Venue: Victoria Park, London
Support: Bat For Lashes
Reviewer: Phil W
In a vast arena carved into a London park, 40,000 people are congregating to see one of Alternative Rock’s leading stars. Strange and sinister electronica is playing through the PA and there’s nothing on the big screens. Bat for Lashes appear on stage with little of an introduction; they work hard with their astonishing array of musical instruments but somehow never quite pull together a really decent tune. Their best song has a lyrical hook about finding someone dead in a car. The beer keeps flowing; vendor vans dish out burgers at an astonishing £6 a go. The sinister electronica is back on the PA, building up darker and darker atmospherics. Down at the front, drunken fans squeeze and jostle with introverted geeks. I’m suddenly finding it hard to feel at home here, I just don’t feel anything in common with the drunken people around me. The Mighty G and his girl have already pushed deeper into the moshpit, but The French Dude and I have already assessed the situation and decided our staked-out position to the right of the stage is just fine. Looking about me, the event feels like a vast contradiction. Sinister, hookless electronica and dark, multi-instrumental experimenters are interbred with several thousand drunk radio listeners eating overpriced burgers. At a stall on the way in, Radiohead were selling t-shirts made entirely from recycled bottles. Next to the stand, Bat for Lashes were handing out free cardboard masks, 90% of which were immediately discarded by the takers and simply dropped on the floor. As we had gotten nearer the entrance, the ground was covered in discarded masks. At the gate, the security guards threw away perfectly good food and drink, informing us we could buy more inside, while UNICEF posters with pictures of starving children were plastered on steel walls. Now I scanned the horizon for The French Dude’s head... He should be on the way with the beer!
So could Radiohead be the UK’s biggest current band? Are they a modern day Beatles? Radiohead did rise to world-wide popularity with a musical style that appealed to the masses of the time. Much like The Beatles, Radiohead earned their wings in popular ‘rock-n-roll’ before entering a massively experimental phase. 2000’s Kid A saw the band put away their guitars and reduce the bass to three- or four-note riffs while Thom Yorke stripped his lyrics to the bone, leaving only simple statements and abstract concepts. How To Disappear Completely may have spoken of Thom Yorke’s deepest hope, but even when the band’s songs were at their most simple and abstract and swirling in a pool of electronic synths, they were still superb. Radiohead proved, like The Beatles and Pink Floyd before them, that pop music could be intelligent, ground breaking, critically acclaimed and appreciated on many levels. Then like The Beatles, Radiohead almost retired from touring in the traditional sense, making every opportunity to see them a rare and celebrated event. With new album In Rainbows, the band have broken from their record label and released the record on their own label, their very own Apple. And, like The White Album, In Rainbows shows a return to guitars after a lengthy period of experimentation which has been entirely unsuccessful in diminishing the general public’s infatuation with the band. Radiohead fans come from all ages and all walks of life; the band is appreciated by snobbish musos and lager louts alike.
Radiohead came to fame in the early 90’s with their indie-grunge hybrid Creep, a song that appealed to fans of guitar music on both sides of the fence and both sides of the Atlantic and went on to take in everyone else too. Thom Yorke wrote the song while studying for his degree and his band were still called On A Friday. The band actually dismissed the song at the time, feeling it didn’t really represent who they were and lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood actively tried to sabotage the recording in the studio - but his improvised blast of open guitar notes actually ended up making the song just more special. If the band didn’t like the song, producers did and so did a worldwide audience that pushed the song to the top of the record charts in Europe and the US. The band broke America before they’d even stepped off the plane. Radiohead were worldwide stars, barely into their twenties. From there, there was no going back. Creep proved to have the kind of longevity to still have pop and indie fans alike cheering in night clubs a decade later. Their follow-up album The Bends remains a timeless classic that only seems to get better with age. OK Computer went on to win the Mercury Music Prize and Kid A and Amnesiac found a band on the cusp of their creative genius. But after Amnesiac, the band started to lose their way. Hail To The Thief and In Rainbows both have standout tracks, but they’re also both full of material that just isn’t as groundbreaking as their previous material. Radiohead had a stunning run of great records, each one more surprising than the next, so it was actually a surprise when Hail To The Thief contained no surprises!
In Rainbows is an intriguing record. It has some decent enough tunes but it all feels like Radiohead on autopilot. Its simple, subtle guitar tunes and Thom Yorke’s downbeat lyrics all feel like places the band has been to before. Jonny Greenwood has perfected the minimalist approach to guitar that he’s been perfecting since Kid A, but the bare bones he reveals beneath his sparse guitar are nothing new. The album’s songs all drift into one. Where Sonic Youth managed one step forward with each new record, Radiohead made giant leaps between their records, bounding ahead and leaving the rest of the indie crowd far behind. Few artists display such a sense of history in their recordings, each album belonging to a particular phase in both their career and their artistic development. But where Sonic Youth work like fine art students, subtly progressing in their chosen media over literally decades, Radiohead sprinted ahead and now it feels like they’ve found themselves with nowhere to go but to look back at the path they’ve already walked.
Radiohead walk onto the stage. Thom Yorke is sporting a huge grin and all the band members except Jonny Greenwood look in good spirits, waving at the crowd as they pick up their instruments and take their places. Their entry isn’t grand, there is no moving stage and the grins on their faces are contrary to the band’s foreboding reputation. Up high above them, huge steel strip lights clang in the wind. “It’ll be dark soon and then we can turn on the lights,” Yorke says to the crowd. He’s wearing a shabby denim jacket and red drainpipe jeans. The band start to play Reckoner from the new album. It’s an unpretentious start, like a wind-up toy swinging into action. All the parts are in place and the band begin to play. 15 Step follows much the same path and it’s not till single There There gets under way with Jonny and Ed beating on drums that the band really start to pick up a momentum. Much of the first half of the set is dominated by cuts from In Rainbows which, while well performed, just don’t feel like they suit the massive arena. The band seem like they would be more comfortable playing in the corner of a small jazz club, where their stripped-down guitar tunes would probably have been better suited. On the other hand, the massive audience may not have felt the same way as drunk and screaming fans across the audience continued to make their presence known throughout the songs.
A surprise performance of No Surprises midway through the set caught everyone off-guard, then the second half of the set heavily featured material from Kid A. The bass and synths sounded bruised and hard, injecting techno energy into the set. By the time the band walked offstage, they had built up quite a momentum and no one could dispute the great performances of all the songs. Then back for the encore and the band flatten the whole arena when they break into a stunning rendition of The Bends. Suddenly I remembered this was the band I had come to see. And then the hits came rolling out: My Iron Lung, Karma Police and a stunning closer of prog epic Paranoid Android. It was like getting to the bottom of the biscuit barrel and realising all the jammy dodgers had fallen down there. “Thanks for coming,” Thom said to the crowd. “All 40,000 of you!”
It took an age to get home. The tube stations were flooded and police were on every corner trying to control the drunk and weary crowd. At an intersection a female police officer was shouting repeatedly for people to not walk in front of oncoming traffic. Her voice was hoarse, the crowd didn’t care. We lost The Mighty G and his girl in the chaos of the main road as the thick crowd pushed and surged in all directions. At Mile End tube station the queue went on as far as we could see and the crowd was getting ugly. A girl was shouting savagely at a police officer. Ahead of us, people were being dragged into the back of police vans. Assessing the situation, The French Dude and I broke away from the crowds and made our way through a random series of suburban back streets to find a tube station that we wouldn’t have to queue up all night at. At one point, after circumnavigating several alleyways I wondered if we might be lost. “Oh wait,” said The French Dude. Reaching deep into his rucksack, he pulled out an A-Z!
As we sat on the tube train, rumbling somewhere beneath the London streets, there was a moment to reflect on what had been; the crowds, the chaos and the human excess. The vastness, the capitalism, the cheers and the police vans. And the shining moments that gleamed like gold in the centre of it all. Descriptions of the event sound like the lyrics of a Radiohead album. But in the middle of all this excess, Radiohead did perform a decent enough set. It wasn’t amazing, and it wasn’t overly long. For a band that has a formidable reputation for live performances, tonight’s was underwhelming. The material didn’t really suit the massive scale, and leaving all the hits till the end only highlighted the weaknesses of the first half. Radiohead’s performance, like their new album, had managed to seem small and unimposing even in the centre of this wildly excessive setting. It was unpretentious; no crazy sets or costume changes. No drum kit appearing out of a glass rocket, no Thom Yorke rising up on a podium. And the band looked cheery throughout, not trying too hard, just playing some songs for us. They smiled and didn’t say too much. They just came and played their songs. After all these years, perhaps the band would like to be seen as just another guitar band, to have the limelight turned away for just long enough for them to breathe! Perhaps In Rainbows is all about being smaller and more insular, and not progressing as far but taking a moment to enjoy the moment and not worrying if you’re watching history in the making. Maybe it’s just about putting out a decent record and a decent show. So there’ll be no more surprises. You were lucky to have seen them play at all. But everything’s in its right place. And with the new record you won’t get the bends. 2+2 doesn’t always equal 5.