Countdown to IN RAINBOWS Pt. 6a — THE ERASER

Continued from here:

It is early summer 2006.

I am walking down a road on San Juan Island, the main island in the group named after it, located near Vancouver Island. It is one of the most isolated parts of America (both the concept and the nation-state), and is a testimony to the weirdness of humanity as it grapples with geography. Reason being is it is the site of the best conflict ever fought anywhere, the Pig War, precisely because the only thing that suffered and died was a pig, which might well have met its fate anyway. Ultimately a bunch of Germans studied the area and said that America got this chunk of islands instead of Canada, but Canada had its own batch, plus the really big one.

I am here visiting my aunt and uncle, who first fell in love with the islands almost a quarter century back. They now spend summer up here in a fine vacation cabin that’s really a lovely miniature house, with a guest house at that. It is part of a trip I am taking, my annual summer break somewhere. I usually alternate between going to Europe and going somewhere else, but due to keeping an eye on my budget and just for the heck of it, I have taking a train trip up and down the Pacific Coast region — very rarely on the coast itself, but the train lines don’t run there much.

Besides stopping in at favorite spots like Portland and Seattle, I’ve also visited Vancouver for the first time, and found it to be as great as has so often been recommended. It’s also where I see NoMeansNo at long last — a wonderful, incredibly underrated band, they still bring it and then some live after their own quarter century together, and in front of a not-hometown-but-not-far-away crowd it’s a total treat. In Seattle itself I’ve also seen Sonic Youth headline their own fantastic show; that they are otherwise opening for Pearl Jam that summer makes seeing this one-off date all the more enjoyable.

By any measure it’s been a wonderful trip — some train delays, but I was in no absolute rush on either end of the trip (rather happily, as it proves given said delays); otherwise to see the beauty of places in California and Oregon that I’ve never been near was reason enough to go. Having breakfast passing by Mt. Shasta, descending the upper reaches of the Willamette Valley as the sun starts to set, these are moments to treasure. Then there’s the San Juans — one of the most beautiful, serene and wonderful places to be in summer, anywhere. Brian’s come along for the trip as well and mentions how it strikes him the same way New Zealand did on his own trip there recently, that same blend of sea, sky and land.

Having visited an open-air sculpture park near Roche Harbor, we are ambling back towards where my aunt and uncle live — it’s an easy distance, the evening is fantastic and I’m, quite literally, enjoying the silence (this is some of the most noise-free land I’ve ever been to, and the experience is almost shocking). At the same time, there’s one very very tiny thing that otherwise troubles this fairly blissful moment.

If only they had scheduled it a couple of weeks earlier or later. If only. It was announced after I’d already made my plans and bought my tickets here, there’s no reason or way to switch it around, what’s the point? That would be kinda ridiculous. And I shouldn’t be jealous of my friends who are going, a couple of them have never seen them and I’ve seen them now five times over the years. They’ll be back at some point. Still, new songs and all…and all those fantastic shows in the past. Nah, can’t obsess over this, it’d be pointless…and yet.

It’s the measure of how content one is with life otherwise that what otherwise is a tiny thing becomes a blot one comes back to. And at points during the trip it does, not often, but a couple of times like now. There it is, it can’t be helped — Radiohead are back on tour, and for the first time in almost a decade, I’m going to miss their LA date. Dang.

I continue down the road as does Brian, each mostly lost in our own thoughts. Towards the end of the road we meet some llamas. (The alpacas are across the way.)

Backtracking:

2006 is a good year. A great one, really. There are things that still concern me on a couple of fronts and I do have those black moments every so often now, which combined with a waspish snippishness at points is not something I’m happy about. I’m aware of that more without always dwelling on it, though, and I’ve been improving what I can do at work as well as in other areas as well, not least of which is the personal. I’ve worked to improve my diet and will soon begin participation in a community-supported agriculture project via the Avanti Cafe and South Coast Farms, two of the best things about Orange County life. A raise at work, while part of an overall negotiation by my union to improve things with the general lot of my colleagues, is of course nothing to sneeze at. Friends remain a source of strength, my family are as well as ever.

On the musical front, I’ve finally been to the EMP Pop Music conference for the first time, met many familiar folks as well as seeing old friends and acquaintances once more, and generally found a new buzz for music, or rather had it once again resparked as has been the case over the past couple of years. I’ve been asked to participate in and have already submitted my essay for Marooned. Longterm plans are starting to take some more shape, including the creation of this blog, though that is still some distance off. Attending Terrastock 6 was a trip and a half, as was catching up with yet more people and meeting new ones as well. At one point over dinner a writer says something to me that leaves me slackjawed — namely, that apparently my work was what inspired him to start writing. I barely get out my profound thanks, my head in a whirl. A musician friend sitting at the table who has doubtless heard the equivalent over the years from other performers laughs gently and says, “Ned, you need to learn how to take a compliment.” I still find that a bit hard.

Meantime, there’s this Radiohead tour that’s announced…which I have to miss. Again, dang. I really haven’t listened to them at all over this time, they’re like many other bands ingrained into my psyche, not something I have to go back to time and again. My musical tastes in general have gently but not universally shifted — pop in general is a parallel universe that I observe as I move alongside it, dipping in and out as I choose and realizing that I don’t need to hear many songs more than a couple of times to enjoy them and easily call them to mind. (My cockeyed theory in part is that the process of making something so catchy so immediately — whether one loves it or not — is a result of the microfocus that the Net and cellphone/ringtone culture has brought to the charts. If it can’t hook in immediately, it will be ignored.) The amount of music out there to listen to — not to mention all the other things that take up my life and time outside of the social aspects, whether it’s books or movies or developing my cooking skills or whatever else it might be — means I am picking and choosing my battles carefully, though not without plenty of snark and snap judgments along the way. (On this front I am at least consistent.)

Then all of a sudden there’s a mention of a Thom Yorke solo album.

It’s later in 2006 and I’m in my favorite local coffee place, the Gypsy Den. I hear Thom Yorke’s voice and frown a bit.

“This isn’t a Radiohead song…oh right, it must be from the solo album. I need to finally listen to that.”

Like a lot of music — a LOT of music — it’s something I have around which I haven’t listened to yet after some time. This may seem odd, but it grows out of two things.

First is habit. Ever since my CD mania began in earnest in college, I’d always found there were discs I liked to set aside which, I knew, I would love. I’d only heard a song or two, maybe, but it was enough for me to guess that I’d really like the album when I finally gave it a full listen. These became my ‘rainy day’ discs, as I called them — something that would be around when the mood finally struck me, something that didn’t need to be heard right that second, but would be something best appreciated when I felt the impulse. I ended up taking the same stance with many other things — books, DVDs and so forth. In a way, I think this is an extension of a belief that there’s always time to catch up with many things, even as new discoveries are made — why not? Sometimes the betting is wrong on this front — turns out the stuff I had heard beforehand was the only thing worth it on the album, say — but more often than not it turns out to be just right.

Second, as mentioned before, is volume. The sheer *amount* of music. The sheer amount of everything. The floodgates, having opened, cannot be closed. Cultural product and the time able to be spent with it — unless one wishes to become a hermit and never sleep or do anything but try and take it all in — is available now in endless amounts for those with the access and ability (something that can’t be underlined enough, of course — the endless amounts and the time to absorb even part of them are conditioned on having the money, the space, the commitment to be able to do so; what to one person is just a natural state of things is to another an impossible and perhaps even dangerous luxury). And as a semi-professional writer — not full time, but with an increasing amount of commitments that will continue to grow — time spent doing one’s work on that front means less time to simply relax and listen (or whatever).

And so, much as I love Radiohead in general, much as I know I will almost certainly enjoy The Eraser, I still haven’t heard it yet at this point. I know I’ll get around to it, and eventually do. It is, of course, wonderful.

It’s not Radiohead. No more than Johnny Greenwood’s Bodysong is. But it is by default rather close to it.

In these posts of mine I’ve mentioned Thom Yorke far more often than any other member. Phil Selway a few times, the Greenwoods a couple of times each, Ed O’Brien not at all (and very unfairly too — he is the harmony singer live and likely in studio more often than not, as well as being an excellent guitarist in general). This is the slight danger of assuming everything centers around the lead singer in a group — not always the case by any means, though it is a privileged position in how a ‘band’ has been conceived and sold in terms of image over the years. Certainly there are those acts that are essentially solo performers with a rotating backup, but just as often a band can see the lead singer as little more than a voice to be exchanged as needed.

The exact dynamic of how Radiohead works in making their music has been discussed in many different ways, often by the band itself (another thing I’ve said little about in these posts: how they use their website as a core part of their identity, via what is shared and what is not — they are one of the most adept bands out there on this front, and their transition into the Net age still seems astonishingly effortless). It’s not something I overly think about, to be honest, it’s just there. But hearing The Eraser does provide a sense of the difference, in that it’s keyboards and beats over guitars — itself a shift, since Yorke live most often performers with guitars, though he does regularly take turns at piano. As a result, the big missing element, those chunky, spindly, snarling, aggressive/aggressively sculpted guitars, feel not so much absent as held back, lurking in the background but never needing to be used. (It’s not that there’s no guitar at all — “Black Swan,” for instance, or “Harrowdown Hill,” one of the singles and possibly my favorite song on the album — but it’s always used in a very, very understated way.)

It’s a bit simplistic to say that The Eraser therefore equals electronic Radiohead, but inevitably there’s crossover. The nervous glitch-beats combined with swooping keen of Yorke’s voice on a song like “The Clock” inevitably suggests songs like “Packt Like Sardines…” or “The Gloaming,” for instance, and plenty of other comparison points can be made. As such it does feel like a stand-in for the ‘real’ thing. But the differences are there, sometimes subtly so — thus, on that song, Yorke’s harmonies don’t quite sound like anything he’s done quite yet before, especially on the darker-toned wordless breaks, which if anything made me think, at least at a couple of points, of David Gahan’s similar moments on “Barrel of a Gun.”

The Eraser similarly has a bit of a dual identity — its own thing, but one that throws the band into sharp relief. It makes clear that the sound of the band really is something that will never (should never?) fully ‘evolve’ past the straight-up rock band it started out as, that ‘progression,’ as a word often bandied around, is something that does not automatically mean rejection, nor should it. It therefore then allows The Eraser to again stand out more clearly, a handy feedback loop that benefits all. Of course, if one is simply not taken by the combination to start with — Yorke’s singing, the use of electronics as the basis of a song (still — STILL — a point of resistance in some corners, much to my eternal frustration, though the strawman seems to be dying off bit by bit) — then The Eraser would never appeal. Works for me, though.

One final point, and another point not addressed in these posts until now — the artwork. Stanley Donwood, who studied art with Yorke in college and is as much a key member of the Radiohead juggernaut as its management team or Nigel Godrich (who again does the honors here, and who gets a co-arranging credit), has helped oversee the band’s general image as much as anyone else, both on the sleeves of releases and through the website, not to mention merchandising, web films — the list continues. His woodcut art to address the album, London Views, is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen on any release, as well as one of the darkest — a figure is seen with his hand out against a massive flood and storm that has washed away London. Iconic buildings are seen in a state of collapse and destruction, while only a couple of living things — one a tiny rat — bob about in the waters.

What’s interesting about the figure is that it’s not exactly clear what he’s trying to do — according to Wikipedia’s explanation, citing a Yorke interview from the time of the album’s release, he is resisting the flood, trying to halt it in imitation of the story of King Canute. It’s a tale of stern but presumably pointless resistance, of how this flood — metaphoric in whatever sense one wants (one song title: “And It Rained All Night”) — is the Eraser. But for myself, I always saw it as the opposite — that the figure is in fact causing the flood, that the water is flowing from his hands, that he in fact is the Eraser. This said, the crests of the waves in the drawing do generally indicate that the water flows towards him and not away, so it’s not as ambiguous as all that. But it’s just ambiguous enough, and I like that it is.

Above all else the album’s restraint, combined with this imagery of the end, makes me think, just, of Young Marble Giants‘ peerless Colossal Youth — or maybe more appropriately, “Final Day.” If the destruction and end of it all coolly conveyed in that song is nuclear rather than environmental, it’s no less affecting in its careful balance.

A lovely album. One I’ve underrated.

It is the last day of September 2007 and I’m idly checking I Love Music and I see a new thread has been created.

“‘Radiohead — In Rainbows‘ — I don’t get it.”

And I click on it.

Thank you YouTube — and thank you all, everyone who’s been reading along with this kinda crazy project, which I’m quite happy to finish and move on from. Right now I’m just content to wait on the new album and think about it as I do; thoughts will be posted here at my leisure. If you’d like to check out some YouTube footage of songs that will be on the new album, The Playlist’s entry will be of interest. Yorke of course did not tour for The Eraser specifically but there are a couple of video clips of interest:

“Analyse” at the Mercury Awards:

“The Clock” on Jools Holland:

Interview on The Eraser and Radiohead

Another interview:

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Countdown to IN RAINBOWS Pt. 6 — HAIL TO THE THIEF

Continued from here. (Also, this is not the final post in the countdown.)

It is late spring 2003.

I’ve been invited to contribute to a writing project. I don’t recall exactly when, but what happened is that Sean at the eyebrow-raisingly named TangMonkey.com has invited me to write 50 words on Hail to the Thief. I like the idea of it — not a review per se, simply 50 words about the album. It will be part of a larger feature collecting similarly short reflections from a number of other writers.

Over the past few years I’ve grown more used to a smaller format for writing, thanks to my work for the All Music Guide. It’s not that they don’t allow for longer reviews there as needed, but I’ve found that I appreciate what I call the art of miniatures when it comes to reviews for them, at 300 words each or so. Often I find that’s more than enough room to say something about an album, because there’s no point in going further than that, or even up to there. Fellow writers talk eloquently and understandably about how the shrinking of review space allows for little detailed thought and reflection in many markets, and how while there’s often lots of room on blogs or otherwise unmediated space on the Net for those longer pieces, it’s not always easily viable to do so. (If this kind of writing is your life’s work, after all — if you are a writer full-time by choice and inclination, rather than treating it as a separate interest and potential financial benefit on the side, as I do — then committing work to blog space for free on a continual basis makes for a loaded situation.) It’s part of a larger adjustment of the music world, in all its incarnations, to the continual evolution of the Net, and it cannot be ignored.

But this is a different kind of project, a work in miniature not because of lack of ad revenue meaning lack of page space, but out of specific one-off intent. I take up the invitation from Sean and after some time (a few days, maybe more, can’t recall now) I submit my entry, not something I think is meant to be a final word, merely a thought as to where I stand on the album at that point, something shot through with various thoughts on my state of mind and the state of the world at that point, though of course there’s no exact room to say that all:

“I don’t really care about it being a concept album or whatever the hell it is. It doesn’t hang together as such and I don’t really mind that, actually. I just want to think about the way “The Gloaming” sounds like a slow fade into a nightmare. And I will.”

Some time later the full feature runs. In reading through it I’m delighted to see some familiar names among my fellow contributors, like Mike and Anthony; I’m equally delighted to see that their contributions don’t favor the album either. Such a piece needs to have a range of voices and negative thoughts are as important as the positive.

I’m further surprised to note who some of the contributors are, and realize that for the rest of my days — or at least as long as the page remains up somewhere — I’ll be part of a piece that note only features Nathan Lane as a contributor, but Wil Wheaton, now as well known for his regular blog and Net work as anything else in the past. I think back to my late eighties days of obsessive Star Trek: The Next Generation watching and remembering how much I loathed his character on the show, and now here I am with him as a co-author, kinda. Not something I would have guessed at the time.

There are a number of unfamiliar names too, one of which is the member of a band who apparently had recently released their self-titled debut and were going back into the studio to record some follow-up tracks. (Interestingly, his entry is subtitled “The Nightmare.”) It’s nice to hear feedback from folks in other bands in this project, and his comment is a nice example of how to capture an honestly mixed feeling about an album one is unsure about. A couple of years later I idly remember this project and reread the page, and am startled to realize that I am now also forever associated, in this one small corner of the Net, with Win from the Arcade Fire.

If only I liked his band.

Backtracking:

2003 so far has been a year of settling and mental review, of establishing new comfort areas after a troubling time. 2002 was no disaster by any means but everything seemed to go slightly wrong towards the end of it, following an absolutely glorious trip to Australia and New Zealand in September, fulfilling a long-held dream to visit both countries. Good things happen after that in spades, certainly — catching the Chameleons, my second-favorite all time band after My Bloody Valentine if there is one, three times in a week is part of it, and that’s just a musical high point. But personal and professional issues dog me, the more so because these result from my own decisions, and I enter December feeling more than a little stressed and concerned. This is heightened by the extreme tension between my two housemates, and more than once one or the other threatens to leave. Then, after a couple of months of ‘will he/won’t he,’ the owner of the house puts it on the market and finds a buyer, giving us notice on December 1. We have until year’s end to leave, and given my plans for a visit home already in place for Christmas, along with a Seattle trip, that means in practical terms I really have only nineteen days.

The blur of activity and insane pressure at that time I’d rather not revisit. At the end of it, however, I have found myself for the first time in an apartment on my own as the New Year starts. I spend most of the first half of the year doing nothing upon coming home but enjoying the calm and peace. There’s just me…just me. Those months feel like a slow but sure detox from the world’s pressures around me. I visit friends in Louisiana at one point, host Jake and fellow tourmates for one night shortly after moving in, reestablish friendships and make new ones, participate in huge all-night group chats with many of them online, all based around the idea that most of the time I can just gently withdraw from it all in my cozy but just-right new place to live.

Combined with this sense of righting myself — fed in part with a new love of good wine, a glass or two a night at points (thankfully nothing more than that — whatever addictive parts of my personality I know I have, it does not extend to food and drink) — is a sense that things are just worse than ever in the wider world. In fall 2001 I state at least once somewhere, probably more, that I mourn not merely those already dead but all those that are going to die as a result, most especially those who would not have been perished but are going to be caught up in inevitable stupidity and ignorance across the map. In spring 2003 another part of that particular deathtrap starts to ratchet up. I regard the start of the invasion with a certain uneasy fear, though a friend wisely says something else: “It’s not that that’s going to be a problem. They won’t know how to win the peace.” He proves to be perfectly correct.

In this state of mind my feelings towards music are conflicted. On the one hand I find myself on more promo lists than before, and combined with Net access to various things I am starting to have more regular access to all sorts of music in general than ever before. My need for spending on it decreases, a useful adjustment and necessary given my move and attendant budgetary shift. I have also been writing a regular column for a UK magazine called Careless Talk Costs Lives, a little feather in the cap, as well as a very occasional piece or two for the Seattle Weekly. At the same time, whether it’s the move, the volume of things to do at work, the number of releases out there or more, I am feeling burnt out more than ever before. At one point I talk briefly with a writer and editor who has long been one of my lodestones about this, and he notes that, based on his experience and those of others he knows, that music obsessives — maybe any obsessives — seem to go through a phase around my age where they either hit autopilot, give up and redirect interests elsewhere, or take a mental break only to come back more refreshed but also more confident in their particular viewpoint, while also able to more readily find balance between that and the rest of life. Whereever my direction goes next, I am not sure, but I find myself only listening to new things in a dull cycle of reviewing for the AMG — otherwise, as I tell friends, I find myself just wanting to retreat to the comfort food of things like hearing Slowdive and Echo and the Bunnymen B-sides over and again, rather than trying to keep track of everything else out there.

More than once, in periods of extreme bitterness, I wonder how it is that everyone else seemingly can do that while otherwise appearing to have extremely content lives — mistaking the Internet hothouse of friends and fellow music obsessives I am part of for the entirety of humanity, and further making the mistake of assuming that everything in their life is going well while mine seems only to be grinding down in ways. It takes a long time to fully get over this to-me new and deeply unpleasant and selfish feeling, and it does not fully disappear even years later, to my own self-irritation. Reminding myself of how good I have it compared to most becomes an important part of my life.

It is in this context that the now-inevitable leak of Hail to the Thief appears. From the relative novelty of three years ago this process is now already established, much as many record labels (and bands, and writers, and more) would try to ignore it in the hopes that it would go away. In this case the first leak is a version of the album that has all the chosen songs, but not all in their final form — as compared to their slightly coy feeling about the leak of Kid A, this time around Radiohead are more than a little annoyed, and talk about how this version is not the final one, how fans should wait, and so forth. Logically this merely heightens the interest in it, and when the final version appears — or, rather, when that itself first leaks before release — then comparing and contrasting becomes the name of the game. Furthermore, having toured the previous year in Spain to road-test many new songs, some fans now have three versions to choose from, and comparing the differences in detail kicks into high.

Radiohead at this point are mental comfort food as well, even if this particular set of songs is new. I play the album regularly, at one stretch almost every day.

It is September 2003 and I am again at the Hollywood Bowl, and something is starting to occur to me.

This time I’m with other folks, friends from work that are fellow music lovers, on a different side of the Bowl from last time. It’s another lovely evening in Los Angeles. It does feel a bit like two years ago redux, but not entirely. Something is just different but I haven’t figured it out quite yet.

By this time I am starting to settle a bit in general, starting to step back out into things fully, a bit. It’s still a slow process but my general happy-go-lucky persona that I present most of the time is starting to match how I feel inside more readily. I’m looking forward to a trip the following month to London to celebrate Tom Ewing’s wedding, along with combining with a side trip to Dublin, another place and another country I’ve wanted to visit for some time.

It’s a slow rising up to full strength again but it’s happened as it does, and patience as always is the watchword. Learning this has been a big lesson, and if I relearn it again as needed in the future, it’s always there for me. My mood has never truly but heartbreakingly, desperately black, but it’s verged close at points. Those I have spoken my deepest concerns to over the past year have shown a friendship and warmth that all should be so lucky to experience in times like this; I hope to always be able to do so for the future, though I have to learn (and still am learning) how to balance this out with making sure I do not take the weight of the world on my shoulders. When the moods recur, and they do without fail a couple of times a year, I know both how to look beyond them and how to talk them out, though those days that afflict me can hang heavy nonetheless.

Supergrass opened this time around and I’ve nothing to add to that. Radiohead are clearly and smoothly on top of their game — it’s another winning set, a fantastic performance. (Yes, again, I type this listening to a bootleg of the show.) I tell folks later, “I went into the show thinking “They’ve always been great but is it working anymore and is there too much autohype?” and left thinking, “Fuck it, there’s not ENOUGH autohype goddammit!”” “There There” sounds a heck of a lot stronger, “The Gloaming” gets a monstrous ending drum part that turns the song into something else again, they start with a replication of the album’s one-two punch of “2 + 2 = 5” and “Sit Down. Stand Up.” that’s better than the studio versions, and so forth. Even an unreleased song for good measure, “Big Ideas.”

Old favorites reappear of course, and now they clearly include the Kid A and Amnesiac numbers, as well as the expected ones from earlier. I get both “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Idioteque,” so I’m content by any measure. The crowd is charged, and at one moment explodes into utter delirium. I just sigh a bit. Frankly, they didn’t have to bring this back, I’m content never to hear the song again. But no, they’re fine with it now, they don’t need to escape its shadow any more (even though most folks who I run into who know the band quite often only refer to it and nothing else, which doesn’t surprise me at all and doubtless surprises the band even less). “Creep” is played, and yes, what the hell am I doing here, I don’t belong here. Give me 2003 not 1993.

The difference is coming clearer. By the time the main set concludes I am positive. It has to do with the stage lighting, and it’s like this:

Anytime the band play a number from OK Computer and older — the ‘classic’ era, the rock years, whatever crazy term one wants to apply to it — the lighting is stark. Nothing but white lights, however used. Everything is, in the broadest possible sense, black and white, dark/not dark. It’s all very absolute.

Whenever it’s something from Kid A and onward, though, the stage often explodes in color. Lighting, screens, all over the place. Not over-the-top splashiness (though that would be an interesting approach — why not?), but all sorts of shadings and hues, the rainbow refracted. Kaleidoscopic.

I leave convinced this was not only intentional, but key. Without having to say it, it was a signal, a sense that the band was saying, in its own way, “We have our past. We have our present. We’re not going to ignore our past but we think we have more to offer now, and we don’t need to spell it out when we can show you.”

I wonder what will happen next.

It’s assured.

Hail to the Thief is the kind of album that Radiohead fans would like. Which sounds flippant but also marks it and the band having reached a certain state — with, arguably, nothing immediate left to prove, it basically says, “Yup, we’ve done this, and we’ve done it very well. You’ll probably like it if you like us.” I do, and I do, still.

Summation, recapitulation, overview. New but familiar. Electronic beats at the start, also bursts of chunky feedback. Freneticism. Vocal keening. Nervousness. Stellar performances.

Familiarity.

All of which sounds like damning with faint praise but at a certain point with any performer there’s something of the expected to be found, even if the next step proves to knock everyone sideways (and it very well might, we’ll see in a couple of days). The question over whether certain types of music and certain types of musicians reach a logical endpoint in what is considered their development has been argued and analyzed for decades (centuries?). The question of ‘development’ has been argued etc. (is the preservation of change necessary on an album? if a great leap forward occurs and no tape machine is around to document it, does it make a noise?).

At a certain point the dreaded tag gets stuck on an album — “It’s their best since [insert the really famous one that everyone agrees on].” Then that is reused on every review into the future. Your peak period is decided on and referred back to.

Hail to the Thief, at least, escapes this to an extent, if not entirely.

What stands out to me? Consider “Sit Down. Stand Up.” It’s not exactly like anything the band has done before — maybe “The National Anthem” but not really, it’s this slow rising swell, bigger and bigger and bigger, tones, piano, vocals, other noises, rising, rising, the hyperspeed skittering beats kick in, Thom’s voice purring over it, Phil Selway fully kicks in with the drums, more synth noises, more cascade, higher and higher and stop-into-a-cymbal-crash end. Again, nothing exactly like it before, but it’s now something within the realm of expectation, not as jarring. Hail to the Thief didn’t put people off like Kid A kinda did, like Amnesiac definitely did (or so it seemed). It was a more careful fusion. It felt comfortable. (The band said the recording sessions went far smoothly on this one than on the previous two albums; does that answer it? I wonder.)

I love it, mind you. I love the album precisely because now I was engineered and conditioned to love it. I knew going in I would. I knew a lot of people going in wouldn’t, because now Radiohead at long last had ‘a sound,’ and that it would be seen as on-the-whole wearying, in its extension and recombination of the past pointless. The vaunted warmth that I have always argued is there in Radiohead is actually clear on here, maybe too clear at points. (“Sail to the Moon” is…too welcoming? “Scatterbrain” is…too sweet? Perhaps that’s just my expectations being confounded instead. “Go to Sleep” is…well, it just is. And that’s the problem with it.)

But when it suddenly gets the attention still, just right, just right. The way those soft electronic swirls ricochet smoothly from speaker to speaker at the start of “Backdrifts,” utterly attention grabbing while not being huge about it. The down-shifting growl of “Myxomatosis,” bass like a brutal huge kick (Radiohead as metal touchstone is surely the next step after My Bloody Valentine if they aren’t already, and they probably already are). The low mumble/singing line “I will eat you alive” on “Where I End And You Begin.”

The way “The Gloaming” really does sound like a slide into a nightmare to me still, “Idioteque” after the beat is kicked away and beaten down, the vocals echoed and more withdrawn, a fade to black. (Referring again to an earlier number, yet still not quite the same.)

“There There” was a rhythmically odd yet not too jarring first single. It was a good signpost.

It is the end of 2003 and, quite happily and for the first time (after being unable to contribute the previous year despite an invitation, due to the moving chaos and other events), I submit my ballot to the Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll. My choices are even more quixotic than usual in some cases but reflects my fairly focused mood during the year. Hail to the Thief is my number one choice, a choice determined in my case as with the rest of my rankings by an easy scale — how often did I listen to an album from that year? If I willingly listened to a particular album the most, it was by any measure surely my favorite, because I kept coming back to it. Hail to the Thief was clearly that for 2003, so the ranking was easy.

I do not listen to it again, outside of maybe once or twice, for the next four years.

Thank you, YouTube:

“2 + 2 = 5” at Eurockennes, maybe:

“There There” at Glastonbury (the triple drumming part, I honestly admit, totally blew me away at the Hollywood Bowl show):

“Backdrifts” in Camden:

“The Gloaming” at Eurockennes:

“Sit Down. Stand Up.” at Glastonbury:

“Myxomatosis” in Dublin (embedding was being flaky on this one)

Countdown to IN RAINBOWS Pt. 5a — I MIGHT BE WRONG: LIVE RECORDINGS

Continued from here.

Due to this album covering a time discussed in detail over the previous two posts, the focus of this entry will be more on the release than my own memories of the period.


I Might Be Wrong is the album people forget about; I don’t blame them (among other things, maybe it’s officially an EP, maybe not). I was just on the phone with Brian about a couple of things and he quite understandably assumed that I’d be writing about Hail to the Thief today. Nope, that’s tomorrow. Instead, it’s this album, which quietly snuck out at the end of 2001, collecting eight live tracks from various shows on their then-recent tours for Kid A and Amnesiac. By any measure it would seem to be a bit slight — not as notoriously an ‘oh PLEASE’ a live release as Depeche’s Songs of Faith and Devotion Live, an official live souvenir done while that tour was still grinding along, but not totally far removed from same.

Thing is, this might actually be the most important album Radiohead have released. Two reasons for this, only one of which is musical.

That one is the first one, though to be honest it’s a compromised reason. I’ve noted a couple of times in this series that for some folks it’s about seeing them live, first and foremost, or hearing their live performances. This is not a new thing for a band to have as a reputation, or as a reason for existing and performing a lot (that said Radiohead are fairly low-key on that front — compare with any number of jam-bands and their spiritual forefathers in the Grateful Dead, for whom the road and the performances are all, or at least the eternal priority).

They are, however, well known now for road-testing material, bringing in new and otherwise unreleased songs on a whim, sometimes still officially unreleased for a decade or more (thus the case with “Nude,” which is finally surfacing in some kind of studio form on In Rainbows). This is healthy, more than healthy, and more bands should do this — I speak fairly selfishly on this point, since there’s plenty of arguments that say that an entertainer should entertain with the familiar rather than challenge with the new, but to my mind it’s always been a two-way dynamic that benefits both sides. This is reflected at the end of the disc with the in-1995-or-so written “True Love Waits” — it’s the same exact performance that ended the Hollywood Bowl show I saw them at, discussed in the previous entry. It’s a lovely number as mentioned; on the disc it provides a contextual lifeline to the past (though of course the full concerts had the group happily playing songs from The Bends onward).

Also — and I’ll have more to say on this in the future — their live shows have gotten really, really good. I don’t see many arena/really big venue-level single-act shows at this point — frankly most are too expensive and are of no interest to me at all in the first place — but Radiohead are top of the line at this for me now, in fact untouchable. Every time I leave a show of theirs I do so just amazed at how well it all connects, the presentation, the performances, the interaction of the group, how everything just seems to raise up higher. It’s very hard for me to put a finger on properly how it is this way for me, a bit of alchemy resisting a scientific breakdown.

In this regard I Might Be Wrong is useful as the only official live document currently out this decade from the group, though this is compromised still as mentioned — you really, really have to be there. But hearing things like “Like Spinning Plates” fully turned into the heartbreaking piece of elegance it is at heart, hearing “Everything In Its Right Place” starting with a droning snippet of what sounds like Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood” [EDIT: though ILX folks have suggested REM’s “E-Bow the Letter” instead, which makes more sense but is far less interesting a reference point on Yorke’s part] and then shifting into a now standard live take with Phil Selway’s drums being much more prominent than on the studio cut, hearing “Idioteque”…well, I don’t have to add anything more, almost, just hearing “Idioteque” (and what an ending on this one), it’s all a stand-in for being there, but what a substitution.

The second reason this is the most important album? Simple, and it’s all down to business.

It’s not clear — I’ve done a little research as I can — but it’s pretty likely that when EMI signed Radiohead initially, they did so to a seven-album contract, standard behavior by majors (and often indies) in the days before The Internet Changed Everything etc. The art of bands getting out of contracts and/or labels trying to hold them to it for any penny they’re potentially worth is a well established one, and has led to everything ranging from Van Morrison’s contract-busting goof sessions from 1967 to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. (Then there’s something like Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear, but the story behind that one is all the more interesting.)

Live albums are a great way to get out of contracts if one can help it, it seems. Greatest hits collections too. It all depends on what can be leveraged. And again, it’s not entirely clear whether the contract was for six albums or seven in this case — if for six, this was a bonus where Hail to the Thief was always the end of the contract. If for seven, though, then I Might Be Wrong was a necessary step in wrapping it up early, the more so because of how the industry was already trending.

Consider: while I very much doubt anything so specific was in place for the eventual way In Rainbows is being handled and released, the fact that Radiohead chose the option they have is because they in fact had it — they didn’t have EMI to deal with. Some years back both the Beastie Boys and the Offspring wanted to just shove up some mp3s and be done with it in advance of their forthcoming album sales, only for their companies to say ‘no dice.’ No such trouble afflicts Radiohead at this point, and hasn’t since Hail to the Thief fulfilled the contract. That’s just one of many reasons why Radiohead are probably very content to be out of anything like a true formal contract at this point — it’s extremely unlikely that the mass-market release of In Rainbows will be anything other than a one-off, much like was done last year with Thom Yorke’s solo album The Eraser.

So if I Might Be Wrong helped the band make sure they could get to the point now where they can easily tour without direct label participation/support, record on their own without regard to what a label might say and so forth, and more to the point make the step they’ve done with In Rainbows and all it implies, right when the timing for it couldn’t be better, then it is a very important album indeed.

And, frankly, it all just sounds good to listen to.

Thank you, YouTube — in acknowledgment of the inclusion of “True Love Waits” on this disc, here’s a slew of rare tracks, B-sides and/or unreleased numbers:

“The Trickster” in Toronto, 1998:

“Banana Co.” in SF, 1998:

“Maquiladora” from the Live at the Astoria 1994 tape:

“Talk Show Host” from Rock AM Ring:

“Lift” at PinkPop 1996:

“Pearly*” at Stone Mountain:

Thom does “Fog” live somewhere in France, presumably:

Thom and Johnny do “Gagging Order” at a 2006 benefit show:

“Follow Me Around” in LA 2006, murkily:

“Nobody Does It Better” — yes, that one:

And finally, “True Love Waits” — three times!

Brussels, 1995:

Tokyo, 2001:

Finally, introducing “Everything In Its Right Place” last year in Berkeley:

Countdown to IN RAINBOWS Pt. 5 — AMNESIAC

Before I begin, it is important to note that many people, including myself, think that one of the best if not the best discussions of Amnesiac was done at the Last Plane to Jakarta site some years back. As with many of the older pieces on other subjects there, this multipart series is not currently archived, but I would be very remiss not to acknowledge the excellence of that earlier effort, as well as not to point your direction to the site’s quality as a whole. Please visit when you have the time.

Continued from here:

It is late spring 2001.

At various points I am commenting on Amnesiac on a message board thread. Many others are there with other things to say.

“To my joy I found this lying on my doormat this very morning and I think I’m enjoying it so far.”

I would have been posting to this thread from one of two primary locations. One would have been from home, the other would have been my desk at work in a quiet moment or two (it’s near the end of the school year and things are very understandably busy). At the time I am working at what I jokingly call my ‘corner office,’ which strictly speaking is office space for two or three people. I’m the only person in the office, though, with space for another person being located further up-front, while the third person works over in a separate building. So in practical terms I’m alone, which I do take advantage of as I can — and it’s nice to be able to listen to music at work, it has to be said.

“My first impressions I remember quite clearly were that it was a good modern pop album.”

Over four years on from my hesitant and relatively speaking out-of-nowhere entry into the university workforce in full, I am much more comfortable in my job. I am nowhere near fully up to the level I could be, in retrospect, and there are still important lessons to learn that will have to be dealt with in the future. However, I have already helped improve a lot of things in my area of employment with library reserves and while certain frustrations remain due to technological limitations at the time, the future looks bright.

“It sounds like umm…if you have the flu and you are hearing Al Jolson songs in your head during a hallucintory state. Clearly, it is crap.”

Library social life, outside of one close friend who also works elsewhere in the system, is something I tend to keep at arm’s length — not entirely, but as a means of distinction. There are people I work with closely who I think are extremely good folks, though, and if we aren’t close per se we do get along, though doubtless I’ve caused a few frustrations over the years just by being myself. One of the happier events involves my then-boss, a couple of years before he completed his MBA and moved on to banking work, calling from the hospital where his first child, a daughter has been born. Jack is a character in general and he has spent much of the run-up time to the birth advancing various not-entirely-serious (we think) theories about how easy child care will be — “Just bring the baby into work, put her in a small cradle, rock her to sleep with my foot.” Coworker Lisa, experienced mother of two, laughingly tells him he has no idea what he is talking about. Being childless, I serve as the audience for this banter.

When the phone rings at the office and it’s Jack at the hospital telling me his daughter has arrived, I offer hearty congratulations and tell him not to worry, things at work are going smoothly. He thanks me, pauses, then says, “…this is already a lot harder than I thought it would be.” Biting down my laughter, I tell him he’ll find a way, then after he hangs up call Lisa to let her know what he told me. Her laughter is anything but restrained.

“Can’t wait to hear it when they’ve completed it.”

Other comments are more voluble, positive and negative. Mine, as with the vast majority of my message board posts, are just there.

Backtracking.

2001 so far seems a bit like a continuation of 2000 but there have been notable changes big and small. On an overarching level there’s a new president and while I am fairly suspicious of him it’s still early days yet (on an automatic level I assume he’s up to no good but this ties in further with my overall suspicion of power perpetuating itself in any number of forms, and is hardly limited to him).

Notably, Brian, one of my two closest friends has moved up to Seattle. I am admittedly saddened but that’s just me, and within a short period of time it’s plenty clear that the move was exactly the right step he needed to take, as all of us who know him see a really great person become even more self-confident, loving life to the full. Other roommates come in to the house, including Oly, fellow attender of last year’s Kid A show.

I am still in love and planning another visit to the UK in the summer, on the heels of a great holiday visit from her to Carmel up north. We’ve now met each other’s parents and everyone’s gotten along very well. My folks have been in Carmel now for six years and my dad’s still enjoying teaching at a local school, while my sis has been in San Francisco for a couple of years and has found her place to be in life. All the various moves are good excuses to go on visits up and down the coast, and increasingly I’m planning more elaborate trips and vacations, a travel bug that’s long been dormant in the nineties starting to come to the fore.

Musically speaking it’s been a great spring, partially heralded by the fact that Tom Ewing, planning a different project, has asked me to take over editorship of Freaky Trigger temporarily, something I agree to with gusto, and proceed to quietly oversee for the rest of the year. A few weeks before the appearance of Amnesiac two of my favorite bands release an album on the same day. Depeche Mode‘s Exciter is a delicately poised album that pleases me greatly (but few others) while Tool‘s Lateralus goes to the top of the charts in a heap, and I proceed to live inside it for months at a time. It’s actually this album which makes me the huge fan I am and prompts an essay in FT on it, with a couple of opening paragraphs summing up my state of mind about things in the musical sphere. It includes one slightly dark part that in later months and years I will look at with increasing disquiet.

For all that, and for all the fact that I do know that charts aren’t everything, I’m still frustrated by the fact that during the late spring the number one album selling all-around, despite all this activity and Radiohead’s own number two chart debut, is an album by Staind. STAIND?

Oh well, at least it isn’t Creed.

It’s late August 2001 and for the first time ever I’ve gone to see a show at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s a bit smaller than I expected.

I think part of me was used to that classic Warner Bros. cartoon where Bugs Bunny outwits the opera singer and eventually causes the entire Bowl to collapse. Nothing so dramatic here but the way “The National Anthem” once again starts the show is even more insanely powerful than last year, so I wouldn’t have been surprised if that had caused a collapse in its own right.

Part of me was also used to the Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl film, and later on in the show the band introduce “Paranoid Android” by saying it was a salute to them as the only other British group to have ever performed at the Bowl. Not true — the Beatles had famously appeared there, among others (including Morrissey!) — but it makes for a good story. It’s a warm summer night and everything feels pretty well perfect. The hill rising behind the Bowl adds to the backdrop of the place and it’s all clear why the Bowl is here to start with.

The place is of course packed. Same rush for tickets as for last year but this place is rather larger than the Greek Theatre and there had been a bigger tour, so I wasn’t worried about the entire Western United States descending on the place. Friend Ben and I have gone this time around and we’re off to the side a bit about half to two-thirds of the way back. It’s a great show (again reconfirmed as I type this by an even better bootleg recording than the Greek Theatre one I have), and by now I’m not surprised that it is so great. Three shows in three years’ time I’ve attended and each seems to have been a clear step forward and up.

They’d already played a slew of the Amnesiac songs last time through and now with everyone knowing what they are the reactions are more immediate as opposed to ‘well that was interesting.’ Old favorites are again welcomed with a roar but the Kid A numbers are well received too. The atmosphere is different from 1998’s focused reverence and 2000’s near-hysteria, everyone and everything feels a bit lighter all around.

It’s been a brilliant summer for me. Another wonderful trip to the UK concluded, including the first legendary Trig Brother event, and while things seemed a touch more brittle at points between her and myself during that time I had come back in a good enough mood in a trip that covered everything from a Scottish wedding to trips to the Isle of Skye and Paris (including a tour through Pere Lachaise, where I contemplate Oscar Wilde’s grave for a while, nearly step on Edith Piaf’s by accident, and am amused by the clearly bored and disgusted security guard wishing to hell all the people leaving memorabilia at Jim Morrison’s grave would just go away). On the way back timing allows me to meet up with nearly all of my family to see my cousin get married in New York City; the reception, at a restaurant atop a hotel near the UN Building, is a smash success. The Manhattan skyline when I arrive at JFK Airport for this event is vivid, as it is later in the afternoon and the descending sun is starting to backlight many of the buildings, familiar shapes in many cases.

Thanks to equally good timing, I’m back in LA to catch not only Radiohead but Depeche Mode and Tool in concert at their respective shows in the area, the latter at a small outdoor arena date in San Diego at the end of an initial tour before the big arena one. Suffice to say I’m on cloud nine and then some, and Radiohead’s date completes the trifecta. The Beta Band opened, my second and last time seeing them (and a good show it is), Kid Koala has fun in between the sets, and then Radiohead are off and it’s a show and a half, followed by encore after encore. Even some obscurities come out, like “Pearly*,” definitely one for the fans. (As has been the case for the past few years now, “Creep” remains resolutely untouched; regardless of however anyone else in the audience feels I’m happy to do without it, so long as “Fake Plastic Trees” is played [it is].)

For the final encore, the third, Thom comes out alone and after a brief introduction plays a definite rarity — “True Love Waits,” a song that has been played off and on over the years according to the hyperfan sites but which has been unreleased in studio format (as of this writing, still the case). It’s a barbed-but-heartfelt love song, lyrically speaking at least, but the performance is stellar, showing that if they just wanted to play big acoustic stadium ballads that they could, or at least Thom could.

Earlier in the encores, Thom says to the audience, “Hands up, who likes New York?…They have power, water…” The song being introduced is “Lucky.”

I leave feeling pretty good about things.

Structured. Fractured.

This at one time was my rather glib description of Amnesiac, done in reference to an album that made me think of the same tensions, Simple Minds’ second effort Reel to Real Cacophony. One could say it meant something that Radiohead took five albums to get to where Simple Minds did in two; then again, their paths seems to have mirrored each other, then reversed. From there, Simple Minds got into clean, propulsive, sleek motorik songs, then into shuddering anthems, then into extremely professional if terribly obvious performances, and then finally became a dull bunch of no-marks doing cover versions. This kind of path in life is handy if you’re Merlin the wizard, aging backwards and all, but it strains the patience of everyone else.

And Reel to Real Cacophony, unsettlingly strange as it is still, isn’t replicated by Amnesiac. There are other goals with these songs, and if their being recorded at the same time as Kid A‘s material intertwines them by default, this isn’t a collection of rejects or a randomly scraped together compilation. It IS structured, a bit like the book on the cover, say — but it’s also frayed, spine broken, starting to fall apart. Kid A put the veneer of cool calm down on explosive tension; in Amnesiac the tension doesn’t so much burst out as seep out, an acidic flow.

“Idioteque” and its stern obsessive core beat splits and divides throughout here, where those kind of beats appear; the toybox melodies are strangled and irritated and corrupted. “More rock and roll!” it was claimed in a bout of wishful thinking by those still jonesing for the mid-nineties. They got feedback buzzing below soft tones, vocals that slurred and purred, time shifts that weren’t familiar. “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” crackles with static and compression, a ‘soft’ break here and there. “I Might Be Wrong” has a growling lope to it that was “The National Anthem”‘s twangy cousin, seemingly calmer but not really, as dedicated to the rhythm as nearly everything else around it, as the sudden stop/break made clear, a forlorn coda.

The irritation in some — not all, by any means, but some — corners was swift. “Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box” isn’t supposed to start an album! Why even “Everything In Its Right Place” felt like an album starter! (How quickly the ‘experimental’ album became a new standard — “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” threw the earlier version into sharp contrast, slightly accelerated, a gauzy haunted house, sweetly sick.) “Hunting Bears” was barely a skeletal guitar, “Like Spinning Plates” twisted loops and tones — not ‘real’ songs, surely. (Never mind, say, how Thom’s voice and the radio-signal string tones turn the latter into one of the band’s most underrated, ghostly ballads.)

The songs that ‘felt’ like Radiohead weren’t, if you assumed Radiohead only sounded one way. “You and Whose Army?” was some moody late-night 1959 number on crumbling tape turned sweepingly dramatic, “Dollars and Cents” even more so, lush and shrill and dank, rich with sound. Then there’s “Life in A Glasshouse,” with Actual Jazz Guy Humphrey Lyttleton and other performers, New Orleans Dixieland drunker than Tom Waits‘s dreams, never once sloppy (anything but).

There had been questions and perhaps complaints about there being no singles from Kid A. Radiohead shrugged and gave people “Pyramid Song,” which was a big epic building rock ballad led by piano. “Karma Police” this was not. There were also screeching atonal howls, a time signature which sounded ‘abnormal’ but wasn’t, orchestrations that touched on Egyptian orchestral arrangements, and other things which inverted the intent of “Paranoid Android,” turning multipart composition into iconic core melody that got kicked out from underneath it even as the superstructure grew more grand. “Knives Out” was more straightforward, Thom’s voice clearer and more conventionally keening, but aimed for contemplative understatement throughout, a descending slow slide of a melody, other vocal parts smearing themselves carefully in the background.

I find it a bit hard to talk about Amnesiac easily, casually. It’s the closest thing to a Radiohead album after its first that I respect rather than love, but it’s a respect that is well earned. A different me would have locked into its sound and approach more immediately. As it is I stare wide-eyed.

Some weeks after the show, after having left some messages over that time that I’ve not heard back on, I get a call from London. It’s over. In retrospect it is not surprising. At the time I’m quietly devastated. I place some calls, get some friends together, try and put a brave face on it, get people to indulge with me in some comfort viewing of the brilliantly over the top kung-fu parody Fong Sai Yuk, one of Jet Li‘s greatest triumphs.

A couple of days later something else happens. My self-pity disappears, or perhaps more accurately is shifted away for a while, though it later appears more destructively some months later. After I get home that day I turn off the TV in my room where one of the housemates has been parked and ask him to give me privacy. I resolve never to intentionally watch TV news coverage again. This proves to be one of my best decisions.

Thank you, YouTube:

“You and Whose Army” at Rock AM Ring:

“Dollars and Cents” at Pinkpop:

“Life in a Glasshouse” on the BBC:

“Pyramid Song” in Paris:

“Knives Out” on Jools Holland:

“Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box” at Rock AM Ring:

And as a special bonus, the entire Paris 2001 TV broadcast, bits of which I’ve been excerpting over the last two blogs:

Tracklist:

Morning Bell
National Anthem
You and Whose Army
Pactd Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box
Dollars and Cents
How to Disappear Completely
I Might Be Wrong
Knives Out
In Limbo
Pyramid Song
Idioteque
Everything In Its Right Place
Motion Picture Soundtrack

Countdown to IN RAINBOWS Pt. 4 — KID A

Continued from here:

It is late September 2000.

I am sitting in front of my computer, a move that shocks nobody. It’s an early morning and the sunlight is already glowing brightly outside, again hardly shocking. It’s a weekend and I have felt deeply disinclined to stir further than my room in the shared house — VERY unshocking. But today is a little different — I’m buying a ticket without using the phone or waiting in line. Or at least, I’m hoping I can buy a ticket. I have no idea if I will succeed.

Radiohead, it turns out, are playing Los Angeles in October. It’s the third date in their American tour for the new album coming out, Kid A. It is also the last date of the tour. It is in fact the only tour date within about three thousand miles, since the other dates are out on the East Coast or in Canada. I am competing with god knows how many people for seats in the Greek Theatre, a famed but not huge venue in the Griffith Park area of LA, one I was last at in 1992 to see Peter Murphy (I’ve seen him a lot over the years, I should note — in fact, him solo plus him with Bauhaus = the performer I’ve seen more than any other, approaching something like fifteen times now or close to it). I barely remember anything about the venue but I remember it not being something where seats would be comfortably available for a while. It could have held that crowd at the Universal Ampitheatre from two years back easy, and I remember that crowd very very well.

These tickets are going to go. Like that. And my chances are incredibly slim.

I have decided to run a risk. I’ve used Ticketmaster before online a couple of times, but not all that often. Up until earlier that year or so I was still stuck using an okay but hardly great fax/modem connection at home, so any Net use pretty much dragged. However, the local cable company has finally kicked in a bit with its infrastructure, and I am the content user of a cable modem now, with the appropriate increase in speed. This has proven handy for a number of things, not least of which has been the ability to start downloading mp3s from the still-in-existence Napster as well as other sources. I’ve been able to scarf up complete B-side collections of a lot of favorite artists at long last, including the Cure, the Banshees, PJ Harvey, many more (not to mention the last missing pieces for my exhaustive Boo Radleys CDR set, of interest to maybe me and ten other people, but one of them was Martin Carr, who’d wanted a copy, though I never got an address to send it to).

The lines for Ticketmaster windows will be a madhouse. The phone lines don’t even bear thinking about. The computer is my only option, in the hope that not everyone has full speed access yet, and that the server won’t melt down upon impact. I am going to give it a go.

The time approaches and I start refreshing the appropriate window, quite a bit. Every possible time. Refresh, refresh, refresh, refresh, refresh, god hasn’t it hit the right time for them, refresh, refresh, OMIGOD I’m in!

A couple of seconds of being stunned is all I allow myself and I’m off to the races. Two tickets please. Best available. Being held for me. Payment details. It’s all going reasonably quickly, I’m still kind of amazed. Sent through. Waiting for confirmation…

Confirmation page up. Confirmation number provided. Ticket locations spelled out. E-mail sent. Tickets to be delivered.

I’m in. I’m two-thirds of the way back but as mentioned this isn’t a humungous venue. I’m more or less in a direct line to the stage.

Later, I talk with others who tried to get tickets in line or on the phone. Apparently all seats were gone in a couple of minutes, while hundreds if not thousands of people were left hanging.

Some days later a story goes around that a pair of tickets near the front are being offered for $5000 on eBay, and have been purchased.

Backtracking.

2000 has been a full year. I’m still at the house and still at the job, but supervisors have changed at the latter a couple of times, while friend Jake has moved out of the house in a bit of high dudgeon after an extremely tense situation (long since happily resolved). Brian’s been helping with shows over at Koo’s, located at this point in Santa Ana, and some excellent performances have happened in recent years (also some not so excellent ones, including a yelping, theatrical goof and his band opening for the far superior Pinback; I put up with the “SUNRISE! SUNSET!” chanting for a bit and go elsewhere on the grounds of the club/house, feeling assured that Bright Eyes have no future). I’ve recently gotten back in touch with a friend of a friend from the early 90s, Oly, a very solid and responsible person; he’s a music freak as well, and we’ve caught a couple of shows together. It’s us who make the plans to try and see Radiohead later, hoping we can actually score those tickets. Many other overlapping friendships in OC make the days go well and more than once I end up crashing with others at two friends’ shared house after an evening of brilliant food, great wine and wonderful conversation.

I have been writing for the All Music Guide for a couple of years, literally working through my CD collection as I go, in some cases creating entries out of whole cloth where before there had been but a couple of one sentence summations. Partially at my doing, a coterie of online friends has abandoned alt.music.alternative, where we’d been talking for a while to ourselves amid an endless stream of spam and sludge, and gone to a private mailing list allied to a very handy file server, where for a couple of years we can quietly exchange mp3s new and old and catch up on a lot of stuff as much as talk about what’s new. Joining this list after a certain point is the woman I’ve recently fallen in love with and vice versa. She lives in London, and a long-planned trip to the city now coincides with it being a chance for us to spend some time together. We spend a great summer vacation together and make plans for her visit out to see me for Christmas later that year, which turns out to be a smash success.

During the midsummer trip, the Meltdown festival takes place, this year being curated by Scott Walker; having only fairly recently come to his work properly at the instigation of a close friend, and after having heard so many of his self-declared followers over the years, it’s been a revelation, and I enjoy Tilt as much as the ‘classic’ first four solo efforts. Walker does not perform but his touch is evident throughout, and though I never get to see Pulp again live after a show in 1996 I do enjoy Jarvis Cocker’s solo/side project ‘A Touch of Glass,’ featuring very Durutti Column-like instrumental improvisations featuring glass harmonica. Asian Dub Foundation put on a fantastic show on another evening and while their albums never quite work for me the show itself is crackerjack.

Blur play one night on the bill; I’ve seen them plenty of times in the past, they have lost me since 1997, and ticket demand is too high anyway. Radiohead are also playing. It is the conclusion of a European tour that has been a high-demand sell-out end to end, and they have been debuting new songs from their forthcoming album like crazy. We made attempts to get tickets at several points for the Meltdown show when we realized the lucky coincidence of my attending during these dates, but to no avail — rarer than hen’s teeth doesn’t begin to describe it. She enjoys Radiohead but prefers their Bends-era material, no bad thing, and scalping isn’t an option. There are many other things to do, including a memorable day where we meet up with, among many other great people, the legendary Tom Ewing, scholar and gent and founder of the Freaky Trigger website. Some weeks after this meetup he uses space on a fairly quiescent web server with a bulletin board that mimics newsgroup layouts to an extent to start a response section for Freaky Trigger articles, blog comments not yet being standard, called I Love Music. The forthcoming release of Kid A is the second thread on the board, specifically a brief discussion involving the album cover. I am somewhat skeptical.

There is a lot of talk already about this album, a huge amount. Business rags are predicting number one debuts not only in the UK but in America. Chatter on the Net is huge, chatter in the music press almost as much. A site called Pitchfork has already gone into apoplexies. Radiohead are an ‘important’ band now, cemented into some form of discourse. There’s vague rumors about how the sound is supposed to be different from before. The band’s web site has featured all sorts of random posts and hosted a few broadcasts here and there featuring new songs, or at least performances of them. Audience-recorded cuts from the summer tour have been shared and listened to and, for all their murkiness, initial judgments are being made. The consensus is that it all sounds like Radiohead, logical enough.

Around Labor Day weekend, mp3s of the album appear on the Internet.

It is late October. I am standing next to Oly at our seat locations in the Greek Theatre. Nobody is sitting. As far as we can tell, nobody sits during the entire performance. It’s into the encores, and Thom Yorke has just thanked us all for coming, about the most he’s spoken to the audience all evening aside from brief bits here and there. He adds something else.

“Big ups to everyone up in the forest.”

The Greek Theatre is an open-air venue in Griffith Park. Ahead of us is a lower area behind the stage, sloping down further — the cloud cover is heavy, it’s essentially fog, though not completely thick. We can see to the stage clearly enough and a little ways beyond it, then after that it’s a darkly lit roof of cloud. I haven’t felt quite such a dramatic setting in almost ten years, when, literally, thunder and lightning heralded the appearance of Depeche Mode on stage.

I have listened to Kid A innumerable times at this point, or so it seems. Ever since the mp3s appeared, it seems everyone has, or at least has heard them enough to talk about them. Skewed perspectives, of course — most people on Earth don’t give a damn. My circles are a bit more obsessed, even if only in an informational ‘so this is the current thing’ way. A lot of friends are utterly sick of Radiohead and everything around them to this point. I don’t blame them, not after last time.

At the end of the previous year I’d noticed that Oasis’s fourth album leaked a couple of months before release, and that there’d be a flurry of activity about that. Earlier in 2000 the Cure’s Bloodflowers had appeared early as well, with a bonus track even. Kid A‘s leak is on another level in terms of attention, and in the month between the leak and its release in the first week of October a question has been whether or not it would hurt the album’s commercial prospects. It debuts in America at number one, in the UK at number one, Japan at number three. The question whether or not the leak was an intentional promo move has come to the fore as a result; notably this comes a lot from writers who were feeling frustrated with the hoops they had to jump through to get access to the album via regular promotional channels.

Radiohead have taken to the stage with a blast of overlapping and chopped-up radio/TV broadcast samples, followed by a huge bass line. The song is “The National Anthem,” which had been played along with “Idioteque” the previous weekend on Saturday Night Live. Along with “Optimistic,” which has been chosen by KROQ and other stations as a de facto single even though no official one has been released, they are the most immediately familiar songs played that night.

A minute into “The National Anthem” a random thought shoots through my head, as I’m trying to grapple with what I’m hearing — “This must have been what it was like to see Joy Division.” It’s the bass, really, that sums it up, Colin Greenwood digging hella deep and everything else hitting like nobody’s business, in ways I still can’t describe. (I have, however, just heard it again a bit ago as I type this — thanks to the world of the Net being what it is, I have straight CDR copies of the last three times I’ve seen the band, audience tapes all but all pretty good to great sounding. It’s not the same as I remember it, of course. No live tape is. I am sitting in a chair typing rather than standing looking at stage, my ears are clear rather than being stuffed with earplugs. And so on.)

Thom Yorke has made the comment he did because of the way the Greek Theatre is set up. Ahead of us, as mentioned, an open area, the cloud-shrouded sky. Behind us the hill rises up into the park, with nothing but tangled trees for what must be a good stretch. Beyond the fencing is just more of Griffith Park, and not an easily accessed area of it either; however, I learn, if one drives to a certain spot and parks and makes one’s way down towards the edge of the Greek Theatre grounds, one can at least hear the show if it’s loud enough. There are, I gather, no paths, no seats, nothing but trees to work amid and among. I probably have it feeling more uncomfortable and hard to deal with in my mind than in reality, having never nosed around there myself; still, on a chilly fall night it can’t be the easiest of places to be.

Given demand for the show, it’s logical to assume that many people might be there on that hillside, having freely if uncomfortably made their way along. There’s no reason why the band might not know this or wouldn’t have been told this. It’s a very logical comment for Thom Yorke to say, and so he says it.

I jerk my head around in surprise, and I’m probably more than a little startled.

The roar that comes down from behind us, just a few sets of rows away, from behind the back of the seating area, is indescribable. It is huge. I can almost feel it through the earplugs. There are shrieks, roars, calls, more besides. Somewhere, out of sight but so close, is a mass of humanity. It’s the fact that they can’t be seen, just heard, that is the part that is close to terrifying. Strictly speaking, the only difference between us and them is the purchase of a ticket and the luck to have been able to purchase it in the first place.

People around me shift uncomfortably, look equally amazed, joke with one another even as they crane and stare into the darkness. Oly looks at me and shakes his head with a rueful smile and a nervous laugh.

“Wow…it’s like something out of Braveheart.”

He’s not wrong.

So calm. So serene. So frenetic.

My copy of this album is a starting-to-rot CDR that I burned from the mp3s shortly after getting them. They have all the odd little glitches that cropped up in the rip of “Optimistic.” I still never got around to purchasing a real copy. Like nearly every album I’ve relistened to so far in this project, I’ve barely touched it in years, probably haven’t heard it in half a decade. And hearing “Everything In Its Right Place” as it stood is breathtaking, because it isn’t there. Almost.

And how busy flat calm can truly be.

If I dug out every reaction to this album when it first came out I’d be here a while. If I tried to engage with all the negative ones I’d be here a while. If I tried to pretend I’m some sort of superior creature for tackling such bizarre negative creatures I’d deserve tarring and feathering. (I probably did try to pretend it yesterday or imply it. I must resist.)

In a real sense for me, Radiohead starts here.

Think of OK Computer‘s grotesqueries at its start (a compliment). “Airbag”‘s huge swaggering snarl, “Paranoid Android”‘s perverted grandiosity. Now here, the low swelling waves of sound and fractured sample overload and flat melody and abstracted singing of “Everything,” then the child melody box tinkle of “Treefingers,” soft gentility with distant scrapes and slurs. Did people hate it because it wasn’t big? Because it didn’t make them feel big? Because fist-pumping was off the menu, per se?

Did they just really and truly hate keyboards?

Other complaints from a different angle. “It’s just Eno/Aphex/Boards of Canada/post-rock! We’ve heard this!” True, so have I. “It’s not innovative!” No, not really. “It’s just dabbling!” Hell, there should be a lot more of it! “I hate these guys!” Hey, go right ahead! Hate ’em until the cows come home! What am I supposed to do, tell you no?

Stripey, on hearing it: “Live is different. It’s better.”

She based this on the live cuts she’d heard from the preceding tour and again, it makes sense; as explained the other day, it’s the live arena for her that they fully connect in. The Greek Theatre show confirmed that much to me as well, subsequent performances heightened it.

And yet there’s this, and this fraying, restrained, boiled down and kicking out and angry and coiled tight album, this album that seethes. It isn’t a cold masterpiece of chilled perfection, it is a warm compression into a two-dimensional structure that rises on the horizon constantly in tesseracts. It is constantly suggesting more than seems to be really there, the orchestral swells on “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” the squalling jazz chaos of “The National Anthem,” the after echo of swirling shoegaze refracted on “In Limbo.”

The hook is the bass line, the keyboard part, the vocal melody and then the band aims down and in and close to the chest, adds more to catch your eye and ear and then jerks it away. Kid A is the masterpiece of a mindset that says it’s not important what you play but what you DON’T play.

It gives the traditional melancholia to those who want it, and beautifully so. “How to Disappear Completely” is a recessional, walking backwards, pulling you forward, getting seasick as the strings start curving in non-Euclidean fashions. “Optimistic,” the pseudo-single, is…easy. Pleasant. What were those U2 comparisons again?

Most of the album would so easily flow in all these ways, the slow-wave-crest of the title track’s tones, a figure wistfully contemplating and worrying like “Morning Bell,” a sigh and a snarl intertwined. Yet the spanner is in the works.

“Idioteque” — its appeal, personally defined:

2 to 1 says most critics would never want to divulge their rock star (or whatever) fantasies in full. Oh they might play around, if they’re not actually in bands, and good on them if they are. But if not, then the retreat to karaoke, air guitaring when nobody is around, dancing in a crowd, standards.

Let me be a little more open and embarrass myself. So — since I was thirteen or so, I’ve fronted a band in my head. What this band is like, what this band performs, who’s in this band, etc. Very great band too, in all its permutations, feeding my ego, and without running the risk of doing anything like actually learning an instrument or how to sing (Windy of Windy and Carl to me at Terrastock 6: “Ned, why haven’t you ever started a band?” Me: “I’m too lazy, Windy!”), the sell-out crowds are enormous and we are state of the art.

Currently it’s a four-piece, a guitarist with more pedals than god, a bassist that combines Peter Hook with Deb Googe, someone else anchoring the computer and keyboards. No live drummer, sorry. Personal bias. Yet the core of the music revolves around beats, and unlike almost any other ‘rock’ band out there we actually sound like we’ve heard current radio and rhythmic experimentation. LCD Soundsystem meets Depeche meets NIN, maybe, I don’t know.

For a song to make me lock into the mode of thinking about this fantasy band, to stop appreciating it and to feel like I’m actually out there on stage with an actual singing voice instead of the croak I am cursed with, it needs to be good. And the lock-step, stark as hell beats, the melody, that sense again that something is just under the floorboards and behind the walls about to reach out, the lyric delivery — the live-wire ‘we are HERE’ of this song (and how this song works live every time, every single time) — can be summed up by me just wanting to be out there on the mic, feeling myself wound up tighter and tighter and tighter even while maintaining a preternatural calm as I build to a point where I’m singing a lyric that used to make me just think of some old classic-rock song, now something else from somewhere else, a perfect moment:

“Take the money and run
Take the money and run
TAKE THE MONEY!”

Walter Mitty never had it as good as I do.

It is late 2000, and the Christmas visit alluded to earlier is approaching. I’m anticipatory, who wouldn’t be? I am also a little annoyed and concerned at the bizarre presidential election fallout; however, while I think it clear that institutional and political bias is at work to confirm Bush as president, I am also clear that had Gore been able to win his home state — something one expects of major candidates, something even Mondale was able to do in 1984 against Reagan — then Gore would have been the outright victor and the Florida debate would be a notable sideshow, but still just that. My sense of frustration with those who do not recognize this will grow with time. My feelings about the future are essentially cynical.

The word, meanwhile, is that the follow-up to Kid A, in response to everyone who found it too cold, weird, too ‘not’ Radiohead, will be a much more straightforward rock and roll album.

Hahaha!

Thank you, YouTube:

“The National Anthem” on SNL:

“Idioteque” on SNL:

“How to Disappear Completely” at PinkPop:

“Everything In Its Right Place” in Paris:

“In Limbo” at Rock AM Ring:

“Motion Picture Soundtrack” in Paris:

Posted in Life, Music. Tags: , . 10 Comments »

Countdown to IN RAINBOWS Pt. 3 — OK COMPUTER

Continued from here.

It is late 1997.

I am in my room in the shared house that I and some friends of mine, including the indefatigable Brian and Jake, now share out and rent together. Being of sufficiently egotistical mein, I laid claim to the master bedroom in the house and either nobody objected or I steamrollered over the objections. Among other things that means I get the attached bathroom instead of having a shared one in the hall. I pay more, but it is, of course, well worth it.

The living room being partially shared out for the other housemate James (long story), my room is kinda the main hangout/viewing room whenever people are over, assuming we’re not in the kitchen/dining area, or the garage (we converted the fully attached garage into a perfect den, full of clutter, video games and musical equipment — no a/c, but very cozy, and on the frequent days and nights of rain in that upcoming winter it’s great to stand out in the center of it and hear the rain falling on the roof, on either side, on the driveway, literally surrounded by water but completely dry).

Radiohead are broadcasting on MTV, having appeared in New York to do a one-off show on something called Live at the Ten Spot, which like everything else MTV ever does sounds hip if you are bereft of any appreciation of the quality, and has since between retired in Stalinist ‘never happened, MOVING ON!’ fashion. Besides Brian and maybe Jake (who is far from a fan, thus the maybe) are a couple of other friends, including Stripey and Anni. Stripey, it should be noted, has not gone to live shows for some years, for various reasons, but has no problem with seeing tapes or the like of performances. She is not a particular fan of Radiohead; as was mentioned in the first part of this project, she viewed “Creep” or rather its widespread acceptance fairly tartly, and being a longtime U2 aficionado thinks that they are wearing that influence a little too obviously.

The performance — setlist here, though not all tracks are shown — is a strong one, and the visuals, while standard enough band close-ups/swooping audience views/etc. nonsense, still show all the band at work, though there’s an understandable/unavoidable focus on Thom. We all watch as we do; I’m pretty positive I’m sitting at my computer catching up on my e-mail. (Some things will never change. Never.)

Stripey is following the show more and more intently as it progresses. A lot of what on their recent album sounds like a careful collage from all over the place reveals itself to translate very well live, sounding different in some cases, the mix turning them into something else than they were. Everyone, quite clearly, is a sharp musician — not virtuosos in the painfully horrifying Dream Theater sense, but in a way that brings the songs to life again and again. It’s quite something.

At the end of the broadcast, Stripey is now a fan. U2 starts coming up less often in comparisons than Simple Minds (specifically the sumptuous early eighties Simple Minds — she mentions the recent B-side “Meeting in the Aisle” as being pretty much a tribute to that sound, and she’s right). Her stance on them is consistent from then on in — in studio, she finds them overthought, overworked. Live, everything about them truly comes to life. Everything is perfectly on.

Meanwhile, I was probably trying to tell one of the trolls on the Oasis list to please calm down.

Backtracking.

Earlier that summer I was feeling pretty good about things. In fact I felt like I had been freed from a mental prison, having left grad school and begun library work — a familiar atmosphere in part, not merely because of my obsessive reading but because of my employment as a high school student and undergrad in libraries (as from my TA work in grad school, I have literally known no other formal full time work experience than in this field — and it is because of grad school that I don’t want to get an MLS degree, thanks very much; did grad school once, don’t need to do it again). After an interim six month period working a night shift, my hours shifted to a regular daytime run, in time for the move to the previously mentioned house.

GREAT summer, that year. Loved it. Summer is always quieter at work, and in a way this was my summer vacation — it was just me and two student clerks, due to a weird collapse in the staffing department (six months previous — I was the new guy out of three people; within four months, I was the *only* one…clearly my magnetic charm at work). I was still figuring out the vagaries of the bus system but had cottoned onto the chief benefit of taking that road into work — time to just sit and read. Long, warm days, a comfortable change from my grad housing of five years previous, money to spare…nice. Also, I had recognized the name Steven Thomas Erlewine when he joined a couple of mailing lists, and after some initial chat idly asked him if they were looking for any more writers for an organization and website he worked at called the All Music Guide. He suggested I submit some samples to see where things might go from there.

Music indeed. I forget where, but recently somebody somewhere put together a vaguely serious story about how instead of the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love we should be celebrating the 10th anniversary of…well, I suppose the time the Prodigy debuted on the American charts at number one. (Exchanging one set of exhausted nostalgia reference points for another = YAWN which is why I’m doing this whole kinda project as a one-off if I can all help it.) I will say this, I did rather enjoy that summer because it seemed like a sort of victory for a few things I had been following with enthusiasm — like beaten-to-number-one-by-Puff-Daddy Oasis, who released a coke masterpiece of an arrogant album with a few good songs and a lot of boring sludge. (You know, like Use Your Illusion. And don’t give me that look either.) Verve had reformed and regrettably had a couple of smash hits, regrettably because even though I’m still fond of the regal in-love-with-itself splendour of “Bittersweet Symphony,” Richard Ashcroft loved it and himself even more, let his ego destroy a band that four years previously had been untouchable and then proceeded to release a series of terrible solo albums. Good job, guy. Spiritualized as well, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, *his* own drug masterpiece album except it was good and done in response to his lady friend thinking that, of all people, Richard Ashcroft would be a better value for money. Kind of a lateral move if you ask me but anyway.

I think I got all those releases on their various days of debuting, as well as OK Computer. Which I liked…yeah, I liked. This while all sorts of weird things were happening around me regarding the band. Friend Jennifer, mentioned last time, talked about being able to interview the band while apparently having caught their show at the Troubadour. The Troubadour is a famed but rather small club up in LA — apparently the ticket demand was indescribable, this being one of those ‘it’s a special intimate show but it’s mostly for the label and its guest list and good luck actually getting in if you’re a real fan’ shows. (I’ve been there, on both sides of the door.) They also were playing at the KROQ Weenie Roast that year — my hands feel slimy just typing that — along with Oasis, Blur, the Cure, the Chemical Brothers…not quite a new British Invasion but a vague sortie, if you squinted.

As the year went on, to my slight surprise, there kept being more random talk about them. A lot of it. Apparently people really liked this album a hell of a lot, and the conversation kept getting louder. To my mind, the most odd bit was the fact that much of this seemed to revolve around prog rock. The hell? To my mind, I remembered the first and last time I had tried to engage with the alleged genre with any sort of seriousness, and crapped out after the tenth Rick Wakeman solo. (I’ve since learned he was seen as more of an aberration, at least by those who could not play as fast as him.) I was seventeen at that time and in the intervening years had heard a lot of stuff that might as well have had the tag, but wasn’t called it. Wise, actually (how to kill a kind of music you love — give it a name; resist the impulse as much as you can if you want it to thrive). Another band that had once gotten a few prog tags in its time was, in fact, Simple Minds. Hmm.

I remember the album scoring a lot of best-of-year tags come December. I don’t recall what mine was. I think I was just enjoying Christmas.

It’s April Fool’s Day 1998 and I am watching the crowd watch Radiohead.

It has been five years since I’ve seen them. It’s a slightly full spring with various things taking my attention, not all positive. Decisions have been made I will later regret. Others turn to be far more positive but in ways nowhere near understandable at the time, and in a fashion revealed by comparing experiences rather than in noticing events as they happen. Still, things are not as bad as all that.

I have gone to the show with friend Ben, who I’ve known for some years, and friend Hina, who I’ve known for a few months. We’re still friends — I last saw Ben last week, and Hina was who I went to London with earlier this year. Ben and I first met her at a Morrissey show at UCI a few months previous, where he had averred to the crowd that he wished he’d been born Mexican. It was only after the crowd roared in delight that I realized that, in fact, nearly everyone there was Mexican or Mexican-American, from the looks of it. If a cliche was born that night, at least I got to see it happen.

I am witnessing another cliche come to life, the fanbase in action. This is not a casual crowd. Five years previously, Radiohead were just the middle band on the bill with the omnipresent summer hit and a bunch of other songs people talked through. Tonight, Spiritualized gets that honor. Having seen them three times within the past two years or so — actually, maybe more than that (they are seriously one of the bands I’ve seen the most over the years, and I’ve lost track now, I realize) — Spiritualized are more familiar to me and while I’m paying attention it’s more with an air of general appreciation. It’s not their crowd, the band knows it and the crowd, definitely, know it. Some polite applause and all.

This is Radiohead’s crowd and they are worshipped.

I have seen big, overwhelming crowds keyed into a band. A person even. I still remember with amazed delight Martin Gore, alone on a stage in Dodger Stadium, singing a Depeche album cut while playing on acoustic guitar…and the entire crowd singing along. That was tens of thousands of people. This crowd is smaller, it’s the (formerly, but at this point was still) Universal Ampitheatre, three or four thousand or something similar, good sized venue. I’ve seen Peter Murphy sing Captain Beefheart songs here, I saw Spinal Tap intentionally do ridiculous things, I’ve seen the Greatest and Ever, New Order, play a brilliant set back in 1989 (you should have several Greatest Bands Ever if you like music, you should have thousands). I am sitting up near the back of the balcony, way over to the side.

“Exit Music (For a Film)” is playing. Thom is singing softly in the spotlight, just him and his acoustic guitar — I think I’ve been down this road before. I can see the crowd, all of it, from my vantage point. I wait for the singalong to kick in.

It never does. It sinks in that I feel very uncomfortable all of a sudden. This is not a crowd that’s singing along. This is a crowd that is hanging on his every word.

I expect there to be people at the back of even small ‘fan-only’ shows who are interested only in drinks and chatter. (I especially expect that in LA, because 99% of the people doing that work in the industry, and hate music, but love bar tabs.) In big shows I expect there to be a lot of people out because ‘it’s the thing to see’ or whatever, and Radiohead are definitely something to see.

But it’s deathly silent in the ampitheatre. Dead. There is only Thom’s voice and acoustic guitar, at least until the band starts joining in. I am watching thousands of statues and I am feeling like I don’t belong here.

Later, when Thom introduces a new song, slow, considered, reflective, says it is called “How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found,” I think to myself, “Oh my god, they really are going to be the new U2.” I don’t know how I feel about that.

I go home that night and Brian is convulsed with laughter and refuses to tell me anything. So I have to wait until after work the next day to watch the videotape and see Terence and Philip farting on Saddam Hussein’s face. I didn’t expect that.

I hate OK Computer. Not the album. I love the album. I hate what it has become. I hate what it stands for. I hate everything that has been heaped on it. I hate it as much as I suspect the band hates it. Ten years on from creating ‘the greatest album ever‘ would get a little frustrating after a while, especially when you’re doing better work.

Lord this thing is perfectly produced (and the Nigel Godrich era begins in full). More rock bands, really, need to be more open about how hip-hop and sampling culture and more has changed what you can do. Thankfully Radiohead have always been more and more open about that with time. Sometimes it’s a bit odd where they get their influences from but they always seem to transmutate it perfectly (I didn’t mention yesterday that “Fake Plastic Trees” was inspired by Jeff Buckley; this is because I hate Jeff Buckley — not Jeff Buckley, the person who died in a horrible accident, that’s a cruel thing to say I hate him for that, but I hate what he became in the hands of others after he died, and I was never fond of the music to start with). So “Exit Music (For A Film)”‘s stark opening and heavy reverb is supposed to have derived in large part from Johnny Cash at San Quentin; that makes sense. “Airbag” allegedly comes from loving DJ Shadow, which I find more problematic. He’s hip-hop in that he’s a goth. (Long story. Later. Maybe.)

The piano on “Karma Police,” the compressed, distorted screaming that concludes “Climbing Up the Walls,” the blend of scuzz and growl and uplift and melodrama and more throughout the whole damn thing, the crackle of…stop stop stop! Let me not go down that road! Let me stop trying to describe this damn album in its own lyrical language! Let me stop making this album out to be the agreed upon center of existence that everyone refers to! (A lie, of course, thank god it never has been.)

But people try to do that. All the time. No, no, NO.

I want to just hear this album again without thinking about how it’s been nailed up there now, crucified, used by everyone, those anthropophagi blood-drunk on their own idiot communion. FOR FUCK’S SAKE. How many bands stopped here, cloned it and made it awful precisely because they made it so dully tasteful? How many fans? How many writers? How many polls? How many of them listened to this album, had their breakdowns, thought rock and roll had come to save them again, then decided that when the later albums came out that all that could be done was to play this album again instead?

I can’t even hear “Let Down” again and my god do I adore that song. But it’s swathed in part of the whole mystique, its crystalline tones and pitch-perfect slow slide wrapped up in the gossamer of the salvation of the Entertainment Weekly/Q/Mojo/NPR nation. It’s the most beautiful mummy around.

It’s drained drier than everything from the sixties I was trying to escape from being forced down my throat at a certain point in the late eighties.

“Why can’t they sound like their old stuff?” the cry has continually gone up since then.

Yes precisely, dip the band in aspic as well as your copy of the album. Well done. THANKS.

(Now I know how people think about me going on about Loveless forever.)

I have written this previous section without rereading my 1999 take on the album. I now do so.

*pause*

I was glad I was at least partially skeptical then too, but less so of the reception and more so of the album, perhaps. I will keep this bit at least:

“But as I said recently, even though this album perhaps thinks it’s The Wall, it’s really The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway with a marketing degree. Thankfully the degree was top notch.”

It is late 1998 and I am watching Velvet Goldmine in the theater with three friends, two of whom I no longer talk to much (one by accident of geography, the other by clear intent). Ten years almost down the road, the film feels way clunkier than I realized but it’s still a treat; at the time I was quite taken with it. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, long blonde hair wig and hippie clothes intact, gets on the stage of the club in the set that’s been made for the film and starts singing Roxy Music‘s “2 HB” and Thom Yorke’s voice comes out. He sounds pretty fantastic on this and the other Roxy covers too.

Likely I wonder a bit what Radiohead will do next. Mostly I am concentrating on Toni Colette‘s intentionally muddled accent.

Thank you, YouTube:

MTV interview:

“Paranoid Android” on Jools Holland:

“Airbag” at Eurockennes:

“Exit Music (For a Film)” at Glastonbury (notably, this crowd is not silent):

“Lucky” in a soundcheck:

“Let Down,” San Francisco:

“Electioneering” from somewhere (embedding is being flaky on this one)

Countdown to IN RAINBOWS Pt. 2 — THE BENDS

Continued from here.

It is 1995.

I am walking back from an Offspring concert. From four years beforehand, when as I mentioned before that I saw them open for Fugazi, they have, through a combination of opportunity, promotion savvy, money and being in the right place at the right time, become Orange County’s biggest rock band, period. They have been all over the radio, MTV and more in the past twelve months, rivalling only Green Day for seeming out-of-nowhere omnipresence in whatever modern rock is supposed to be considered. They have had a few hit singles now and therefore have moved beyond simply being a one-hit wonder.

They are playing UCI for the second time in this period. First time through they packed out a good sized auditorium on campus, this time around it’s the Bren Events Center, the largest venue on-site. I am covering this show for the weekly campus newspaper, where I’ve been working about the same length of time I’ve been working at KUCI, since my arrival in 1992. My work bleeds over from one venue to another — my music column, like my show, is called ‘Ned’s Musical Dustbin,’ without apology. I have had the flattering feeling of being told more than once that it’s ‘the only thing in the paper I read’ — which makes me feel bad for a lot of my colleagues, some of whom are very fine writers indeed. Occasionally I cover big campus shows of interest and this is quite obviously one of them.

With me as the crowd streams out is someone I’ve been close to for almost a year as well. This is a period of time I do not dwell on much, however, because of things I’d rather not revisit that I’m not particularly fond of about myself during this time. She’s been taking some photos to accompany the review as she is an excellent photographer, though she’s not a regular staffer at the paper or in fact a student on campus. If I remember it rightly, she reacts because she either hears someone talking about them or because a passing car has some of their music blasting out.

“Someone at Capitol said they’d be getting me ‘Planet Telex’ remixes on vinyl!”

“That’s on the new album?”

“It’s the first song.”

“Hm, neat.”

It’s not exactly like this but that’s all I can remember, disconnectedly. I told you I don’t dwell on this time. It’s spring 1995 and The Bends is about to be released.

Backtracking.

1994’s a good year in general. I’ve formed a solid circle of friends through the newspaper and through KUCI, as well as through a few of my fellow grads (a few, not many — my social life is defiantly oriented away from the department, and that’s something necessary for sanity). I am mainlining MST3K repeats thanks to the good graces of my family taping them for me. The previous year I discovered alt.music.alternative and have started to get to know a few characters around there, as well as introducing friend Jennifer, who among other things works part-time for Sony‘s college department, to its joys. She uses it a bit as a promo experiment to talk to fans of bands on Sony and presents results to her superiors. They don’t get it and apparently regard computer talk as faddish stuff that will never have a wide appeal. Whatever smugness or horror this discussion generates in those involved or who hear about it is years away from being understood properly.

Using my small newspaper and radio roles as I can, I have been able to score a variety of phone interviews with people over this time, either for broadcast or for summed-up stories. They range, unsurprisingly. Among the most abstractly painful is the one with Bonehead from Oasis, a classic example of monosyllabic disdain (and I liked the band, even). Among the best, the one with Ian Crause from Disco Inferno, which I have since apparently misplaced, much to my continued annoyance and anger. If I ever find it again, it will be encoded and shared; at the time, I am just happy to talk the man behind some of the best music ever made (still).

In late 1994, Radiohead have released “My Iron Lung,” their first single since the you-don’t-want-to-hear-it “Pop is Dead” from about a year previous. Attention is high and initial critical reaction positive, and EMI in America are no fools and seek to stoke the flames. Ergo, college interviews and the like where possible. I therefore get a chance to talk with Colin Greenwood, who is an engaging and enjoyable interviewee to my recollection. I distinctly recall him saying how he was happy that I knew what an iron lung was in the first place, as apparently a lot of the other college newspaper people or whoever he had been speaking with had not heard of it. To be fair it was an outdated piece of technology but still it wasn’t entirely unknown, or so I would have thought.

The story is published in the newspaper. This is in the days before Internet publishing. The story is not archived anywhere to my immediate knowledge. I have it somewhere hidden away in a file. I have no immediate desire to dig it up. If I eventually find it, I will. At the time all I think is that it was a good enough interview and that I liked “My Iron Lung” a bit, even if the noisy chorus sounded a bit like the noisy chorus from “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana, in much the same way perhaps that “Creep” rode a vibe not dissimilar to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”‘s loud/soft/loud balance, if in a different style.

I read occasional stories about the band in Melody Maker. Life continues.

It is later in 1995. I have not seen Radiohead yet on tour — in fact, at no point do I see them at all for The Bends. Other things are keeping me busy, as well as other interests. There are lots of bands to pay attention to. In a fit of randomness, I have inherited a mailing list about the band Sparks, and have also set up a variety of mailing lists for other bands. Suede, Pulp, Oasis, T. Rex, the Go-Betweens, more besides. I have crashed a mail server a couple of times because Oasis are breaking huge everywhere and hundreds of people have signed up for it, especially since it has been featured on the band’s official homepage, and will be for the next four years.

Much talk about a rivalry between Blur and Oasis is going around, though from an American perspective it means almost nothing. An Anglophilic one is different and I’m still enough of one to wonder what’s going on where. Pulp, however, have been rising in my estimation over recent years and Different Class is an absolute killer of an album, vicious, inspiring, anthemic, sharp, lovelorn, thoughtful. Meantime there’s the Smashing Pumpkins, whom I adore even when everyone else hates them. Their loss. (Of their antics twelve years later, the less said the better.) I am devouring a bunch of bands on the Kranky label. I am hearing a slew of all over the place acts via KUCI. The beats on top 40 are getting suspiciously good bit by bit. I am still a starving grad student but I’m enjoying life to the full, and I’ve introduced new roommate Jake to friend Brian, and they’re getting along like a house on fire; at the same time I have finally met friend Stripey after a year’s worth of casual conversation online as well as her friend Anni. I get everyone together and for the next couple of years the five of us are, if not quite inseparable, at least often going out and having a blast.

I like The Bends. I think it’s a good album, with a couple of killer songs in particular.

One thing that’s always struck me about The Bends, whenever I listen to it — and it’s been years now, but here we are. It shimmers. It glows. It is bright.

It’s warm.

Radiohead is a warm band. Much like happiness is a warm puppy. Radiohead are allegedly bloodless, the antithesis of sloppy. Precise, focused, cold, alien. Nope, not true. They are warm, they are, for lack of a better term, alive.

Think of the way “Planet Telex” arcs in (and it arcs in, it doesn’t just simply appear, these are parabolic swoops of sound, Phil Selway’s drums punching in like radio signals once again received, the wash and flow on the chorus a gossamer overload that isn’t shoegaze at all but has the most enveloping feeling to it, a drowning cascade).

In large but not entire partk, John Leckie is the reason. Interesting career, Leckie’s. Look at this career list through 1999 alone. Believe it or not, one of the things that makes me most happiest is that credit for the Adverts. Heard that album? A punk classic because it’s simultaneously crash-and-bash and a massive art statement. Credit the band, credit Leckie too. About the closest equivalent producer I can think of is someone like Conny Plank was for Germany, one of those guys who grew up in rock and roll and knew how to make it sound great but wasn’t interested in just producing the same people over and again for the rest of his career.

Not long before this he’d produced Verve’s debut album, aka one of the most perfect albums in time and space. Back in 1999 I went on about it here, and most of that still holds true, regardless of my fever dreaming about it. To say he equalled here is to understate — but it’s also true it’s not only him about it. There is, after all, a band here. So the way that Yorke sings “I wish I wish something would HAPPEN” and the guitar chopschopschopsBLAMinto the full arrangement — that’s good, that is.

You know the band had heard it all at that point from EMI. “‘Creep’ Pt. 2, buster, and make it snappy. We’ve got a good thing.” Only the band didn’t and so they took a different approach — “What if we did Pablo Honey again but made it better and with more good songs?” So they did. Listening now I’m surprised, given this is an album I don’t ever recall playing into the ground, how many of these songs come back to me just by looking at the tracklisting. “Bones” and “Sulk,” those aren’t sinking in, but everything else, I at least know the chorus if not more. And listening now I remember why that’s the case. (And in listening to “Bones” right now I’m thinking, “Oh right, that song, I knew that one!”)

Radiohead are a good rock band that allegedly are more than that, so their many conventional moves are seen as something else. They can’t be appreciated for what they are sometimes, which is a pity, because that does make their unusual moves more interesting. For a band still sounding like ‘a band’ in the studio on The Bends, things are still, like on Pablo Honey, thorny. Conventional structures at points, unusual ones elsewhere. When the harmonies appear as they do (like on “[Nice Dream],” how they suddenly slip in on the chorus) I choke up a bit, a touch, whenever they do, and I don’t do that often with harmonies. When everything cuts off cold in the middle of “Just,” that’s a pure moment of perfect drama no matter what the musical mode. On “Black Star,” that’s a great glam descend mode on the chorus, the way the guitars sound triumphant for a second and then collapse downward.

Then there’s “Fake Plastic Trees.”

Here’s my story about “Fake Plastic Trees.”

In 1995, I saw Kitchens of Distinction on their last American tour. During “Drive That Fast,” I did something I didn’t normally do and took out my earplugs, to feel it all. A couple of days later I realized something — the ringing in my ears, low-key but there, hadn’t gone away. A couple of days later confirmed it further — it was never going away. On a quiet level, it never has. I’ve got tinnitus and always will, and that was the song and action that did it. Oh well — I made my choice and must take my lumps.

Since then I have always worn my earplugs through every show without fail, every song. With one exception. You can guess what. And maybe without me saying it, perhaps you can sense why.

It is late 1996. I am lying in my bed in my apartment in grad housing, where I have lived for over four years now. It is Thanksgiving weekend and as has been the case for the last couple of years, ever since my folks moved north to Carmel, I am spending it in OC, enjoying the company of friends for the holiday. I am in a good relationship that unbeknownst to either of us will collapse in a few months after a random conversation goes spectacularly awry. I am alone and I am sweating bullets.

Grad school is crushing my head. I am supposed to be gearing up for my exams. I have not been. Nothing about the prospect interests me. I hate the idea of reading up on things precisely to be quizzed about them. My grad fellowship has ended and I had to pony up the fees for fall quarter that year, which was disconcerting. I have recently learned that a language requirement I thought I could get out of by means of a test can’t be. I know I’ve been wasting time having fun rather than studying up but frankly I don’t regret it, at least, until now.

“I’d feel so much better if I wasn’t in grad school,” I say out loud.

I pause. A light turns on in my head.

“I’d feel so much better if I wasn’t in grad school!”

The paperwork takes a while but in mental terms, I have just left.

Radiohead is the last thing on my mind.

Thank you, YouTube:

Interviewed in Vancouver:

“The Bends” on Jools Holland:

“High and Dry” on Dutch TV

“My Iron Lung” on French TV

“Fake Plastic Trees” on Conan (that clip of “Creep” I linked yesterday? according to this clip, that appearance meant Radiohead was the first musical guest on Conan ever — not a bad distinction)

Thom doing “[Nice Dream]” solo:

Countdown to IN RAINBOWS Pt. 1 — PABLO HONEY

By way of introduction — so, this is my big ol’, highly random, kinda crazy, ‘I’m doing it anyway’ blog project. It’s the type of thing that in a lot of eyes:

  • …only a goofy blogger with time to kill would do. Yup, not denying it. We’ll see how this all plays out, though.
  • …only a severely obsessed Radiohead fan would do. Not really, though. The vast majority of what I’m going to be relistening to and talking about is stuff I haven’t heard in years, in some cases over a decade. My listening patterns are my own and there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve heard in recent years more that I like rather less.
  • …adds to the whole ‘OMG Radiohead are so important we must study their every move’ mythos. There’s plenty of that about, not here. At least, it’s just not my way. People have created stage productions out of Radiohead lyrics and the like. Fine, but that’s a case of loving not too wisely but too well as I see it.
  • …is going to be solipsistic claptrap. Well yeah, but if you’re reading this blog you’ve learned to expect THAT by now.
  • …is a pointless diversion from the issues that are going to kill us all, perhaps literally. No, only if you want it to be. I call it part of life.
  • That all stated, onward.

    It is 1993.

    Early 1993 to be specific, not winter early but no later than early spring. I’m in grad school at UCI, have been for a little under a year, taking advantage of a surprise offer of a fellowship at the English department there. Four years, fully covered. Won’t say no. I live in grad housing on campus and have been wondering a bit about this Internet thing my friend Brian hangs around on.

    Met Brian at KUCI, the campus’s radio station, which was the second thing on campus I sought out after the department itself. One of the first people I met there. Having worked at KLA at UCLA for almost four years I breezed into a slot at KUCI like that, a late night one initially, but by this time I have moved to a reasonably late one instead of a punishingly early morning one. Those I hated, I admitted, but you do what you do.

    So it’s one of these slots, and I’m flipping through the new releases. After a slight interruption in fall 1992 as I concentrated on my studies, plus went through a messy personal phase, I am once again a regular reader of the UK music press, specifically Melody Maker, where a lot of my favorite writers can be found. This being the case a variety of the names of the time that were getting hyped over there were things I was fairly au fait with, though my ability to hear them was not always easy (if I had listened to Rodney on the Roq more this might not have been a problem, but hey). Still, they had turned me on to Disco Inferno among other bands, for which I am eternally grateful still. At the time, a jumble of names are in my brain, some of definite interest, some of slight.

    I notice a familiar name in the new release rack. “Radiohead, heard of them. ‘Creep,’ heard of that. Hmm, might as well play it.”

    I do so. And my initial reactions are a bit like this.

    “Hmm, nice enough.

    “Guy’s got a good voice, sorta world weary

    “Whoops, a swear word. Well at least it’s late night and —

    HOLY HELL where’d that guitar come from?!”

    Backtracking.

    In the summer of 1992 I visited the UK for the first time. I spent a good chunk of it in Oxford. My reasons for going were twofold — I wanted to celebrate my graduation from UCLA, and I wanted to attend a fantastic conference on Tolkien at Keble College. It was the 100th anniversary of his birth and I wanted to be there for it — a fantastic event, one I am still glad to have attended.

    Being in Oxford was also of interest to me because one of my favorite groups ever, one I’m still fond of, came from there. Ride. I’d seen them a couple of months beforehand for the second (and as it proved, final) time in LA, two nights at the Palace, Slowdive opening one night, the Pale Saints the other. Shoegaze heaven, once again. So given I was in Oxford I took the time to wander around, visit the record store that the band had namechecked in a past newsletter, get a sense of the place rather than simply drowning in the academic mystique. Americans coming to the UK for the first time too easily buy into a myth about it and while I wasn’t fully clear on that in my head yet I was vaguely trying to kick against the obvious. Vaguely.

    I did not, though, go and see local bands. Should’ve done. Never know what I would have found. I would not, it seems, have found Radiohead. According to this page, no dates were played in August, the month I was there, except at the very end, and that was out of town. But presumably the band were there in whole or in part, kicking around, working their jobs, gearing up for the tour that was centered around the original release of the “Creep” single (trivia: in the UK, “Creep” did nowhere near as well initially as the follow-up, “Anyone Can Play Guitar” — the former’s anthem status there kicked in only after it was an anthem here, but that jumps ahead a bit). For all I know I passed by them any number of times — five people, small city center, no students around much.

    In my memory Oxford struck me as a place that, if you lived there, was pleasant or could be, though it seemed rougher corners were equally evident. Town vs. gown is the eternal struggle in such towns, and town has it worse for the most part. Away from the colleges was suburbia, dumpier corners as well. Forming a band to get out of it, why not? Ride had done it. The Jennifers, who were on the verge of releasing their first and only single (I think) were doing it, shortly before they transmogrified into Supergrass. And Radiohead had already done it, had already done one tour around England, were gearing up for the next. They’d already signed to EMI, done their initial press interviews. They were kinda known by some, a small amount.

    Their last fully anonymous summer. It was a good August, I remember that.

    It’s later in 1993 and I am standing in the back of the Palladium in LA. Strange venue, cavernous sound, I’ve already been to see many shows there a number of times. At one of them, a random lineup of the godlike L7, the never-fails-to-entertain Redd Kross and the immortal Butthole Surfers at the headliner, I was up in one balcony while, allegedly, one Kurt C. and Courtney L. were first meeting or close to it in the other. At another I was marvelling at the opening act for Fugazi, an opening act who were just incredible — I’d never heard Fugazi but the show was of course cheap, friends were going and MAN their opening act was great! Who could top them! Then the opening act came out for an encore and I went, “Wait…this IS Fugazi.” (The actual opening act was this kinda generic hardcore band with a braided-hair lead singer that were all right. The first time I ever saw the Offspring, I realized in later years.) I missed the Happy Mondays there a couple of years beforehand but my roommate Beau told me he only went for the opening act — an utterly out of place but loving every minute of it Bongwater — and then found he couldn’t leave the show because the security wouldn’t let him. Sounds like LA security to me.

    The headliner tonight is PJ Harvey — I was still kicking myself for missing her set the previous fall (with David J! what a wonderful combination) and with the release of Rid of Me she had already packed in a huge fanbase. Good thing too, the album was a monster and was the second in the can-do-no-wrong series of releases she has put out since. Bottom of the bill is the fairly weird and good Moonshake, before Margaret Fiedler has left to form Laika. She and Dave and the band do their thing and most of the crowd is bemused and confused. I am too, frankly, but I hadn’t settled into their work yet (part of the unexpected munificence of Rick Rubin, who has signed the Too Pure label to American distribution — later ensuring that the godlike Pram and Long Fin Killie can both tour the States, both of whom I also miss, to my eternal regret).

    In the middle, meanwhile, is the band that has the smash single of the summer on KROQ. Nobody else comes close. Sure, it’s a slightly edited version of the original — a ‘fucking’ has been tamed to a ‘very’ — but “Creep” is omnipresent. Even as the hype is already starting to build for the new releases by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, something else with loud, loud guitars has clawed its way onto the charts. MTV is kicking into heavy rotation. This song is known. By default, so is the band now. Suede are trying to kick into US consciousness around the same time but they’ve been decisively, completely trumped. Radiohead have, even if only in a one-hit-wonder way so far, broken America.

    I watch from the back as mentioned — I’ll go up later for PJ (and do, and have a great time). In retrospect the memories are dim. They’re on stage, they’re playing and they seem, well, okay enough to be there. They’re not actually part of the tour, this is a one-off date, part of, again referring to the gigography page, a series of LA performances including a separate club headlining show, a radio session, and a TV appearance for Arsenio Hall. It’s not a bad initial touchdown in LA, and it helps that they are the in thing.

    I remember Thom’s hair. EVERYONE remembers Thom’s hair. It was in all the photos then, he had grown it into this strange…mop. It wasn’t grunge. It wasn’t glam. It wasn’t ANYTHING. It was, just, well, strange. The stage lights glinted off of it, it shook a lot. Some rock people do big hair really well. Thom Yorke didn’t, frankly. But he was happy with it, at least initially, and hey, like I’m one to talk. Still, I think I was doing a touch better than him. However, he was the one on stage and I wasn’t, so enough of that.

    I had a promo tape of Pablo Honey at this point; I would have preferred a CD but I only got that bit later. I really loved “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” scattered other songs. The setlist indicates they played that but I only remember “Creep.” Because the place, unsurprisingly, went nuts. And I think the band were already pretty tired of it. But they played it, and they knew why they were there in the first place, why they had a leg up over all the other bands whose first LA appearances were small club showcases and nothing else. It was because of that song.

    Later that year in a writing class, the first I ever teach, I ask people to name their favorite songs and why in a brief essay. Several people mention “Creep.” The lyrics are a particular factor and are quoted more than once.

    Listening to Pablo Honey now is kinda weird. Rephrase that, a lot weird. It’s not because there’s no ‘experimentation’ — the lazy but understandable tag that has been used too much about the band over the years, and which I’ve probably used a lot of times, and is distracting to what works about the band. More on that in later days.

    Halfway through it today I thought, “You know, this reminds me of the Cure.” Not in terms of sound. Not…entirely. But it does, in this sense, stretched as it might be: when the Cure came out for the first time, goth wasn’t yet a tag (sure, there might be music with a Gothic touch, but those references were used with a knowing intentionality, a reference to styles of art and aesthetics from another time). They were just a band, in a wider context into which they slotted. But they had a couple of things going for them — catchy song structures that were slightly arcane, just a hair off from straightforward. They had a good live reputation. And they had a hit, a small one, not “Creep” level, not yet, but “Boys Don’t Cry” was enough of a hit to justify the tag. There was a vein, easily mined further, waiting for them to pursue.

    They sidestepped.

    This is to project a bit, and to try and fit situations fifteen years or so apart into different contexts, near and yet far. And yet like Three Imaginary Boys/Boys Don’t Cry or whatever you want to call the first Cure album, it is like and yet unlike in Radiohead’s history. It is definitely a product of its time and the band are a product of its influences; so taken are they by what can be called a certain American modern rock sound that more than half of it has been recorded by the team of Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie over in the States. Compare this to the Cure recording their debut using stolen studio time and borrowed equipment from the Jam, a slight difference. The guitars are state of the art for the time — loud, crisply sludgy, big sounding but not irritating, very well sculpted in all their distorted chunk.

    It’s a thorny album at points, Pablo Honey. It’s catchy but not quite obvious. Some songs are just loud-as-fuck brawlers and there’s no reticence or delicacy about them at all, at least on first blush — “How Do You?” might as well be Sunset Strip cock-rock, or maybe more appropriately the Manic Street Preachers‘ attempt at same (it ain’t quite “You Love Us” but it’s not that far removed – hell, the piano is almost boogie, in a fractured Mike Garson-playing-for-Bowie sense). The first song is essentially a very loud waltz, sorta. “Anyone Can Play Guitar” looks at the rock myth, junks it, but at high fist-pumping volume. There’s a bit of zone/drone guitar at the start of “I Can’t” that’s all the more attractive to me by being the only thing like it on the disc (though the not-quite-gaze but kinda “Blow Out” comes close). Among the apparent ballads is “Lurgee,” in which the tender celebration is because the object of affection isn’t around at all. Then there’s “Creep.” I have very little to say about “Creep.” It’s great and I need never hear it again and I love it every time I do hear it, especially when Thom hits that high note after the second chorus. I kinda think this is the moment that when people first heard it they really went, “…damn.”

    Still, I also remember something good friend Stripey said in later years. “You know, the people who say they really love that song? In my experience, they usually are creeps.”

    The other day friend Juan mentioned this was his favorite album from them still, specifically because of “Thinking About You.” Tense, acoustic, brisk, chiming, not quite U2 but not far gone, Coldplay if they were a bit bratty and desperate instead of boring and withdrawn. I can see why he likes it.

    It is sometime later in 1993. I am home, and watching MTV (the grad housing does not have cable and I indulge in it during said trips home, which happen once every few months). Beavis and Butthead are making fun of Radiohead for a bit.

    Then the guitar part on “Creep” kicks in.

    “YES! YES! YES!”

    I knew how they felt.

    Thank you, YouTube — embedding on here seems flaky, so some of these might end up being direct links:

    “Creep” on TV, August 1993 — maybe Arsenio?

    “Creep” on Conan:

    “Inside My Head” in Chicago, summer 1993:

    “Prove Yourself” — I think from the Live at the Astoria video, I’d guess:

    “Anyone Can Play Guitar” — ‘live at the MTV Beach House!’ Some things we will never see again:

The eighth of ten favorite 2011 albums — Radiohead, ‘The King of Limbs’

Radiohead, The King of Limbs

Well, yeah.

Which isn’t much of a justification. But some things are obvious with me. Some things are obvious with any listener, writer or fan, that one will have one’s hobby-horses, positive and negative. It need not always be so clear — so, for instance, I don’t think I could have specifically predicted my fellow WordPress denizen Alfred’s number one album of the year offhand, but I am not at all surprised by the choice and his rationale for it. (Good album too, what I’ve heard of it.) So it’s not a case of exact one to one — and I would never want to be able to predict all my friends’ choices if they have a choice, or my friends who are also writers and so forth.

The flipside to this being, of course, that some things ARE utterly predictable. So, for instance, am I excited about The Hobbit movie trailer that debuted yesterday? Yes indeed. Are a lot of my friends surprised I am? Hardly. If this means I’m more of a creature of habit than most then I’m at the least aware I am, which I’ll take over pretending otherwise, or that certain things won’t appeal to me when in fact they do, on a near lizard brain level. That’s an excuse for habit, saying that, but it’s also kinda true, or more accurately, that many of those judgments shaped when young are ultimately pretty hard to break later on. The kid who devoured the Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Hobbit at six years old is still a Tolkien freak now. The guy who first heard “Creep” in early 1993 is still enthralled to Radiohead. Who I also saw that year opening for PJ Harvey, so it’s not like Radiohead are the only obvious choices in this list of mine.

If you want the full history of Me and Radiohead (because of course it’s about me, I’m selfish and this is my blog and ME ME ME and so forth), I’ve already said quite a bit, investigate at your leisure — scroll down a bit and read from the earliest entry or so. So this is a bit of a continuation of that, a few years along, in slightly similar circumstances — a Radiohead album is suddenly announced and gets released a few days later and seemingly everyone goes HOLY WTF or alternately NOT THEM AGAIN. Or so it seemed. As Eric Harvey noted today in an entry in the SOTC round table I talked about briefly yesterday:

I know that my online immersion has at times altered my perception of greater musical time—hype cycles, release dates, the speed of acquisition—but I wonder if any of you have stepped back and wondered how much your perception of music is affected by your continuous virtual proximity to other obsessives?

To say Radiohead is popular — and just as equally loathed — online in the circles I find myself in rather…understates. It’s not that they’re inescapable, except they are, except they’re inescapable only in the sense that I don’t mind them being inescapable, because I like them a hell of a lot. A HELL of a lot. So my tolerance level is a little higher than some.

None of which, so far, has been much about the music of The King of Limbs. Consensus seems to be “More of the same, I guess it’s pleasant, we’re not talking about it a lot, are we?” I can understand that, then again I was listening to it on a regular basis for about three months there so it’s not like I wasn’t talking about it given how much time I spent thinking about it. Then again, I wasn’t thinking about it so much as happily absorbing it, taking it in, getting familiar with all its details and contours. Aural furniture, sonic painting, use whatever metaphor works best. I would have called it a headphone album if I listened to it that way but I didn’t. It’s Radiohead and, well, yeah.

Seems to me that justifying something at a certain point is less about making the case as acknowledging your comfort level. I’ve said before these kinds of lists ultimately irritate me because of their skewed sense of what one was actually listening to and engaging with throughout the year, or where one found the greatest importance in things. I’ve said in general this year that the most important thing that happened was me moving in with the love of my life, music’s somewhere back there in the list. Still important, though, certainly, and part of that importance can sometimes be as simple as knowing there’ll be something that I will unreservedly love straight out of the gate, and to have your hunch fully justified. One year it might have been the Cure. This upcoming year I already know it’ll be Windy and Carl. This year it happened to be Radiohead. Done, dusted.

But I guess I should say something. Still, what is there to add? Radiohead for a while there weren’t resetting the bounds of music — they never have, let’s make that clear — but they were slowly mutating album per album, playing off hunches and decisions self-conscious or not. Hell of a string of releases they did, and it may continue, but I don’t think it’ll be quite that kind of change any more — they’ve found a lovely niche for what I can tell and might well stay there forever more. (I haven’t heard the new songs that debuted today yet but I can’t but guess they’ll sound like the outtakes from this album that they apparently are.)

So if I’m fond of focused, nervous electronic rhythm/drum arrangements and fluttering tones and minimal falsettos on the one hand and slow, stately rock-band melancholia on the other and in both cases am thanking Christ that it’s not the wall of warm Jello that is inevitably Coldplay — oh, so easy to hate still, no matter how much of a self-deprecating BS artist Chris Martin is — and if I can happily laugh along with all the complaints and GIFs based on Thom Yorke’s approach to dancing and curious hairstyles and if I’m just content to go “Works for me!” then I am. It’s comfort food with some extra seasonings, I guess, a cliche that might as well work because I’m describing a cliched situation. I like this album a lot! I like this band a lot! I’m not looking every time for some sort of sudden change or breakthrough! I’m not trying to pretend one’s here when one isn’t!

Dancing!

Whatever’s next with them is next. If I’m lucky enough to catch their next American tour, hurrah — I sure hope so, it’s been nine years since I’ve seen them and they are just fantastic live, absolutely compelling — then I’m lucky, and if not, I’ve got the album. And I’m ready to play the next one into the ground.

So, yeah.

Purchase The King of Limbs via the dedicated album site

Not Just the Ticket — #68, PJ Harvey, July 13, 1993

PJ Harvey, Palladium

Then current album: Rid of Me

Opening acts: Radiohead, Moonshake

Back of ticket ad: Fox Photo still not giving up. A siren song easily resisted.

I honestly don’t get what the staple holes to the side of the ticket are from. Maybe I bought this thing directly at the outlet here at UCI and that’s what they did with all tickets. A strange little beauty mark.

Meanwhile, this show! What a triple bill to be at!

It’s perhaps a natural counterpoint to the previous entry, given the nature of the music and the tragic conclusion to the band’s story, that this one provides nothing but warm fuzzies, or something close. Which given some of the music that the bands in question have done over time might seem ridiculous, and yet. This is definitely one of those ground zero shows in ways, something where I’m like, “Wow, I was lucky enough to catch that? How did THAT happen?”

Of course, it wasn’t like it was a small unannounced club show. A lot of what made this show especially memorable wasn’t apparent at all when I saw it (and loved it), and nearly all the attention was focused on one person. PJ Harvey seemed to come out of nowhere when the first singles surfaced on Too Pure in the UK; as with nearly everything at that point it was a Melody Maker article that first made me go “Wait, hold on, who is this?” She had already had a review or two through them by the time of a first big story but what happened was that in early 1992 or so (maybe late 1991?) said magazine ran an issue grouping together four up and coming acts in a typical enough ‘we can’t decide who will be the cover star but maybe it’s everyone’ approach. I think Thousand Yard Stare were the stars as such, featuring one guy stark naked. Great.

The PJ Harvey story was far more interesting and there were soon a slew of stories followed by the release of Dry, ending up out here in the States shortly thereafter. One listen — I picked it up shortly before I left Los Angeles for OC — and I was a pretty committed fan, though to my annoyance I wasn’t able due to that move to attend what was her first LA show, a set opening for David J. Given he’s a musical hero of mine, I’m even more annoyed I missed that set now, what a perfect combination of two inspired and singular figures who love their roots and blues and take them very different directions.

There’s no great secret why PJ Harvey got the attention she did — sometimes quality will just do the business for you. She put together so much so well and so immediately that it still makes you shake your head in admiration all this time down the road; if Dry is only a starting point it’s still one with killer songs and performances on it like “Sheela-Na-Gig” and “Dress” and “Water” and a hell of a lot more besides. So wickedly smart, so knowing, so impassioned, and goddamn did it ever kick out with unbridled energy as much as it was, in its own particular way, art rock.

So come a year later and Steve Albini recording sessions and Beavis and Butthead going on about how she had a crooked mouth and Rid of Me hits and good goddamn was THAT ever a monster. The title track seriously freaked me the hell out when I first heard it, the whole idea of quiet/loud/quiet was already a perceived cliche but there’s something so singular about the title track of Rid of Me, its understated hook, PJ’s cool singing, the twisted falsetto backing and extra treble and then BAM. And that was just the start of a mesmerizing, amazing album. If I talked about it in full I would be going on for quite a while.

Seemed like everyone was a fan around me. I sure as hell hoped everyone was. Meantime having played at the Whiskey the previous year opening for David J she was now scheduled to headline the Palladium in less than a year later, and all this without having actually busted out into massive selling levels yet. She was just already that huge in her own distinct way. So getting a ride to the show was easy — in this case it was with Yen D. and at least a few other friends.

The Palladium was the Palladium, no surprises there, but for some reason I do remember we ended up at a nearby restaurant to eat before the show. It’s not there at all now, at least so I’m guessing, but I have this impression it was a couple of blocks away (perhaps on Vine between Sunset and Hollywood) and was a Thai place. I was just walking down that stretch of road the other day and I know it’s definitely not there now, replaced by one or another of a set of buildings, but still, we had dinner and then over to the show.

I don’t remember too much of anything before the appearance of Moonshake, just that they were on stage and doing their thing in reasonably short order. They were the actual opening act for this tour, Moonshake having jumped from Creation for their first single to Too Pure for everything else since that point, though PJ and crew had already moved on to Island fully by then. But on a larger scope it all made sense, whether it was Dave Callahan’s background in the Wolfhounds or Margaret Fiedler’s own distinct voice and performing sense or the combination of them in early Moonshake or something else that ended up being the connection between them and Ms. Harvey, or just the fact that they all ended up at the same clubs in London for a drink. (Which strikes me as the most logical answer.) In any event, I honestly don’t remember much of the set aside from it being loud, scabrous, and generally causing confusion among the audience. I would have been right there with them if I hadn’t already known about the band, honestly.

And then, oh yeah, Radiohead. The reason I haven’t talked much about them and getting to know about them around 1993 in this entry so far is because I already did that a bit in my (much shorter) blog project back in 2007, Countdown to In Rainbows. So let me refer you to the entry I wrote that started it all, and I’ll copy/paste (and slightly edit) the relevant part about the performance here:

In retrospect the memories are dim. They’re on stage, they’re playing and they seem, well, okay enough to be there. They’re not actually part of the tour, this is a one-off date, part of a series of LA performances including a separate club headlining show, a radio session, and a TV appearance for Arsenio Hall. It’s not a bad initial touchdown in LA, and it helps that they are the in thing.

I remember Thom’s hair. EVERYONE remembers Thom’s hair. It was in all the photos then, he had grown it into this strange…mop. It wasn’t grunge. It wasn’t glam. It wasn’t ANYTHING. It was, just, well, strange. The stage lights glinted off of it, it shook a lot. Some rock people do big hair really well. Thom Yorke didn’t, frankly. But he was happy with it, at least initially, and hey, like I’m one to talk. Still, I think I was doing a touch better than him. However, he was the one on stage and I wasn’t, so enough of that.

I had a promo tape of Pablo Honey at this point; I would have preferred a CD but I only got that bit later. I really loved “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” scattered other songs. The setlist indicates they played that but I only remember “Creep.” Because the place, unsurprisingly, went nuts. And I think the band were already pretty tired of it. But they played it, and they knew why they were there in the first place, why they had a leg up over all the other bands whose first LA appearances were small club showcases and nothing else. It was because of that song.

But they weren’t the reason why everyone was there that evening, of course.

I remember squeezing my way up towards the front — nowhere near it, but much closer than I had been — with Yen and others in a group. Yen kept calling out “Polly wanna cracker!” every so often, and why not? I don’t remember anything untypical about her and the band finally taking the stage, just that there were a hell of a lot of cheers and pent up energy.

The show itself was unsurprisingly great, though there’s not much in the way of specific details that stick with me. I remember PJ herself looking a bit bemused, amused even, at the prospect of playing before such a crowd, but not in an arrogant or distant sense, more like a ‘wow, it’s already come to this — okay then!’ way. Given the Palladium’s notoriously dicey acoustics I am not surprised that no one moment is the moment for me but discovering it was the drummer who could do a very good rip on those falsetto vocals from “Rid of Me” was a bit of a revelation.

The whole point was — it was just a spectacular show with no one highlight per se in my brain, just a great smear of energy and theatrics and getting down in it. Little surprise that she kept getting bigger. Or that she talked about sheep balls with Jay Leno later that year.