[Belief, shame, rejection. Me and RADIOHEAD thinking recently about how I would preface everything I ever wrote with 'This Is A Work Of Fiction'. Not because that's necessarily true, although sometimes I suspect I AM A WORK OF FICTION but because it'd save me the shame that every pop writer feels about what they were into, what they eulogised, the music they loved they can no longer even stand being near: to whit - Radiohead, a band who always blew me away live, a band who for the duration of 'The Bends' and 'OK Computer' I thought were awesome, a band who ever since have done their damnednest to make me loathe them and everything they stand for. As hinted at in these two pieces, the first a review of their 'Meeting People Is Easy' film from the dying days of the Maker (I had to rewrite this fucker so many times it pissed me off royally, just cos the dumb fucks above me didn't want critique only fkn reportage), the second from Bang Magazine (another squandered opportunity). The Bang piece was a fun trip with Ami Barwell and have to admit, at the Manchester Apollo they were awesome (only other band I've seen pulled the same trick at the Labatts Apollo was Pantera back in 95). But do I actually wanna listen to any Radiohead ever again? Nup.]
Melody Maker - November 14 1998
OK Editor: Neil Kulkarni
"Meeting People Is Easy", a film by Grant Gee, charts the demented pressures and shattering schedule that accompanied Radiohead in 1997. It follows them across America, the UK, Europe, the Far East and Australia, as they tour, play on TV shows, collect awards, shoot videos, do interviews and slowly go mad in jet aircraft all over the world.
Following much the same enigmatic aesthetic as Radiohead themselves, "Meeting People..." is a cool, beguiling feast for the eyes and ears, but after an hour and a half you'll be none the wiser as to the means and motives behind their work. If anything, the band actually use the usually revealing documentary medium to bury themselves under an avalanche of conflicting chaos and wary suggestion. It's a demanding, challenging 94 minutes.
1 min: The film begins at a breakneck pace with scenes from some of the band's best performances from last year, intercut with a hilarious eaves drop on Jonny and Colin trying to record a radio-plug (something you soon discover they have to do an awful lot), and the bizarre backstage loosening-up of Thom. One of the most instantly memorable scenes happens around here: that incredible Glastonbury performance.
Thom recalls: "Everything that's happened after Glastonbury has been a let-down. The feeling when I shouted at the lighting engineer to turn the lights on the crowd so I could see at least one person, cos we couldn't see anything. There were 40,000 people up the hill, holding lighters and fires burning, and tents pitched, and I don't think I've ever felt like that in my entire life. It wasn't a human feeling, it was something else entirely."
5 mins: The real highlights here are the live performances. You rarely see an entire song (only an incredible opening "Lucky" five minutes in) and never see anything resembling yer average performance video. Songs are given weird directorial spins, cut into mid-way, arranged in hectic order, never allowed to finish. Throughout the video, themes emerge and disappear to be picked up again later. The effect is cumulative rather than didactic. You're in for the whole ride.
15 mins: Another major concern of the film is the pressure the band feel under when trying to reconcile their music with the positions they're forced into. The public's hunger for every available bit of information and the constant crush of cameras and microphones is evoked with claustrophobic close-ups. Twenty minutes in, a run of idiotic questions are spliced together ("Are you Britpop?") over a scrolling text of myriad answer cuttings.
Alongside footage from rehearsals for David Letterman's TV show, Thom's cracking up: "If they're gonna call it a concept album, if they're gonna f*** us on the technology angle, then let them. It's f***ing noise anyway. We've done our job. We add to the noise, that's all."
If some of the whingier moments drag a little, it's always buoyed up by performance. A particularly painful shot of Colin desperately attempting to stay awake through his hundredth interview of the day runs into amazing Japanese concert footage, filmed facing the crowd through a fisheye above the first row. Perhaps the most revealing live shots are during two takes of "Creep": one from that unforgettable Glastonbury performance, when Thom holds the mic out to the crowd with a look of resignation and amusement, the other where the camera starts in the midst of the crowd, then moves back steadily until it's actually outside the hall looking long-distance and with an eerie detachment at the back of heads and a dim racket.
30 mins: Onstage, in rehearsal and recording, Radiohead are an absorbing, intriguing spectacle. The video falters when forced to confront the band offstage, or reflect their fractured take on the mad rush surrounding them.
In Berlin, a limp collage of meaningless images (vagueness mistaken for profundity again) sells the city and the band's performance there short. Scott Walker accompanies a particularly pointless bit of noodling: slo-mo film of Thom coming down an escalator intercut with a particularly Hendrixian bit of gippery from Jonny, half-filtered over shots of the Empire State Building with a fly crawling on the lens. It's at times like this that "Missing People..." comes closest to resembling nothing more than an extended filmic indulgence, and it's here that you question how much the film was under the band's direct control.
45 mins: Halfway through and you're just getting used to the constantly shifting rhythms of the film, when there's a sudden moment of reverie. The film often does this - shifts from the chaos of the tour into quiet little unguarded moments where the band get as close as they can to revealing themselves.
In the back of a cab to an aftershow party Thom muses: "The freakiest thing about any of this is the idea that you would be one of those important bands to somebody. I remember listening to 'Strangeways' in the bedroom of a girl in Oxford when I was young, and 'Dead Letter Office'. There's this weird way music gets imprinted on your heart. That's why playing live, meeting people and seeing people that age at the gigs is such a big deal, cos I remember it being a big deal for me. Everything else is bullshit. That connection is the only reason to keep going. The idea that you form the most crucial part of someone's life, especially in the nasty teenage bit, where everything goes completely wrong."
There's another such moment soon after, when, after some chucklesome attempts to record a few award acceptance video speeches ("That was shit, God, I hate doing these f***ing things," spits Thom), the band find themselves backstage in Japan, discussing where it all went wrong.
Thom: "I'm really worried that we've been running too long on bravado and believing we're as wonderful as everyone tells us we are. Jonny, last year we were the most hyped band; Number One in all the polls, and it's bollocks."
Jonny: "I don't see why that should change what we do."
Thom: "Of course it does, it changes everything, your mental state, it's just a complete headf***. We're so full of it. We agree to do things and then halfway through doing them we're just wrecks."
Jonny: "Isn't it really that the excitement level's gone a bit?"
Thom: "Yeah, of course. I just feel we should get out while the going's good. If you're bored of the songs, you're bored of the songs, and there's nothing you can do about it."
60 mins: It's these moments, uncut and unmediated, that form the most fascinating sections of "Missing People...". Instances of such transcendent absurdity, the frowns crack to smiles, or times when the band is caught simply doing what they do best - playing together.
We see a long cut from a band rehearsal. They sound incredible. Next, the fraught recording of a new song is painstakingly and fascinatingly detailed. The band meet their Eton-Hogg-style boss and mug gamefully with gold discs. That "No Surprises" video is analysed by two chirpy Sky News afternoon-presenters (one of whom concludes "it's music to slit your wrists to, the most miserable sound I've ever heard", in-between mouthfuls of birthday cake). And Colin charmingly consoles two tearful Japanese fans at the airport. All these moments are to treasure.
75 mins: The by-line for the film is "a film by Grant Gee mainly about Radiohead". What you realize as you approach the end is that undeniably arresting as Gee's images and editing are, the most interesting moments here are the straight-shot glimpses into Radiohead's inner workings, the moments, oddly, that are simply direct documentary.
90 mins: As you leave the band exhausted, towelling off, and digging into their rider after the last show of the world tour, the abiding message the video hopes to promulgate is an entirely conventional, albeit honourable, one. The attempt is to try and show a band under siege, from the press, from their minders, from the business of being in a band, a band who just want to play for the people. Thing is, this video can only be seen as part of the obfuscation process the band seem to resent, and, as a plea for understanding and solitude, the whole thing can't help but come across as a film perpetuating precisely that intrigue and overthink it seeks to destroy. But, if Radiohead's mission is to add to the confusion of life, then "Meeting People Is Easy" goes even further - it infinitely adds to the confusion surrounding the band themselves. See it and reel.
ALARMS AND SURPRISES
With the albums KID A and AMNESIAC, RADIOHEAD achieved the seemingly impossible and brought uncompromisingly experimental music to the arena-going masses. However, their latest, HAIL TO THE THIEF, is their most accessible work in years. NEIL KULKARNI loses faith and finds redemption on tour.
Is this the place to be? What am I doing here? I’m backstage at the ambitiously titled after-show ‘party’ thrown by Radiohead following their gig at Edinburgh’s Corn Exchange. Lights so low you have to squint to see the person you’re speaking to, various people of varying degrees of import all sharing that same smug expression that says ‘Hey, look where we are! See how far we’ve come!’. A few bottles of beer which the BANG wrecking crew consider beneath us. A few bottles of what looks like dead classy wine, pointlessly near stacks of paper cups. I steal photographer Ami a bottle of white. She nicks me a bottle of red. And we sit back, swigging posh plonk and watch and wonder who the fuck these people are, wondering when after-show parties became a byword for so much meet’n’greet embarrassment, such a falteringly polite soirée that feels like it’s winding down before it’s started. And inevitably all you can hear is the sound of backs being slapped: there’s incredibly nice bassist Colin Greenwood saying that ‘This tour is going brilliantly, we’re trying to change the set every night to keep ourselves interested’.
There’s guitarist (and Colin’s bro) Jonny. There’s Thom Yorke, who you see for all of three seconds as he walks in and seems to disappear through the wall. The feeling that we should be joining hands around a table and calling for answers from the infinite is confirmed by the fact that everyone here seems to be a ghost of a person: people whose eyes you can’t find, all mouthing ectoplasmic platitudes about how great tonight was, how unbelievable the gig was, how great everyone is, and BANG are sat here getting sneered at for not wiping our lips or holding paper cups, and for holding the following heresy close to our hearts which is presumably unmistakable in our eyes.
Radiohead were shit tonight.
It was a crap gig.
"For a band so critical of government they’ve made me feel like a dissatisfied voter"
Can’t say it out loud. ‘Cos there was a time when I would’ve punched myself in the face for even saying it to myself. I was a believer who couldn’t get close to these gods. Right now I’m a matter of feet away from them and I can’t tell them how close they’ve come to shattering my faith tonight. For a band so critical of government they’ve made me feel like a dissatisfied voter: plenty to say but with a gnawing sense that no one in this colossal structure would care. They’ve got one more chance to keep this sheep in the flock. I want them to care again.
‘Cos I didn’t get that tonight. I got a full sense of all the reasons Radiohead should be playing, but nary a shred of feeling that they were here because they wanted to be. Nothing seems to animate them in Edinburgh except the idea of fulfilling obligations, showing their faces to please the punters. It’s that fatal downward look on the existential tightrope, that queasy unease you get about whether Radiohead have a reason to be any more that characterises their set in Edinburgh. You get the feeling they’re here because they’ve sold tickets. The Corn Exchange (a terrible flat-pack, abattoir-style, ambience-bereft oblong-box hall that would probably conspire to suck the vibe out of the Second Coming) is heaving with Radiohead listeners. Here to listen.
A curiously uninvolved audience. You sense admiration but no affection, assent and agreement but no fundamental conviction or lunatic devotion. You walk in and you can’t believe you’re about to see one of the biggest bands in the world in such intimate space, so close, on the level and clear in front of you, but it’d seem you’re the only one getting truly antsed in the pants. Near-religious mania only descends on one girl, whose head hits the floor to our left with a sickening thud as her eyes roll back in her head and the glossolalia starts spilling out. We leap to action: I issue ineffectual orders with my hands on my ears, and Ami lifts the girl’s head out of the beer-slick at the bar. And you consider how odd this all is: Radiohead play to stadia in the US, are the official ‘UK Band It’s OK To Like’ according to pretty much every nu-metal band in existence (and if that hasn’t put you off in recent years, then I guess I’m the elitist twat with problems), and have come to the world with a new album, Hail To The Thief, that’s their most accessible in years. And yet, they’re playing these normal-sized venues in an apparent gesture to the fans, coming on stage promptly at 8.30 with no support, playing for upwards of an hour and a half. It’s weird not knowing what to call this. Doesn’t feel like a gig. Or a fanclub gig. More like a showcase, an invitation to come check out the stars before they disappear into the realms of places you can’t afford, places where you’ll have to strain to see the stick men in the distance for your 50-odd-quid, And nice though it all is, it seems an act of charity, a well-intentioned yet ultimately devoid-of-drama way of diffusing precisely the very sense of anticipation and tension that any band’s return should hold.
It’s a distinct feeling of anti-climax cemented when Radiohead walk on stage. The set’s a mess, casually conceived and frantically executed, battling against an audience who’ve seemingly forgotten what going to gigs entails – erm, dance? Sing? Enjoy yourself? Nah, just gawp at the big machinery and ‘appreciate’ – in a room that diffuses the sound into mud and the atmosphere into the walls. The precise gripe that you swore wouldn’t bother you before they come on starts to nag at you, Where are the hits? Why all this shit offa Kid A and Amnesiac and the new one no one really knows? Why only one song off The Bends and two offa OK Computer? Why pull people out of their homes for two dozen squid to watch musicians? It’s all over far too slowly. The highlights (a stunning ‘Pyramid Song’, a blazing ‘Go To Sleep’) are outweighed by too many songs (a disappointing ‘Lucky’ and ‘My Iron Lung’ and a half-arsed ‘Karma Police’) where Radiohead seem determined to make the new stuff sound better by playing the old stuff with lackadaisical indifference. And you return home with nearly all the love in your blood diluted and destroyed by the sheer mediocrity of tonight’s performance, the way they tried to damned hard to leave ever synapse untouched. And when you get to your hotel room you dig out the back catalogue and turn the lights off and get reminded of why you’re here.
"you return home with nearly all the love in your blood diluted and destroyed by the sheer mediocrity"
‘Cos sheeyit. these five guys used to make my soul reel from the accuracy. Still do, when I can be arsed to let some extra wreckage into my life. But where Radiohead used to convince you they had a reason to be (Pablo Honey, The Bends and OK Computer are an index in how to stay in touch with the infinite complexity and contradiction of creative expression even as the confines come in all around), as they’ve got musically more interesting their motivation seems to have slipped. The total freedom that characterised Kid A and Amnesiac has evaporated the heat and pressure and humanity from Radiohead’s sound, their grasp on your life and time loosening to a distant wave from their own perfectly malformed universe. A fatal loss in terms of anyone wanting to live with their records, a gain in terms of giving their sound the range and reach they’ve agitated for their whole career (even ‘Creep’ sounded spaced and planet-sized-horny in amidst the schmindie insularity it competed with at the time). Hail To The Thief makes me give a shit again like Kid A and its follow-up didn’t. A band finally confident enough to let us hear them plug in and play, a band gratifyingly unprecious enough about their own talent to start enforcing a brutal consciousness on their songs, clip things down, focus on the clear communication of their chaos. Like all Radiohead records, it’s honest about its own confusion, and it’s a record smart enough to capture a vibe of darkening, disturbing times for the world without becoming an issue-dependent gripe list. But throughout the Edinburgh gig the words that keep coming to your lips are ‘they don’t need to do this anymore’. Probably true, financially and promotionally. But a thought that no band (a band is not the same as a group of musicians) should give you from a stage, I was genuinely upset in Edinburgh. Maybe tonight’s performance at the Manchester Apollo will save me and them.
" . . .makes me give a shit again like Kid A and its follow-up didn’t . . ."
It’s 8pm and already the vibe’s better. You sense the audience are disciples willing to ascend to heaven or curse their false gods depending on how Radiohead throw down their gospel tonight. Every new slab of ska that comes from the PA gets a boo ’cos it holds off the ‘Head’s arrival. And then, pitch darkness, a skittering of beats and a revealing moment. Thom Yorke walking centre stage, going past his place and finding the edge in the footlights, in the centre of a whirlwind of noise raining down from bleachers to bull pit. He just stands there for a hilarious hanging minute, as confronted by us as we are by him, a chap you’d ignore in the street grinning from ear to ear at the absurdity of the adulation he can command, the way a rock god can apparently just stand like he’s at a Safeway’s checkout waiting for his onions to be lasered. And he knows it’s funny. And that’s crucial – he enjoys it on its own merits, where before you sense he’d have scowled at the misguided idolisation and retreated into the darkness of muso anonymity. Signs of a band rediscovering their funny bone and their heart. And the rest of the performance is one of the most generous, startling, loving two hours I’ve ever spent in the company of a band. Nothing short of redemption.
Too easy and too heartless to say it’s just down to the better sound. But as soon as ‘There There’ kicks in, there’s a richness that wasn’t there before, a propulsive lunge to Colin Greenwood’s bass that can be almost too engrossing, so hurriedly do you have to rush back from his fretboard to figure out what the fuck everyone else is doing, Phil Selway’s drums funky as fuck and filled with instinctive simplicity, Ed O’Brien and Jonny strapping on and getting filthy on ‘2+2=5’ with every derailed idea intact, forceful, direct. And simply put Thom sounds like he believes in what he’s doing. I haven’t heard him so thoroughly and unapologetically detail his heart and soul since that unforgettable night at Glastonbury all those years ago. Now, at last, unashamed of his voice and letting it soar free, plummet from cosmos to close-up in a syllable: ‘National Anthem’ and ‘Myxomatosis’ sounding HUGE but always skewered by his all-too human throat, so you can’t just sit back and admire the chrome, you have to go with his slipstream, go on the same emotional journey it’s clear his straining frame and occasionally spazzed-out body is on. Totally absorbing AND total showmanship (though he possibly wouldn’t admit the Ialter). Ed’s backing vocals are a revelation – turning so many harmonies into so much Bowie-esque drama and pure-pop pizzazz. Most stunning is just how incredible the new songs sound, just what curious avenues Radiohead are opening up, what weird anti-lineages they’re tapping into. On various nu-choonage (they play seven from Hail To The Thief, and just as many from Kid A and Amnesiac) they sound like The Raincoats, ESG, Roxy Music, The Durutti Column, The Fall, Aspera and none of the above – always the uniqueness of their vision shining through, something way more than mere ‘innovation’ going on, way more than middle-class prettiness, something more like auto-surgery on their own frenzied imagination with no wastage, no pointless noodling, never a second that doesn’t need to be there.
"like some dream mash-up of Disco Inferno, Bark Psychosis, Moonshake, Laika and the whole God/lce/Techno-Animal axis"
Even when they do songs that you sense no other band would dare to put in a set (the bust-up, Weill-style funeral march of ‘We Suck Young Blood’) you sense it’s not just to be perverse, not just to fuck with the conventions of what a gig should be all about. They’re playing these songs ‘cos they love them, ‘cos they honestly think they’re the best songs they’ve got, and they want to share.
It’s only when you suddenly snap back from your immersion in ‘The Gloaming’ and ‘ldioteque’ that you realise that what Radiohead have done is nothing less than reinvoke the post-rock project and make it sell millions – this is like some dream mash-up of Disco Inferno, Bark Psychosis, Moonshake, Laika and the whole God/lce/Techno-Animal axis somehow being played in a massive theatre in Manchester and getting rapturous applause the weirder it gets.
No mean feat, but what really secures this gig in the memory is how much damn fun they seem to be having. Yorke swaps gags with the crowd, about clapping along, about his band’s strangeness, about the possibilities of doing an Iron Maiden cover.
There’s a great moment as they fade out on some gorgeous dubbed-out vocals, the machines slowly taking over while Thom sits stage right, looking at us and laughing and then looking at the band and nodding-alternating the two as if to say ‘Jesus Christ, ain’t this dandy?’. Unbelievably, it’s the childish sense of joy and naivety (never words you’d associate with Radiohead) that comes through, a playfulness as unexpected as it is unable to contain itself.
So when they do dive back into the past, you don’t feel like they’re rolling up their sleeves and inwardly groaning. ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ is still incredible – the audience dropping its singalong in sheer trembling tension at Yorke’s unmannered subtlety, the precarious way he holds Radiohead together, the way he can reinvigorate material you’d think would be tiresome simply by letting the songs live again, exist in that same believable space they occupied when you first heard them. ‘Just’ and ‘My Iron Lung’ could sound lumpen in amongst Radiohead’s new tricks but they play each at full-tilt, rocking like bastards, pummelling the songs into renewed life. They depart their second encore with a crowd finally taking the breath they’ve waited two hours to heave and a look of awe passing between us participants (not mere spectators, and that was half the difference tonight). The look of mutual recognition that comes with the knowledge we’ve been witness to something special. And you realise you can now look everyone in the eye, ‘cos you all know what’s real.
Radiohead were brilliant tonight.
It was an unforgettable gig.
We’re in love again.
Ami Barwell's site
Ami Barwell's site