Radiohead (Live) (Life)

I have now seen Radiohead perform live. Just look at how close I was!

This was the fulfilment of a long-held dream. I liked Radiohead through my childhood (Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer), wore them like a protective layer through my adolescence (Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief), and evolved along with the Radiohead sound as an adult (In Rainbows, The King of Limbs). No other band has been as important to me in my life as Radiohead, and no other musician or group of musicians has consistently held my attention for so long. I’ve relied upon them to enthral, inspire and motivate me for as long as I’ve needed them. Their music is a comfort zone in my life.

To see them perform live, as I did last night, was something I never imagined would actually happen. I almost had a chance in Japan in 2008 but skipped off to India instead, and as much as the band’s members have spoke positively about New Zealand, they hadn’t been here to play since the OK Computer tour of 1998.

But then, in the final encore, there was Thom Yorke singing ‘Idioteque’ right in front of me – this is really happening, happening – and it was happening, and it had happened, finally.

They didn’t play ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, or ‘Karma Police’, or ‘House of Cards’, which I was kind of hoping they would. They didn’t play anything at all from either Pablo Honey or The Bends. But they DID play ‘Separator’ and ‘Reckoner’ back to back – probably my two favourite Radiohead songs – and finished up with stellar renditions of ‘Paranoid Android’ and ‘Idioteque’. Other highlights included ‘Kid A’, ‘Airbag’ and ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’. ‘Myxomatosis’ (dedicated to “Mitt fucking Romney”) and ‘Feral’ were also surprisingly good.

The point is that there are so many good Radiohead songs that it doesn’t really matter if they missed a couple of your favourites. And to see them actually playing in front of you, as tight and professional as you can imagine for a group that uses a lot of guitar noise and computer input, was like having these songs assembled before your eyes and ears. Which is incredible, because to me – and most of the audience, it seemed – Radiohead’s songs are more than just familiar; they’re part of who I am.

I loved seeing all the little things you don’t get from a recording. The way Ed O’Brien would look at other members of the band and smile at seeing them lose themselves in the music. The twisting, hopping dance moves of Thom Yorke. Jonny Greenwood’s fringe flailing along with his rangy arms, running up and down a guitar like Hendrix. Phil Selway’s serene face as he executed complicated drum manoeuvres. Colin Greenwood hanging out up the back with Selway, quietly doing his thing.

It seemed like everyone was very happy to be there. We smiled and gave each other space. The whole crowd sang along to Paranoid Android. Security guards passed water along the front line. You hear a lot about good vibes but it’s rare to actually sense them; at this Radiohead concert, the arena was filled with our collective excitement at seeing some of the great musical minds of our time.

A Twitter person said (1 2 3) that she lost her ticket outside before the concert. Beginning to panic, she hunted around for an hour to no avail. Then she checked the ticket counter… and someone had handed it in. I imagine that person finding a ticket on the ground, considering how gutted they would feel if they lost their Radiohead ticket right before the show, and immediately taking it to arena staff.

I also imagine that person gained some of their empathy from listening to Radiohead songs. I know I did.

The 00s: Music – 1

Well, you knew it was coming.

1. RadioheadKid A (Parlophone/Capitol)

You can read reams upon reams elsewhere about the qualitative aspects of Kid A and what exactly makes it the best album of the 00s, not to mention one of the most widely acclaimed works of music history, so I’m going to cut all that out and just tell my own story about it.

When I was 15, I spent a week of my August school holidays staying with my brother Ed.  While he and girlfriend Rach were at work, I whiled away solitary hours on the couch watching the Sydney Olympics, playing Driver on PlayStation and listening to the former student, newly commercial radio station uFM.  (And, yes, getting up at 11 in the morning if I was lucky. If you can’t be a horrible layabout when you’re 15, when can you?)  uFM had gotten their hands on a promo copy of Kid A and played about five or six tracks from it each day of the week.   Now, I couldn’t say it was love at first listen, but I was intrigued.   I knew it was a new kind of music for me; there was something intrinsic about it that reached out to the listener, but through the limited scope of commercial radio, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

A few months later I put Kid A at the top of my birthday list, not really expecting it to change my life, but definitely wanting to experience it again.  Naturally, Ed bought it for me.  For the following month the disc shuttled back and forth between my home CD player and my Discman, the sounds living in my head whenever I wasn’t listening to it.  ‘Idioteque’ stuck out as an early favourite, but the more ambient tracks – ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, ‘Treefingers, ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’ – moved me in a way I still couldn’t articulate.  In any case, I swiftly decided as only a teenager can that this was the Best Album Of All Time and I would never, ever get sick of it.

Over the following couple of years, particularly after a wonderful New Year with my brothers and their spouses at Lake Ohakuri, I took it everywhere with me.   I’m not just saying that.  I really did.   I even made a point to listen to it on every car or bus journey leaving or returning to Auckland, where I lived, and every time it offered up some grand realisation or small detail that I hadn’t understood or noticed before.  Those ambient tracks now emerged and revealed themselves fully along with the rest of the album, and over time I felt like I could see, feel and accept ideas about our world that had never even remotely occurred to me before.

I left home, to go to university and then to work.  Kid A came with me in its now tattered case.  I discovered and embraced other Great Albums but always held Kid A above them all, the album that really got me into music, the album that I loved the most.  Every phase of doubt about it – ‘maybe it isn’t actually that amazing after all’ – was struck down as soon as I listened to it again.  With each passing year it became ever more a part of my soul and my being on this Earth, and so it remains today.

Radiohead have released other albums, and I have doubted them and been schooled each time.  But my teenage self turned out to be right: nothing will ever beat Kid A.   It is to me what I understand The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is to my dad – though he will surely expand on that – and Ziggy Stardust is to my mum: a unique relationship with a musical work that impacts you so strongly during your formative years that it never leaves you, or more accurately, you never leave it.  What’s yours?
Most representative track: ‘Optimistic’
My favourite: ‘Everything In Its Right Place’

In Radiohead We Trust: ‘In Rainbows’

You probably know the deal by now, but I’ll recount the brief history anyway: last week I got an email from the Radiohead mailing list saying that their new album In Rainbows was now available for pre-order via their website via two forms: 1) a download available from 10 Oct; 2) a ‘discbox’ containing the album and extra material on 2 CDs and 2 vinyl records shipped on or before 3 Dec, plus the download.

The discbox costs £40.00, the download costs £?.??. ‘It’s up to you’, comes the reply when you click the ?. Click again: ‘No really, it’s up to you’. You can download the new Radiohead album for any price you choose. Like they’re saying to the record companies, “Whatever! I do what I want!” I paid £0.00, planning to buy the CD when it’s released as I have for past Radiohead albums.

Anyway, I listened to it for the first time walking to the train station yesterday, and through the thumps, blips, cut-up guitar loops and Thom Yorke’s wailing, I couldn’t help but have the same reaction I always have when listening to new Radiohead material: have they completely betrayed me at last?

You see, I have a particularly strong love/hate relationship with them. Around the age of 15/16, Kid A took its place as the first album I ever loved. I didn’t just love it; I listened to it all the time, thought about it whenever I wasn’t listening to it, read every interview with the band I could find, and analyzed the lyrics to within an inch of their life, amazed that somehow they were all pertinent to what I was going through as teenager. I told none of my schoolmates of my obsession, instead preferring to revel in the perceived solitude of liking something so unusual so deeply. It was music that made me want to feel alone, and I gave myself over to those feelings.

Later I found out that many of my schoolmates were listening to it too, and I wasn’t all alone, and I could have been out yarning and having a laugh. I’m not going to be so melodramatic as to say that ‘those bastards and their music made my teenage years miserable’, because while there are elements of truth there – it did push me to become more introspective and seek less the company of others – those elements probably would’ve come to light whether it was their music or the Vengaboys’. For one, the act of listening to the album was an experience I always delighted in, always far more a positive, happy time than a negative, upsetting time. And it made me think about things on a deeper level, like human relationships, and death.

Yeah, it was a really big deal. It was further enhanced by the subsequent and ongoing discovery of their work (6 albums and hundreds of B-sides and unreleased tracks), to the point where I had something like an encyclopaedic knowledge of the band’s music and ideology. Because a lot of it is either upset by or pissed off with the people in the world, it kind of built in my head to a point where I just couldn’t be arsed getting behind something that seemed so demoralizing. Look at what I listen to most now: Girl Talk, The Go! Team, M.I.A… music that suits a short attention span and encourages appreciation of the moment, rather than concern for the future. (M.I.A. is stretching that a bit, but what the hell, I’ll go with it.)

SOOOO as I listened to the first robotic drumbeats of ’15 Step’, the first track on In Rainbows, I asked myself ‘can I be bothered with this’? And when Yorke’s patented wail started up with ‘How come I end up where I started?’ I asked myself ‘honestly… can I?’ Of course I stayed with it, listened to it right the way through, and inevitably put it straight back on for another run. What at first seems kind of tuneless and preachy becomes layered and thought-provoking. Shock, horror, it’s good stuff – just like everything else they’ve done – and I’ll listen to it again many more times in the coming weeks and months. Thus far, the track ‘House of Cards’ stands out as a particularly good example of Radioheady production, lyrics, guitar and structure.

I still love the band and the music, and I imagine I always will, no matter what they do, but that initial reaction to new material will likewise always be the same: ‘do I want to hear this?’ They’re always so different from whatever else I’m listening to at the time, but I guess that makes them a constant I can always rely on to provide me with something unique that’ll challenge me musically and lyrically. A comfort zone that makes me step outside my comfort zone, or something. All I can say is keep it up: you’ll never again be flavour of the month with me, but I’ll keep returning to your music as long as you keep making it, whether I like to or not.