Radiohead: ghost in the pop machine

Mark Mordue

Thom Yorke, Radiohead

Thom Yorke, Radiohead

Thom Yorke, Radiohead

Kid A, the fourth release from British group Radiohead, was one of the most awaited events of the musical calendar. Perhaps because no other ‘rock’ band of the present era had the newness of presence and the experimental vigour to qualify for what most critics, some a little less consciously than others, saw as a millennial statement, a chance to push the boat out into the 21st century.

Both REM and U2 were due to release recordings at the same time. There was no doubt these ‘grand old men of rock’ still knew how to set an influential pace: that each document would be received as a major statement, and that each would be looking to affirm their liveliness. But even these musical giants seemed to have accepted their more historic place after long careers and bowed their heads to a new pathfinder.

REM singer Michael Stipe was quick to tell the world a few years ago, “Radiohead are so good it scares me.” U2’s Bono was more recently quoted saying that the previous two Radiohead CDs—The Bends (1995) and OK Computer (1997)—“are among the best things ever recorded in pop music.”

The more experienced point men of contemporary music had a new champion walking beside them. Most critics and recent music polls agreed with them. And what did the new leader say when he arrived?

“I’d really like to help you man. I’d really like to help you man…”

Recited in a manner—on a new song called Optimistic—that suggested maybe he/they can’t, that singer Thom Yorke and Radiohead are as lost as anyone.

Pre-publicity and hype around Kid A proposed something so experimental and aurally unexpected—strong new electronic influences, a drastically reduced use of Radiohead’s trademark guitar sound and Thom Yorke’s high, sweet-sad voice—something so musically strange we would have trouble even listening to it.

This was going to be a high art event. A record you struggled with. Half-baffled, half-admiring reviews are still perpetuating this lie. The truth is Kid A is beautiful. Complex textured music, yes, but driving and melodic, filled with luminous energy.

Most Radiohead fans will have long ago detected a utopian coolness at the heart of their sound. Everything from the band’s CD artwork through to Thom Yorke’s fluorescent lyrical ache—think of songs like Fake Plastic Trees and Paranoid Android, let alone their CD titles (Kid A betrays a fascination with biogenetic engineering)—have added to that surrounding mood of futurist uncertainty. This is tomorrow’s music from today’s romantics, struggling to maintain emotional efficacy in a world increasingly iced by electronic light: the internet, surveillance, reality TV, automated transactions, voyeurism, a denatured and alienated global communications ‘village’ where contact is byte-sized.

In no way, however, do Radiohead present themselves as rock ‘n’ roll primitivists (‘we really mean it man’), or Luddites opposed to a technological culture inside or outside of music. If anything, in today’s scene they are regarded as the last word in modern rock ‘n’ roll-up to the minute and beyond it.

If you wanted to place Radiohead into a ‘tradition’, you’d refer to acts like Kraftwerk and Pink Floyd, as well as the Bryan Eno-influenced exoticism of early Roxy Music (those brassy squalls and cool angles) and the Berlin digressions of David Bowie and U2 (the same pop alienation). Peers like the British avant-dance act Underground, and Britpop’s most intelligent act, Pulp (in songs like The Fear), are also a relating influence, estranged partners, along with electronic leaders like Aphex Twins and Autechre. And of course, mid-career Beatles at their creative, if shadowy, peak in the studio. Revolver, Dark Side of the Moon, Achtung Baby, The Man Machine… these are the musical moments that Kid A lodges itself beside.

In a like-minded way, Radiohead are straining at the boundaries of the pop-rock form and their own identity as a group within it, ranging over epic and neo-classical territory in a manner that is both aesthetically and technologically interesting. Despite the complexities, the coolness, there’s an undoubted exhilaration to this, the sheer thrill of new space.

Unlike the bloated ‘progressive rock’ movement of the early 70s (Yes, Genesis, ELP), which tried to instill rock music with classical seriousness—a movement Radiohead are said to have re-energised in Britain (though groups like Muse, Coldplay and The Doves are hardly acts to feel ashamed of)—Kid A shows discipline, tension, focus. Radiohead are also part of a re-intellectualisation of the British music scene—smart, sensitive Oxford boys who provide a relieving and awesome contrast to the road weary, lads-on-piss attitude of bands like Oasis and the cheapening magazine culture that followed them like bulldogs down retro-lane.

It’s possible to argue that Radiohead are a post-Empire blues band. No longer a vital economic entity, Britain depends on ‘culture’ for its post-colonial identity. It uses pop music, graphic design, fashion, and media aggression to reassert its prominence while its physical and social conditions emanate decay. The British, you see, are still set on world domination: they just operate their imperialist tendencies in a different matrix these days.

In songs like Kid A and The National Anthem you hear this put into an unsettling position. An indecipherable vocal croon distorting like something out of a 1920s microphone, a disembodied music hall lament from history; a splenetic rush of BBC, like orchestrations thundering and broken. ‘Great’ Britain in sickness more than health. I suspect Radiohead, with these allusions and their generally elusive atmosphere, are refusing to take on a more culturally chauvinistic role as yet another English musical export a la ‘Cool Britannia.’ They are also making music in anti-heroic mode, which includes forsaking cliched rock rebel poses: the bad boys, the decadents. No, Radiohead offer something more reflective, even traumatised.

If you’re the investigative type, you may have already discovered a booklet hidden beneath the back packaging of the CD. Once lifted and revealed you’ll find a lengthy poem inside, constructed, Burroughsian cut-up style, out of newspaper headlines and magazine phrases as well as song lyric fragments, culminating in the repeated phrase “the gap between you and me.” There are a few drawings and portraits of cartoon violence and organic isolation amid this typographical chatter. A native, dystopic soul is at work here: Thom Yorke’s lonely, ugly-funny, beautiful-sick sense of things, in a form that might be classified as ‘art brut’ or ‘outsider art’: the kind of disturbed creative expression usually associated with eccentrics and schizophrenics.

But in almost everything they do, Radiohead exhibit a profound sadness that goes way beyond the facile psychologising of Thom Yorke’s depressive inclinations and his past history as a mental hospital orderly. There’s something ‘social’ embedded in their sound, a broader grieving that picks up on the communication problems of the brave new world. They seem materially plugged into something, armed and disarming at once: exactly because their technical sophistication is dependent on the culture that troubles them. It’s a riddle.

Kid A accordingly resists anthems, providing instead a soundtrack—diving and resurfacing, often melodically pretty, inevitably sheeted with that touch of Radiohead ice, that surface over a deep pond feeling—that is hard to resist. I’d go so far as to liken listening to Kid A to the experience of skating over a pond in Winter: so pleasurable and cool, terribly alive to something childish and risky and temporary, easy on top, disturbing below.

Musically the recording could certainly be regarded as a retreat into childishness, a spasm of infantile panic. There’s a fixation with something funereal, explicitly conjured in the organ sound and heavenly harp of Motion Picture Soundtrack. And a need to transcend and back away from that darkness. That attitude infuses the entire recording with a regretful light. A womb-like yearning for lost warmth most easily heard in the lullaby mood of the title track and the bioscopic sound effects that colour the entire CD.

This ‘retreat’ sees the band backing away from easy musical hooks, erasing standard song structures, and therefore side stepping simple analyses. The band’s own identity almost fades away at times. They are literally lost in space. The decision to release no singles or promotional videos is part of this dissolution, while their ‘i-blips’ (brief images with soundtrack samples from the CD) on the internet accentuate, at most, a fleeting take on self promotion.

Perhaps Kid A’s affirmation of a struggle for humanity and spirit just off the edges of our individual consciousness—out there in a world of science, mass media and the internet—is one reason why I resort to the poetic rather than the analytical when I speak about it. That’s no bad place to be. From what I’ve read, critics are struggling to pin this one down, warning fans not to expect to like it, or even understand it. That’s so far out. I think they will manage more easily than expected and, if not, rumour has it the band have another recording of more straight ahead, conventional Radiohead tracks ready for 2001 release; for now they’ve put the experiment first, the career second.

At a time when pop music is more than ever an industry of empires, a world of units shifted and niche markets carved, Radiohead are happy, strangely happy, to be mysterious and elusive, a ghost in the machine. Or as Thom Yorke so eloquently put it in the wonderfully named song How To Disappear Completely, “I’m not here. This isn’t…”

And what is the next word that he says? Unhappiness? Happening? It’s hard to hear him. Like so much of this record, the message is unclear.

“This isn’t unhappiness.”

“This isn’t happening.”

Maybe he says both. The song rolls on: “I’m not here. I’m not here. In a little while I’ll be gone. The moment’s already passed. Yeah it’s gone.”

On Kid A, it’s not what Radiohead say or declare that matters, but what they don’t know. This record is about loss, absence, a heavenly and hellish sense of space: mortality caught in a new technological web. Where so many people may have expected a major statement, they’ve thrown up an eerie question mark. And we are all the better for it.

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 7

© Mark Hosler; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2001