and a half."
The description fits Rdiohead's ironically blank aesthetic to perfection - their video collection, let us not forget, was called Seven TV Commercials; the passes on their last tour were labelled 'Generic Sticky Pass'. perhaps 'Just A Collection Of Songs That Fit Well Together On A Record, That We Made In The Last Year And A Half' would have made the ideal title.
Radiohead, after all, are curretnly in the business of deflating expectations. Though Ed O'Brien's internet diaries initially looked like a simple matter of fan-friendly warmth and admirable spontaneity, they also shed enough light on Radoihead's travails to show that they were merely a five-piece group, having problems with their fourth album. And the fact that they quietly began touring a good three months ago speaks volumes: the intention is obviously to avoid the grisly fate documented in the tour film Meeting People Is Easy.
The problem was simple: walking to the world's stages after thousands of publications had claimed that 'OK Computer' was a work of 24-carat genius. "A few people write in specific magazines that are really influential," Thom told Select in December 1997, "and everyone just reiterates it again and again and again. And whatever the sentiment was in the original review turns into this garbled echo... Expectations got really high. I had a real crisis. We all did."
"This feels very different from 'OK Computer'," says Ed. "It feels more like 'Bends'-era in terms of our attitude onstage and where our heads are. There's just not that big cloud over our heads that we had doing 'OK Computer'. There are expectations, but it's like, 'We're going to do this on our terms'.
"Round the time of touring 'OK Computer' was dark. And there were little things, like the fact that it rained the whole time we toured. Which you might not think makes a difference, but actually... And that was a heavy record. And this isn't."
Long-term, Radiohead want to avoid the 'Here we are with our brand new album' scenario completely. Colin Greenwood has talked about his dislike of "having this massive dump every two-and-a-half years, with fanfares and clarion calls". Fortunately, technology is on their side: more visionary minds within the music business know that the hour[ish]-long CD is as transient a notion as the 45-minute LP, and on-line distribution will eventually kill it. Groups will release two songs here, five songs there, and 18 songs when the fancy takes them. Their subscribers will pay on a track-by-track basis, and everyone will be much happier. Simple.
For now, however, Radiohead are stuck with the stone-age ritual of promoting their new album via a spurt of British tour dates. In the light of their recent pronouncements, the whole enterprise feels distinctly transitional, a little uncomfortable even. There is also the fact that the gig doesn't mutate into your usual frenzied exorcism - thanks to Radiohead's timing, this is an altogether cagier affair.
Out of the 23 songs they play tonight, 10 have only been heard by band insiders and - thanks to leaks on the web - hard-bitten internet apostles. Just to make things even more interesting, three of those ['You And Whose Army', 'Dollars and Cents', 'I Might Be Wrong'] aren't even on 'Kid A'. You begin to suspect, in fact, that the new album won't make complete, coherent sense until its sister record - which the band have hinted will be released pretty quickly - sees the light of day.
Rather inevitably, the audeince flits between loud abandon and a mixture of curiosity, nodding appreciation and where's-the-bar bafflement. Radiohead begin with 'The National Anthem', one of the album's more adrenalised songs, and then play 'Bones'. That, in turn, is followed by the altogether more obtuse, pared-down 'Morning Bell'. And so the pattern is repeated: 'My Iron Lung' is succeeded by 'You And Whose Army'; 'No Surprises' by 'Idioteque', 'Airbag' by 'Everything In Its Right Place' - for the most part, just Thom and his electric piano. As with most of 'Kid A', it lies several light yeras from strait-laced, four-four rock.
There is something deeply ill-at-ease about a world in which 'alternative' music is recurrently played to 40,000 people, and used to soundtrack the goals of the week. Blur discovered it when they played the entirety of '13' to nonplusses festival audiences in the summer of 1998. 'This is not the idea at all', you could heard the crowd's mind thinking. 'Stop it now! Get the Stereophonics on!' Needless to say, the spectacle of Radiohead playing their new material in front of 8000 people in a huge tent explodes the contradiction completely. Most of the new songs singularly fail to suit their surroundings. They'd be much better off in a place about a third of the size. And maybe, just maybe, that's the whole point.
"When you're playing to 8000 people," says Ed O'Brien, "there are going to be people who just want you to play out-and-out rock, but people hopefully know us better now, know that we won't do that. We might do a little bit: we played 'The Bends' tonight, which we haven't played for two years...."
"People going to the bar during the new stuff?" muses Jonny Greenwood. "I don't know about that. I'm not sure. Were they leaving? [Fatalistically] Oh well. Maybe that happens."
It's now 11 o'clock. Radiohead have long since played their last song, the distinctly anti-climactic 'Motion Picture Soundtrack'. Phil Selway, Colin and Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien are bouncing around the aforementioned aftershow gathering. [Thom, in keeping with his own brand values, is nowhere to be seen.] Things have obviously gone pretty well; they give off a relaxed aura no doubt heightened by the fact that there is no gargantuan world toor looming. This trek lasts a mere five weeks, after that they'll decide on their next step.
Naturally, all conversations quickly hurtle towards the new record: its obtuseness, its disdain for orthodoxy, the fact that even the most slavish Radiohead disciple will initially get a headache trying to understand it. Have they played it to their friends? What do they think?
"Well," says Ed O'Brien, "I played it to my old man. For me, he's always the benchmark. 'Cos he hated 'Pablo Honey' - 'Couple of good tracks on there, 'Creep' and 'Blow Up', and that's about it'. And he was right, I think. And when I gave him 'The Bends', I didn't hear anything for a couple of days, and he loved it. Played him 'OK Computer', didn't hear from him for a week, and he came back and said, 'I think it's amazing'. This is a Pink Floyd fan from the '70s!
"And with this one, he came back and said, 'I don't know whether I understand some of the sounds, but I think it's got a quality that someone who's 55 can understand'. But generally he thinks it's more for our generation - ours and sort of 16-year-olds. The sounds are a bit too perverse for him."
About 18 months ago, when the album's creative hind legs were dragging, it seems that Radiohead came perilously close to splitting up. This was around the time that Ed's diaries took on a tone of someting approaching a despair and he asked the not-at-all-rhetorical question "Are we moving into Stone Roses territory?"
So - how close was a split?
"I don't know. I mean... basically, the questions will always be asked, 'Are we still enjoying it? Are we actually doing something different? Are we gaining from doing this?' If we're going over old ground, there's no point doing it. We're obviously not doing it to maintain some kind of lifestyle, because we don't have those kind of lifestyles. You've got to keep learning. And the other thing is, you've got to enjoy it. It was like, 'Fucking hell - you get to 32 yeras old, and if you're not enjoying it...'"
When Colin Greenwood's problems with the bi-yearly "dump" are mentioned, Ed's eyes light up. He talks about online opportunities with the kind of visionary zeal that's usually the preserve of internet entrepreneurs. He has seen the future, it seems. It's best described with a rather prosaic word, but that doesn't diminish the excitement.
"Subscription, mate," Ed froths. "Subscription. Things are going to change. I think there's an analogy between what's happened with football, and what's happened with music. I'm not having a go - you make a good living doing this - but basically bands get screwed by record companies. That's a fact. And that's all going to change: with the onset of online distribution, the whole way that music is made will change.
"78s dictated the way music was made, then 45s, then 33s, then CDs - it's all changed. Now, wouldn't it be great to do a track a month, and do it on subscription, and people could download it? And two years down the line, you could do a compmilation for those who wanted one. So, ten years down the line, bands could be in the same place that footballers are now - your Coldplays could be on 40 grand a week."
Jonny Greenwood, by contrast, isn't quite so messianic about the whole subject.
"I'm not sure about that. It'd be nice to get things out really quickly, release them as we do them, but where does the specialness go? I remember getting Smiths albums and the whole package, the whole idea, being really amazing. So I'm in two minds about all that."
Now, of course, we are standing in a c ompletely brand-free environment, finally free from even Ultimate Burger and the toastie van. With no less enthusiasm, Ed is happily manoeuvred towards his fondness for anti-corporate bible No Logo. It obviously got to him...
"Oh, very much so. It put into words what I was feeling. And I liked the way there was some optimism at the end; the fact that she talks about this growing global mood."
You reportedly went on a demo recently...
"The May Day one. The one in London where they daubed the cenotaph with paint."
Did you, er, see any action?
"Not really. I remember standing underneath Chuchill, with the green mohican. Was it scary? No. It was a little bit hairy up the front, I suppose."
The crowd in the outhouse slowly thins out, as the fridge runs dry and their taxis arrive. The youth [and middle-youth] of Newport have long since departed, to either excitedly await the arrival of 'Kid A' or quietly wonder what on earth has happened to the group who wrote 'Fake Plastic Trees'.
At around midnight, a diminutive figure scuttles through the dregs of the party. It's Thom Yorke, wearing a mischievous smile. "Alright?" he says.
"Alright?" replies Select.
And then he disappears, leaving his guests to pick their way home, through thousands of Budweiser cups.