Radiohead – The Penny Drops.

Radiohead are a band whose entire catalogue will always attract detractors. In their early days I thought to myself “do we really need a middle-class low rent British grunge band?” I’m pointing to “Creep” here. A decent track, but not a patch on the American output that it aped? A competent band, but where did they belong?

“The Bends” was overshadowed by the Brit-Pop explosion. In hindsight, it is much stronger album than Oasis, Pulp or Blur (or Shed 7!) could ever dream of making. I have always liked “Just” from The Bends, but it wasn’t until I saw the band at Manchester Apollo in 2003 that the stark beauty of tracks like “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Nice Dream” actually hit me.  The band were playing at a venue way beneath their true size. It was a veritable love-in. I’ve never seen so many delirious fans at a gig. Strangers were talking to each other beaming with joy. I wonder if this happened in London?

“O.K. Computer” sees the band – for many – at their artistic peak? The stark power of “Paranoid Android” sounds like a post punk Pink Floyd have risen unexpectedly and emerged to take an unlikely crown circa 1997. Lush production and moments of pure charge with minimal murmurings in equal measure. The album shifted some serious units.

Forward to 2000 and the band attempt to push a self-destruct button? “Kid A” is undeniably a difficult album. On the albums first listen you do think to yourself “what are they doing?”. It appears the band are trying too hard to venture down a Boards Of Canada / Avrocar route. It is a brave album – and I am open to experimentation – very much so – but for Radiohead – the jump was too big?

A mere year later and the band were back. “Amnesiac” affirmed the “Kid A” direction. It was more of the same with more electronic jazz added to that mix. “Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box” has real menace in the vocal. The music bleeps and challenges your ears.

Working (still) in a record shop for the duration of the releases of albums 2,3,4 & 5 a sales pattern emerged. “The Bends” sold slowly then notably picked up. “O.K. Computer” was a big seller from the off then sold in very large units. “Kid A” sold a lot in the 1st week then dipped alarmingly. “Amnesiac” was met with near apathy.

I thought to myself, they’re a great band but they’ve shot themselves in the foot. Then in late 2001 the band did a special show broadcast live on the BBC for Jools Holland. Only then did the whole catalogue make sense – it gelled. Working in a record store for seven years had killed my love for music. I quit the job and went to University. I listened to Radio 5, I was bored of music.

As the band opened (the Jools Holland special) with “The National Anthem” the track made so much more sense than the version on “Kid A”. Delving into “Morning Bell” and my love for music was coming back. It was coming back strong – calling me like you cannot ignore a sick person calling for help – and the control they have over you – my eyes were fully on the screen – my ears were open wide. Johhny Greenwood appeared to be playing a television (check out the YouTube video), this was experimentation and musicianship properly merging. Guitar licks echoed Bauhaus. The band were nodding to so many musical areas it was fairly hard to take in how good the performance was developing.

“Lucky” sits oddly on “O.K. Computer”, it was recorded initially for the War Child album? – but on this live performance, like the preceding tracks it begins to take on a stronger dimension. It showcases what the band can do and so many others struggle to attain – the music soars. 

After half expecting to be bored by the televised show I was pretty transfixed. “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” solidifies how strong the material on “Amnesiac” was / is. For a relatively humble, artistic looking band the vocal delivers real brewing menace.

“No Surprises” and its familiarity is lapped up by the audience. You begin to feel the pure strength of the bands back catalogue. “Dollars & Cents” rambles with artistic imagery. Radiohead move away from the norm again. This is not a bad thing.

“Life In A Glass” unashamedly features the late Humphry Lyttleton and wanders into pure freefalling jazz. The band are pushing boundaries here and it should be fully applauded. No laurels are being rested upon.

Then, back to the more familiar music with Exit Music (For A Film). In 2001 the track sounds far more accomplished than the “O.K. Computer” offering. The bass has more obtuse edge. Thom Yorke’s vocal again soars, as he stares at the end of the track all doubts of artistic merit go out of the window.

“I Might Be Wrong” suggests “Amnesiac” had more rock n roll potential than that the studio recording suggested. Not a stand out moment but assured, the picture widens.

“Street Spirit (Fade Out)” works in a way a fingerpicking song just shouldn’t. Again the strength of the earlier material is suggested, yes, we all knew the track – but did we remember it being this good?

“Paranoid Android” sweeps aside any pretenders to the sound the band can create. Muse? No thanks. Venemous, lush, controlled chaos the track sprawls and burns. A deserved favourite for many. “Kicking screaming Gucci little piggy”. Near Genius.

Daring to beatbox – “Idioteque” makes you want to dig out “Kid A” immediately. It was never this good was it? The line “take the money and run” resonates. Radiohead did not take the money and run, they went off on an artistic adventure.

A very warm performance of “Everything In Its Right Place” sees Johnny Greenwood visibly sample Thom Yorke’s live vocal. The experimentation for a band that achieved so much success cannot be applauded enough – could you see U2 doing this? Thought not.

“Pyramid Song” has a strong set to follow as the band re-emerge. “Talk Show Host”, essentially a B-Side from “The Bends” era gets a rare airing. “You And Who’s Army” is muted, gentle and earnest.

Full band mode again. “How To Disappear Completely” is a post rock classic that nails where the band where at in 2001. Initially bland the magic is the vocal soaring over chords progressing in the tracks last quarter. Astonishing.

“Knives Out” is cheekily dedicated to all the journalists that “listened to Kid A once”. Maybe they hadn’t shot themselves in the foot after all.

A triumphant version of “The Bends” ends the set. It is a triumph.

Right. I didn’t mean to write all that. Just got carried away a tad.

From 2001 onwards I rated Radiohead much higher than I ever had done. The band are roughly two years my senior – for the first time it made sense what they were doing.

“Hail To The Thief” treads nearer to their late 90’s output and steps away from Kid A / Amnesiac. I do rate 2+2 = 5 and the album in general is accessible and quality.

I would / do quite strongly argue that the bands best album is “In Rainbows”. Many will disagree with this – but this is the only time the post Kid A material blends with their early accessibility as a studio recording.

From the clatter of “15 Step”  through to the subtle “Videotape” the whole album works. The sound sounds finished – its like a coming full circle. I’d say the stand out track is “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” – the chord progression, the vocal delivery – and the sheer melancholy of it. It sounds like The Smiths have popped up in 2007 with a better lead singer.

I have listened to “King Of Limbs” twice – and I just don’t get it – maybe in 5 years time it’ll all make sense again…

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