Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise
The Searchers: Radiohead's unquiet revolution
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, August 20 and 27, 2001.
On a hot day in May, the city of Bilbao was shaken by a velvety roar, not unlike the sound of a jet plane waiting on a tarmac. At one end of Calle de Iparraguirre, which cuts across the town, the silver shell of the Guggenheim Museum was glistening in the sun. For a moment, it seemed as if the noise were coming from there—as if the building were about to lift off and rocket elsewhere. In fact, the source of the disturbance was a local bullring, the Vista Alegre, where a German experimental d.j. named Christoph de Babalon was testing his gear. He was the opening act for Radiohead, a five-man rock band from Oxford, England. Radiohead fans were gathered at the entrance, staring up at the sound and asking what it meant. One had on a Kafka T-shirt, and others wore shirts with a Radiohead logo, which can only be described as a demon in tears.
A side door led to a concrete corridor, where the bulls run on an ordinary day. From there, planks reached out to a temporary stage. Christoph was in the center, eying his mixer and his CD players. With ice-blond hair and black sunglasses, he looked like a young Bond villain, but he turned out to be a friendly, chatty sort of sonic terrorist. "I am familiar with dark, small clubs," he said after the sound check. "Now it is like I am in a gladiator film." He mentioned some of his musical influences, which included avant-garde figures like Merzbow and the composer Morton Feldman. "Sometimes I work with beats, sometimes with layers," he said. "Tonight I do layers."
Popular music in the year 2001 is in a state of suspense. No one can say where the mystery train is going. On the one hand, the Top Forty chart is overrun with dancers, models, actors, and the like; on the other hand, there are signs that pop music is once again becoming a safe place for creative musicians. The world fame of Radiohead is a case in point. Having established themselves with tuneful guitar rock in the nineties, the members of this band took the risk of doing as they liked, and they discovered things about the marketplace which others had missed. Last year, they released an album titled "Kid A," an eerily comforting blend of rock riffs, jazz chords, classical textures, and electronic noise, which, in a demolition of conventional wisdom, went to No. 1 on the Billboard chart. "Amnesiac," its like-minded successor, came out in June and is doing just as well. Radiohead's selling point is not their identification with any one genre but their way of ranging over music as a whole. They have intensity, intelligence, a personality in sound. In Bilbao, they were present in spirit before they played. The idea of placing a German d.j. in a Spanish bullring was Radiohead to the core—a tricky, eclectic song waiting to happen.
Christoph went to his dressing room, and the stage was empty for a while. Two shirtless old men sat on stone steps, looking as though they had not moved since Franco died. Radiohead's gear basked in the sun. On the left-hand side was a rack of guitars—twenty-three in all. Up front, in an area set aside for Ed O'Brien, one of three guitarists in the band, was a tangle of pedals, samplers, and inch-thick cords. In the center of the stage, to be shared by Colin Greenwood, the bass player, and Thom Yorke, the singer, were various keyboards, a piano, and an upright bass. Equipment for Colin's younger brother, Jonny Greenwood, stood on the right: more guitars, more keyboards, a xylophone, a transistor radio, a sci-fi stack of analog synthesizers, and a modified ondes martenot, one of the earliest electronic instruments. The ondes martenot is controlled by a ring that slides along a wire; fewer than a hundred people have mastered it, and Jonny is one. The only really conventional-looking apparatus was the drum set, although you could tell by some distress on the edges of the drums that the player, Phil Selway, had attacked the sides as well as the skins.
Backstage, the members of Radiohead were eating dinner. Colin Greenwood hovered over the catering table, inspecting an array of Basque dishes. He is typical of the group in that he looks nothing like a celebrity who has sold fifteen million records. He is thirty-two years old, with jet-black hair and large, kindly eyes. He is easily distracted and delighted by the world around him, favoring the words "mad," "brilliant," and "amazing"—the last spoken with a long, liquid stress on the second syllable. He has a habit of suddenly burying his face in his hands, as if he were sinking into despair, or falling asleep; after a moment, his face lights up again. Lavishly well-read, he can talk at length about almost any topic under the sun—Belgian fashion; the stories of John Cheever; the effect of different types of charcoal on barbecued meat—but he gets embarrassed by his erudition and cuts himself off by saying, "I'm rambling." He is not above wearing a T-shirt that says "Life's a beach and then you shag." You might peg him as a cultish young neo-Marxist professor, or as the editor of a hip quarterly. But he is a rock star, with several Web pages devoted to him.
"It's full on out there, isn't it?" Greenwood said, looking toward the bullring, which was filling up with fans. "I'm scared." He occupied himself by talking about "Faust's Metropolis," Alexandra Richie's thousand-page history of Berlin. Outside, Christoph began to play for real, and was received in bemused silence.
An hour later, Radiohead hit the stage with a confidence that had been invisible before the show. The sound was huge, but it was awash in colors, contrasts, and detail. It was grand in effect, cool in tone, dark in mood. The set was a mixture of older tunes, from the band's breakthrough albums of the mid-nineties—"The Bends" and "OK Computer"—and newer ones, from "Kid A" and "Amnesiac." The old songs had choruses that the fans knew by heart, but the new ones, which have been described as "anti-commercial" in the rock press, made the crowd dance harder. "Idioteque" set off fierce rhythmic clapping, even though it was dominated by jagged beats, computer-music samples, and squawks from the old-school synths. It must have helped that the singer, when he was done singing, launched into a demonically silly dance, kicking his legs as if someone were firing a gun at his feet. It may also have helped, on an unconscious level, that love-drunk chords from "Tristan und Isolde" lurked at the heart of the song, courtesy of a Paul Lansky composition called "Mild und Leise."
In the middle of the set, Radiohead played a song called "Airbag," which showed why this band is taken as seriously as any since the Beatles. It was a rugged ritual, full of cabalistic exchanges, with each player taking a decisive role. Jonny started off with a melody that snaked along in uneven time — one-two-three-one-two-three-one-two — and swayed between A major and F major. O'Brien added leaner, brighter curlicues on guitar. Selway came in with a precise but heavily syncopated beat. Then Yorke began to sing, in a well-schooled, plaintive voice, an oblique account of a near-fatal collision: "In the next world war / In a jackknifed juggernaut / I am born again." At the mention of war, Colin let loose a jumpy bass line, giving a funky spin to the hymns in the treble. The music cut through a jumble of verses and choruses, then held fast to a single chord, as Yorke fell into synch with O'Brien's chiming lines. Just before the end, Colin grinned, leaped in the air a couple of times, and seized hold of his brother's tune, the one that had set the song in motion. The doubling of the theme had a kind of thunderous logic, as if an equation had been solved. The interplay was as engaging to the mind as anything that has been done in classical music recently, but you could jump up and down to it.
In the old days, rock bands had a haircut, a lingo, a house style. The disconcerting thing about Radiohead is that its members do not really look or act alike. They are basically a group of smart English guys in their late twenties and early thirties. They read books, but they also check the football scores. Three are married; two have kids; all live in Oxford, where they grew up. Thom Yorke, who writes most of the songs, is compact, boyish, and impish; he has a lethally quick mind and a subtly powerful charisma. Ed O'Brien, almost a foot taller than Yorke, has the jutting jaw and floppy bangs of an actor in a period war movie; he is suave and direct and seems to have rolled in from a different posse. Jonny Greenwood, a lanky figure with unruly black hair, is more cautious than his brother Colin, but when he starts talking he excitedly involves himself in dense, Victorian sentences, biting clauses out of the air. Phil Selway is bald and sweet-faced, and talks in a gentle voice. He looks like the nice, ordinary one, but he often has a trace of a wicked smile.
How these five mildly eccentric young Englishmen became the Knights Templar of rock and roll is anyone's guess. They are not too sure themselves. "Everyone comes to us with their heads bowed, expecting to be inducted into the mystery of Radiohead," Selway said. He made a King Tut gesture with his arms. "We were hoist on our own petard with that. At a certain point, around 1997, we were simply overwhelmed and had to vanish for a bit. This was our honest reaction to the situation we were in. But some people thought we were playing a game, or had started taking ourselves too seriously. Really, we don't want people twiddling their goatees over our stuff. What we do is pure escapism."
What happened to Radiohead in 1997 was that they caught a wave of generational anxiety. The album "OK Computer," with titles like "Paranoid Android," "Karma Police," and "Climbing Up the Walls," pictured the onslaught of the information age and a young person's panicky embrace of it. Yorke's lyrics seem a mixture of overheard conversations, techno-speak, and fragments of a harsh diary: "I trust I can rely on your vote"; "An airbag saved my life"; "Ambition makes you look pretty ugly." The songs offered images of riot police at political rallies, anguished lives in pretty suburbs, yuppies freaking out, sympathetic aliens hovering overhead. Yorke even dared to describe the feeling of letdown that follows a blast of hype, such as the one his band was producing. "When it comes, it's so-so," he sang. "It always ends up drivel." The album sold more than four million copies worldwide, enabling the group to become, by 1999, an independent operation. Radiohead were the poster boys for a certain kind of knowing alienation—as the Talking Heads and R.E.M. had been before.
Radiohead remain a magnet for misfits everywhere, but their outsider status is only a part of their appeal. What fans seem to like, even more than the content of the songs, is the sense that the band members have labored over every aspect of the product. They are skilled, first of all, at inventing the kinds of riddles that teen-agers enjoy unravelling. The records, the videos, the official Web site, even the T-shirts all cry out for interpretation. Why are words spelled funny? What are all these charts and diagrams? What about the grinning bears and crying Minotaurs? "We liked worrying over that kind of thing when we were kids, and we're still in the same mind-set a lot of the time," Selway said. "But it's a bit incidental. We're dead set on the music. That's the thread running through this whole thing. We met at school playing music together, and we still get together over music now. We like solving musical puzzles. That's what Thom gives us."
A Radiohead song is usually written in three stages. First, Yorke comes up with a rough sketch; then Jonny, who studied classical composition in school, fleshes out the harmony; finally, the others digest it for a while, working out their parts on their own. It can be months, even years, before a song comes together in a way that satisfies all of them. Take away any one element—Selway's flickering rhythmic grid, for example, fierce in execution and trippy in effect—and Radiohead are a different band. The five together form a single mind, with its own habits and tics—the Radiohead Composer. This personality can be glimpsed in the daily bustle of the group, but you can never meet it face to face, because it lives in the music. A lot of what has been written about Radiohead—there are six books, hundreds of magazine articles, and millions of words on the Internet—circles around an absent center.
During Radiohead's recent tours, the best picture of the band at work came during the sound checks. Yorke led these pre-show rituals with the assurance of a seasoned conductor with limited rehearsal time. He'd shout "Next!" just as a song was building to its climax. All problems had to be addressed on the spot. At one point, Colin said, "That's something we can work on later," whereupon Yorke muttered to himself, and Colin added, a little wearily, "It is also something we can work on now." There were moments, though, when Yorke was at a loss. Once, during a run-through of "The Tourist," he forgot the final chord, and so did everyone else—including Jonny, who had written the song. "Does anyone have a copy of 'OK Computer'?" Yorke called out. No one did. The Composer was taking a nap. A couple of weeks later, the problem still hadn't been solved. "Shall we nominate an ending and play through it to see what it sounds like?" O'Brien said, impatiently. "What do you have in mind?" Yorke said. "D7, perhaps?" "O.K., let's try it."
On their days off, Radiohead dissolve into literate anarchy. They buzz with curiosity, pepper strangers with questions, digest the answers, and wander off on their own. On the day after the Bilbao show, they took a ramble around the city, and the city was caught off guard. One stop was the Guggenheim, where they had an unsuspecting tour guide named Maria. While Maria was still trying to muster everyone in one place, Colin began reciting facts about the structure: "The limestone had to be cut by a computer. Each curve has its own algorithm. I read an article somewhere. The A/C is fucking brilliant, man. Air pumps out of that vent way up there and goes all the way down here." When Colin arrived in front of Richard Serra's massive steel sculptures, he declared that one of the pieces had gone missing from its usual place. "This is wrong," he said. "There should be a second plate bisecting the first." Selway and O'Brien started making fun of him—"Can't have gone far"; "Call lost and found"—but Maria confirmed that, in fact, the sculptures had been rearranged. As Radiohead fanned out through the museum, clumps of fans in "Kid A" T-shirts followed at a respectful distance. The group slowly disintegrated, and Maria gave up. At the exit, she said sternly, "Not once this entire time have you all been together." Yorke smiled sympathetically and replied, "Not the first time, won't be the last."
The same day, the band had a meal at a restaurant called Etxebarri, in the hills above Bilbao. The conversation was an intelligent blur, jumping from high to low and back again. On one side of the table, Jonny was talking about twentieth-century classical music. "I've been listening to a CD of Berg's 'Lulu' Suite," he said, picking at a plate of lettuce. "I'm killing myself because I forgot to bring my Messiaen." Jonny is fascinated by Olivier Messiaen, the late French composer; it is because of Messiaen that he became interested in the ondes martenot, which is featured in many of the composer's works. "I heard the 'Turangalîla Symphony' when I was fifteen," Jonny went on, "and I became round-the-bend obsessed with it. I wish I could have met him or shaken his hand. I did get to meet his sister-in-law, the ondeiste Jeanne Loriod. I'm learning Messiaen's 'Trois Petites Liturgies' for a performance in London." Jonny also mentioned a meeting with Esa-Pekka Salonen, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who wants Radiohead to write a work for him.
On the other side of the table, Yorke, whose meal consisted of a bowl of bean soup, started complaining about pop-music conglomerates. He and the rest of the band have become politically outspoken, protesting globalization and corporate capitalism. The previous night, he had dedicated "No Surprises"—which contains the lines "Bring down the government / They don't speak for us"—to George W. Bush. This summer, Radiohead have chosen to play a number of open-air venues—such as Liberty State Park, in Jersey City, where they are appearing on August 16th and 17th—because these sites have so far escaped the tentacles of an aggressive promotion company called S.F.X., whose parent corporation, Clear Channel, also operates more than a thousand radio stations.
"S.F.X. is a parasite that needs a host to feed on," Yorke said.
"It's effective only as long as it keeps growing," O'Brien added. "At some point, it will cease growing, and then its reason to exist will disappear."
"No," Yorke said, "it's a virus that's just going to keep spreading forever."
Chris Hufford, one of the band's managers, who has to negotiate with viruses on the phone, grew impatient. "This is reality, Thom," he said. "This is the marketplace we're in."
"No," Yorke replied, "the marketplace is where we sell records. This isn't the marketplace. It's an area of, I don't know, oversight."
"Come on," Hufford said, "it's capitalism, it's what we have to work with."
"Bollocks!" Yorke yelled. He got up in a mock huff to go to the bathroom. Colin looked up from his steak and gestured toward the wine in the middle of the table. "Brilliant!" he exclaimed. "Booze in the afternoon!"
That night, Radiohead got on a bus to go to their next gig, in the French village of Vaison-la-Romaine. They played a show at a magnificent Roman amphitheatre there, and then went to Verona, in Italy, where they performed for a crowd of fifteen thousand in the legendary Arena, displacing scenery for "Aida" onto the piazza. Along the way, they made on-the-fly recordings with Nigel Godrich, their young, wizardly producer, on assorted Apple PowerBooks; appeared on a popular BBC radio show called "Mark & Lard," where they were required to shout the phrase "Biggity-biggity-bong!"; greeted a radio-contest winner who hailed Yorke as "a genius" and "sincere"; and avoided some overzealous fans who hollered, "We have come all the way from Venezuela, give us your autograph!" even though they had French accents and were not from Venezuela. There were also quiet moments here and there, as when they sat in a hotel lobby reading the English papers, sun streaming on the marble, and seemed to be fulfilling Colin's notion of the band as "the E. M. Forster of rock."
Radiohead began at Abingdon School, a boys' school outside Oxford. Abingdon has a history dating back to the twelfth century, but it is not an élite bastion on the order of Eton or Winchester. Its students tend to come from the Thames Valley region, rather than from all over England, and many rely on scholarships. The members of Radiohead were born into ordinary middle-class families: Yorke's father was a chemical-equipment supplier; Jonny and Colin's father served in the Army. They were, basically, townies—the kids on the other side of the ancient walls. Even at Abingdon, they felt out of place. The headmaster of the school, Michael St. John Parker, cultivated a pompous manner that many alumni—not just Radiohead—remember less than fondly. Parker is still in charge, and has described the school spirit in these terms: "Competition is promoted, achievement is applauded, and individual dynamism is encouraged."
In schools of this kind, many students gravitate to the art, music, and drama departments, where the sense of discipline is looser. For Radiohead, the saving grace of Abingdon was an exceptional teacher named Terence Gilmore-James, who headed the music program. "I was a sort of leper at the time," Yorke recalled, "and he was the only one who was nice to me." Yorke was born with his left eye paralyzed; in his childhood, he endured a series of not entirely successful operations to correct it, and the oddity of his half-open eye made him a target for bullies. Tougher than he looked, he often fought back, but he preferred to disappear. "School was bearable for me because the music department was separate from the rest of the school," he said. "It had pianos in tiny booths, and I used to spend a lot of time hanging around there after school, waiting for my dad to come home from work." Other members of the band also studied with Gilmore-James and were encouraged by him. "When we started, it was very important that we got support from him," Colin said, "because we weren't getting any from the headmaster. You know, the man once sent us a bill, charging us for the use of school property, because we practiced in one of the music rooms on a Sunday."
The yen for freedom in Radiohead's sound owes a lot to Gilmore-James, who immersed his students in twentiethcentury classical music, avant-garde music of the postwar era, classic jazz, and film scores. Once, he had the school orchestra perform Richard Rodney Bennett's score for "Murder on the Orient Express" while the film was playing. He left Abingdon in 1987 to devote himself to the legacy of his father-in-law, the Welsh composer Mansel Thomas, whose music he is editing for publication. "I watch over Radiohead much as I watch over my children," he said in a phone call. He spoke with the fastidiousness of a lifelong teacher, and yet his tone was enthusiastic rather than dogmatic. "They were all of them talented boys, in the sense that they had more than average abilities to think for themselves. I was of a different generation, and I did not always grasp what they were after, but I knew that they were serious. And they were delightful to be around, always getting carried away by their latest discoveries. Whenever I see them"—his voice became firm—"I tell them that they must continue to pursue their own original line."
In the schoolboy cadre of Radiohead, Yorke was the bossy one from the start. His very first words to Selway at rehearsal were "Can't you play any fucking faster?" The band's early songs were all over the map, sounding variously like the Smiths, R. E. M., Sonic Youth, and the Talking Heads, whose song "Radio Head" gave the group its name. (At first, they performed under the name On a Friday, but they wisely changed their minds.) The strongest influence came from the Pixies, the incontestably great but never world-famous Boston band whose gritty, brainy songs, shaded soft and loud, also inspired Nirvana. Even as the boys wandered off to university, they got together over weekends, practicing, arguing, and searching for a style. In 1991, Hufford, the co-owner of an Oxford sound studio, came to hear them play, at a place called the Jericho Tavern, and was mesmerized by Yorke's dire energy onstage. He and his partner Bryce Edge produced a demo tape and signed on as managers. Colin, who was working at a record store, gave the tape to Keith Wozencroft, a sales rep for EMI, who moved to A. & R. shortly afterward and began to tout the band. They signed with EMI later that year.
"I was getting ready to quit EMI when these lads appeared," Carol Baxter, Radiohead's international record-company representative, recalled. "Bunch of disturbed consumptives, I thought. But they were ambitious and smart. At first, I had to hide my Radiohead paperwork behind the Tina Turner and Queensrÿche files, because my boss thought I was wasting my time. Then the call came in, from Israel, actually, saying that the band had a hit." Tim Greaves, Radiohead's longtime tour manager, commented on the band's overnight success. "The funny thing about Radiohead early on was that they were more famous abroad than in England," he said. "They'd go around in a van, playing in sweaty little clubs. Then they'd go to Israel and they were rock stars. Same in America. Then it was back to England, back to the van, back to the clubs. They had a good early introduction to the relativity of fame. Fame for this band is a holiday that lasts a few weeks."
Radiohead's ticket to fame was a song called "Creep." It became a worldwide hit in 1993, when grunge rock was at its height. The lyrics spelled out the self-lacerating rage of an unsuccessful crush: "You're so fucking special / I wish I was special / But I'm a creep." The music was modelled on Pixies songs like "Where Is My Mind?": stately arpeggios, then an electric squall. What set "Creep" apart from the grunge of the early nineties was the grandeur of its chords—in particular, its regal turn from G major to B major. No matter how many times you hear the song, the second chord still sails beautifully out of the blue. The lyrics may be saying, "I'm a creep," but the music is saying, "I am majestic." The sense of coiled power is increased by several horrible stabs of noise on Jonny Greenwood's guitar. Radiohead have stopped playing "Creep," more or less, but it still hits home when it comes on the radio. When Beavis of "Beavis and Butt-head" heard the noisy part, he said, "Rock!" But why, he wondered, didn't the song rock from beginning to end? "If they didn't have, like, a part of the song that sucked, then, it's like, the other part wouldn't be as cool," Butt-head explained.
"Creep," as Butt-head must have noticed, was the first of many Radiohead songs that used pivot tones, in which one note of a chord is held until a new chord is formed around it. (In the turn from G to B, the note B is the pivot point.) "Yeah, that's my only trick," Yorke said, when this was pointed out to him. "I've got one trick and that's it, and I'm really going to have to learn a new one. Pedals, banging away through everything." But a reliance on pedal tones and pivot tones isn't necessarily a limitation: the Romantic composers worked to death the idea that any chord could turn on a dime toward another. Yorke's "pedals" help give Radiohead songs a bittersweet, doomy taste. ("Airbag," for example, being in A major, ought to be a bright thing, but the intrusion of F and C tones tilts the music toward the minor mode. "Morning Bell" sways darkly between A minor and C-sharp minor.) It's a looser, roomier kind of harmony than the standard I-IV-V-I, and it gives the songs a distinct personality. It also helps sell records: whether playing guitar rock or sampling spaced-out electronica, Radiohead affix their signature.
Through the years, many bands have thrown bits and pieces of jazz and classical into their mix. The Beatles were by far the best at this kind of genre assimilation. Lesser psychedelic and prog-rock bands turned orchestral crescendos and jazz freak-outs into another brand of kitsch. But Radiohead's classical complexity isn't pasted on the surface; it's planted at the core. If you did a breakdown of the music, you'd find the same harmonic DNA everywhere. Another trademark is the band's use of musical space. Riffs are always switching registers, bouncing from treble to bass, breaking through the ceiling or falling through the floor. In "Just," from "The Bends," the Greenwood brothers play octatonic scales that sprawl over four octaves; the effect is of music looming miles above you.
There are times when Radiohead seem to be practicing a new kind of classical music for the masses. In the sessions for "Kid A" and "Amnesiac," which began in 1999 and dragged on for a year and a half, their sound became bewitchingly intricate. On "Pyramid Song," for example, a string section played glissando harmonics, a texture that Stravinsky's "Firebird" made famous, while Selway laid on a shuffling rhythm that defies description, because, as he said, "there is no time signature." On "Dollars & Cents," O'Brien used a pedal to bend a chord from major to minor and back again. For "Like Spinning Plates," Yorke learned the vocal line of an unused song backward and made up new words while driving around in his car. The guitarists set aside their instruments for a while and taught themselves to use heaps of electronic equipment. In "Treefingers," on "Kid A," O'Brien generated something that sounded a lot like Jonny's beloved Messiaen. Both albums were also heavily influenced by jazz, especially by Mingus, Alice Coltrane, and Miles Davis in his fusion phase.
Behind this creative frenzy, however, was an ongoing debate about the direction of the band. The five of them often have to thrash out issues among themselves: how to balance tours with family life; how to keep the media at bay; how, simply, to get along. In this case, Yorke was fed up with the kind of verse-and-chorus music Radiohead had made throughout the nineties, and not everyone else agreed. O'Brien, in particular, thought that the band should return to the kind of classic guitar rock that by the end of the decade had become an endangered species. "There was a lot of arguing," Nigel Godrich recalled. "People stopped talking to one another. 'Insanity' is the word. In the end, I think the debate was redundant, because the band ultimately kept doing what it has always done—zigzagging between extremes. Whenever we really did try to impose an aesthetic from the outside—the aesthetic being, say, electronic—it would fail. All the drama was just a form of procrastination. Next time, three weeks, and we're out."
Radiohead may change direction once again. Several songs on "Amnesiac" stand out for their straight-ahead pop appeal. "I Might Be Wrong" is all snarling guitars; "Knives Out" goes back to the clean-cut heartbreak of the Smiths. The ominously beautiful "Pyramid Song" could almost be a variation on "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot":
I jumped in the river, what did I see?
Black-eyed angels swam with me. . . .
We all went to heaven in a little rowboat
There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.
This is very much Yorke's song, and it sounds best when he performs it alone, on an upright piano. You notice that he sings from the chest, breathing through his phrases. You also notice the plain mystery of his piano chords. Laced with suspended tones, they hang mysteriously in the air, somewhere between serenity and sadness. "I bought a piano after 'OK Computer,' at a time when picking up a guitar just didn't do anything for me at all," he says. "I bought a really flashy piano that I couldn't play at all. In true rock-star style." In fact, he gets a warm, mellow tone out of the piano, caressing rather than pounding the keys. He keeps his wrists high, as if Terence Gilmore-James were looking over his shoulder.
Yorke is the essential spark of the Radiohead phenomenon. Like all greatly gifted people, he is not always easy to be around. When a stranger approaches him, wanting unscheduled attention, he can be unsettlingly mute. He is, by his own admission, temperamental and chronically dissatisfied. But his fault-finding circles back to the music, which is why the other band members go along with it. When he is happy, it feels like history in the making. Curled up on a dressing-room sofa after a show, he comes across as warm, alert, and faintly mischievous. "It's nice when people talk to you as if you're a human being, rather than as if you'd just landed from another planet," he said. "We're fallible, this is fallible, sometimes we're shit, sometimes we're not. We want to kind of mellow it all out a bit. Just chill the fuck out." He grinned quickly, perhaps realizing that the last phrase was a contradiction in terms.
At the beginning of June, "Amnesiac" went on sale in the United States. There was mild Radiohead mania all over New York. The core audience was represented by Helen Weng, an eighteen-year-old from Long Island, who waited at the Virgin Megastore with her friend Melissa Torres to buy "Amnesiac" at a midnight sale. In her bag, she carried a letter from Thom Yorke, written in his own hand, with advice on how to make yourself happy. "It's good to know someone else has had the same feelings," she said, clutching the paper. Over at Fez, Justin Bond, the cross-dressing star of the scathingly brilliant cabaret duo Kiki & Herb, sang "Life in a Glasshouse," from "Amnesiac," even though the record was not yet in the stores. He attributed it to "Rodeohead, a very exciting young English rock ensemble," and rendered it as a demented torch song, which it already mostly was.
Radiohead's appeal to a cross-section of the American public defies the untranslatability of English pop. Steve Martin, a publicist for the band, explained it this way: "Americans don't go for 'cheeky.' We like earnest." Radiohead may be cagey, but they are never cheeky, and they are massively earnest. They have worked hard in America, logging time in the middle of the country as well as on the coasts. They are noted in the music business for being polite and unproblematic. A French hotel reservation of theirs extravagantly requested, "Extra towels." One hotel doorman described them as "nice, sharp-witted, entertaining young men. Not trash-headed and stupored, as you might expect." Despite the fatigue of their last big tours, in 1997 and 1998, they were game for America this summer.
"Sure, the last tour was bloody awful," Ed O'Brien said, "but that was where we were at mentally, not a reaction to America. This place is just too huge to generalize about. When I was in college, I took six months off to ride around in Greyhound buses, and I got a sense of it." He was excited about playing at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, in the foothills of the Rockies. "Basically, we've had a fantasy scenario of reënacting U2 live at Red Rocks," he said. "We watched the video a million times when we were kids and know every frame. 'This song is not a rebel song!' " He lifted his fist and let out a soft roar. Fans who worry that Radiohead are losing touch with rock and roll can always look to this man, who enjoys the role of the guitar hero, even if he also sometimes kneels down in front of his samplers and molds the music into a smear of color.
Radiohead checked into a Denver hotel on June 19th. Fans descended on Red Rocks the following morning, squatting on a half-mile flight of steps that leads to the arena. Down at the bottom was a group of college students, from Pepperdine and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Their names were Elke Goldstein, Amber Hollingsworth, Matt Duffy, and Kendall Lux. "Radiohead is music for miserable people who were dropped on the floor when they were little," Amber explained. "I don't know about that," Elke said. "I mean, that's the reputation, but are we miserable?" Munching on carrots, they did not look miserable.
Matt delivered a critique of the band, speaking rapidly, as if from memory. "Thom is suffering from Bono syndrome," he said. "Getting political. What's he doing hanging out with Bono? What's Bono doing hanging out with presidents and the Pope? He's a rock singer, damn it! Here's the difference between U2 and Radiohead: U2 says, 'The world sucks, and we have to change it,' whereas Radiohead says, 'The world sucks and not much can be done about it. The world is lame, ridiculous.' " Elke rolled her eyes. "May-be," she said. Matt barrelled on: "Their records are put out by EMI, a multinational conglomerate, so it's hard to see how they can attack capitalism from that position. 'Kid A' and 'Amnesiac'? Ambient blueprints for music we haven't quite heard yet. Thom listens to Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, the whole Warp Records back catalogue. 'Packt Like Sardines'—what's that, one pattern stuck in a groove? But when they play it we're all going to go, 'Yeah!' No one can really say why they like them. Yet here we are."
In a matter of minutes, Matt had summed up everything that has been written about Radiohead in the past few years. Rock critics, like adolescent fans, have feisty friendships with the bands they admire, lacing hero worship with contempt. It's one thing to hear this from a college student; it's another to read it in cold print, in all its meandering incoherence. If some magazines didn't use rating systems, you would have no idea what the reviewers thought. The magazine Q, for example, gave "Amnesiac" four stars and then called it "numb, petty, desolate." Spin wrote, "They're just trying to get home in one piece, life is but a dream. Fa fa fa. Blip blip." Rating: 7 out of 10. Some of the criticism has been peculiarly personal, especially in England. Melody Maker once said that Yorke was "marked for destruction" and suggested that he might end up killing himself, like Kurt Cobain. As a result, the singer has developed an aversion to English rock writers, and they, in turn, have goaded him at every turn. Ill feelings all around have led to unrecognizable profiles in which the band seems to be composed of curmudgeons.
At Red Rocks, Radiohead agreed to sit down for a rare collective interview with a journalist. A brave young MTV correspondent named Gideon Yago showed up to interrogate them. A Queens native who started working at MTV at the age of twenty-one, Yago has loved Radiohead since his teens. He had a sheaf of notes on his clipboard, including a chart of the band members' personalities. O'Brien and Selway struck him as "the sensible ones"; the Greenwood brothers he pegged as "will eat you alive." He wasn't sure what to make of Yorke. His impressions were based largely on a Radiohead tour documentary, "Meeting People Is Easy," which came out in 1998. This unpleasant film was a kind of counterstrike against the music press, recording scores of pointless interviews with dead-tired members of the band. During one of them, Colin seemed ready to lapse into a coma. "I don't want to be just another dolt with a microphone," Yago said. "Like the guy in the movie who asks Thom if he got to talk to Calvin Klein."
Yago knew a lot about music and a lot about Radiohead, but when the cameras rolled he elected to keep much of his knowledge hidden. "Remember," his producer, Liane Su, told him, "you're not an expert, you're just a fan." The fans wanted to know whether the band thought it was experimenting too much, why "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" hadn't been released as a double album, what all the songs on "Amnesiac" meant. Radiohead did snap at Yago once or twice, as when he characterized "Amnesiac" as "a collection of outtakes from the 'Kid A' sessions," and Selway shot back, "Try again!" But the mood was relaxed, for the most part. Yago got them all to laugh when he introduced a question from a so-called "Stanley from Coney Island," which read, "How do you guys feel about the fact that bands like Travis, Coldplay, and Muse are making a career sounding exactly like your records did in 1997?" Yorke cupped his hand around his mouth and called out, "Good luck with 'Kid A'!" When the interview was over, Yago looked shell-shocked but relieved. "That was relatively painless," the journalist said, gulping down a Molson.
Last month, Radiohead returned home to play in South Park, a broad meadow outside the center of Oxford. It was a drizzly day, and the towers of the university were gray lumps in the distance. The event was a kind of mini-festival, mostly given over to performances by bands that Radiohead admired. Like other summer festivals, it had kebab stands, beer huts, and T-shirt booths. Forty-four thousand fans, mostly in their teens and twenties, sat on the lawn. After a few hours, the grass was carpeted with plastic-foam cups, each one displaying the "Amnesiac" logo. To an outsider, it might have seemed like just another messy rock show.
It wasn't. At about four o' clock, Humphrey Lyttelton, the eighty-year-old jazz trumpeter, appeared onstage. After a few words of introduction, he and his band launched into a deft set of Armstrong and Ellington numbers. A guy in a "Blur: Are Shite" T-shirt shouted, "You're great!" Next up was Sigur Rós, a group of Icelandic musicians, who play a kind of mystic-minimalist rock that builds to climaxes over five- and ten-minute spans. In the half-mile-long line of people who were shuffling toward the "Alcoholic Fresh Juices" stand, every other face was lost in wonder at the gentle power of the chords. South Park had been overtaken by the Radiohead ethic—a love of far-flung sounds, a knack for sinuous juxtapositions, a faith in the audience's ability to take it all in.
Something about Radiohead inspires a disorienting kind of hope. Unlike so many professional cynics in the business, these musicians believe that their art can go still higher. They have promoted dozens of lesser-known, musically inventive acts, including Autechre, the Beta Band, Clinic, Kid Koala, Lali Puna, Low, Sparklehorse, and, of course, Christoph de Babalon. They have also boosted favorite authors, helping to sell thousands of copies of Naomi Klein's anti-globalization screed "No Logo." The artists who appear on this roster have little or nothing in common, and that is what they have in common: they are a funky clamor of voices, not a line of products. Such guerrilla marketing is, in the end, a form of politics—a protest against the growing sameness of the cultural landscape. The sheer cussedness of the enterprise is amazing to behold. The loudest protest comes in Radiohead's own songs, which, next to the white noise of prefab pop, sound like the music of a hidden world, hymns from a sunken cathedral.
"Lots of really talented artists are being thrown by the wayside," Yorke had said during the American tour. "They are not being given the time of day, because they're not doing things that fit the moment. Madmen with machetes are chopping away at the wood—any wood, deadwood, doesn't matter. You want to slap people and say, 'Why don't you go back and look at all the beautiful things that have been made in the music business and realize that you have to have faith in people?' In the long run, the industry wants to make money, but if a company wants to make money then it has to take a risk. These people don't take risks. They make quick money and then that's it. And the world isn't a nicer place for it. What really makes me fucking spit blood is when people in the industry start complaining about how there's no talent around. I know it's there and you know it's there. But you are too shit scared to do anything about it."
Radiohead came onto the South Park stage at eight-thirty. It was not the most flawless show of the past few weeks, but it may have been the most intense. Yorke's voice glowed with emotion. If Terence Gilmore-James had been there, he would have been happy; you could hear how Radiohead's storm of sound was centered on a singing line. During "How to Disappear Completely," a drenching rain began to fall. The crowd, religiously attentive, stayed in place. Yorke appeared alone for the last number, and hit a few plangent chords. His instrument went dead. "Es ist kaputt, ja?" he said. "I have another idea." The others came back onstage, and together they launched into the familiar strains of "Creep," which had gone unplayed since 1998. G major wheeled majestically into B. Jonny made his Beavis-and-Butt-head noise. Yorke sang, "What the hell am I doing here?"
Afterward, in the dressing room, Yorke looked happy. "Don't know if you could tell," he said to Colin's wife, Molly, "but I was in tears for the last part of it." Then the perfectionist in him reawakened. "Horrible diesel smell coming from somewhere," he said.
The next day, Colin invited some friends over for brunch. He and Molly live in a semidetached house on an Oxford side street. This was the beginning of a three-week holiday for the band, and Colin faced the prospect of having nothing to do. "We might go to a movie," he said, as if he were going to the moon. He picked through some LPs and CDs, putting on Brad Mehldau. When someone asked him if he had got a sense of the crowd at South Park—it may have been the largest public gathering in the thousand-year history of Oxford—he rubbed his eyes and smiled. " 'Fraid not," he replied. "I was too busy looking at Phil's calves. That's where the beats are."