Feb 252014

Your Friendly Neighborhood Gollum

Your Friendly Neighborhood Gollum

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.


  36 Responses to “Radiohead: Pushin’ Too Hard?”

  1. machinery

    I have more Radiohead albums than one man should have, mostly gleaned off the web, given to me, etc. That being said, I enjoy them when they pop up on the queue though I couldn’t really tell you any specific songs or the difference between say, Kid A and In Rainbows (had to look those up, btw.) I think you have to approach them as background office music. It all sort of blends together with some blips and bleeps and a sonic wave. For this reason I find them enjoyable but for the same reason imagine them to be really boring live, no? (I was going to catch that show, too on PBS.)

    I do dig the OK Computer album. It’s got some really cool numbers and again, washed together — sort of like Mummer or Skylarking.

    And I really, really dig the album before that, The Bends which is very rocking and angular with Television-like guitar sounds.

    Thom Yorke is best heard and not seen, is my impression.

  2. I can see letting them play in the background, while I work. The live show is included here, in anyone is interested. I wouldn’t say it was boring. It was like one of those Olympic events, in which participants ride a unicycle while shooting a crossbow.

  3. misterioso

    Soooo, the best Mod can muster is that they try really hard and machinery’s high praise is that they work well as office background music. Preferably (I am inferring) as far in the background as possible. Feel the love!

  4. misterioso

    Spot on. Whereas I don’t kid myself that I am interested in Radiohead, for some reason every four years I think that I really love the Winter Olympics. I do really enjoy Olympic hockey, and some of the downhill skiing stuff is cool. But about 95% of it, from the traditional events like bobsled or biathalon to new-fangled dumb-ass X-games sports, hold my interest for about as long as it takes to go to an endless, soul-crushing commercial break–which is to say, alas, not very long. Like Radiohead, clearly the participants in these events are trying really hard and are good at what they do. Only I don’t really care.

  5. Mr. Mod, my question is why you would invest 2 hours watching these PBS shows? Did it take you that long to come to the conclusions you outline? It would seem you should have arrived there in about 10 minutes.

  6. Hey, I manage this blog and like to be informed in my occasional gut dismissals. I like to keep myself open to changing my mind at least once a decade. I like 3 songs by the band. I like seeing cool instruments. I like getting my head around musical efforts by real band, which I think they are. It was by no means painful to watch these hour-long performances by Radiohead; they simply weren’t close to moving for all the effort exerted. However, it wasn’t like I was making myself watch an Eagles reunion show, which I’ve tried to do. I can’t spend an hour watching those guys without wanting to go outside and commit random acts of crime.

  7. misterioso

    Ok. Basically I agree with you, although I think you’ve found more to latch onto than I have. But let me play devil’s advocate here. We both hate (the) Eagles. That’s a given. But, I mean, don’t they work hard at what they do? Aren’t their instruments cool? (Frankly, I don’t know.) Isn’t the difference that “we” all “know” that (the) Eagles suck and that therefore there’s no harm in saying so, loud and clear, whereas with Radiohead since “we” have been told that they are impressive and brilliant and therefore we’re supposed to feel bad about finding them to be, at best, office background music? In the end, the things you are straining valiantly to find praiseworthy about Radiohead (they work hard, they play nice instruments, some nice looking girls sing along with them!) can be said about any band, sucky or great. What I am saying (leans in close, lowers voice meaningfully) is that you don’t need to feel guilty anymore. You are free to find Radiohead overrated and basically uninteresting. Shout it out loud!

  8. Is the Radiohead conundrum for non Radiohead fans sort of like Amazon or iTunes recommending a band you should like based on your listening “history?”

    Radiohead may have a lot of the “earmarks” of a band I would like, but, I just don’t enjoy the music they make . . . or at least enough to make we want to listen to it regularly.

    Maybe someday a light will go on and I’ll become a Radiohead fan. Maybe the future me will kick myself in the ass for turning down several chances to see them live . . . and their 65% female audience. Maybe baby . . .

  9. 2000 Man

    My oldest son loves them. He thinks they’re the greatest band ever, but he’s finally given up trying to convince me. I think they’re boring as hell, which is too bad because that dude can really play guitar, but he chooses to kneel on the ground instead. Hasn’t he ever heard of a table?

  10. ladymisskirroyale

    Ok, I’m in that 65%. I like Radiohead. A lot. I’d say “Kid A” is one of my favorite albums and would be a runner up for one of my desert island record.

    In general, I find their music interesting to listen to, and a good blend of semi-opaque lyrics and Science Rock. I like the layering of the sound, think the musicians are good (from what I can tell, not being a guitar player), and enjoy the shifting time signatures. I think their sound matured quite a bit in about a 10 year period, and I appreciate their interest in trying new things (solo or with the band).

    That said, Thom’s vocals don’t always work for me, they have a tendency to be too earnest, and I wish they hadn’t shifted so far from guitar-based rock. I’m all about interesting sounds/electronic but they have great guitarists so why move away from that?

    Songs I really like:
    From “Kid A”: How to Disappear Completely (ah, that bass line, the time signature!), Morning Bell, Optimistic, Idioteque, The National Anthem.
    From “Amnesiac”: I Might Be Wrong
    From “Hail to the Thief”: There There; Myxomytosis.

    Mod, I think your review is thorough and fair. Thank you.

  11. I love Radiohead, and I feel that they merit the ballyhoo. There are two statements they’ve made that I find intriguing, and relevant to their sound.

    One was an interview in the NYT Magazine, when “Kid A” came out, and the article followed their studio process on that album. They had gotten into Aphex Twin/Autechre type music, and they had all this machinery in the studio, and they said something to the effect that regardless of the gadgets, they still came to their sounds from a traditional instrumental approach, and that they “bent the machines to their will.”

    Another statement, by Jonny Greenwood: “Our guitars are more clitoris substitutes than phallus ones – we stroke them in a nicer gentler way.” Perhaps it’s their non-blues, non-riff style that just doesn’t catch on to a certain type of listener.

    Musically, yes, they do recall Holger Czukay and Can, and (for me) PiL, “Remain In Light”, Pink Floyd, and I also can’t help but hear The Hollies in much of Yorke’s voice.

    Songwise, give a listen to:
    Let Down
    Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
    Talk Show Host
    Bullet Proof
    Fake Plastic Trees
    Blow Out

  12. No, (the) Eagles gave up striving for anything more than keeping their show running, keeping hip deep in coke, etc past their first album or two, when they lost Bernie Leadon and lost their little country-rock aspirations. They worked hard at keeping the machine going. I think Radiohead is trying to do something that’s meaningful to them and that pushes some kind of musical boundaries. I think that’s more than just cranking out a bigger machine. For that reason, I am willing to occasionally pay them an hour of my time when it’s right there on my public television station.

  13. You wrote:

    Hasn’t he ever heard of a table?

    That, my friend, is up there with Oats’ old command that Iggy put a shirt on as one of the greatest lines ever typed in the Halls of Rock. YES, what is with him kneeling all the time. Was that guy locked in a closet as a kid?

  14. Thank you for the suggestions. I’ll check those songs out!

  15. Again, thanks for the concrete suggestions. I’m curious to know geo’s take on this band. He’s always tried to turn me onto Can, and despite their supposedly having been an influence on PiL (a band I liked a lot through the Keith Levene years), I’ve never felt whatever the core is supposed to be of Can’s music. That’s my same problem with most of the Radiohead stuff I hear. It’s like a pile of icing just plopped on the table without a cake to support it.

  16. machinery

    Ha! No, I do dig them. I was just getting to the idea that they’re not a “song” band. The Bends is pretty fabulous, imo.

  17. misterioso

    Well, I think on some level you’re buying the hype or else it is important to you to at least appear open minded, even though I don’t think your view of the band is going to change any sooner than mine. But if you’d rather spend time watching a band that doesn’t interest you instead of watching The Ghost and Mrs. Muir on TCM (which I hope you enjoyed it last night), then it’s your life, my friend.

    Now: I fear that somehow these words will be taken out of context and used against me in a court of law, but don’t tell me that there is no ambition or striving towards something in Hotel California (the album) or that the effort to make a follow-up (i.e., The Long Run) wasn’t meaningful to them. I am sure, too, that when Dennis DeYoung gathered the Stygian lads around to plot their next masterpiece (oh, just pick one! Paradise Theater? Kilroy?) there was no lack of ambition or sincere striving towards something meaningful. Or, to be slightly more current, to my ears Coldplay is very ambitious, talented, striving, and their heart’s in the right place. But they are tedious. I am sure all of this means something, but I can’t recall what, except maybe that being an adult means you don’t have to pretend to like music that is influenced by Can if you don’t actually like it. On the other hand, if that’s your thing, that’s fine, too.

  18. misterioso, I get what you’re saying (and yes, I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Ghost and Mrs Muir once again!), but do me a favor and watch 15 minutes of that performance, not because I think you will like it any more than I did, but because it will have the potential for more fun discussion in the Hall than attempts at calling BULLSHIT on me, when you know there’s an element of BULLSHIT behind so many of my motives:) Really, though, I sincerely hoped we could all grapple with this highly acclaimed, wildly popular band that makes music that many of us can’t get our heads around. What does it say about us? What does it say about shifting tastes? There’s seriously got to be something more to this than “Kids, today…shoot…they wouldn’t know great rock ‘n roll if you spoon fed it for them!” I am as curious to know what fans of the band think as I am people who are not fans, but refresh your ears and eyes to this phenomenon that’s lasted at least a decade.

  19. BigSteve

    Well, they’re pedals, meant to be operated (i.e., turned on an off) with one’s feet. They have lots of knobs though that that can be adjusted for different sounds. If they were on a table, they wouldn’t be pedals.

  20. misterioso

    Gosh, I’d love to, but I still have to work out why (the) Eagles were so popular. Then I’m scheduled to take on the conundrum of how any sane person could enjoy REM after Life’s Rich Pageant. I have a huge backlog of decades’ worth of stuff that’s really popular that I totally don’t get, and dammit, I need answers. Right now I’m pulling a Sasha Frere-Jones and I’m up to thirty-seven listens of One of These Nights. I think by the time I get to fifty there’s going to be a major breakthrough. Tell you what: you do the same thing with Radiohead and we’ll see who has a breakdown, er, breakthrough, first. See you on the funny farm.

  21. Slim mentions Pink Floyd and I put Radiohead right there as well. I don’t love it, much of the time I don’t really even like it that much, but sometimes they are the only band that will do. They get in their avant grade moves and put it down straight; they don’t shine an obvious light on their musical chops, or aggression or whatnot, which probably makes it work for office listening. And wasn’t there an example here of Floyd drummer Nick Mason working so hard at a simple beat in that Pompeii concert? That’s what this clip reminds me of.

    I’ve tried to get older Dark Side of the Moon fans to buy into OK Computer (I think they are very similar) but something about the noisy 90’s construction never takes with the Classic Rock crowd. Good choice of iPod singles though. Maybe add “All I Need”, “There There” and all of Computer .

  22. Yeah, but you must know what 2K is talking about specific to Jonny Greenwood, right? They can afford to haul around some 1920s theremin; if their sound is so reliant on Jonny twiddling the knobs on what are typically foot pedals that musicians don’t change mid-song, you’d think they’d give him a second set of those foot pedals on a table. There was another song, which begins at the 40-minute mark, where he ducks under a table to twiddle knobs and plug in cords on some box. There was no indication this box was being manipulated at any other time or that it needed to be under a table. Why couldn’t the box have been set ON the table?

  23. Like so many things, it all comes down to an aesthetic. One can cry “Please Explain”, and sometimes no amount of rationalization is gonna make something suddenly pop.

    There are times you (and I do not mean this as a dis to anyone!) just have to plead the Louis Armstrong Amendment: “Man, if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”

  24. 2000 Man

    If he needs to play them as foot pedals and then he’s going to use them also as something to play with his hands, can’t someone make him a table that goes up and down? What it a fabricator charge for a custom table that goes up and down set up just for him? 400 bucks? I’ll admit to pretty much just not being able to hear Radiohead, but I don’t like the guy sitting on the floor essentially motionless for long stretches of time. If you go to a show, you pay to have the guys up there entertain you, and that just ain’t entertainment. For me, Radiohead is already Sleepytime music, and guys lying down on stage wouldn’t help keep me awake.

  25. cherguevara

    Ever listen to Can while driving?

  26. Now we need to tee up: St. Vincent!

  27. ladymisskirroyale

    Bring her on. I became a fan of her last 2 albums but haven’t heard the new one yet.

  28. I am at three spins — check out “Prince Johnny.”

  29. I love the fact that something as weird as Radiohead’s music has garnered such a big following. I admire their ambition, musical ability, and scope of their vision, but I have a real affinity for strong hooks and I have never cared much for prog.

    So while I have a begrudging respect for them, I find them musically uninteresting. (I say “begrudging” because, I’ve never gotten over my perception that they started their career by sneaking into the spotlight with what I consider to be a novelty hit. It’s the same issue that I have with Beck. My problem, I know)

  30. Part of the song that starts at :31 is pretty decent but for the most part, they seem more concerned with pulling out gear and fiddling with knobs than the music.

  31. 2000 Man

    My cousin once told me I “just didn’t get it, man.” He was talking about The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I think I’m wearing that as a badge of honor. I like that my kids think Radiohead is so great. They should have music I “just don’t get,” but I can see what they find appealing, I guess. It just doesn’t appeal to me. But that’s why there’s more than one record in the record store.

  32. I don’t “get” Radiohead but I understand why they might be appealing.

    I “get” the Red Hot Chili Peppers but they blow.

  33. 2000 Man

    Yeah, I really didn’t want to continue the Chili Peppers conversation and explain how I “got it.” You’re right they blow. I got a Rock Hall membership this year because it was my birthday and I wanted to see the Stones exhibit (Brian’s mellotron is there!) and in the actual HOF, on the wall right above The Stones, is RHCP. I told my wife (barely in my indoor voice) that when Rush and RHCP are in your HOF, next year you need to start the UNduction ceremonies and start kicking people out.

  34. I’ve never really gotten even remotely familiar with them. My only specific memory of hearing /seeing them was a Kid-A era performance on SNL. They didn’t grab me and though I can see the Can comparison, I think Wilco got way closer to the Can sound on Spiders (Kidsmoke) from A Ghost is Born. I’d also say that Radiohead is a lot fuzzier, soft focus than Can which has a brutalist streak that I like. On the other hand, I must note that my favorite Can record is Future Days, which is atypically smooth, relaxed and groovey..

  35. Yeah, St. Vincent… I have been a big fan up until this new one. I’m having a hard time dealing with the whole persona package she’s working.

  36. That promo shot of her with the gray hair and the kee-raaaay-zee eyes is really off-putting. Someday I need to sit down and listen to her music with her efforts at GETTING MY ATTENTION out of my mind.

    I’m thankful that David Byrne first appeared on the back cover of Talking Heads ’77 looking as normal as me and my friends.

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