This October, when Radiohead release their highly anticipated follow-up to 1997's guitar-driven OK Computer, music critics may very well bestow the Oxford quintet with "The Most Important Band in Rock" accolade that cursed U2, R.E.M. and the Clash. The East Coast editor of Launch magazine, Randall is undoubtedly one of the many journalists eager to exclaim "genius!" again, but his biography of the Grammy winners is economical, restrained and unauthorized (band members "respectfully declined" Randall's requests to cooperate). After briefly reenacting the now mythic June 1997 concert at New York City's Irving Plaza, attended by rock's superstar aristocracy (Bono, Lenny Kravitz, Madonna, etc.), Randall smartly spends most of his narrative on the band's fascinating, decade-long conception in and around culturally barren Oxford, whose Radiohead landmarks he visited and lays out. Non- and neo-Anglophiles will especially appreciate Randall's definitions of British terms and background on the British music industry, music press and education system (all five musicians met at the all-male Abingdon School). As for the inevitable "record critique" chapters, Randall rarely throws in his two cents, preferring to sprinkle passages with the band's own pithy observations and recording-session anecdotes culled from magazine interviews. Exit music? Not quite, as Radiohead are pushing the boundaries of pop music (the new record is rumored to include Miles Davis and backwards singing). Because the book will be published right before the new album debuts, it will be nearly out of date by the time it hits bookstores. However, Randall's work will still serve as a reliable introduction to an ever-evolving band.
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Non- and neo-Anglophiles will especially appreciate Randall's definitions of British terms and background on the British music industry, music press and education system.
Randall's work will still serve as a reliable introduction to an ever-evolving band. (Sept.)
The day was Monday, June 9, 1997, and a concert was about to begin near New York City's Union Square. Over the weekend that had just ended, thousands of music fans had made pilgrimages much farther uptown, to Downing Stadium on Randalls Island in the East River between Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens, to witness the second annual two-day Tibetan Freedom Concert. An all-star event organized by New York's own hip-hop kings the Beastie Boys, the concert would attempt to focus world attention on Tibet's plight under harsh Chinese rule and would raise money for the cause of Tibetan independence. Performers had included such rock luminaries as U2, Patti Smith, Michael Stipe and Mike Mills from R.E.M., Alanis Morissette, and the Beastie Boys themselves.
Another band in that distinguished lineup was set to play again on this evening, in the far cozier confines of Irving Plaza (capacity approximately 1000 people). Their Tibetan Freedom performance had been one of the festival's highlights. Their name was being mentioned more and more often in the same breath as those of rock's most lauded superstars. And whereas over the weekend they had played a short set, sharing the stage with several other artists, tonight would be theirs alone, without even an opening act. They were a quintet from Oxford, England, and they were called Radiohead.
Earlier in the year, the band--made up of singer and guitarist Thom Yorke, guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood, guitarist Ed O'Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood, and drummer Phil Selway--had put the finishing touches on its third album, OK Computer. The album wouldn't be released in the United States until July, almost a month after the Irving Plaza show, but many of the music-industry types in the audience had heard advance copies; some were already using words like masterpiece to describe it. And nearly everyone in attendance had either heard the album's leadoff single, a six-and-a-half-minute, three-part epic called "Paranoid Android," or seen its quirky animated video on MTV. That June night, Radiohead planned to air several songs off the new album. They may not have been fully conscious of it, but they were also preparing to join the ranks of the rock aristocracy.
The VIP section of Irving Plaza, on the right side of the balcony above the stage, was roped off to prevent anyone without a special pass from entering. It overflowed with some of the most respected and successful people in popular music. Michael Stipe and Mike Mills hobnobbed with Bono, the Edge, and Adam Clayton from U2. Oasis' Noel Gallagher quietly sipped his beer while his brother Liam pranced goonishly through the crowd. Blur's Damon Albarn sat sulkily by the bar, at a distance from his bandmate Alex James.
Most of these artists, like Radiohead, had performed at the Tibetan Freedom Concert and had stayed over into the following week. But many other celebrities who hadn't played during the weekend had caught wind of this particular evening's mega-event and had gotten their names on the guest list too. Madonna showed up; so did Courtney Love. Lenny Kravitz made it, along with Marilyn Manson. Sheryl Crow was supposed to have been on the VIP list but wasn't for some reason or other, and when she got to the club she was nearly turned away at the door before somebody recognized her and let her pass. Ben Folds, all four members of Teenage Fanclub . . . it seemed everyone who was anyone wanted in on this party. Of the less distinguished crowd standing on the floor downstairs, quite a few spent more time during the show ogling the celebs in the balcony than watching the band onstage. As Ed O'Brien later cracked, "If a bomb had been let off in that building, we'd have seen the resurrection of Jim Kerr from Simple Minds."
Of course, the five members of Radiohead had known in advance about all the special people who'd be watching them that night. And the most special of them all was Ed O'Brien's mother. "It was the first time she'd seen us in four years," Ed says. "Before the doors opened, I went round looking at the VIP section, as it were. Madonna had the best table in the house and my mum's table was way in the back. I thought, 'I'm not having this,' so I swapped my mum's and Madonna's tables around. So," he continues with a giggle, "Madonna was at the back, and my mum had the best table in the house, sandwiched in between U2 and R.E.M. And that's exactly how it should be--I'm sure Madonna would have done exactly the same. You know, it's great that all those people are there, but if your mum is there, your mum is the most important thing."
Now that the real priorities had been straightened out, it was time for Radiohead to take the stage. Although the prospect of playing in front of such a group of people (including at least two bands--U2 and R.E.M.--that the fivesome had idolized in younger days) was incredibly intimidating, the band weren't about to let on anything of the sort. "We were nervous," O'Brien admits. "But there was also a sense of, like, we're still the underdogs. There was this kind of rock 'n' roll hierarchy there--U2 and R.E.M. and Lenny Kravitz and Madonna, et cetera, et cetera--and there were Oasis as well, our peers, but they're obviously bigger than us. And we knew beforehand that if we were able to get into it, relax a little bit and do a good gig, we could give everyone a good run for their money."
As the lights in the house darkened, a computer voice boomed through the P.A. speakers, dispassionately intoning what seemed to be random phrases and observations, by turns ambiguous, ironic, and disturbed: "Fitter, happier, more productive . . . getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries . . . no longer afraid of the dark or midday shadows . . . at a better pace . . . no chance of escape. . . ." Tall, lanky Ed O'Brien took his place on the left side of the stage and began scraping the strings above the nut of his Fender Stratocaster, summoning the ghostly sonic atmosphere that opens "Lucky," the first song recorded for OK Computer. On the opposite side of the stage, Jonny Greenwood hunched over his Telecaster, his chiseled cheekbones hidden by a curtain of jet-black hair. Behind those two, Phil Selway, head newly shaven, manned the drumkit with consummate cool, while Colin Greenwood, Jonny's older brother, held down a subdued yet warm bassline, bobbing slowly back and forth but never moving out of the drummer's sight for long.
In the center stood Thom Yorke, diminutive, spiky-haired, intense, a Fender Jazzmaster loosely slung over his shoulder. Eyes nearly closed, he sang, quietly at first, words that seemed beyond optimism, hinting at a mysterious change of luck and at the same time conjuring up images of aircrashes and bodies at the bottoms of lakes. When the band paused between the chorus and the verse, Yorke raised his right hand and waved it three times. The gesture kept the rhythmic count steady in the absence of drums, but it also resembled the last hopeless wave of a drowning victim. As the song progressed, Yorke's singing gradually gained momentum. On the climactic line, "It's gonna be a glorious day," his voice swelled up and out before spiraling gracefully down, achieving an almost operatic grandeur. The band's playing matched the mood perfectly, their deep minor chords echoing across vast spaces.
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