Radiohead: An Evaluation

Radiohead

Radiohead are the rock band which is now most critically esteemed and popular, the one considered to have a solid body of work and to have innovated new trends, rather as Pink Floyd did in the 1970s or, say, REM did in the 80s. None of their “britpop” contemporaries are any longer worthy of attention, even if together, while post-millennial rock has often been noted for its lack of ambition and – let’s not beat about the bush – crushing lack of talent. While Blur, Oasis and Pulp managed to string one or two decent/good albums together, band like The Killers or The Libertines barely even managed that. So now Radiohead are the elder statesmen, the grand dames of alternative rock. Lauded for their triple-guitar sonic assault in The Bends, hyped to the nines for the innovative OK Computer, and considered “brave” for their Warp Records-inspired Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead have been the quality album rock band to beat.

Trouble is – a disturbingly high proportion of their songs are simply not very good. They do have numerous absolute beasts of songs, tunes which not only sound great but which expand or redefine what a rock song can do – the true sign of greatness. But a disturbing high proportion of songs on all of their albums verge between filler and utter meaninglessness. Nietzsche says somewhere that poetry’s arguments are always inferior to philosophy because poetry’s ideas are carried along by their rhythm. The same might be said about music – sustained by rhythm alone, songs which articulate nothing plod on through their structural frame. I would argue that there are some Radiohead songs like that. (Filler, on the other hand, can just be songs which aren’t up to much, but sometimes these have a certain charm. Iron Maiden were another band which always struggled to do a consistent good album, but some of their album filler like the instrumental “Los’fer Words (Big Orra)” is quite fun. It must be really bloody hard to put together an album every two years when you tour like the Irons.)

Maybe I can grade Radiohead’s songs by their success.

GENIUS

You should know these by now. “Fade Out (Street Spirit)”, with its beautiful video. The warped majesty of “Paranoid Android”. The magnificent bad-acid jazz of “The National Anthem”. “Creep”, millstone though it became. “My Iron Lung”. “Karma Police” and its painful singalong coda. I have a particularly strong admiration for “The National Anthem” which is unlike anything I have ever heard, apart perhaps from John Coltrane’s almost violent explorations of atonality (in Live At The Village Vanguard… Again! for example). Thom Yorke’s tinny voice, the malevolent parping of the atonal brass, the insistent obligatto of the bass, the overwhelming atmosphere of mounting despair and horror, completed by the crushing final chord… oh boy. A ferociously articulate song.

GOOD

This sub-strata includes songs which say something clearly and successfully – “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, “Knives Out”, “Sail To The Moon”, “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”, “Morning Bell” (both versions), “High And Dry”, “Fitter Happier”, “Pyramid Song”, “Everything In It’s Right Place”… Got something to say and say it. They don’t stretch the boundaries like the ones listed above, but they make their point.

MEH

Now we’re on the songs that just exist. This does not necessarily refer to Radiohead’s more experimental or abstract songs (which by definition do not have the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure). I mean that they do not articulate anything, lack any kind of point. One of the worst offenders is “Black Star” – although it goes through the motions of appearing heartfelt and such, it just feels utterly bland. Rock to be anything has to be transgressive; “Black Star” is Radiohead by numbers. Other crapola includes the last two songs on OK Computer, “Lucky” and “The Tourist”. While the second side (that’s the latter part of the album, you youngsters) is definitely inferior to the first, these two are so pallid and banal that they dispel the cumulative atmosphere of the entire album! I always always skip them. On the other hand, “Hunting Bears” sounds like Johnny Greenwood doing some guitar scales. What the fuck is the point of that? I can dig “Treefingers” lack of melody or rhythm because of its atmospherics (it’s not too far from Aphex Twin’s magnificently synaesthetic “Select Ambient Works”. But “Hunting Bears” is nothing. And I almost always feel that Radiohead’s adoption of skittery breakbeats adds nothing to their music… And Pablo Honey is almost entire snooze-a-thon.

*

For such a critically lauded band, I think it’s interesting that there’s little mention of Radiohead’s significant lacuna in some songs. Hardly anybody even expects a fully satisfying album anymore, content as they are to buy individual tracks from iTunes, or just to download the whole fucking lot then make your own playlist.  But as a devoted album listener, I would just like to point out that about one third of their songs are, as Sick Boy said, “just… shite”.

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6 thoughts on “Radiohead: An Evaluation

  1. Major difference of opinion on this one, Mike.

    I kind of feel with Radiohead that it doesn’t matter if you like them, they’re just so clearly on a higher level than just about anyone else we’ve seen in the last 20 or 30 years, you have to respect them. They’re all formidably intelligent as well as abundantly musically talented, and they play with such ferocious passion. One of the landmark moments in my personal ‘musical education’: seeing these guys perform for the first time on Later… with Jools Holland, I think towards the end of 1993. Incendiary, eye-opening. They were the new “little known” band padding out the lineup alongside some pretty big names – but they blew everyone else on that show with them, and just about everyone I’d ever seen on the programme: their intensity and self-belief were simply mesmerising.

    Their more experimental stuff mostly leaves me cold, and, to be honest, I haven’t found the time to give their last few albums much of a go, having been so unimpressed with Amnesiac. But I can recognise that they’re still doing interesting stuff, and that I ought to make a bit more of an effort. And they’re secure in their place amongst the greats just on the first three albums.

    Yes, Pablo Honey too – there’s such freshness and energy about it, a wonderful grunginess in the guitar sound, and some really great songs: How Do You?, Stop Whispering, Ripcord, Thinking About You.

    I think one of the difficulties with them is that many of Thom’s lyrics aren’t very immediately accessible, or even very conventionally coherent sometimes; they’re more ‘impressionistic’ – and often difficult to catch over the mass of other sounds coming at you. Thus, it really takes a lot of listening – and, ideally, poring over the lyrics on the sleeve notes – to really get a sense of what one of their songs is ‘about’. But the songs just aren’t ‘pretty’ enough, poppy enough for you to want to listen even to your favourite track, much less a whole album, over and over again like that. And, alas, they’ve emerged in the era of the CD – and now online downloads – so we’ve moved away from that culture of immersing ourselves in the lyrics with the help of the album cover/liner notes. Though their most devoted fans probably do attain that level of familiarity and ‘understanding’ over time, for most of us their appeal works more at the level of the general ‘feel’ or mood of a song. If you don’t recognise a particular mood, or it doesn’t chime with you, then you might easily start to dismiss something as a “weak song” without having properly considered its musical or lyrical content.

    They do tend to like to close albums out with slightly quieter, more reflective pieces – and I am less attuned to the ‘feel’ of these. I share a certain dissatisfaction with The Tourist, but I wouldn’t say it’s a bad song – it’s just not one that appeals to me. And I have a similar or greater problem with Street Spirit at the end of The Bends, which just seems so lame after all the magnificent fury that has preceded it.

    And Jeez, what is your problem with Dark Star?! Have you ever listened to the lyrics? I think it’s one of their best songs, and, if you get what it’s about and have any connection to that subject, utterly heartbreaking.

    I think it’s a mark of the really great bands that they can dare to be shite occasionally. But I wouldn’t dare to label any of Radiohead’s work shite because they’re obviously so much musically cleverer than I am. There’s lots of stuff of theirs I don’t like, but I wouldn’t say that makes it BAD.

    There is, however, an awful lot of stuff of theirs which is at the ‘genius’ level, or certainly very, very, very good (and, for my money, not the ones you cite) – Just, No Ripcord, Exit Music For A Film.

    We judge the greats not by their weakest work but by their best. Few bands produce even one song that’s really exceptional and lasting. Almost none produce more than a handful. Radiohead might not be at the level of your beloved Beatles (who is?!), but they’ve come nearer than almost anyone else since.

    • Thanks for that epic comment Paul. It’s nice to be taken seriously!

      As for Radiohead – well we could go on forever about this. When you say “they’re just so clearly on a higher level than just about anyone else we’ve seen in the last 20 or 30 years, you have to respect them. They’re all formidably intelligent as well as abundantly musically talented, and they play with such ferocious passion” – well yes, I do respect them very highly and as I said, numerous of their songs expand the boundaries of rock music. But I’m not going to applaud any musican just because of how intelligent they are. The only thing that matters is does the music move you? I also hesistate to applaud songs that depend on their lyrics (see also: Dylan, Bob). If the music cannot articulate an atmosphere or emotion or whatever, it’s a dud song. “Exit Music For A Film” – yes! The mood is overwhelming, and the transition from downbeat despair to the near-falsetto cry is amazing. But I don’t even like “Just” very much. Nice lead guitar and all, but verse and chorus just seem like large dollops of musical cliche. “Dark Star”, man don’t get me started. The emotion just seems false. It doesn’t ring true.

      I do agree that Radiohead are very good, but there’s what you might call a certain U2-ness about them… straining for the grand and epic, and it doesn’t always come off.

      Right, am off to listen to my funky tunes playlist – James Brown, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, The Specials, etc. Fun!!

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