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Radiohead

Angst, alienation and attitude have always been the key to success in all great rock bands, and RADIOHEAD had all these traits in spades. Taking U2, SONIC YOUTH, PIXIES, R.E.M. and MY BLOODY VALENTINE as their torturous template, the quintet have pushed out the boundaries that have pigeonholed many of their Brit-rock peers, while they’ve explored new territories with each successive set. No longer the band behind that `Creep’ song, RADIOHEAD have surpassed their critical pasting of yesteryear and come up with giant albums such as `The Bends’ and `OK Computer’.
Formed in the rather haughty Oxford University area of England towards the end of ’88, students Thom Yorke (on vocals), guitarist Ed O’Brien and bassist Colin Greenwood were initially just another arty rock band; drummer Phil Selway completed the line-up shortly afterwards. Dubbing themselves On A Friday, the combo began gigging around their local area, subsequently boasting a triple-guitar attack following the addition of Colin’s brother, Jonny Greenwood. Initially, the group also fleshed out their sound with a couple of saxophone players, though it’s now difficult to imagine what that must’ve sounded like. With the various members trooping off to complete their respective educations, the RADIOHEAD story really began in the summer of ‘91 when the quintet got back together and adopted the aforesaid moniker (named so after a TALKING HEADS song).
Signed to the ever vigilant Parlophone Records, RADIOHEAD enjoyed some airplay with their first release, a spring ‘92 EP highlighting `Prove Yourself’ as the lead track. Next up was the seminal `Creep’ single, an incendiary anthem for anyone who’d ever felt rejected/alienated (and let’s face it, that’s most of the population). The song stiffing first time around but subsequently kick-starting their career. The track also used the group’s trademark soft bit/quiet bit dynamics to stunning effect, a method which would come to form the basis for some of the band’s best tracks.
In the meantime, RADIOHEAD eventually scraped in to the lower regions of the Top 40 with the abrasive `Anyone Can Play Guitar’, while their debut album PABLO HONEY (1993) {*7} reached the UK Top 30. Though it had its moments, the album lacked consistency, with Yorke seemingly searching for some kind of vocal identity. While the record found enthusiastic champions in some sections of the music press, by and large, RADIOHEAD were passed over. All that changed, however, when the aforementioned `Creep’ exploded in the States; the record obviously striking a deep chord with the multitudes who weren’t part of the “American Dream”. Taking the first flight over there, RADIOHEAD capitalised on this surprise success, the band treated like homecoming heroes and selling out concerts night after night. In a bizarre reversal of the standard process, this US success laid the groundwork for the re-release of `Creep’ in the UK, where it became a Top 10 hit; sales of the album also enjoyed a healthy re-invigoration. With such a universal theme, it was no surprise that the track was also a massive hit all over the world, RADIOHEAD finding themselves in the strange position of being international pop stars yet at the same time, regarded merely as a competent indie band in their home country.
THE BENDS (1995) {*10} convincingly silenced the doubters once and for all, a ground-breaking album with a spectral musical vision which rarely failed to take the breath away. Opening with the searing, reverberating `Planet Telex’, the record proceeded to juxtapose howling guitar menace against bleakly beautiful melodies, echoing synth and acoustic strumming, Yorke painting piercingly vivid images with his tortured musings on the nature of the human psyche. The fragile majesty of `Fake Plastic Trees’ was RADIOHEAD at their most sublime; Yorke’s ability to hit those high notes pivotal to the resigned melancholy of his vocals. The churning claustrophobia of `Black Star’ sounded like the final fling of a condemned man, positively revelling in its own pain and misery, while the funereal `Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ was a ghostly coda, its award-winning video perfectly evoking the track’s haunting feeling of time standing still. Further hits `High And Dry’, `Just’ (lyrically the one that goes “You do it to yourself, you do”) and `My Iron Lung’ were up there with the best tracks of the year. Basically, the album wiped the floor with the competition, laying waste to the snot-nosed chaff of Brit-pop and confirming that there was indeed a thinking man’s alternative to OASIS.
R.E.M. felt the same way, inviting the band to support them on tour later that year, something of a dream come true for RADIOHEAD who had long been massive fans of Stipe and Co. The summer of ‘95 also saw the release of the “Help” album, a project involving the cream of the British music scene with proceeds from album sales donated to the War Child charity (which raised money for war torn Bosnia). RADIOHEAD contributed `Lucky’, a song apparently written about the band’s newfound position as one of the most highly regarded groups in the world. Stunning though the track is, it sounds more like a dirge than a celebration, the searing guitar line evoking a feeling of utter desolation and emptiness.
Probably the best example of Yorke’s self-acknowledged struggle to sound anything other than melancholy, the track was one of many highlights on OK COMPUTER (1997) {*10}, RADIOHEAD’s feverishly anticipated follow-up to their poll-topping second set. A densely complex, almost initially impenetrable album, OKC was a demanding beast, previewed by the wildly ambitious `Paranoid Android’, a kind of post-prog symphony in three parts. The oscillating guitar vibration of `Airbag’ kicked off proceedings in much the same fashion as the aforementioned `Planet Telex’, but then things started getting weird. `Subterranean Homesick Alien’ was truly adrift in space, the guitars twinkling and shimmering like tiny constellations, while with `Exit Music (For A Film)’ (written for closing sequence of the re-vamped Romeo & Juliet movie), Yorke’s vocal was so eerily intimate, it sounded as if he was in the same room, the song building to a majestic climax via unearthly choral parts and swooning synths. `Let Down’ was an almost BYRDS-esque follow-up to `Creep’, its pealing guitar and infectious melody framing a similar theme and creating what was conceivably the nearest the record came to conventional rock. `Karma Police’ and the exquisite `No Surprises’ were choice highlights to release as singles, both records garnering praise from fans to critics almost overnight. Much of the album was vaguely reminiscent of the more cerebral moments on U2’s The Unforgettable Fire, although Yorke has never come so close to sounding like Bono as on `Climbing The Walls’, for once managing to avoid the bruised resignation that normally colours his voice. With `No Surprises’, RADIOHEAD cleverly contrasted an almost childlike musical lullaby with lyrics expressing a hopeless world weariness. Of their contemporaries, only SPIRITUALIZED and MOGWAI were making music this far out, RADIOHEAD once again almost sweeping the board at the end of year polls and bravely taking rock music into the future rather than fawning over a Union Jack-clad past.
With KID A (2000) {*9} they took the music into the future with a vengeance; whether this was a brave new sonic world or a sterile wasteland of short-circuit experimentation remains a moot point. Maybe it should’ve been titled “All That You CAN Leave Behind”, Yorke and Co putting to bed the bruised beauty of their best work with brutal determination. The oblique, serrated electronica and disjointed dirge-scapes offered up nothing in the way of redemptive miserabilism never mind a hook or a melody. Perseverance dragged brief snatches of genius (from opener `Everything In Its Right Place’ to the shimmering `Motion Picture Soundtrack’) screaming petulantly from the broodingly dense mix, yet the effort was hardly relative to the meagre rewards on offer. More, Yorke’s vocal, previously a thing of exotic desolation, began to grate against the unremittingly bleak backdrop, reduced to one of the dismal whole’s gratuitously mechanical constituent parts – in other words a classic!
AMNESIAC (2001) {*7} was an equally daunting, if not quite so wilfully oppressive listen, its material drawn from the same sessions as its predecessor. Despite featuring the studio debut of established live favourites `Knives Out’ and `You And Whose Army?’, the album merely confirmed that RADIOHEAD had absolutely no intention of resuming normal service anytime soon. On the contrary, they kept up their new adrenaline-paced release schedule with I MIGHT BE WRONG: LIVE RECORDINGS (2001) {*5}, a clipped concert set again inspired by the template of Kid A.
Whether they’d taken the not inconsiderable criticism to heart or whether they really were making a conscious effort to put some kind of discernible structure back into the music, HAIL TO THE THIEF (2003) {*7} did at least make some concessions to convention.
The likes of opener `2 + 2 = 5’ possessed some familiar reference points, while the sinister but lush `Sail To The Moon’ ranked as perhaps the most discomfortingly effective piece of music they’ve written in years. `I Will’ and top UK hits `There There’ and `Go To Sleep’ had all the squealing Thom Yorke trademarks of old, while there only a little room for pieces of electronic noodling. COM LAG (2PLUS2ISFIVE) (2004) {*4} was strictly for the remix, collector buff and packaged as a short LP or a long EP. JONNY GREENWOOD had by now moved into the world of film soundtracks, his first stemming from 2003, `Bodysong’, while YORKE, too, completed his first solo outing (`The Eraser’) in 2006.
Snatched from the digital download format (or a copy from a friend or neighbour), the self-published IN RAINBOWS (2007) {*8} was finally released in “normal” CD format in the first waking hours of 2008. The across the board number one set – re-iterating chart analysts to count digital sales – was another tick in RADIOHEAD’s complex CV; as Thom himself put it, a rather “sedative set of songs”. A series of singles spawned from the album, `Jigsaw Falling Into Place’, `Nude’ and `Reckoner’ the best of the bunch.
Another couple of years hiding in the studio and a total of just over three between sets, producer Nigel Godrich and his 40-somethings re-surfaced in 2011 with THE KING OF LIMBS {*6}. Released by their own Ticker Tape imprint (through XL Recordings), RADIOHEAD were again experimenting with electronics, loops and Yorke’s falsetto vocal cues. Running in at under 40 minutes, the overall mood of the set was rather icy and barren, although one could take pickings from `Morning Mr. Magpie’ and `Little By Little’; the obligatory remix set TKOL RMX 1234567 (2012) {*6} double, was something of an overkill for RADIOHEAD fans – but fans of techno, dub and house were in for a treat.
As YORKE was increasing weighed down by moonlighting project ATOMS FOR PEACE (on `Amok’ – 2013) and a solo album (`Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ – 2014), RADIOHEAD were put on hold for some time; the latter recording coincided with drummer PHIL SELWAY’s arty second set, `Weatherhouse’ (his first being `Familial’ – 2010) and GREENWOOD’s piercing fifth and sixth OST works, `Inherent Vice’ (2014) and `Junun’ (2015).
Filtering out the odd track or three: the first courtesy of a rejected James Bond theme for the movie, `Spectre’ (late 2015), the others, previews – `Burn The Witch’ and the wow-wonderful `Daydreaming’ – running up to the digital-only global release (on May 8, 2016) of the long-time unnamed ninth album, RADIOHEAD had plotted their comeback ever so shrewdly. Topping the charts in Britain, but only reaching Top 3 across the pond, A MOON SHAPED POOL {*9} bordered on the experimental and melancholic; poorer fans of its physical entity (CD or vinyl) would have to wait until June 17th to find out its merit.
Re-topping the British lists (No.5 a la Billboard), the cerebral, alphabetically-sequenced set exposed little flaw in all its eerie, ethereal glory. But for end piece, `True Love Waits’ (astute fans will have heard this at concerts two decades back), a clinical but comforting RADIOHEAD stretch their experimental horizons on the yearning `Glass Eyes’, the insular `Identikit’, and on their nocturnal POPOL VUH-esque `The Numbers’. Thom Yorke’s vox as delicate and brittle as its string-y accompaniment, the sensuous and spiritually uplifting `Present Tense’ perched pretty alongside the folk-y `Desert Island Disk’, the dreamy `Decks Dark’, the distraught `Full Stop’ and the cinematic `Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG-GRD // rev-up MCS May2012-May/Jun2016

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