by Sam Rees
I can still remember the first time I felt like I understood Radiohead. I must have been about fifteen, in the back of a car at night. It was summer. Other than this, I don’t recall the particularities of the evening. But in the pursuit of some musical education, I had been steadily working my way through different artists’ back catalogues, trawling through hours of The Cure or Aphex Twin in an effort to know about ‘real’ music. To this end, I had downloaded Ok Computer and Kid A (which turns 20 this year) on to my iPod. Widely considered to be works of great importance for music and, indeed, wider culture, I set to work on that car journey listening to both albums back-to-back. After all, Kid A had followed Ok Computer in Radiohead’s discography, and together these two had come to be seen as the epitome of shaking up one’s sound.
Something happened as the last track on Ok Computer, ‘The Tourist’ came to a close. With Thom Yorke’s epic falsetto riding like a surfer on the wave of noise beneath him, punctuated by those wailing Nineties guitar solos, the album came to a close. For a moment I sat with the steady growl of the car engine in the darkness, before, with those chords, those chords, Kid A began. The alternative rock, with all of its sound and fury, was gone; the icy electronica and space-age jazz of its successor had arrived, as Yorke’s voice, seemingly mashed up in a blender and reassembled, emerged in a jittery computerised form, harmonising with itself as it tenderly sung:
‘Everything, everything, everything, everything,
In its right place, in its right place, in its right place, in its right place’.
All of this to make a simple point. I love Radiohead. Since that moment, I have had more than my fair share of transcendental experiences with their music and they are such a part of my DNA now that to think about them critically feels almost perverse.
But even more than this, I am trying to make the point that I am perfectly capable of thinking and talking and writing about them in a way that, while completely truthful, quite rightly makes people want to smack me. Hell, reading those first couple of paragraphs back, I want to smack me.
This leads me on to a connected experience. In the wake of my nascent obsession with the pale lads from Oxford, I went on a hunt for some other opinions online. This is when I stumbled upon Pitchfork and their full-marks review of Kid A. Pitchfork operate a decimal system of scoring, and as such, getting a 10 is very rare, indeed often their reviews will leave one wondering exactly what the distinction is between an 8.8 and an 8.9-what makes that 0.1 difference? A slightly fudged chord? An almost-undetectable millisecond of off-key singing? Of course, the point is to drive young men with too much time on their hands like me absolutely crazy. Nerdy, pernickety music fans tend to find nerdy, pernickety music writing.
But it wasn’t the full marks that took me aback, it was the style of writing, some choice quotes being ‘this is an emotional, psychological experience’ and ‘Kid A sounds like a clouded brain trying to recall an alien abduction’, and perhaps my personal favourite ‘the experience and emotions tied to listening to Kid A are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax’. I suggest you read the full article to get the best sense of what it is like.
It is not the pretentiousness of the writing here, I for one see real and authentic value in analysing pop culture, as Radiohead undoubtedly are, with a certain flair and intellectuality. It’s more the effusiveness that rankled me then and rankles me now. It’s a certain sort of petulant streak that makes me think: ‘you’re not allowed to like them that much, it’s not possible’.
What is it about a band like Radiohead that makes people talk like that? 2000, when Kid A was released, was a different time, it’s true. Indeed, Radiohead were perhaps the last group of skinny white men with a song on their lips and a perpetual lump in their throat, with a penchant for funny time signatures, tendencies towards the proggy side of town and an ongoing affection for a good old CONCEPT, to truly control the culture.
Radiohead have not diminished, but rather, since then, have ascended into some other place, permanently adored and respected, but not at the epicentre of attention as they once were. But the way in which the Pitchfork review writes about them has a certain gun-to-head feeling to it, as if the writer was attempting to out-praise all other journalists in an authoritarian police state where a narcissist dictator needs constant adulation lest he throws you into a pit of cobras, as opposed to delivering a complimentary review of an important indie-rock band.
It all seems very quaint in retrospect. These days, music journalism, still run by a certain sort of young white male liberal, is often left trying to understand the shifts in culture. We should pity them; they were not raised on a diet of FKA Twigs, nor were they informed that this was where mainstream listening habits would go-and if you ask them to rank all of Pink Floyd’s releases, or explain what makes Sonic Youth so special, the blog post is written before you’ve finished your sentence.
All the same, the culture of 2000 was distinct from our own. It had been less than a decade since Kurt Cobain was the most important thing on the planet, and even less time since all anyone wished to talk about was who was better out of Blur and Oasis, when in reality both groups were perfectly matched in terms of punch-ability. By the end, Britpop seemed to boil down to whether one wanted their trite jingoism in the cockney or northern variety. The moral being, however, that rock music really mattered, in a chart-topping, fan-girls screaming sort of way.
Radiohead stood apart from all of this, to an extent. There sound was too melancholic for the Britpop-ers, too pretty for the grunge kids. Like certain latter bands (one thinks of Arcade Fire in this respect) they carved out a niche that allowed those in critical circles to feel wholly justified in heaping praise on them without fear of being condemned as mainstream. In short, 2000’s Kid A was clever and exciting, and music journalists thought if they expressed nothing but limitless adoration for it then that made them clever and exciting as well. This approach ends in comparisons with alien abductions and weird, Freudian analogies about stillborn children.
This adulation also explains why so many people in that era hated Radiohead. The emperor’s new clothes really are a thing, and what’s more those who claimed the critics and fans dribbling at Thom Yorke’s feet were doing so for social and cultural clout were probably entirely right.
So contemporaneous opinion was divided between those who thought Kid A was opaque, pretentious chaos, and those who thought it was like ‘witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax’ (I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of quoting that). What about now?
Quite honestly, some of the most intense moments of my life have revolved around Radiohead. From the exquisite pain of unrequited love as an idiotic teenager listening to True Love Waits, to the moment when I watched them headline Glastonbury in 2017. I’m a very different person to the one who stood in that field on that summer evening. I had just graduated, I was full of doubt, and fear and confusion. The person I was stood next to is gone, and I will probably never see them again, but that evening will last forever, and I can still remember the rumble of the bass synth and the green lights of the Pyramid Stage which flooded the field.
Are they perfect? No. Are there some absolute clunkers in their catalogue? Yes. Is it really like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax? I have no idea, I don’t even know what that would be like.
It feels almost like a trivialising of the group to talk about them in the way that writers in some quarters do, a degrading. Now the dust has settled and Thom Yorke is going a bit grey (though looking better than ever, might I add) Radiohead have sunk more comfortably into their place as A Very Good Band, for my money, The Best Band Of All Time. And maybe it’s my issue, maybe a reader won’t understand what I’m quibbling about here. It’s like when your mate starts dating someone and is so insanely obsessed with them, never shuts up about them, moves heaven and earth for them constantly, is already talking about marriage and kids, and you think ‘that’s a bit mad’. My love for Yorke and the gang is deep, long-lasting and built on sincere affection.
My other worry is that some people are still stuck in 2000. I recoil slightly at fifty-year-olds dressed up as punks unironically; it seems the least punk thing in the world. I would hate for fans of perhaps the most progressive and forward-thinking mainstream act of their generation to get stuck. When praise and wider attitudes to bands get so totalizing, so utterly deifying, where else is there to go? And how much damage are we doing by searching for the new Radiohead in groups that look and sound like old Radiohead? In fact, when one comes to think of it: massive artistic leaps on albums, perception-shifting innovation within a well-known genre, socio-political profundity, peaks of work considered essentially perfect…it seems to me that the only rightful inheritor to the crown might be a rapper from Compton, and I’m not the only one to be looking at a certain good kid from a mad city for the path forward, but there’s a different story.
The truth is, there has never been a better time to be a fan of Radiohead. One has all of this superlative back catalogue to trawl through without the neighing and braying of contemporary hipsters and trend-chasers drowning out the music itself. But isn’t it wonderful to have human beings making art that is so extraordinary that we all get in a twist even about how to express our love for it? These debates and turf-wars become just as much a part of the band’s mythology as anything else.
Innovation as a marker will always wither away over time. If one goes back to Kid A now it’s hard to understand how it was seen as so sonically radical; it sounds much like a lot of mainstream indie music being produced now. But what doesn’t fade is heart, and soul, and beauty. And the band seem incapable of not filling their music with these traits.
In essence, I think over writing this I’ve realised I rather love that Pitchfork piece. I love how ludicrous and insufferable it is. I love that anyone would feel the need to say that about an album. I think the world would probably be a bit poorer without voices like that, and without people like me to roll our eyes at them.
I don’t attend to Radiohead as viciously and intensely as I once did. I know they will always be there when I need them. And when there’s that feeling you’re searching for, that specific wandering kind of pain in your belly, that ache of tender beauty you just can’t locate, put on that strange, alien record from the turn of the millennium, and, although time has passed, you’ll still find everything in its right place.