The Rambler :: blog

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

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London is swarming with Gothie-Indie-kiddies tonight. More dyed locks and black jeans than three-piece suits. I'm guessing they're all heading for Earl's Court and Radiohead. I say this because tomorrow evening I'll be headed that way too, although I'll be dressed more antipopper than t-shirt noir.

Radiohead are a curious beast. Milady and I argue about their merits (or not) more than almost any other single subject, so expect some comments from that quarter by the end of the week... While I couldn't call myself a fan, and I would make a strong case for a different album of the '90s to the Pitchfork choice (readers need only scroll down a few posts to see a strong candidate for my vote), it is also hard to disagree with their reasoning. I particularly like the idea that OK Computer is one of the last albums as albums, which relates to what I want to say.

When it comes down to it, the debate around Radiohead (are they the greatest thing since sausages/are they just a pile of fat and gristle?) follows two paths. 1) They're basically U2, and play for grown-up ex-indie kids who should know better, frankly. Well, this is hardly their fault. The Clash used to have the same problem. And 2) They're not as innovative or clever as they arrogantly suppose they are.

Which is usually the side I come down on. But, tonight, I want to play devil's advocate, so here goes.

The thing is, as I've said before round these parts, the whole idea of Rock is built around musicianly ideas of innovation and expertise. Pop, on the other hand, say the rockists, is hackneyed, cyclical and facile. When in actual fact, a case can be made for exactly the reverse. The guitar/bass/drums/vox line-up is so fixed, and so much of what Rock actually is, that any 'innovation' must necessarily be built upon tradition. Take away too much of that tradition - the guitars, say - and you no longer have rock.* Composers writing string quartets have exactly the same issues: it's impossible to avoid the heritage (and responsibility) that Haydn, Beethoven and Bartók lay upon you. Even when Stockhausen added helicopters and video relays to the mix, it's not difficult to see the grand romanticised tradition he's building on and expanding outwards. (And Stockhausen is nothing if not a grand romanticist, Wagner's truest heir.)

Rock, you see, is conventional. It is made out of conventions.

If Radiohead do anything at all, it is that they recognise this more acutely, I think, than many other Rock acts. They are not, for example, The-bloody-Darkness, whose fans claim they are the Holy Grail of originality and innovation, when they're nothing of the sort. Radiohead, on the other hand, while not really making such claims (these sorts of claims are always made by fans anyway, as far as I can tell), are prepared to - knowingly, even ironically - test the edges of those conventions.

Kid A is, by most standards, not an extraordinary addition to the electronica canon. When Thom Yorke and the boys go into the studio, they do not suddenly become Richard James, Susumu Yokota or Jan Jelinek. But it does pick up the nervy, twitchy, fractured sounds of recent glitch and electronica, recognise its emotive potential, its correspondence with decades of guitar riffs and drum fills, and turn it to very specific, Rockist, song-based (album-based) ends. And this is something. It doesn't sound like the great, radical step forward that it is sometimes believed to be, because actually it sounds remarkably consistent with a lot of what they've done up to that point. Which, again, is something.

I have to admit that when OK Computer came out, it was a wonderful album. My student years were not soundtracked to it, but one summer at least was. And though it has weakened, I think, with time, for a few months at least it said a lot and it said it well. I talk below about Goldie's production on Timeless bursting the seams of his samples so that you can feel the pressure within every sound. From the opening drum track of 'Airbag', that same quality of sound is here too - production pushed just past the edges. Along with its orgiastic, cathartic opposite, the grunge guitar, these two sonic fields were probably the musical signatures of the Nineties. Neuroses and self-indulgence. Looking inward, kicking outward. And between 'Airbag' and 'Lucky' (unarguably a great, great track) you have the spectrum between both. It's all reined in, it's all a little restrained, apologetic, guilty, cowering. But it carries on regardless. And in these terms it has to be, I suppose, if not the best album of the nineties, still the only album of the nineties. From a cool analytical distance, it carries more of the mood of the nineties than pretty much any other record on the Pitchfork list (although, I've not heard them all, so I may be wrong...).

And OK Computer does have a beautiful arc to it. As the nagging, understated, infuriating inoffensiveness of it winds you up and up, three-quarters of the way in, there is 'No Surprises', in context an achingly beautiful song. Its easiness sucks you into the belief that actually a comfortable life with 'no alarms and no surprises' wouldn't be so bad after all. Which is exactly the trick that the whole album's thesis would like you to believe. Because that comfort, that relief is exactly what Radiohead want you to resist, it's what Thom-Yorke-of-Radiohead finds so distasteful. It's an effective ploy, and one that only works because the band push all the appropriate buttons developed within rock's conventions (from the inlay art to the music itself) to create this grand thesis. Radiohead use all the established signifiers (and a few of their own invention) to draw you in, to create this seductive world, only to turn it on its head. It's deliberate and it's knowing, and it is skillfully done.

(A story milady likes to tell: It used to be quite common to see Thom Yorke in pubs around Oxford, drinking on his own, looking miserable as hell. So miserable no one dared go up to him to say hi. So was he miserable because he's Thom Yorke and that's What He Does, or was he miserable because he's Thom Yorke, and he still has to drink alone when he's in his home town?)

Radiohead, for better or for worse, play the game as well as Springsteen, Kylie or Madonna. The biggest problem they all have is that it's hard to get everyone else to play along with you. But that's another story...


* (You have drum and bass, boom boom!)

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