The Rambler :: blog
Friday, November 28, 2003
This parodoxical life. Isolation and community.
Radiohead, Earl's Court, London, 27 Nov 2003
One moment, after 'The Gloaming', with all-new overlaid vocals: 'just to make it even weirder' said a pop kid to my right. The song was met with near universal bemusement, but was followed by 'Just', to near universal delirium. At least they were mixing things up with some crowd pleasers. It felt flat. In the past I've accused Radiohead of not actually moving on from OK Computer, or even The Bends. The songs on Amnesiac were still about the same things after all, said in pretty much the same way I would argue. But when the plodding, obvious, intro to 'Just' kicked in, I felt so very wrong. They have moved very far indeed.
Radiohead fans - like all fans of big supergroups - are a (reluctant) community. The band have come pretty close, on the evidence of last night, to alienating their fans. Don't get me wrong: everybody still loves them, but no-one seems sure what to do any more*. Indie kids find it hard enough to dance in time as it is (and I know); but over the skittering beats of Kid A or Hail to the Thief they mostly gave up. The first three songs - all from Hail to the Thief - were almost ignored while the opening beats chattered away. No-one seemed to recognise them. Until the guitars kicked in, and it felt comfortable, like something they knew, a priori, people were paralysed. And then - and this is Radiohead's most successful trick - they realised they still couldn't move because of the cross-rhythms, the syncopations, the refusal of the music to sit still and be who you wanted.
There was palpable relief when the crowd had something they could agree upon, latch onto, take part in. When 'Creep' got a rare live outing, people knew they'd got their money's worth. Followed with 'Paranoid Android' it was a mass appeal part of the set. Then when people started handclapping on the wrong beats in 'We Suck Young Blood', 20,000 pairs of teeth could grit together against the insurrection.
There's a code, you see. Rules.
Sit Down. Stand Up. A Punch Up at a Wedding.
I've never come across an ethnomusicologist studying fans at stadium gigs - I feel like one myself writing this - but they should.
And the final moment in the final song of the night, when as the sequencers take over in 'Everything in its Right Place', Yorke steps away from the organ and the mic to no discernible effect and hails the applause for him and his band. The sounds continue regardless, and his presence is erased from the music as he is spotlighted in acclaim.
The two players left crouching on the stage floor twiddled knobs, the reverberating loops twisted and flipped on themselves until no-one had no idea how it was working. The music took charge of its self, the machines talked back. That was special. Radiohead have moved on; not forward, but further and further into the distance. I like it.
*And re-read those NME reviewers getting into an existential tizz over the last three albums.
Wednesday, November 26, 2003
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!)
Monday, November 24, 2003
A really interesting post from Kyle Gann, on the conflict between system and inspiration in modern composition. It's an old chestnut, and Gann has some notable points to make on the way, observing that many (student) composers see the failure of theory to explain what is happening in a piece of Charles Ives, say, as a victory for the composer. I think the composers' argument is a specious one for either side to take up - theory and practice are not opponents: any musical work is an act of composition and reception, and without one or the other it is unfinished. But at the same time, theory can never pretend to tell you everything about a work, it can only mark one way of approaching it, here, now, and by me. Composers really only get upset when theorists try to reduce their compositions to crossword puzzles, shouting Eureka! when they think they've found the solution. Academic musicology has only recently grown-up to this self-evident fact, and a lot of this attitude still persists within certain circles who can't see beyond puzzle-solving.
To be honest, I don't know what Bartók would have made of Lendvai's analyses of his music, had he lived to see them. Probably amusement. Lendvai's work is, after all, a classic, beautifully realised crossword solution. What is interesting, however, in his work is not the question of whether Bartók worked to an all-encompassing system, built around Fibonnacci numbers and Golden Section proportions (according to Lendvai, these series permeate every aspect of Bartók's music, from note-to-note interval selection to large-scale form), but rather the influence this construction of Bartók's music had on others.
In 1955, when the West European musical world was doing backflips over total serial organisation (Boulez's Le marteau sans maître had just been completed, and Stockhausen had begun work on Gruppen), Lendvai's first books on Bartók (An Introduction to the Analysis of Bartók's Works and Bartók's Style) were published in Hungary. As news of musical developments in Western Europe were trickling through to Hungarian composers, coupled with the gradual, and welcome, establishment of Bartók's reputation as one of the century's greatest musicians, it must have been tempting to see within Lendvai's analyses a way of connecting the great Hungarian master with the dominant trends of systemised composition in the West. There is no doubt that Bartók's influence on his successors was immense, but it is intriguing to trace the influence of the Lendvai-mediated Bartók upon those successors. In Hungarian composition since the late 1950s, be it Kurtág, Eötvös or even Germany-based Ligeti, there are traces of a conscious, deliberate employment of the compositional strategies Lendvai claimed to have extracted from Bartók - mirror forms, Golden Sections, key intervals and harmonies built on segments of the Fibonnacci series and so on. Was this an attempt to induct Bartók, and his successors, into the same canon being established amongst Stockhausen and his Darmstadt cronies? It seems to me that this is an interesting - but surely not unique - example of the symbiotic relationship between composition and theory, and an instance in which crossword puzzles could become a powerful inspiration.
Incidentally, if you're interested in reading a lengthy piece by me on Lendvai's relationship to Ligeti's music, you could do worse than click