Friday 14 June 2013

Radiohead: The Band I Hate To Love

So there I am just sitting there flicking through the music channels when this really groovy song starts to play. Not that it has much of a groove, but it sounds good. Dark and emotional; definitely not a recent release. To be honest I'm diggin the video more than the song at this point; it's night time and we are in the POV of a car, a car chasing after some fat guy. Who the hell is the singer? At first I just accepted I didn't know which band was behind this song, after all if it was a band I like wouldn't I have heard this one before? I'm starting to think it's Thom Yorke, but I doubt it's Radiohead. Too light a touch for them, and too uplifting too. But then again, does Thom Yorke even do solo work? I've certainly never heard of any. Then Yorke's face shows up just as the third act of the song kicks in, it sounds really good, Thom's just going on and on about how he lost himself or something; finally some simplistic problems coming out of the guy. Then the fat guy stops running, the bastard's tricked us. He's lead a trail of petrol from here to the car and now he just sets us alight. As the (now on fire) car is backing up the info comes on screen; it was Radiohead after all.

I had to go and check it out after. Turns out the songs from OK Computer, the album at the center of the shrine of Radiohead worship. I've listened to all Radiohead albums thus far, other than Hail to the Thief, an album I gave up on many a moon ago and promised myself I would finish just for the sake of this post. It was actually with my acceptance that the song on the TV was so great - it was Karma Police by the way - that I had to accept I was a Radiohead fan, or at the very least a general enthusiast. I mean, I can go into as many forums and public discussions as I want and preach my hatred of Yorke and his disciples, but that still doesn't change the fact that I like a lot of their music, and that I've started listening to them an awful lot lately.

But why hate them if I like so many of their tunes? Well their just so damn snobbish ain't they? So arty. Not Velvet Underground arty, those guys did some weird stuff but they made it all very listenable; they might have came from that whole late 60s New York Warhol scene, but they were still a rock band at heart, and a very entertaining one at that. But to me Radiohead's main focus has never been on entertaining people. Don't get me wrong, I respect those who live and die by the artistic dream, but surely you can have a good time while doing it too? They ain't as snobbish as Pink Floyd got in the 70s, I hear Radiohead do a great live show, and I'm sure they do care for their fans in a way, but the way they care for their fans ain't the way I enjoy myself as a fan. Which is precisely why I'm so against calling myself one.

My first experience with Radiohead was on an online forum (I forget which one) where the discussion most likely centered on the best modern artists. These Radiohead fellas kept popping up a lot. It's all very possible that I'd heard the name muttered before, just never had the drive to go and check out any of their music, and while looking through this forum I still didn't; not until someone said something to the gist of "We're talking about a band that chose their name to be closer to R.EM. in the charts" colour me excited. Not that I like R.E.M. I doubt I'd even heard them either at that point, but I do love the idea of a band choosing their name for something so throwaway. Now I had a reason to check them out.

I went and looked them up on Youtube, confirming this was quite some time ago due to the lack of Spotify in this recollection, and clicked on the first song there: House of Cards. I was surprised, dunno what it was that made me think this was gonna be a very heavy band - probably because they're name sounded similar to Motorhead - but this song was slow and soothing, although not so much to be relaxing. What did I think of it? I sure liked the video, it still sticks in my memory now (I guess they just have a thing for good videos) and I had to agree, even in my young age, that this was well made music, not that I really enjoyed it all too much. It was ok. Actually the song seems to the least memorable thing from the occasion because I remember the comments on that video very well too. Not enough to go past paraphrasing, but not that I would need to since all comments worded the same thing only slightly different; that Radiohead was god's gift to music and what I was listening to was an all time masterpiece. Maybe it was? As a youngster I was strangely happy to except that maybe I was just too young to appreciate some things. It's only now that I realize that even at such a young age I was being very easy on that song, probably because of all the fakers in the comments section.

Circa 1993: A band with the name "On A Friday"
But that's far too negative isn't it? This is the band I hate to "love' isn't it? I could have just as easily named this "Radiohead: What The Hell Happened?" in reference to a band that has seemingly left all their ambition and talent in the 90s. But what a band they were in the 90s. Not to suddenly change course but I think I'm trying to write about modern music without doing a full on rant (I Think), and Radiohead is good a ship to board for this as any.

Not to go into the history of the band (mainly because I don't know it) but they started out as a few Nirvana knock-offs. Don't believe me? Just go listen to their debut album Pablo Honey; it's pure 90s angsty-teen garage band grundge. It matches Nirvana's Bleach in terms of quality and purpose, by which I mean a pretty raw and boring debut album that had one hit on it that got the band some attention. The hit in this case of course being Creep, a decently catchy tune that lots of people became attached to, most likely because they thought they were more tortured than they really were. It's not as loud or intense as the grundge scene, by then on it's last legs, but it was dark and talked about problems and got Radiohead's foot in the door.

Forgetting the fact it's opening sounds like elevator music that was rejected for being too drowsy the song actually turns into a solid piece of mainstream rock with lyrics that thinly attack today's culture and the modern way of life, Radiohead's sworn arch nemesis. The band made two more albums in the 90s; The Bends snatched them up out of the underground and plucked away some of their rough edges, what was left was some catchy pop riffs and the most simplistic (and happy - at least by Radiohead standards) lyrics of their career. It's the best collection of good songs the band ever put together; although Radiohead have always been more about the whole product - the tone and mood created - than the tracklisting, which makes me hesitate calling this their best.

They walked out of the 90s early in 1997 with OK Computer. As I said before this has got itself a reputation as Radiohead's best. Translation for none fans: Not many good songs (although Karma Police is a plus) but it does keep up the same style throughout; and that combined with lots of millennium-angst lyrics and Beatles-esqe studio experimentation managed to carry them to glory. Can I believe that some critics called this the modern day Sgt Pepper on release? Well I certainly don't agree with it, but I see where they're coming from. The only difference is on Sgt Pepper the experimentation and weirdness (which was of course a lot more groundbreaking in 1967 than 1997) felt more like the cherry-on-top of all the great songs. At least Radiohead tries to make lots of good songs here (although if you couldn't tell already my opinion is they failed miserably on that call) something they would start forgetting to do very soon.
I'll hand it to Radiohead; they have some damn cool artwork
But wasn't this my positive section? Well give me lenience, this is "the band I love to hate" I'm grappling here. The Bends is fun, Pablo Honey interesting, and OK Computer feels like a fun museum piece; an album that's influence is probably bigger than even it's too-blind-to-see-it fans think, although one that only truly comes to life in a few instances. The band did some weird experimentation, and I don't just mean with computers; they left behind normal song structures for tunes that found themselves naturally; so what if Paranoid Android sounds like a shit version of Bohemian Rhapsody? That's the closest comparison I can think of, and one of the easiest to make on an album that feels like a true original. And by that I mean a clearly-talented band doing something no-one else is doing. What I don't mean is doing random shit to be different, I could walk outside and bang my head off of a wall 58 times and be called "different" and it wouldn't amount to much. At least here the failures are from songs that flew too close to the sun and got burnt.

But I should probably note the good stuff here, of which there is quite a lot. Radiohead never really had a strong force behind them; but they used that lighter touch to make songs with real emotion. And they're well calculated too; this is about as far away you can get from the spontaneous anger of punk. Yet the beauty of all the Radiohead stuff of this era is that there's a care-free feeling to it; it was the 90s and the slacker generation was still in it's element. The lyrics, even in their angst, feel universal here. They're not for select fans or for "emo's" they're for everyone to wallow in. If the angst of the noughties (and noughties Radiohead) is introspective; only to be heard through headphones in blacked out rooms, then the angst they summoned in the 90s (along with Nirvana and Alice in Chains) was made to be yelled to stadiums full of fans suffering in the exact same way. Call the bands from this era depressing if you like, but if you've ever felt like shit (and were man enough to admit it) then there is a comfort here, a comfort in listening to loud energetic music that deals with problems that don't at all feel loud or energetic. Were Radiohead the best at this? To me they weren't, they seemed a bit too downbeat to appeal to someone downbeat, but they're lyrics were smart and relatable and they made a sound that still hasn't been imitated or ripped-off, and for that they deserve praise.

Fast forward; the year is 2000. Radiohead has just released they're fourth album (and the last one that would be any good) Kid A. It's not like this one is underrated or forgotten about; December 2009 and the endless swarm of best-of-decade listings that poured out of every publication that had ever even had the word "music" muttered around their offices showed that out of all albums released in the prior 10 years, it was one released only a few months into the new-millennium that was the best. It featured in almost every one of these lists, usually at the very top.

The best song on the disc was In Limbo, another hugely optimistic celebration of modern society that shows all that was reaching a high in the band at that point; and how it was about to fall apart. In Limbo starts with a slow, techno-sounding drum beat before hitting you with a wall of sounds. It implants a huge image in my head; I imagine walking through the digital mountains on that album's cover with spaceships and aliens floating around me. Yorke sings "I'm lost at sea" and that sums up the sea of possibility at Radiohead's fingertips at the time. The rest of that album is pretty great too; the same way The Bends took Pablo Honey's indie rock and expanded it with bigger ideas and a more lively professional sound, so too does Kid A take the studio experimentation and millennium angst of OK Computer and ride it too it's natural conclusion. In Limbo and most of the tracks on here have a heavy influence of studio technology; which ends up with Idioteque, a horrifically soulless song that lacks any band members actually playing instruments on it. Although like all things Radiohead since, this song has for one reason or another come to be treated as an innovative classic.

See; a land of possibility
And where else was Radiohead to go? There next album's scrutiny could be called unfair because of that fact the band didn't actually record anything new, instead for fifth album Amnesiac they used any un-used recordings from the Kid A sessions that were left lying around the studio. News flash: those are called B-Sides. Remember that great Led Zeppelin compilation album Coda that just used previously unreleased tracks and turned out great? Me neither; that sucked and this sucked big time. The fact that the best song on the whole album was called Packt like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box speaks volumes.

They did rock, and they did computers, and all of their albums since have been awkward combinations of both. Hail to the Thief is an album I'm still unable to get through (sorry, guess I'm no good with promises) and that's mainly because those slow drowsy songs that made up all of the tracks I skipped past on their first four albums were used here to make a whole album here. What a god damn drone-on. In Rainbows was their "return to rock" and King of Limbs was apparently the sound of a band "bored with recording albums" but both to me sounded like a band trying to recapture their roots in rock'n'roll and getting sidetracked by arty ideas and new ways of releasing albums. I suppose that whole "pay what you want" model (hope there was a "nothing" option on it somewhere) will be pretty influential down the line, but as I finished off listening to In Rainbows in it's entirety on Youtube I couldn't help but feel like some part of the experience had been lost on me.

So that's Radiohead up-to-now. Any fans out there will no doubt disagree. I was brought up listening to early noughties radio, which for the people who bunkered-down and hibernated to what some will probably be remember as one of the great musical droughts, was a golden time (or at least my golden time) of hip-hop and R'n'B. It was a pretty uplifting time in music, not late 90s S-Club 7 cheese uplifting, but who the fuck wants that anyways? but still uplifting. So please excuse me if I don't fully appreciate Yorke's fear of the future. And as a music acolyte from the time I explored a black box with only the shiny word "Nirvana" written on top of it, especially excuse me if I don't come across as thankful that Radiohead has stuck to the arty side, never doing one for the fans. They might have went off road from where the mainstream was taking them but they never went off their own road. No weird concept album, no cheery christmas single, not even something natural and acoustic to take them away from those computer screens.
An ironic name, at least from my perspective
So really this is why despite liking a lot of their songs, I just can't stand Radiohead: they're the safest guys around. Forget all this crap about them being original and doing their own thing. Thom Yorke might not have 20 tattoo's and go home from every gig with two groupies around his arm, but he's a corporate sponge in disguise. Like Pink Floyd back in the 70s these guys aren't exactly cash whores (although the claim they haven't had any hits probably hasn't stopped these guys from buying vacation homes in the Bahamas) no these guys are worse. They want the music fans and the critics instead. Which means boring albums with no ambition, apart from in technical ways which stopped being relevant after Kid A.

What I'm saying is, I'll listen to their music and enjoy some of it, but they represent the false messiahs of music. Kanye West; you might not like him, doesn't matter; the man is doing things no one else is doing. And when he's doing them he makes his music feel fun and fresh. He makes innovating and just generally supplying fans with what they want look pretty fun. Radiohead are Pseudo all-time-greats, they are the Pink Floyds and Pearl Jams of today, while people like Kanye West and Arcade Fire are the Nirvanas and Beatles of today. Put any bands you want in those places, you get my point, Radiohead was once relevant but now has a case of the emperor's new clothes, and an album as smug in it's own poorness like King of Limbs makes me think they know it. These cowboys aren't even riding horses anymore, they're riding cows, and they're milking them for all they got.

Fast forward again and we're in present day 2013. The music industry isn't in turmoil, despite what the mad internet man keeps saying. This ain't no 1967 but there is still sure a lot of great acts around, going places no-one has gone before. And the best thing is most of these acts started up after the millennium. I'm not hating older bands; just accepting the fact that most artists - even the best ones - run out of steam eventually. Some break up or take extended breaks, few ever recapture past glories. Some end up having to quit for one reason or another. All I'm saying is, and this is too all those fakers and self called musical "elite" that think good music isn't good any more and self-proclaimed good music like Radiohead is all that's left: Radiohead never made good on their promise of the future at the new-millennium; but then again, who did? 

(Gone to wash my ears out with Jump The Line by Harry Belafonte, this Radiohead malarkey is fucking depressing ain't it?) 

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