Looking back on it, this was the moment when Radiohead went supernova. The moment after which nothing would ever be quite the same again. The Bends had grown slowly, picking up good sales and critical momentum, but OK Computer had been anticipated, it had gained a lot of ground even before it had been released.
Paranoid Android was getting radio play in a way that none of their singles, not even the initial release of Creep, had received. If anything it was a more audacious move: a six and half minute epic in three movements. Don’t mention the P word.
Glastonbury. There had been no festival in 1996 and the BBC had taken over the coverage of the festival from Channel Four. There was huge excitement about the unprecedented amount of coverage that had been promised. I desperately needed a topic for my Film & TV Studies dissertation. I realised that the logical thing to do was use the only material I had in any quantity, a genre that I now had a specialist knowledge of: the coverage of live music on television. The coverage of the festival offered me an opportunity to make a case study. Still on a roll from the Dublin show, I was back in Glasgow riding a wave of end of term hangovers and grappling with my art student flatmates to get control of the shared TV set so I could stay glued to the coverage all weekend; the radio on in the other room with cassettes primed to record as much as possible of Radiohead’s Saturday night headline set.
On TV, presumably due to some sort of licensing deal, the performance was broken up into tantalising sections. Late on the Saturday night, I sat on the edge of the sofa swearing at Jo Wiley as I could hear the band playing in the background while she wittered on, filling in until they could cut live to the Pyramid Stage. Her co-presenter John Peel remained as deadpan and nonplussed as ever. When they finally let us see the band, it was perfectly timed.
Thom, severe and fragile in black shirt, cropped black hair and wielding a black Alvarez acoustic/electric guitar, leans into his mic and addresses his lighting engineer. “Andy, can you turn on the lights so we can see the people, ‘cause we haven’t seen them yet.”
There was a gigantic roar from the crowd. Thom says hello, a little taken aback as the shear scale of this gig becomes apparent. They start Paranoid Android, but something is wrong, he shakes his head like he can’t hear what’s going on. As ever with this band, things don’t go quite now they planned, but the results somehow end up transcending their original intentions.
Stage-right Thom dashes over to speak to a roadie (I think it’s Tree) and misses out a line of the song as they try to resurrect the monitors. Close-ups of Jonny’s Strat distract the unknowing viewer from this niggle, but I remember a feeling of panic, what if it was all about to go wrong on live TV? However, the second “moment” is about to happen. On the other side of the stage, Ed is grinning as he realises he can hear the crowd singing along to Karma Police. A few weeks after the album’s release and everyone knows the words.
Thom catches this too and grins into the crowd. He launches into Creep. It stands out in the new set, for different reasons than it used to. Now it’s even more their novelty song than it was before. This time he’s taking it seriously. Leisure Is Pain, says the legend on the back of his recycled shirt. He stands stock still, arms folded, a shot of the crowd as they sing it back to him, with the lights facing out onto them showing a sea of bodies.
Climbing Up The Walls is an icy hand on the spine, then comes moment number three, No Surprises. For once we get to see Jonny playing the glockenspiel. Thom’s got his eyes shut, concentrating on the song. The camera cuts to the view from the stage and at the other end of the site fireworks bloom in the sky. They pop and fizz as if timed to coincide with the end of the song. The band seem to pause to let them finish before they kick off Talk Show Host.
Thom’s still looking around for the source of some stray noises and the fireworks continue to detonate. The song peters out as something goes awry, but no one but the band seems to mind. The camera cuts to a wide shot, so I can’t see. Thom comes back into focus, guitar-less for Bones, straining to hear his cue without monitors. It’s a song that always marks an intense point in the set. At the end of the vocal, he nods and takes in the scene with a look that says “OK. It’s on.”
And as if to prove it, the three guitar battle of Just follows on. Ed jumps, Jonny goes for it and the crowd move as one and then the strobes activate and all too soon the live coverage is over.
Later on, Jools Holland introduces more highlights. “This gig means a fucking lot to us” says Thom, and he realises it would be churlish to talk about the technical difficulties they’ve been experiencing and thanks the audience for their patience. They play High And Dry, Ed and Jonny facing off in a rare moment of on-stage interaction.
The final song is Street Spirit, provoking Jools Holland to note that the set has been a highlight of the festival, and in the next few days pretty much everyone agrees with him.