In September, I start work at the TV production company in Glasgow. I can’t get much time off, but InRock, the Japanese magazine where Atsuko is still working, arranges for me to get a ticket to one of the London shows, so I fly down. I arrange to stay with my uncle’s brother, his place is on the outskirts of the city, on the right side of London for Hackney. I go and visit him in his office in Canary Wharf, he writes obituaries for the Daily Telegraph, and pick up his spare keys. I don’t know anyone else with a spare bed in London at the moment. I only have one ticket for the show (normally I would trade my plus one for a bed). It somehow doesn’t occur to me to be sociable, I have to leave as soon as the show ends to get back to the end of the tube line. Here’s the review I wrote, which appeared translated into Japanese:
UNDER A BIG TOP, it says on the ticket, just like the circus.
Radiohead, the most contrary band in the world, are proving that they can do things their own way. They’ve taken over the park and the surrounding area, announcements in the tube station anticipate the invasion, warning us to avoid counterfeited tickets and to behave on the way to the park, hoards of fans walk from Mile End through Tower Hamlets, some with ghetto blasters discreetly blasting out tapes of the new album , “Just follow the crazy people,” says a bemused policeman.
Inside the big blue tent, Mira Calix DJ’s some fractured beats over the babble of chat until Clinic make their appearance as support. Their weird new-skiffle rattles round the arena. They are a band who are ever-improving and their new material shows them stretching their formula to stimulate parts that most bands rarely bother with. They rock! (as Thom would say). They’re followed by more submersible beats and some choice hip hop.
Radiohead go straight into a threeway of new songs from Kid A and we don’t have time to catch our collective breath. Optimistic, and Morning Bell with their outstanding bass and drums respectively make an immediate impression, but without the horn section it is difficult for The National Anthem to be more than a shadow of the recorded version. The OK Computer songs that follow, Airbag and Karma Police become singalongs, strangely comfortable in their angular new surroundings.
Up in the roof hang six big screens like CCTV, spying from different angles, we can see Ed’s one finger piano during In Limbo; Thom’s tambourine; Jonny’s endless supply of instruments – here is a band who have adapted, who are learning, exploring.
My Iron Lung sounds as angry and loud and raw as it did 6 years ago when they first played it and I am dumbfounded that after so long Radiohead can continue to surprise me. It is followed by the almost abstract Permanent Daylight, as if they are compensating for the lack of guitars on some of the new tracks.
The shivers down my spine hit when during How To Disappear… a giant projection of a green laser loop appears at the back of the stage, Jonny appears to be controlling its movement with sound – it twists and flips with the frequencies he produces.
Dollars and Cents, as yet to be released, starts as a muted and formless hum but builds into a remarkable rant – “…Dollars and Cents, the Pounds and the Pence, The Mark and the Yen..” – global villains in the war against the World Bank.
After the familiarity of Street Spirit and Paranoid Android (The People’s Favourites) Idioteque blows your head off… Thom is loving it, dancing and flailing and reminding me of the intensity of the earliest Radiohead gigs. He is racing against his own lyrics, which for once in the new material rise above the mix to be heard – “We’re not scaremongering, this is really happening”
Just is gleefully announced as being for ‘dirty little boys’ and sees both band and audience relishing their performance in a way that they didn’t on the OK Computer tour.
Radiohead haven’t reinvented themselves, they are just playing by their own rules, like they always wanted to. They are like people who have realised that the thing they are doing is the best thing, the only thing that they could possibly do. With this realisation they have been liberated.
To think that Radiohead are innovating by incorporating their love of Warp Records Techno and the electronics of bands like Can into their own music is to show up how stifling and unimaginative the category-crazy music scene has become in 2000. Breaking out of their prescribed roles, the members of the band are challenging themselves more than ever. Anyone that mentions ‘free jazz’ or ‘prog-rock’ or any other pejorative musical term when they hear the tracks from Kid A, is revealing their own musical ignorance. Radiohead’s reference points are literate and no more esoteric than any respectable record collection, it is their own skill at getting it wrong that has won through again. A contradictory band – they aim for a Techno track and get a catchy tune with words that stick in your head for days. They banish all logos only to replace them with their own – grimacing bears stare out from a thousand T-shirts and from the W.A.S.T.E. merchandise tent. They sing songs about the impossibility of getting your life together when clearly the idea of what Radiohead is, is stronger than it has ever been.
The encore, I Might Be Wrong sounding like a mutated Beck tune is the surprise of the night, but the feeling that they have returned at their finest is back in fullest force with Lucky and the pure simplicity of Egyptian Song which is a bliss of piano and twinkling lights. The final solemnity of Exit Music is broken by Thom stifling a giggle, he is clearly enjoying himself as much as the rest of us circus freaks.