Almanac Music: Radiohead and me
I was a tourist, but also trying to be a detective. We ambled over the bridge and looked down at the Thames, making its quiet way towards London. Naught. In the town centre St Nicolas’ Church surrendered no clues, and I wondered what influence the former MG car plant had with its suggestions of status and privilege.
Abingdon is six miles from Oxford, and we were there visiting friends. It’s the birthplace of Radiohead. Following the requisite pub lunch, we took a stroll. While our hosts knew nothing of the town’s famous sons I attempted some connections. Any signs in the market square that could further decode “Karma Police?” Would Abingdon Gaol’s architecture enlighten my reading of “Pyramid Song?”
Of course, my thinking assumed that art is chiefly autobiographical. We often want it to be. But, was mine a ridiculous quest? Having worked for a decade near Kensington in Adelaide’s east, I’d not gained much geographical insight into Paul Kelly’s back catalogue.
However, it was also a sensible quest, for music is more meaningful if we can somehow make its birthplace enchanted. Landscapes might matter, even for Radiohead, whose existential songs are devoid of setting.
Driving home from Oxfordshire I acknowledge that from a wholly unremarkable village, a remarkable band emerged, as we’d hope.
Indeed, it was commuting up Kensington Road past Norwood into Paul Kelly territory (I taught two of his nieces) when on Triple J I first heard “Paranoid Android.” After, Mikey Robbins and The Sandman linked it to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I devoured as a teenager. References to Douglas Adams’ cult novel are infused across the record.
I was spellbound, apprehended by the song’s circuitous, multi-part structure that also announced Radiohead’s dominant theme: the horrors of modern life. They continue to explore this with gallows humour and compelling soundscapes. Perfect through headphones.
That afternoon I bought OK Computer.
Arriving in Singapore my wife and I bought smartphones, onto which I uploaded our CDs. I then rambled about that hot, teeming islet, accompanied by some beloved collections, which both isolated me and somehow welded me to those equatorial streets. Now, back in Australia when I put on Exile on Main St, Belle and Sebastian’s Tigermilk or Vampire Weekend’s Contra I’m walking through the thick heat at Robertson Quay.
Great albums present discovery and rediscovery as every track enjoys periods of personal high rotation in which it becomes the favourite. I like these evolutions in my explorations of an artist.
A few Octobers ago, around our Phuket pool, I played OK Computer. Horizontal on my sun lounge I became enamoured with the final song. The waltz-tempo and cathartic rhythm of “The Tourist” deliver a telling full stop to this record of splendor and portent. After a ferocious guitar solo, it closes with a single note struck on a triangle. Superb.
I also recall eating pizza by that pool when a neighbouring family leapt up and scattered. An emerald snake had appeared at their feet, and startled, it slipped hastily over the pavers and climbed a palm. We peered up at it, hanging green on a frond, fifteen feet up like reptilian tinsel. Could a frightened snake populate a Radiohead song? Feature as a symbol of contemporary alienation? Don’t be silly, I thought. Have another heat, the Chang’s getting to you.
In a distant Port Pirie winter, we lit a backyard fire and sat about it in black coats. The grey smoke phantomed around and through us while we drank shiraz and stories and music. It’s the year PJ Harvey released Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, but what I remember from this evening is Radiohead’s second offering, The Bends.
I remember “Fake Plastic Trees” and aside from the consciously tautological title I love the soaring atmospherics of the guitars, although now Radiohead hasn’t been a guitar band for two decades. Throughout, Thom Yorke invests his vocals with vulnerability, and this matches the dread and defiance of the lyrics.
The next afternoon I bought The Bends.
1993 in a forgotten pub. “So, what do you think about that British band Radiohead? You know that song, “Creep?”
I replied. “Not much. Reckon they’re a one-hit wonder.”
Oops, but who can tell? Radiohead’s debut, Pablo Honey is a turgid mess, and proposes no capacity. However, about this time a blonde leg-spinner took 1/150 in his first Test…
I subscribe to Spotify because I love suddenly recollecting a song, and then hearing it within seconds. As a streaming service, it’s brilliant. Nevertheless, it worries me how the artists receive miniscule royalties, such that their yearly royalty may only allow a band to huddle naked around a can of flat Fanta.
I do prefer an artefact: vinyl, CD, even a cassette, but visiting the local K-Mart with three discs by the execrable Pink isn’t worth the free parking. I remind myself to buy a turntable, and return to that dear friend, the past.
A Moon Shaped Pool is the record Radiohead promised to make all millennium. When everyone’s asleep I sometimes listen to “The Numbers” through headphones. Concerning climate change, this track exquisitely combines fragile metaphor, guitar, and tinkling piano. I love a string section, and the urgent stabs accentuate the ominous themes.
Given their form I hope Radiohead continues. The menace of neo- conservativism and dire planetary health means there’s still much for them to ponder.