When I go to check my email the day after Thom came into the shop, there is a rumour circulating from the Japanese continent that Thom is going to be a father. I somehow doubt that this is true, as he surely would have mentioned it yesterday, but I use my new opportunity to contact him to find out what’s going on. He puts me straight in a reply the following day. (In the end it was Phil’s wife who was about to have a child and someone somewhere got their wires crossed). It feels weird to be in a position to quash some inaccurate gossip.
I spend the next week or so in a daze, trying to work out whether trying to go to Paris for the Amnesty gig is even an option. It isn’t.
I find working full time very hard going and I am becoming quite depressed. Don’t think this can be entirely due to having to play Robbie Williams’ new album all day long in the shop, although it doesn’t help.
Caffy puts me in touch with a Melody Maker journalist who is compiling a feature on pop fans. I send him the story of my first letter from Thom. I don’t have a computer of my own and I have to check my email every few days in a local book shop where there is an internet café. When the MM comes out Caffy says if she were a pop star she’d be honoured to have me as a fan! Which was very nice of her, I’d been rather worried about my contribution, but I’m starting to think about writing more about my experiences.
In November Caffy sends me a promo copy of Meeting People Is Easy, I am a little awed by it at first. There are new songs and Thom talking about “the most important thing.”
There are moody scenes soundtracked by Scott Walker songs, the queue outside the Astoria (but not the one I was in) and a brief glimpse of Keiko crying as she sees the band off at the airport in Japan. I buy a copy of the VHS as soon as it comes out.
The NME are making a lot of the “Thom hates fame” angle. Atsuko (who I met in Dublin, who is now back in Japan) has asked me to find out if it would be possible to interview Thom for InRock, the magazine she works for, but in the end she calls me and asks me to write something about my experiences and review the film.
Here’s what was translated for the magazine, published in January 1999:
Grant Gee’s film Meeting People Is Easy gives an intriguing insight into the process of touring and promoting the album OK Computer. It takes its visual cues from the sleeve artwork of the album, making the endless cities that the band visit look like alien landscapes. The band themselves also seem like aliens at times, at the start of the film they appear to land from a spaceship and then make their way towards a stage to the strains of Fitter Happier. On the streets of Tokyo, they try to mingle with the crowds but end up standing out and looking lost in the futuristic city.
The album’s recurring themes of movement, speed and transport are interpreted here as views from vehicle windows as the world speeds by in a blur of bright lights, freeways, tunnels and airports.
It is remarkable how close Gee has come in interpreting the band’s musical vision on film. Reading through some of the countless press interviews that the band did to promote the album I found that the way they describe the songs and feelings on OK Computer corresponds very closely to the images in the film.
Thom tried to describe the point of view from which he had written the songs:
“It was like there was a secret camera in every room and it’s watching the character for each song. The camera’s not quite me, its neutral, emotionless, but not emotionless at all, in fact it is the complete opposite.”
Grant Gee has said of the film, “What I tried to do was to scoop out the emotion as much as possible and just show frustration. Even though there are some candid scenes in there, it is kind of empty. There’s nothing you can show about these people that’s going to have anything like the same impact as the music they make.”
The music is the connecting force. The most important thing in the process. The Radiohead live experience is only shown in fits and starts in the film but there are moments when it all comes together and even someone who is not a fan can feel the emotional power of the music.
The first song that we hear them play is the first song that they played to the world on the tour at the opening show in Barcelona, Lucky. Jonny Greenwood recalls “shaking in Barcelona and never wanting to loose that feeling” The excitement of playing live is as palpable for the band as it is for the audience.
The film is less about the band than them at the centre of the process of taking their music out to the world. This process is not even really fame because they are not really famous. They are not (thank goodness!) famous like movie stars or household names but their job now involves taking part in the process of celebrity, the rounds of interviews and TV appearances, self advertisement that leads them to become a kind of human product on the global marketing treadmill. It is their own fear that they will become part of this machine, the fact that it is so much not what they are about that makes the film so compelling.
For these five worriers, being caught up in this intense situation is often more than they can stand. In taking their art to the people there are a lot of draw backs, a lot of reasons to quit. As it becomes monotonous and they become weary (as in the later sections of the film) they have to keep focusing on what it is that drives them on.
As Thom has said:
“There are a lot of good reasons for not doing tours. It fucks you up, it takes too long and it costs shitloads of money…but…its about looking people in the eye when we play our songs.”
The film is full of hidden tension. Touring the world is the thing which drives the band to greater success but at the same time it is also the thing which prevents them from leading normal human lives and being able to concentrate on the thing that they love, the music.
Yet as the film illustrates, their music comes from the kind of situations which they encounter on the road. The emotional resonance of the songs fits with the images. Shopping malls and ‘modern life’; handshakes and carbon monoxide… Meeting People Is Easy manages to be both revealing and not at the same time. There are candid scenes of the band back stage but we never get any closer to finding out about how they work together. The film uses fragments of interviews and footage which manage create an impressionistic and occasionally profound picture of Radiohead without ever achieving concrete coherence.
Throughout the film, Gee returns to the idea that all the critical acclaim the band are receiving is adding to the pressure on them to live up to expectations. The barrage of press-superlatives builds up and overflows until they feel the fear of the inevitable backlash. In one interview, done on the Australian leg of the tour, Thom talks about success bringing with it new responsibilities, making taking risks very hard. There is always this fear deep down, but risks need to be taken, success should bring them the freedom to express themselves creatively, rather than add to the pressure to bring more success. The pressure of feeling it and meaning it all the time as a job means that Radiohead often take everything too seriously.
The moments in the film where it is most obvious that Radiohead are better than any of this, worth more than all the strife that they have to contend with are the fragments of new songs.
One which may or may not be called Big Ideas (Don’t get any), performed in New York and others which we can see being worked on in sound checks, including one with the lyric ‘You follow me around’ that sounds a little like a country-style REM song.
For me, as a fan, the part where Thom talks about the most important thing being that he can remember what it is like to have songs which were etched on your heart when you are were a teenager, when life goes wrong. When he realised that his songs were as important to people as The Smiths or REM were to him, then that is what makes it all worthwhile. To know that he understands the big deal is very meaningful.
I watched it again, for the first time in a long time in 2011 (in the process of writing this):
I always find it strange that the band portrayed in this film is the one that a lot of people think is most like the real Radiohead. It’s a film about the process of promoting a record as much as anything, I think at the time I relied on it to fill in the gaps, there was almost a year and a half with no gigs. The hyperbole around OK Computer always bothered me, and watching its effect on the band is quite an uncomfortable experience. Meeting People Is Easy is rather one sided in that respect. Grant Gee is not at every gig, he drops in at various points on the tour and perhaps by choice doesn’t attempt to give a balanced picture. Some of the absurdity but little of the humour of the Radiohead camp is captured by his cameras. What comes across is Thom’s inherent distrust of his own success, the fact that touring is repetitive and tiring, not particularly glamorous and at some points just down right inane. I do wonder if music journalists still ask those same, humourless, pointless questions these days?
Thom’s body language throughout is something that could probably offer a student of psychology a lot of mileage; there is never really a chance to see him when he’s not under pressure. I don’t think this helped dispel any preconceptions about the band, they DO take things very seriously but there are moments of levity on tour that MPIE totally neglects to mention.
Grant Gee isn’t trying to shoot a concert film, its more all about the peripheral stuff – and there are things here I recognise – soundman Jim on his skates; Tim looking at his watch and handing out cups of tea; the strange polite air of resignation with which the band awkwardly conduct themselves in the face of formal meetings with foreign record company personnel. I do sometimes wonder how I never ran into the film crew on my travels (they were at the Astoria fan club show but I never noticed).
My least favourite scene is the clip from Sky News where the monstrous presenter Kay Burley talks disparagingly all over the promo video for No Surprises, calling it “music to cut your wrists to,” while her fellow presenter seems to actively enjoy watching Thom narrowly avoid drowning.
There are some interesting cuts between photo shoots and interviews taking place and the finished articles, like the Raygun piece where Thom talks about college radio being “fridge buzz” and in Japan where he extrapolates a complicated economic theory, as if being able to talk about anything other than himself is more important than talking about having made the “best album in the world” for the 1000th time.
MPIE throws up a couple of faintly surreal moments: “Tower lobby floor?” The band get lost on the way to shoot a video acceptance speech for the NME Awards, fuck it up, re-do it and get very frustrated only to have the NME use the botched version and in the process make the band look like they’re trying deliberately to be iconoclastic.
Some questions are thrown up. Did Thom ever wear anything other than those giant combat trousers? Has Ed ever considered going into politics? His ability to answer questions without actually saying anything meaningful at all is surely a valuable skill in that field. Indeed his best contribution is now something of a catchphrase…“Polaroids? What kind of Polaroids?”
Thom doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself, which concurs with reports I received at the time. He frames everything in comparison to their performance at Glastonbury, which has become the benchmark against which everything else is measured and found to be disappointing. “Everything that happened after Glastonbury has been a let down.”
There is a moment near the end of the film when Thom seems to be losing his ability to communicate, he implies that he’s bored of the songs and all but suggests packing it in, telling the others that they should “get out while the going’s good.” Even while they’re still on tour they’re bracing themselves for the inevitable backlash. The film ends back in New York with a new song, which a TV presenter refers to as Big Ideas (don’t get any). Thom introduces it as being about “believing you’re actually wonderful when you know it’s not true.” (This song will eventually take about nine years to be finished and be recorded as Nude, on In Rainbows.)
After watching MPIE, I don’t think I ever took an interview at face value ever again. If it had been all I had to go on, I would have been even more worried about the future of the band than I already was.