Saturday night I watched an hour-long performance by Radiohead on Austin City Limits. It’s the second such hour-long televised performance I’ve watched by the band on PBS. A couple of years ago I saw some performance of them in a studio. In both cases, I was interested enough to keep watching, but despite being impressed by their arsenal of avant-garde touches; instrument juggling; and obscure and cool gear as well as the maximum effort that all the band members put into their music, I got very little out of the experience of trying to listen to and feel the music. It added up to a whole lot of nothing.
Surely, I’ve been missing something.
I’ve bought 3 Radiohead songs for my iPod: “High and Dry,” “No Surprises,” and “The National Anthem.” I like those songs a lot. They played none of those songs on the recent Austin City Limits. In fact, I guess they were playing a lot of obscure numbers, because Thom Yorke kind of apologized about playing so many songs that only diehard fans might recognize. Then, at the end of the show, he announced that they were finally going to play a song everyone would know, “Paranoid Android,” I think it was called. I was aware of this song, and whenever they played the big, King Crimson-like guitar riff I recalled having heard it before, but other than a couple of flashes of heaviosity the song sounded no more or less memorable than all the B-sides that had preceded it.
The crowd went wild for Radiohead. I know they’re popular and have achieved legendary status. Again, I think it’s really cool that they’ve achieved this by playing music that I can’t imagine many people would actually listen to if it wasn’t being played by Radiohead. Something about the band pulls them in. It’s got to be the power of the people who play that music, because—again—there’s little that’s objectively catchy and capable of casting a broad appeal if you can separate their music from their performance. Is there?
Their performance of this Can-influenced (from what I can tell) music is what makes it click. Yorke’s got that beneficent Gollum thing going for him. He’s working his ass off as he sings those awkward melodies, plays guitar and keyboards, then goes into one of his elfin spazz dances. Seriously, the guy earns his stripes as a front man. Without Yorke, Radiohead would be flat-out Science Rock for pipe-smoking dudes only, like ’70s King Crimson. He gives them that broad-based appeal that Jon Anderson gave Yes, while the musicians were wanking off on 15-minutes suites. He’s the bridge to The People. I got little pleasure out of Yorke’s performance, but I totally respect him as a dynamo. Also, for a lead singer who often straps on a guitar, he displays great taste in gear and rarely if ever holsters!
I guess the next most-important band member in terms of Rock Superpowers is Jonny Greenwood, the multi-instrumentalist with the long forelock. He must be the Professor of the band. When he’s not holding his guitar at odd angles he’s hunched over some 1920s precursor to the theremin or on his hands and knees, twiddling the knobs on some Heathkit wave generator. Very Scientific! The slender build, eternally youthful looks, and the forelock probably draw in the band’s share of the ladies as much as Yorke’s Friendly Neighborhood Gollum persona.
Did I mention the women in the audience at this Radiohead show? It must have been 65% women! Cute women, too, not the female equivalent of dudes from the ’70s who scoured record bins for used Sopwith Camel albums. They were dancing. They sang along with every shriek that came out of Yorke’s mouth. How did they know what he was singing? It was rare I could make out the words in any one of his cri de coeur. It was hard enough determining the melodies he dropped in between the band’s blips and bleats.
The band’s other guitarist, Ed O’Brien, is the glue guy. Except for an occasional stint on some snare drums (the 3 front-line musicians: O’Brien, Yorke, and Jonny Greenwood seem to feel the band’s 2 drummers are not enough—or maybe they’re just big fans of Public Image Ltd’s The Flowers of Romance and want to get their tom-tom beats on), O’Brien is a meat-and-potatoes guitarist and background singer. When all hell is breaking loose, O’Brien and bassist Colin Greenwood are holding down the fort.
I enjoyed watching bassist Colin Greenwood during the ACL performance, as he stationed himself between the band’s 2 bald, matching drummers. He’s one of those studious bassist’s bassist type, keeping his body turned toward one of the drummers, away from the audience. I can’t really identify with bassist’s bassists, but I’m glad they’re still out there.
The drummers were good, too: very studious, jazzy, flexible, inventive…and equally bald and clad in black clothing. Nice touch! Up and down, the band clearly pays attention to detail. I like that about them. In fact, I truly admire it. I just don’t get a kick out of many of their songs. Maybe I need to revisit some album tracks, maybe Yorke was right to apologize for playing so many B-sides. Are there 5 other Radiohead songs I might be able to download and enjoy as much as the 3 songs currently in my collection?
I look forward to your suggestions.