Innovators in the truest sense of the word, the name of Radiohead is synonymous with the best music that came from the ‘90s. Conformed by five school friends from Oxfordshire, the band led by Thom Yorke mutated from a grungier outfit into electronica linchpins over the course of just three albums, writing the rule book as they went along with the songs they chose to release as singles.
Radiohead is also remembered as one of the biggest emotionally-tumultuous bands this side of Joy Division, The Sisters of Mercy and related acts. Yorke’s recurrent themes of paranoia and self-loathing surfaced as early as their first single, “Creep” (from “Pablo Honey”, 1993). The song was actually banned in England by Radio One on grounds of being too depressing, but when “Creep” became a surprise hit in Israel and then in San Francisco the band gained recognition in their home soil. They were thrown into an onslaught of live shows that left everyone dour, and the subsequent album was to be named after the mental condition that affects drivers that have risen to the top too quickly
“The Bends” (1995) included the desperate “Street Spirit”, the turmoil-weighed “High and Dry” and the we-have-fucking-had-it title track. But nowhere was the frustration expressed as clearly as in “My Iron Lung”, a song in which the music could barely sheathe the vitriol. Also included was the turbid yet beautiful “Fake Plastic Trees”, composed by the band the night after they attended a Jeff Buckley gig.
None of those songs managed to make them feel better as a performing unit (or as individuals, for that matter), and the sessions for their next album were the most trying ever.
But the struggle was worth it. “OK Computer” (1997) quickly became the best album not only of the year but also one of the most celebrated LPs of the whole decade. The band managed to beat lots of acts who had broader appeal like Oasis, whose “Be Here Now” was rebuffed by the public and found its way into the used racks pretty quickly.
The sessions for the album that came after “OK Computer” would last 15 solid months, and most of the time was spent learning how to play synthesizers and all the assorted electronic toys that Yorke decided would constitute the instrumental backbone of their new record. Again – those were strained times for the band, but when “Kid A” was issued in 2000 their role in the history of music was defined for good. With its endless array of clever synth work, “Kid A” made for an unparalleled conveyance of the sentiments that had characterized the band from its very inception.
From that point onwards, Radiohead would mix this new-found understanding of electronica with the rock instrumentation of their first releases. And more elements were progressively added to the formula, with shades of jazz and post-punk preeminent among these.
And Radiohead was also one of the first bands to market its music intelligently through the Internet. Once their contract with EMI ended in the year 2004 (and after having gone on some well-earned R & R), the band released “In Rainbows” in 2007. The album was made available through the Internet, and people could pay the amount that they saw fit in order to get it.
Unruly experimentalism, melodies that slowly (but surely) sink in, lyrics that are personal (yet universally relatable) and that pay little heed to what those who dominate the airwaves wish to propagate, a willingness to put their fans first… Radiohead amalgamated all these elements with conviction and a belief in music that is seldom seen in these days. And they managed to put everything in the right place indeed.
I have just filled the (few) gaps that I had in my discography, and now I am not only ready but also very enthusiastic to write about such an important band. Starting next week, I will post the reviews in chronological order for you to read and comment as much as you like.
And this is MusicKO’s 500th post. What a way to celebrate…!