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- South Park, Oxford »
- Radiohead »
It’s a weird one.
The last time I saw this band, Radiohead, was ten long years ago. Let me set the scene for you. Beginning their descent, one-off indie heroes Kingmaker were touring their top 42 single “Armchair Anarchist”. Radiohead were first on, supporting a Juggler and fire-eater, and then Kingmaker themselves. I saw a fairly anonymous band play their hearts out to about 20 people in a room designed to hold 1,100. There were about five people going mad at the front, then a large gap of curious onlookers, as the peroxide blonde one and the indie haircuts bashed their guitars, created a Pixiesesque wall of noise, and them, like now, the singer give it his all, without actually giving anything away. The sound was seemingly some kind of defence mechanism, a barrier to prevent the audience getting through to them. Self-contained. Selfish even.
There was no hint at what they would become. They appeared to be mining the traditional furrow of the underachieving indie band, afraid to take risks, and producing the standard set of not-very-good t-shirts. The vague roar of approval for this new band was reserved to one song, the cult classic, Creep. A vague mumble of recognition came in as this top 100 single showed shards of genius, before the rest of the set settled down to the kind of fast, guitar-swathed sub-Dinosaur Jr. crap that most of “Pablo Honey” was to become.
Ten years later, the same five people performing the same song to 42,000 people in the torrential rain, headlining to an estatic audience in their home town in what will be one of the few “Media Events Of The Year” ™. Tonight, instead of being their one-hit-wonder song, it is an ancient dinosaur, an anachronism, a nugget of Genuine Rock ™ in a set of leftfield wonder and enormous introspective stadium ‘alternative’ rock. The audience hang on every word, every single one of them alone with their thoughts amongst 42,000 people, all singing – feeling as if Thom just took the words out of their brain and their brain alone - “I want a perfect soul.”
The audience is so far back I can’t even see where it ends. Unlike any other Stadium Rock Band, there isn’t a crush down the front as all try to get near their heroes. Somehow Radiohead have made the music the star, the band name a brand name, and the names of the individual players, much like Pink Floyd, almost irrelevant. Even within the inner sanctum near the stage there are large pockets where people stand alone with only their partners at most for company. It’s as if this music was designed to be listened to alone. Only occasionally, do we get the odd dancing Stadium Rock Pig passing by asking for “Creep” or “Just”.
In fact the audience don’t look like they’re here to see a rock band. It’s almost like a village fete. Kids walk around in yellow Radiohead pacamacs, old couples with picnic baskets, sandals and umbrellas have come out for their afternoon seeing the local pop concert, hardcore Japanese Crying Teenage Girls have flown over from Osaka to get near Thocky, the indie glitterati are here, big old men in faded “Oasis @ Knebworth” t-shirts drink lager, and the mortgaged, slightly disillusioned (with one failed, starter marriage under their belts) middle class sit around waiting for Radiohead to start and who are all these weirdo support acts?
Well, Supergrass. And Beck, who bores in a humdrum acoustic set. I have a lot of time for Becks multicoloured dayglo world of pop, with his simultaneously sincere and meaningless genre-spanning rock-funk. This is a million miles away from the last time I saw him, the exact same time last week, in a field in Denmark, with his Prince-style backing band, inflatable lightbulbs, keyboard-guitar solos, conga line dancing and jump splits. Tonight is just a man and a guitar. And it bores. Unlike some solo artists for whom a guitar and a microphone are a compelling spectacle (see the neglected charisma of Miles Hunt of The Wonder Stuff), Beck’s songs, stripped of their flourishes and the showbiz spectacle, merely bore. There isn’t enough at the heart of his selection to really interest, excepting the wonderful “Nobody’s Fault But My Own”.
In fact, Beck’s set is over so quick (25 minutes) that by the time I return from the bar his set is over. Hmm. The Bar. Organisation here is, at best, amateurish. Everything has a queue. It’s as if its some kind of art installation to remind us why Radiohead are so popular by presenting us with the little indignities we despise.
For the 42,000 people there is one merchandise tent, with a queue of 15 minutes, just to enter to look at the (frankly excellent) selection of t-shirts. My partner strongly disapproves of my idea of buying a t-shirt with the words “I use the existence of a well known games console to block out the existence of my partner”.
There is also another, equally miniscule tent (average size, your living room with a queue stretching to the nearest block of flats) selling special Radiohead@South Park Merchandise. Perhaps unexpectedly, the shirts have a South Park theme. Each shirt features the South Park characters of Stan, Kyle, Kenny, Cartman, all demonised with the Radiohead Scary Bear logo of big ears, snapping teeth and lizard eyes, and with little speech bubbles “um”, ”like”, ”hmrph hmprh”, “whatever” and Radiohead South Park Oxford July 7 underneath. Frankly, hilarious. The other shirt has Radiohead rendered in South Park-style underneath a massive demonic Cartman, complete with devil horns, big ears, snapping teeth, and lizard eyes.
For 42,00 people there are two bars, each with 10 people in, each pulling pints to order. Each bar has a congregation of people deeper than the stage, as the barman-punter ratio of 1 / 2,000 is stretched to absurd limits. And then the bar doesn’t take cash. You have to queue to buy “vouchers”, non-refundable, have to be used by 10.30, queue so long you buy loads and either have wasted money or queue for ages just to buy beer with them, and there are just six staff to provide vouchers for 42,000 people. Therefore, the queues for vouchers are so long they actually intersect from oppposite sides of the field. This, blatantly, is fucking absurd.
It’s still light as Radiohead take stage. Flanked by two massive silver bears, and a bunch of reflective glitter, neon strip lights and video screens, it’s a remarkably understated stadium rock setting. It’s still Stadium rock though. Big gestures, big music. Thankfully, none of that Bon-Jovi-twirling-your- microphone-in-the-air hello-Cleveland type shit, but these are modern times, this is modern Stadium music. Sly, knowing, full of in-jokes, and none of the big stadium moves.
It’s a brave and telling ploy though. The biggest British band’s set seems to consist of vague threats and lyrics like “Bring down the government, they don’t speak for us”, “we hope you choke”, “come on, you and your cronies”, “black eyed demons” and “a job that slowly kills you”. It’s almost as if, it’s a quiet, tolerated rebellion, an avenue for counter culture so that those who-aren’t-quite-satisifed-with-life can vocalise themselves before going quietly back to Their Shitty Lives™. Remember, if the government represented the people, there’s no way that corporations would control, lie and cheat to us. If they could, I’m sure the Government would dissolve the people and elect a new one. But then again, The Government Don’t Speak For Us. Let Radiohead do it instead. And keep the population down.
Given the fact that conversation gambits between world leaders, according to Bono, include ice-breakers like “So which ones best… OK Computer or The Bends?”, and the same leaders best efforts to create an unthinking, unquestioning culture, they’ve obviously failed. If culture and the Government provided in making us Happy Consumers, Radiohead wouldn’t go into the charts at Number One. There’s a message here, but nobody wants to listen except the Little People In Their Shitty Lives ™. Who don’t matter to heads of state. Makes me wonder how say, a President feels, listening to the words “Bring Down The Government, They Don’t Speak For Us” knowing it gets to the top of the music charts? Oh well, the music charts are just a distraction to keep the people busy anyway.
Oh yes, Radiohead. Almost forgot about them. Despite the setting, it still feels like an intimate, tiny invitation. As if they are performing to you and you alone in a big field, and that the other 41,999 people don’t actually exist (which is the way most people feel most of the time, anyway, isn’t it? As if other people are merely ciphers and characters in a film where you are the central character and the rest are expendable as long as you, i.e. The Hero, gets to win and save the world).
So, the National Anthem kicks off the set, under a soon-to-be-familiar fuzzy bass riff and a pounding groove that almost demands submission. Darkness settles. Video screens kick into life and present the traditional warped worldview as seen in the live footage all over Meeting People Is Easy. Cameras stuck on effects pedals, hoisted upside down on drum risers, stuck up microphones and into Thom’s nasal hair.
Next up, is Last Night An Airbag Save My Life. Four clicks of the drums, and the whole song fails to take off. Or in management speak, “it just doesn’t fly”. Thom laughs, and reveals, under the harsh, cynical exterior a fan of modern comedy. He adopts the Grumpy Old Man from The Fast Show Persona and growls a hyper-accurate “oooh buggah” before the song finally recommences, in a jacknife juggernaut, back to save the universe. Again.
And to Kid A, for the traditional arrangement of Morning Bell. So far, so hit free. Radioheads’ awkward reputation may very well be deserved. As the clouds darken, the lights illuminate the bears, and Lucky, the gentle swirling in of the intro that sounds oddly like recovering to consciousness after an accident, is ushered in. It’s glorious, beautiful, and astonishing, especially as nobody seemed to buy it as a single when it came out. Curse Radio One.
Pkt Like Sardines rocks like, as they say, a motherfucker. The traditional, limpid mechanised LP version is replaced by some fluid, hard insistent groove. “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case,” it repeats, endlessly. Getting the point across. With his lyrics Thom seems to be revealing everything and nothing at the same time, with the words hyper condensed into soundbites and endlessly repeated so much that they explore every possible meaning through a simple mantra.
And then to Exit Music, the softest saddest lullaby I think there is. Beauty.
Knives Out rolls and lollops like the Smiths. It fails to touch in the way that it sounds like a slightly underachieving, slightly reticent – curiously distanced – call to arms.
Street Spirit is the first thing that really generates a cheer in a previously well received, but patiently-waiting-for-the-hits set . A nation huddles in an open space and talks to itself, moaning about the failure to communicate, whilst at the same time, the spreader of the message, obscures himself in a smokescreen of injokes, and talking in the third person. Or does he?
Dollars & Cents mines a deep, dark, self-contained groove, and I still don’t know what it’s about. By the time the set moves onto Pyramid Song, it’s dark, and a pyramid of lights meet in the clouds, all aimed at a central point, creating a pyramid of light. It’s an odd, understated move, and one that for some strange reason, reminds me of ancient Nazi footage, which is also what I thought when I saw U2 pull the idea a few years ago. The songs is beautiful, hypnotic, sincere, and almost boring. Almost. For some reason the reference to “Black Eyed Demons” makes me think of the dark souls that tear the dead apart in that ancient Patrick Swayze loveflick “Ghost” that so many girls of the eighties loved so.
Idioteque and Everything In Its Right Place. Idioteque comes in on its relenteless metronomic beat, pinned to the floor, and couple with Thom’s mantra of “ice age coming ice age coming women and children first women and children first women and children first” appears oddly apocalyptic. Bring it all down. Bring it all down, oddly reminiscent of William Burroughs equally apocalyptic spoken word speech from “Minutes To Go”.
And as Everything In Its Right Place commences, and Thoms oddly misshapen head appears through a fish eye lens on the video screen, he gently plays the opening bars of Beck’s “Nobody’s Fault But My Own”, clears his throat, and the strangest sight is during Everything In It’s Right Place (a fairly unexciting trawl on vinyl) that lives and breathes as the audience slap along, mostly out of time, wave their hands along to the metronomic beat, and scream whenever Thom raises his hand about as he tinkles of the piano. The beat builds to a crescendo and the set ends on a curiously muted, has-it-really-gone-so-fast wave?… but the beat won’t ebb.
They return for for more songs – the effortless Fake Plastic Trees and Karma Police – before the politic You & Whose Army?, come on, come on he taunts as the screens glow in red & blue & purple, the colours of the Pepsi & Cola political parties, battling for control. And finally, the maudlin, tearjerking How To Disappear Completely, which is for anyone whose ever felt like just standing up and walking out on everything.
Second encore sees the funky Talk Show Host and The Bends, completely demolished by torrential rain but executed perfectly, barring the occasional change by Thom, who like Bob Dylan, seems intent of changing the pitch of every line and slurring others, in a way to make the songs both interesting for him, and catching the audience off guard.
Before the final encore brings us to where we came in, with Creep. The crowd savour every word, hang over every twist and nuance of syllable, and I wonder for a moment, thinking, that of all the things that have surprised, I never thought I’d see the crap bunch of indie chancers that bored me in 92 being anywhere near as good as this.
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