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.

About Mickey Randall

Late afternoon beer, Exile on Main St playing. Sport like cricket, most types of football, golf, squash, horse racing. Travel, with Vancouver my favourite city, but there’s nowhere I’ve not happily been. Except Luton.

Reading. Writing about family, sport, music, the stuff that amuses me. Conversation. Wit. Irony.

McLaren Vale cabernet sauvignon, Barossa shiraz, Coopers Sparkling Ale. Jazz and especially Miles Davis. Lots and lots of music.

I live in Adelaide with my wife Kerry-ann and our boys Alex and Max.

Comments

  1. Loved the read

    “Burn the Witch’ is my all time Radiohead fave. Spectacular song.

  2. Thanks for that Mick.

    I understand Burn the Witch and True Love Waits are songs that’ve been kicking around for years, and the band finally knocked them into a form that they were happy with. A poet friend once told me that it took him fifteen years to finish a poem with the last line giving him trouble. One morning the words just popped into his head and it was done.

  3. Stuff, Mickey. I had a very intense love for Radiohead in the mid/late ’90s and have a love of Pablo Honey along with many bands’ first albums. There’s beauty in the mess and the placement of THE song, the one that ensures there’s a second album, intrigues. Compared to the guitar rock perfection of The Bends you feel you can hear the band thinking in Pablo Honey – working out how they work.

    Saw them play at the Ent Cent sometime around ’98 and remember leaving feeling vaguely disappointed. It was post OK Computer and they gave the impression of resentfully playing songs from previous albums. Even stopped halfway through Creep and didn’t start again – Thom wasn’t enjoying himself. Their live version of No Surprises was beautiful, however.

    Saw something last week saying vinyl outsold digital for the first time (presumably since a nominated start date for digital), so the time is ripe to get on board by the sounds of it. Enjoy!

  4. Ben Footner says:

    I also still prefer to buy music in physical form!

    Just can’t bring myself to buy anything that’s ‘born digital’ and only exists as ones and zeros.

    Don’t get me started on royalties/content ownership/the use of digital media as a ‘consumer capture’ method. The librarian’s modern lament that one!

  5. Thanks Dave. Listening to Pablo Honey and then The Bends is interesting as the band go from playing some decent SANFL footy to the AFL and then win All Australian selection in their first season. Although nearly impossible I’d love to see them at Glastonbury where, if what I’ve read is true, they once played one of the iconic sets.

    Ben- I’m with you. I do still love sliding a CD into the car’s slot (not a metaphor!). Must get a turntable too, or is it a record player?

    I recall reading an article in the last year or so with a table documenting sales of CDs v digital etc. It suggested that in the recent financial year two (!) cassettes had been sold across the entire country. I’m assuming those were The Best of Chad Morgan at an outback servo. Thanks Ben.

  6. Luke Reynolds says:

    “Creep” made me a fan. I bought “OK Computer” straight away upon release, and it didn’t grab me straight away. 3 or 4 listens and I was hooked. Sometimes the best albums are slow-burn.

    I love Spotify. That’s all we listen to at work, the access to so much music at your keyboard is amazing. Makes finding new artists so easy too, as long as they are on there. Would like to see the artists better renumerated for it though.

  7. Mickey even as a non music bloke I love reading re your travels and of course,Paul Kelly is a Norwood man ( I have tried to get hold of him re Norwood membership with out success) and loved the clever mention of the fat blond leg spinner

  8. Luke- I reckon A Moon Shaped Pool was a slow-burn for me; an album that creeps (sorry!) into the awareness and eventually takes hold. I think the band might prefer it this way. This year I’ve listened to Sun Kil Moon and he’s certainly in this camp too. Having said this, gee that Taylor Swift’s a catchy artist.

    Malcolm- Aside from Warney’s debut the other stat I often consider is Steve Waugh taking twenty-odd Tests to get his first century. I wonder if he’d have survived today (various Marsh siblings excepted).

    Thanks men.

  9. Slow burn, brilliant description. I recall listening to many albums feeling as though I should like them, working through them more than loving them, only to come back later to appreciate them.

    Some of the ‘middle’ albums I struggle with parts of; Kid A and Hail to the Thief and Amnesiac is still hit and miss.

    But Moon, Ok and Bends are brilliant.

    Electioneering in a photo from High and Dry, surprise packet Everything in its right place and Packed like Sardines in a tie for third

    Love it, great piece
    Sean

  10. Thanks Sean. I agree with you on some of their electronic stuff from the middle period.

    For me, and I’m unsure if it’s slow burn or adolescent naïveté, but Astral Weeks took a long time. But it’s brilliant.

    I could be convinced that their best songs are the slower- paced ones like Pyramid Song, The Tourist and Morning Bell.

  11. Loved this, Mickey. Thank you.
    Radiohead are not at the top of my list of favourites; more a group I turn to regularly when the mood strikes.
    Kid A was the album that did it for me – just a brilliant disc in my eyes.

  12. Polythene Pam says:

    Superb, thank you Mickey – I am going home this afternoon for a late arvo beer and to put on some Radiohead

  13. Smokie- When Kid A was released I, and many millions, were hoping for OK Computer 2. That they didn’t deliver this, and actually stopped being a guitar band at this point is interesting. In some ways, many of them cultural, it’s their most important album. For a while it seemed that “Everything in its Right Place” was popping up everywhere- movies, TV etc. I was disappointed initially by it, but have gradually warmed to it. I really like Optimistic- a guitar-driven track!

    Thanks. PS- off to the Kings head tomorrow for some Christmas cheer!

  14. Knew there was a reason I kept liking your work Mickey. My wife is a huge Radiohead fan and we went to see them at Festival Hall on the OK Computer tour. Stinking hot night and one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen, especially since I didn’t know their stuff that well and their musicianship (J. Greenwood 3 votes) was jaw dropping. Still remember the bank of white lights on the audience that pulsed to the guitar line of Creep. Blew my hair back so much I felt like Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters apon viewing Sigourney Weaver. Keep waiting for the albums to let me down, but the latest has been a ripper of a slow burn (The string arrangements! J.Greenwood 3 votes). Numbers made it into my top 10 songs for the year, even though I copped a fair bit of flack from Trucker Slim and mates. Trucker finds Thom Yorke too whingy and I once told him he wouldn’t recognise Elvis in the modern era, because he’d be a cock-eyed pommy manic depressive. Of course the Elvis of the modern era turned out to be black, female and named Beyonce. Determined to share a few jars and a chat next time you’re in Melbourne. Cheers

  15. Mickey,
    One of the hallmarks of a great band is the ability to re-invent themselves. Is it boredom, is it the challenge of pushing the boundaries, is it one particular band member more prominently exerting his/her influence? The great bands change – and still remain relevant and at the forefront of music.
    Of course it was the Beatles who started this, morphing from Help to Rubber Soul to Revolver to Sgt Peppers and beyond. The fact that Revolver was released only some 18 months after Help continues to be mind-blowing.

  16. Thanks Matty Q. I’m with you in that The Numbers is in my 2016 top 10 too. Thom Yorke whiny? I can see why some might think this, but I reckon he’s a distinctive voice, capable of great beauty, and nuanced delivery. Will be in Melbourne for an Almanac lunch in 2017 and would love to share a cup!

    I get the reinvention concept Smokie, but equally there’s great bands who’ve not reinvented themselves at all. AC/DC being one, and then the Rolling Stones whose latest is a return to their origins. It’s a gem.

    Thanks for that.

  17. Mickey Randall says:

    Polythene Pam- there’s an excellent idea. I applaud your thinking. Thanks.

  18. I must admit to only really knowing Radiohead via Creep, but I have on occasion just laid back in the chair with the lights down and let YouTube just continuous play and I do enjoy their live stuff without knowing any songs. It sort of flows over you. A few years ago I purchased the new Billy Bragg album on vinyl. All up about 25 bucks, imported from the UK and you got a code to download a digital copy as well. So I haven’t cracked the seal yet, not sure why actually. It won’t be the same for my son Sheriff Boody’s Christmas pressie we just found on Ebay. Fat Boy Slim’s album ‘You’ve come a long way baby’ on vinyl, 1 of only 3 we could find in Aust. It’s used but rarely played, but will be hitting the turntable / record player at the Whitehouse this New Year’s Eve.

  19. TG White- I stole a glance at a catalogue the other day for JB Hi-Fi and saw a page dedicated to vinyl, which is excellent. Among the offerings was “Dark Side of the Moon” for about $54. Firing up the turntable on a NYE- surely a magnificent evening in the making. Among my treasured vinyl is “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.” Good on a Sunday!

    Thanks for that.

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