411 Music Hall Of Fame Class of 2011: Radiohead
RADIOHEAD’S MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS:
What is it that makes a band truly great?
Is it innovation? The ability to take your creativity in directions that no other band imagine, let alone comprehend?
Is it consistency? That magical knack of churning out classic album after classic album; where the quality is so high that neither the fans nor the critics can decide on a definitive best?
Perhaps it’s popularity. After all, what’s the use of all that talent if no one’s there to listen? It must be platinum albums and hit singles that make a band great.
No, it must be the live show right? After all, music is designed to be played live, with visceral snarling guitars, blinding lights, beautiful emotive lows and unifying hands in the air moments.
Surely it’s longevity. Who says you have to burn out or fade away? Why can’t you be cooler in your thirties than you were in your twenties, and more innovative and unpredictable when your forty plus?
Still doesn’t seem right does it? Maybe the great bands are the ones that alter your feelings and perceptions. The bands that make you cry and make you smile, the ones that get you through the tough times and the ones that capture, occupy and own a particular moments in time. That’s got to be it right?
Well it’s not. It’s all of these things, and none of them. For certain artists it’s just one of the above, and for a totally different band at a totally different time it will be a thousand other factors that I couldn’t hope to remember, let alone list. But for Radiohead, it’s all of these divergent and complimentary ideas. No one word, and no one genre, defines them, and that’s just part of the fun.
It wasn’t always a cake walk for Radiohead; they weren’t born great, and it certainly wasn’t thrust upon them. They achieved it over time. While some bands arrive fully formed, others have to mature and develop. It’s greatly reassuring to us all that even a band considered by many to be the greatest in world struggled. Not merely for inspiration and recognition but for their very existence.
Pablo Honey was not Radiohead’s finest hour. While it is not without its fans (and trust me I’ve argued with them endlessly), it is not a classic album. It was a rather nondescript slice of 90’s alternative rock, complete with pedestrian arrangements and passé lyricism. “Creep” was one of the notable exceptions. A heartbreaking ode to obsession, self disgust and distorted aspiration, “Creep” was pointed and utterly unavoidable in its brilliance.
“Creep’s” runaway success ensured Radiohead a second chance with Parlophone where so many other bands were denied. While, for most this would be reason to rejoice, for Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood it was a source of bitter resentment. Their hit secured them sell out tours and an eager but fleeting fan base, but it also defined and castigated Radiohead simultaneously. For a while it appeared that Radiohead’s epitaph would one day read: “That Band Who Did ‘Creep'”.
At this point Yorke and Greenwood decided to shun convention. Labeling their runaway hit their Iron Lung . The device that assured their survival but that was slowly and pitifully killing the band. They promptly dropped it from their live set lists.
“My Iron Lung”, the forerunner for The Bends, was a biting, scathing and strangely gorgeous slice of hard rock. A sublime single that opened the door for a sensational album; “The Bends”, “Just”, “Street Spirit”, “My Iron Long”, “High And Dry”, “Fake Plastic Trees”…those were just the singles. The Bends was a alternative rock masterpiece, critics were quick to declare it the best album of the nineties; they spoke to soon.
1997 saw Radiohead turn the most world on its head. The Airbag EP should have been a warning sign, but nothing could have prepared the world for what Radiohead were about to do. With Nigel Godrich and Ed O’Brien’s help Jonny Greenwood’s guitar suddenly sounded warped, haunted and hideously but beautifully distorted. Thom Yorke went from writing the perfect melancholic pop songs to writing full blown masterpieces. “Paranoid Android” became the band’s off kilter calling card and “Karma Police”, “No Surprises” and “Lucky” were the perfect manic depressive anthems as Radiohead became the sound of weary acceptance on OK Computer.
Then in a moment of heart wrenching beauty Thom Yorke managed to upstage the greatest tragedy ever written when, at the end of Romeo And Juliet, the hushed chords of “Exit Music (For A Film)” rang out. What could possibly follow let alone top somber and macabre imagery of two young lovers taking their own lives? Thom Yorke’s mangled and affecting cry of “Breathe, Keep Breathing…We Hope, That You Choke, That You Choke”, evidently.
Having won every major award imaginable, and having gone down in musical folklore with their performance at 1997’s Glastonbury Festival, Radiohead decided to change direction, and Kid A was the result. An album that many, myself included, consider to be the finest the band ever recorded; a forward thinking step into the realm of the avante garde.
Radiohead caste aside expectation delivering uncomfortable but staggeringly brilliant electronica in the form of “Everything In Its Right Place” and “Kid A”, a gorgeous skipping indie disco classic “Idioteque”, the intoxicating grooves of “National Anthem”, the implausibly underrated single “Optimistic” and of course the tragic farewell note “Motion Picture Soundtrack”.
Kid A scared the life out of fans and critics in the year 2000, as did the brilliant Amnesiac, but these albums don’t sound strange today. Partly because they’ve been wholeheartedly accepted into the mainstream but largely because these two albums set the tone for a generation of innovation. Where bands indulged their creativity at the artistic fringe, where the big bands no longer had to play to convention, and where “doing a Radiohead” became the norm. What was once awkward and unfamiliar is now undeniably brilliant and remarkably accessible.
After “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box” and “Pyramid Song”, Radiohead as a band had to figure out where to go next. Hail To The Thief was the result. It wasn’t the bands most coherent LP but in “2+2=5”, “There, There”, “Sit Down, Stand Up” (and many others) they delivered a fresh set of classic tracks, if not a classic album.
In Rainbows saw Radiohead return to innovation, as the band, freed from their big label deal, decided to release an album where the fans could choose their price and download it for free. Millions did, and when all was said and done the average price paid for the album was $10, making it one of Radiohead’s highest grossing, with all the profits going directly to the band. The physical release came later and despite being available for free just months earlier went straight to #1 in the US and the UK.
Radiohead was a band engaging with today’s media and with their extensive fan base and they were rewarded handsomely for it. Behind the news story of the album’s release, was of course the album itself. In Rainbows was an ethereal piece. Dignified, beautiful and wonderfully produced; it was highlighted by “Nude”, a track which had been with Radiohead since the 90’s in a plethora of different forms. In its final form “Nude” was a luscious and piercing ballad that ranked among Radiohead’s finest and most emotive works.
Of course Radiohead legacy was not just secured in the studio and on road; they have a near incomparable visual history. The unsettling and imposing artwork that sought to critique 21st Century society, and those sensational videos; the visual trickery of “Street Spirit”, the cliff hanger that is “Just”, the image of Thom Yorke’s near suffocation in “No Surprises”, the simple but endearing “Nude” and the captivating “Karma Police” were just some of their video highlights.
Why Radiohead Was Selected:
Radiohead put great thought and artistry into every aspect of their career. They didn’t always succeed, but they never stopped striving, and you never sensed that this band phoned it in. They continued to be different and they continued to challenge. They pushed their audience as hard as they pushed their artistry, and rather than conforming to populist orthodoxy, populism conformed to their will, and that is their true legacy.