- Radiohead have made the great leap to arena headliners, and they’ve redeemed my favorite album of theirs from its critics.
Last week I caught Radiohead at Madison Square Garden. I found myself with an extra ticket, and Emily, an intermittent Radiohead fan, came along. It was Emily’s first concert ever at the Garden – or, for that matter, at any venue that big. Taking in the spectacle of 20,000-plus people packed into the arena, she asked, “When did Radiohead get this big?”
I had a hard time coming up with a satisfactory answer. In a way, I’m as dumbfounded as Emily is. Radiohead’s tours just keep getting bigger; it’s not out of the question that they could be playing stadiums in a few more years. (Dave Matthews, watch your back.) Off the cuff, I theorized to Emily that Radiohead’s 1997 hit album OK Computer was the juncture at which the band made the great leap. But then I had to admit that OK Computer sold over a long, slow period, and the band sure wasn’t selling out hockey arenas in 1998. Radiohead’s two long-delayed follow-up albums, Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001), debuted high on the charts, but they confounded fans, divided critics, produced no radio hits and willfully messed with the band’s guitar-rock legacy. So it’s hard to say those records made the band an SRO attraction.
How exactly did Radiohead get here?
Radiohead have been crowned Most Important Band in the World by more than one pundit, but what separates them from, say, Björk is that they’re beloved by masses of people who have no use for “weird” music. People who love their rawk love the band, and unlike Nirvana, who were creeped out when baseball-cap-wearing frat boys started thronging their shows, Radiohead seem to have made peace with their type-A fans – while never playing down to them. At a Radiohead concert, you’ll get your wish for a “Karma Police” singalong, but not before you’ve been assaulted with squalls of feedback. You’d think that this sort of show would have an upper limit of mass appeal.
There’s really no point of reference for Radiohead’s popularity. U2 successfully executed a huge change-up in their sound in the ’90s, but they were already an arena-level act. R.E.M. grew gradually into arena rockers, but the trajectory of their sound and their pop profile accreted steadily from album to album. As for Radiohead’s career, if it were a diagram, the trend line would have more than one sharp angle.
Radiohead is one of the few ’90s bands to survive the conglomerate-era major-label system. (Arguably, only Weezer can compare.) Simply put, their label, Capitol, allowed them to fail: when Pablo Honey, their debut, got trashed by critics and produced no follow-up to the hit single “Creep”; when the sophomore album The Bends looked dead on arrival but was championed by legions of rock fans, even while it wasn’t selling; when OK Computer took more than a year to go platinum, relying on – how passé! – critics to get it there. Here we are, a decade after “Creep,” and only Radiohead is selling out the Garden. If there’s one band that bears out my long-held theory that the music business will only produce new, long-term superstars when it sticks through their fallow periods, it’s this one.
The trick for any group reaching this stage of a career is staying true to the small-rock ethic that got them where they are, while incorporating the grand gestures of the arena. For ’90s-era acts, which often arrived steeped in irony and cynicism, this is an especially tough transition; just ask Billy Corgan. Then again, there are acts that have pulled it off. I watched Beck execute the trick in the late ’90s, moving from tongue-in-cheek irony on his Odelay tour to big-rock earnestness on the Mutations and Midnite Vultures tours, while retaining his loveable goofball persona. Radiohead appear, finally, to have mastered this split-personality trick, too.
I wasn’t so sure they had it worked it out the last time I saw them. I first caught Radiohead in 2001, on a gorgeous summer night at Liberty State Park (a small New Jersey island a ferry ride away from Battery Park). That gathering of thousands, sprawling as it was, felt smaller and more hipsterish – sort of like a one-act Lollapalooza. It was also in keeping with Radiohead’s reputation as mercurial performers; they put on a great show but focused heavily on their then-recent album, Amnesiac, the prickliest album in their catalog. And speaking of prickliness, Thom Yorke, true to form, didn’t look like he was having a phenomenal time.
This year’s Radiohead tour, if the show I caught is any indication, is a completely different beast. It’s heartening when you observe an act you like stepping up and handling larger crowds. The music filled the cavernous Garden amply, thundering with old-fashioned rock muscle. The lights were moody and dramatic but not garish. The show made the best use of JumboTron screens I’ve ever seen – the band and crew found a way to employ them artfully, using odd camera angles, juxtaposing live images of the band and repeating computer art into a kind of twisted video collage. And, not incidentally, Yorke actually seemed to be enjoying himself, dancing around the stage, flirting with his microphone stand – occasionally, even the audience – and singing his ass off.
Returning to the Garden one week after a Fleetwood Mac show was, for me, a study in contrasts: where I was among the youngest attendees at the Mac concert, I was definitely smack-dab at the average age – maybe even a bit older – at the Radiohead show. The place was packed with 20somethings. This was not exactly the meat-and-potatoes crowd you’d find at a U2 show. But it wasn’t all hipsters, either: from older fans who hear echoes of Pink Floyd in Radiohead’s space-rock, to rocker-boys (and gals) who came to throw up fists, if not devil horns, a nice range of rock fandom was represented.
For me, the highlight of the show was the set list, because it vindicated an opinion of mine that I’d come to believe was well outside the mainstream: it focused heavily on Kid A. So help me God, at least two-thirds to three-fourths of that maligned 2000 album got played, and I am almost positive Kid A selections outnumbered those from any of Radiohead’s albums – even their current one, hail to the thief, which you’d think would be the focus of a 2003 concert. Imagine if U2 went out on tour right now and drew half their set list from Achtung Baby, ignored much of their most recent album and played only two songs from The Joshua Tree.
I adore Kid A. Just liking it as much as I do sets me apart from many Radiohead admirers. The follow-up to the widely adored OK Computer, Kid A was primed to be the band’s Achtung Baby, the change-up record that redefined the group – and brought fans along. But to many listeners, Kid A may as well have been their Metal Machine Music; a great number consider it unlistenable, atonal, meandering. In a now-infamous, article-length review of the album in The New Yorker, no less than High Fidelity author Nick Hornby savaged Kid A as being “self-indulgent” and accused Radiohead of a “failure of courage.” Obviously a number of fans and critics came to the album’s, and the band’s, defense, but the perception of Kid A as That Difficult Failure persists. A recent Blender roundup of mini-reviews surveying the band’s career rated Kid A not much higher than the band’s lame debut Pablo Honey.
To me, Kid A is like a warm bath, a deeply felt tone poem. Its noisier moments are of a piece with its more melodic ones, and the album has a tonal unity that none of Radiohead’s records enjoys. Anyone who’s heard even two tracks by Aphex Twin or the Orb has no right calling Kid A difficult; indeed, Kid A is a lot more approachable than much of the electronica we see on TV commercials or hear in clubs. There’s also no excuse for oldster rock fans like Hornby to hate the record. Frankly, there’s so much vibrato-heavy keyboard on it, I’m shocked that Who fans and Floyd fans don’t love it more. (I hate Floyd, but even I can hear the Dark Side of the Moon echoes.) Bottom line, Kid A is the only Radiohead album ripped in its entirety to my iPod, and it’s the only record by them that works for me as a complete piece, start to finish. Yeah, OK Computer fans, you read that right; what’s it to ya?
So imagine my delight when the band sprinkled its Garden set with songs like “Kid A” and “How to Disappear Completely” and “The National Anthem” and “Morning Bell” (the Kid A version, not the Amnesiac verion, thankyouverymuch), and even saved “Everything in Its Right Place” for the final encore set. It seemed like a concerted effort by the band to rescue their redheaded stepchild from lifelong scorn – and with three years passed since the album’s release, the timing was right. Whether you listen to Kid A regularly or never played it again after October 2000, hearing these songs translated for a crowd of thousands in a giant shed is a revelatory experience. My favorite track from the album, “Idioteque” (”Women and children first…This is really happening, happening”), was arguably the show’s highlight, moving from wiry tension to clattering rock and encapsulating the band’s strengths in five minutes flat.
Emily likes Radiohead’s soundscapes, too, but she’s not a fan of Thom Yorke’s voice. Yorke is big on the wordless falsetto croon – a showy vocal shtick that rock fans weaned on Bono innately love but which, to Emily, is like fingernails on a chalkboard. (Have I mentioned how much she hates U2?) “It’s like the guy from Coldplay,” she says. “His vocals seem to say, Look at meeeee!”
I respect Emily’s opinion – I’m more enamored of Yorke’s artistic leadership than his voice, truthfully – but I find it ironic that we’re now talking about Thom Yorke ‘03, showy frontman, rather than Thom Yorke ‘97, tetchy hipster. It’s not like Yorke just recently became an obnoxious egoist – the guy had a big head and a superior attitude from day one. But the man who once shrank from fans and sang about “How to Disappear Completely” is now projecting to the cheap seats, dominating the JumboTron. It should creep me out, but instead, I’m sort of happy for him. A band this big needs someone outsize fronting it, and it’s about time Thom Yorke grew up and really ran this band – not like a moody dictator, but like a benevolent capo.