The first time I saw Thom Yorke play was in a corridor in a Hall of Residence at Exeter University in 1988. He was strumming a guitar to something like a Beatles song, and other drunken students were singing along. Before last Monday, the last time I saw Radiohead was under a semi-tropical cloudburst in Oxford’s South Park in July 2001. It’s been too long.
I understand why people don’t like Radiohead. Their songs can be non-traditional at best, Thom Yorke’s vocal style isn’t easy on the ear, and their musical experimentation leaves many people cold. Not to mention that they’ve been accused of being the inspiration for bands like Coldplay and Muse, in which case they do have quite a bit to answer for.
I understand why people don’t like Radiohead, but after seeing them in concert last week, I’m more convinced than ever that those people are wrong. This was the most affecting and effective performance I’ve ever seen. Radiohead are like an arthouse film auteur in a morass of lowest-common-denominator blockbusters-by-numbers. Here are a few reasons why I Reckon they’re the best, most adventurous and interesting band around…
Nothing is like the album…
If you turn up to Radiohead and are disappointed by not hearing all your favourites exactly as they sound off the album, maybe you shouldn’t be going to see them in concert. You’re clearly missing the point. Go and see The Rolling Stones instead.
Intimate, shuffling tracks from The King of Limbs (like Bloom & Lotus Flower) become super-charged, blasting soundscapes with driving beats and amazing lighting colour palettes. Feral and Idiotèque always promised to be dynamic live songs, and now they become genuine explosions of energy, complete with strobe lighting in bright green and white, a wall of sound and bass reverb, smashing percussion, and Thom Yorke’s manic stream-of-consciousness vocals and dancing ‘like noone’s watching’. Good Morning Mr Magpie also transforms from a subtle, almost gentle song on TKOL into a furious, breakneck rage, full of clanging guitars, as though they’d switched on their ‘Spinal Tap’ amps and turned everything up to 11.
Alternatively, Like Spinning Plates (almost completely electronic whirring and beeps in the studio) becomes a showcase for Thom’s rolling piano arpeggi with a beautiful hymn-like quality set to warm red-orange lighting. In Give Up The Ghost, he layers up different vocal lines such that he’s singing a four-part chorale with himself. This is one of my highlights of the whole show, wonderfully intimate, simply gorgeous.
Rhythm & Percussion
I’ve always thought Philip Selway was the most under-rated member of Radiohead, especially as traditional drums took a backseat to programmed beats and electronica during Kid A/Amnesiac. His performances on In Rainbows are nothing short of miraculous, and increasingly rhythms are at the heart of everything that Radiohead do well. They now have a ‘permanent’ second drummer onstage, and indeed in some songs four members of the band were beating out repeated, shifting layers of rhythm and syncopation. The overhead video images stayed fixed on twitching drumsticks, focusing our attention on every rim shot, every ripple of the hi-hat cymbals.
“Are you lost yet…?! Good!”
Just over half way through the concert, after a couple of rarer tracks strong on pulsing electronica and hypnotic lighting effects, Thom pauses to ask the audience how they’re keeping up. Apparently Radiohead get criticised for not playing more of their singalong songs more often, which I Reckon is like complaining that JK Rowling should write more of those nice books about wizards. From my vantage point it did feel like many of the people down in the standing section weren’t exactly getting into the music. Were they waiting for Creep or High & Dry?
Radiohead have never made consecutive albums that sound alike (except perhaps Kid A and Amnesiac, compiled out of the same recording sessions). Their tours don’t present their ‘greatest hits’ so much as their current musical world and its interpretation of their entire catalogue.
On Monday night at the O2, the 24 songs were culled from six albums spanning 15 years, plus two tracks not on albums and two new songs. So far, so very much like most other bands’ setlists. But the Big Difference is the choice of songs; nothing from the anthemic, verse-and-chorus The Bends, and only Karma Police representing anything like a ‘normal’ song. Many choices are the more obtuse, awkward, even inaccessible tracks. Both the extraordinarily bass-heavy Myxamotosis and the ambient twinkling and inaudible lyrics of Kid A came in the first five songs.
Bringing the music to life
While the stage set up looks pretty simple, the performance and presentation of these 24 songs is outstanding. A screen wall behind the band rises almost the whole height of the cavernous O2 Arena and create dramatic backdrops. Above these is a row of crystal clear video ‘squares’ that holds images, often cropped, of the band members, or sometimes elaborates on the visual theme for the song.
Hanging above the band and in front of the wall are more of these video screens. These move around between songs to form sometimes a low, intimate ceiling, focusing our attention on the band, or at other times a more epic feel, a grander space. The 12 screens offer awkward angles, voyeuristic viewpoints and closeups of Thom’s face, over Jonny Greenwood’s shoulder, fragments of the band and their performance. They are compelling and brilliant.
I am in awe of Mario Rimati for his beautiful set of images from a recent concert in Italy.
Each song has its own very deliberate lighting and colour palette to accompany the new arrangements. The restless, relentless 5/4 pulse of 15 Step starts blue and becomes a shocking pink midway through. After Thom introduces The Daily Mail as a song about “a quality newspaper” the stage is washed in furious red. Climbing up the Walls is perhaps the most disturbing song on OK Computer, and is genuinely menacing onstage as the distorted guitars and wall of sound are complemented by visual distortion in a sickly green, which again seems to explode into bright orange. The patterns during the spectral The Gloaming are spiky and harsh, while Separator and These are my Twisted Words are pulsing, softer patterns in red and turquoise, which constantly swirl and twist, creating almost hallucinatory effects, and probably motion sickness in some people…
Only when Nude opens, around halfway through the concert, do the images become static, giving our eyes some relief. This song (one of my favourites from my favourite album) is amazing, layers of sound building and building, topped by Thom’s astonishing falsetto that breaks through and silences the whole arena…
You’ll go to Hell for what your dirty mind is thinking…
Building to a Climax
The show, full of eclectic song choices and unapologetically avoiding the so-called ‘Hits’ is beautifully plotted. I Reckon any long-term fanboy (or girl) will have loved what it represented; a genuine, open and honest picture of where Radiohead are right now. As the main set finishes in a manic explosion of Feral and Idiotèque, the first encores start with the throbbing, virtually arhythmic piano chords of Pyramid Song, with Jonny Greenwood playing a guitar like a cello. Then there’s a brand new song, Staircase… I’m not sure how many bands choose to play new songs in a concert encore?! This features kinetic bass and percussion, which only serves as a warm-up for the frantic, furious Good Morning Mr Magpie, and a breakneck version of Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, which leads into the wonderful Reckoner, lit with dazzling silvers and golds.
This is dedicated to all of you…
The final few songs completely blow me away: the haunting vocal layers of Give Up The Ghost give way to a truly awesome version of There There, and the evening finishes with Everything in its Right Place. This is the song that opened Kid A, the album that followed the monster OK Computer, and shocked pretty much everyone in its apparent demolition of everything Radiohead had been, with its near-absence of guitars, melodies & choruses. Live, it’s an exercise in distortion and displacement. Thom’s vocals loop and fragment as if the sound system is broken and gradually the band leave the stage until only whirring electronic effects remain. It’s a stunning, complex, perfect finale.
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