The Greatest Show on Earth has come to Glasgow. As the sun sets in the Scottish sky, some 8,000 concertgoers gather under a huge blue tent tipped with flashing red lights. Suddenly, the lights go down and a roar goes up. The British rock quintet Radiohead has taken the stage. Unsatisfied with traditional venues and their corporate-logo-covered interiors, the band is touring Europe with a portable circus-like tent. Singer Thom Yorke introduces each number with curt, dry wit; the music is forceful and precise, combining punkish attitude, tasteful art-rock grandeur and judicious electronic sampling. Jonny Greenwood taunts his guitar into some snarling arpeggios and, switching instruments, adds warm, supportive keyboard colors to other songs. This is the sound of a band that, with the possible exceptions of the American groups the Roots and Rage Against the Machine, is the best young band in the world.
Neil Young was right: rock 'n' roll can never die. The wildly talented alternative-rock band Nirvana, so self-aware and yet so self-destructive, penned rock's suicide note. Hootie-lite fluff bands like Matchbox Twenty supplied the sleeping pills. And gangsta-rap acts like Jay-Z, gloating over their genre's dominance in the marketplace, delivered the eulogy. But rock still isn't dead. In fact, in the past two years it has been rejuvenated creatively and commercially by hip-hop rock acts such as Deftones and others. And this week rock receives another jolt of new life in the form of Radiohead's spectacularly inventive album Kid A (Capitol). As the funeral procession winds through the streets, rock rages on. It sounds pretty good for a dead man.
Radiohead has changed its sound on every album since its debut, never allowing itself to sound stale, never allowing its music to wither. At first, the group followed trends, echoing the roar of Seattle on its tentative debut album Pablo Honey (1993) and mastering the genre on the more assertive The Bends (1995). On its critically acclaimed third album, OK Computer (1997), Radiohead began to write its own rules, creating rock mini-suites like Paranoid Android and writing lyrics that captured the numbing ambivalence that many people feel about living in a microprocessed age. On Kid A, another Radiohead emerges: if the last album was about technology using up humans, the new one is about humans using technology. Kid A relies heavily on samples and synthesizers. The sound is experimental, but the songs all have a Eureka! quality about them: they seem unthinkable, but once thought, seem only natural.
Yorke, the group's central songwriter, is obsessed with the disillusioned and the disoriented: a plastic surgeon in a fool's war with gravity, a crash victim who finds his near death experience makes him feel alive, an earthbound stargazer who dreams of abduction by alien spacecraft. His voice is often sampled, distorted by synthesizers, his lyrics broken into elegiac fragments, shards of thoughts, mantras of melancholia. "I woke up sucking a lemon," Yorke sings on Everything in Its Right Place, and the phrase is repeated again and again in a plaintive sample. Throughout Kid A he returns to the theme of restlessness, rootlessness and confusion. On the ethereal jazz breakdown In Limbo, he croons, "I'm lost at sea... I've lost my way." But as Kid A nears its conclusion, Yorke's disembodied state gives way to all too solid flesh. "This is really happening," he sings, his voice quivering. Denied feelings are still felt; emotions have consequence. Then, on Motion Picture Soundtrack, Yorke sings the CD's haunting last line in a falsetto ringing with resignation: "I will see you in the next life."
It's sometime after 1 a.m. and, in a closed-off basement bar in the Malmaison Hotel in Glasgow, Radiohead is unwinding. Guitarist Ed O'Brien, 32, has turned in early, but drummer Phil Selway, 33, is at the bar, talking proudly about his baby boy. Bassist Colin Greenwood, 31, sits in a nearby booth, discussing British novelists Martin Amis and Niall Griffiths (Greenwood holds a degree in English from Cambridge; Selway, Yorke and O'Brien are also college graduates); a few steps away, his younger brother Jonny, 28, orders another drink from the bar and asks why his older brother is still up, given the fact that Colin has been suffering from the flu. But it is Yorke, 31, who seems the most animated. For its own amusement, the band has been shooting video footage of its live shows, and Yorke has just finished screening some of what was shot. "The video footage looks brilliant! F______ brilliant!" he tells Colin.
After recording stints in Paris and Copenhagen, the band finished up Kid A in a newly built studio not far from its hometown of Oxford, England. All the members of Radiohead grew up around Oxford, where they attended Abingdon School, a private all-boys school. It was there they discovered a shared love of music and began performing together. Nigel Hunter, Yorke's art teacher at Abingdon, says the aspiring rocker was strong-willed even then: "He was very independent. He wasn't someone who was swayed by a crowd."
His band shares those qualities. Its songs don't fit comfortable formats, and the band hasn't yet made a proper music video for the release (only an arty series of 10-sec. to 40- sec. spots that feature animated bears, stick figures falling into volcanos and the like). Also, in another unconventional move, the band is preparing to release another CD as early as the first months of next year. "We've finished all the tracks," says Selway. "It's just a matter of determining the running order."
Fan anticipation for Kid A is so fierce that every track was leaked to Napster weeks before the album's release. Says Yorke: "The cool thing about Napster is that it encourages bootlegging, it encourages enthusiasm for music in a way that the music industry has long forgotten to do."
It would be easy to anoint Radiohead as yet another in a long line of saviors of rock. But rock doesn't need saving because, as Young said, it can never die. What Radiohead has done is provide new testament to the music's adaptability: rock is no dinosaur. It's a warm-blooded thing, still changing, still evolving. Perhaps Yorke's last line on Kid A isn't some mournful pledge but a gift: if Radiohead is this good in this life, we can't wait to hear it in its next one.