2003: Hail To The Chief

The Radiohead TV/ Chieftan Mews Webcast took place just before Christmas 2002. (The DVD entitled The Most Gigantic Lying Mouth of All Time – or as I like to think of it, The Most Chaotic Stocking Filler Of All Time – which came out some time later, contains the best bits.) Drinking along, joining a virtual party, I managed to see the trail of clues and a couple of new songs by commandeering a friend’s broadband. Thom giggles through a karaoke Winter Wonderland, plays a touching first version of Mr Magpie and the heartbreaking I Froze Up.

Thom graced the cover of the first NME of the New Year, inside a feature on the forthcoming album collating all the rumours and possible track names. The LP is slated for June and is mooted as a “return to guitars”. The band claim it has been an easier and quicker album to make than its predecessors. Ed (as ever) throws out a tease saying it’s full of “swaggering” songs, in Q the others put this down to the Iberian tour. I get very wary when Ed starts talking in historical musical terms, “You know like when the Stones got their groove on.” They’re talking like they’re going to push this record. But it’s still not Thom doing the interviews (not yet anyway).

In March the “club tour” is announced and within a week the ticket stampede is a news story in itself. On the Board there was a highly organised chain of people buying for each other, whoever reaches the payment page buys a full allocation, knowing there are people who will need the tickets. There was no question that I wouldn’t try to go to every show with venues this small. I got sucked in, even though I’d shied away from buying a lot of tickets in the past.

I’m part of this caravan now and I can’t really plan a trip if I can’t say I’m going to be able to get into the shows. With Tim not doing this tour, I don’t feel I can ask for freebies and so I let people buy tickets for me and judging by all the WASTE envelopes in the 2003 box I spent a good deal on tickets myself.  It’s becoming more expensive to be a Radiohead fan.

Around the same time, it is announced that Radiohead will headline Glastonbury this year, along with some other European festivals. The comparative smallness of the “club tour” bodes well for more dates later in the year, but for now it feels that like the fans, the band enjoyed the smaller shows last year and are trying to keep the feeling going.

Hail To The Thief will come out at the beginning of June, just after the tour. The press take it upon themselves to focus on the “Anti-Bush Slogan” of the title. There’s another war on and a storm (in a teacup) ensues. (Some American NME readers don’t like it. ) The ticket frenzy also sparks some coverage focusing on the band clamping down on eBay resellers, among the first artists to do so. Glastonbury Festival later follows suit introducing an ID policy for ticket buyers. Ticket touts are no longer just the scary Mancunian blokes you see outside every gig… they’ve gone online and there’s a lot of money in it. This is not the last that we will hear on the subject.

By April, a not quite finished mix of the album has leaked onto the internet. Someone at work (who it turns out is also a Boardie) gives me a copy burnt onto CD, but I don’t want to listen, it feels disloyal. The band are more pissed off about the unfinished version being out in the world than anything else. Of course the NME take the opportunity to print the “spoilers”.

Thom pops up at an antiwar protest at RAF Fairford in April, adding further weight to the “protest album” angle.

In May the NME (about the only print mag I’m still regularly buying at this point as most stuff is online now) runs a Thom cover, “It’s our shiny pop record” (yeah, right ). Again the paper focuses on politics, convinced it’s a protest record, while the band seem to be more convinced of their new energy and optimism. The following week Thom and Jonny give a track by track run down, a new openness perhaps compared to their approach in the Kid A era.

Via an EMI contact I’ve got through work, I manage to obtain a promo of Hail To The Thief (it turns out to be the special “map” edition; that I was sent it without having to beg, plead and send in review copy reflects that this album has a massive promotional budget) I agree with the idea that it is a brighter record; it’s not pop, not rock. But it is a very Radiohead record.

Hearing the finished versions of these songs somehow depletes the live versions I’d got used to. These songs are set now. The production, after the complexity of the Kid A and Amnesiac sessions is less interesting but after repeated listening it is revealed that there’s something else going on, a different quality, different weather.

This is by no means a simple record, but neither is it quite what I was expecting.  Radiohead’s sometimes peculiar blend of anger and humour sit together on this album and it is perhaps more transparent than their “difficult” 4th and 5th records; it does have a powerful energy but not the same kind as they have when they play live. I can never have ears that didn’t hear these songs in Portugal, and I sometimes wonder if I’d have a better relationship with the record if I hadn’t been ‘given’ those songs early. Having said that, I wouldn’t swap those shows for a whole Napster worth of albums…

The most notable thing about HTTT is the influence that having a kid had on Thom’s lyrical outlook. Sail to the Moon, Where I End And You Begin… these are the closest he’s got to love songs, and the whole thing is crammed with children’s book imagery – Bagpuss, Gulliver’s Travels, Chicken Licken.  He remains as wonderfully oblique as ever – if Kid A was “rambling in open spaces” this is walking in cities, it’s windy weather, it’s the empty centre in the middle of the hurricane.

For me, HTTT is a couple of tracks too long. Scatterbrain is too much like REM and should have been a B-side; Go To Sleep never quite works and great as Wolf At the Door can be live, it sort of peters out at the end and finishes their run of great last-on-the-album tracks. It doesn’t quite cohere as a complete listen like even Kid A does. Backdrifts is loose and it works, catching the mood. Go to Sleep remains a battle not to be a rock song. I’m not sure they succeed, as in the process they knock the balls out of it; if this is them being relaxed then I liked it when they were uptight. The subtitles for the songs smack of trying too hard to give us options about their meanings – yet the lyrics are printed on the sleeve for the first time since OKC.

There There was the first single and remains the stand-out track, the one that will stay in the set… it builds and releases, and is mixed so you have to play it on repeat. (Listening now, I find HTTT benefits from being played LOUD.) They’re finding their groove but they’re not quite there yet…

Sure enough in the week before the “club” dates, a series of arena shows are announced for November… but first we have May and a tour to get through…