The question we’re debating today (having recenty gone toe-to-toe on the virtues and sins of Jerry Seinfeld): Is Radiohead one of the greatest bands of our time, or are they lazy millionnaires who’ve been repeating themselves for the last 16 years? Are they innovators or technophobes? Is Thom Yorke a lyrical genius or an overgrown ninth grader? Read on for a defense of the band; at the end you’ll find a link to the counterargument.
After Brexiting from the dreamy spire of Oxford’s bumhole, Radiohead first appeared on these shores in the summer of ‘93 with one of the all-time-great-air-guitar-douche jams. Poolside in all black and a severely frowny state at the MTV Beach House at the Jersey Shore, which, let’s be honest, is completely understandable (I can shit on Jersey, it’s cool I’m from there and no one wants to be there), they played “Creep” for a gaggle of jacked-up dude-bros who probably found the song “crazy romantic!” I highly doubt it took much for Yorke to nail the line, “What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.”
The fivesome looked virtually identical to every other up-and-coming Britpop combo from 1993…and every year before or after it. There was the the pretty one (Ed!), the really pretty one (Jonny!), the intense brother one (Colin!), the older looking one who bought the beer (Phil!) and the bleach blonde histrionic moppet one (Thom!!!). Their silly Talking Heads–referencing name sounded like a band you saw in college every other Thursday your sophomore year doing covers at the Rathskellar. (Although, this was somehow still an improvement over their original “On A Friday” moniker, which sounded like a band so emo they can’t even play live on account of their sheer invisibility to the world.) I bought Pablo Honey “used” on “compact disk” then promptly “sold it back” (if anyone in 2016 even still understands any of that). So yeah, I get that they’re an easy band to hate.
But a funny thing happened after they made it to the Beach House: They hated it. So they pushed their craft further while at the same time pushing themselves further and further from whatever was going on in mainstream music. While everyone was busy rawk-ing they rolled, then when everyone was rage-rawk-ing they sold their guitars for samplers and Mellotrons, then once everyone started making “electronica” they bought glockenspiels and Ondes Martenots. They pushed back against everything in their path, quietly morphing into almost another band entirely, stripping themselves of virtually any trace of who you loved/hated before, which would become their modus operandi for every LP that followed. You were with them or you were still holding on to Oxford '92; either way, they didn’t care. The only other U.K. band in recent memory to pull off the coup of a complete about-face and also actually improve is the Horrors.
Radiohead quietly morphed into almost another band entirely, stripping themselves of virtually any trace of who you loved/hated before.
They destroyed the standard rock album model by effortlessly fusing jazz, avant garde, electronic experimentation, prog and guitars, all inside of mini-paranoiac operas and technophobic concept albums. Even when they tried to rip other people off—Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, the Beatles, Krzysztof Penderecki—the result was yet another sound all their own. Tracks like “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box” (Amnesiac), “Backdrifts” (Hail to the Thief), “15 Step” (In Rainbows), “Feral” (The King of Limbs) and “Ful Stop” (A Moon Shaped Pool) belong to a genre unto themselves: Radiohead. The band has done so much in the not-so-short time that they’ve been at it that we tend to forget it all and still want to blame them for their past Jersey Shore sins. Beyond their insanely solid 25-year catalog, their most important and lasting contribution is what they ushered into the mainstream. Think of another standard drum/bass/guitar band in the upper echelons of popular music from that time that successfully straddled the line—both musically and financially. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Sure, go ahead and call them capitalism-critical millionaires now, but the laugh’s on us: They made said millions by criticizing capitalism from when they were just snotty young punks on the dole. You want to criticize them for choosing not to perform “Creep” live for a few years? Alright, but Radiohead have always been a band who pushed back against expectations of “the biz” in every way they could find. Instead of seeing it as a middle finger to fans, think of it more as a conscious decision to delve deeper into their catalog and give fans who are looking for it, a deeper performance filled with b-sides, deep cuts and brand new works-in-progress, with the occasional performance of said mega-hit. It’s the difference between Simpsons fans who pause and rewind to see what Reverend Lovejoy’s written on the church marquee versus those who just await the next “D’oh!” Besides, If you wrote a song when you were barely out of puberty that people screamed for every damn night for a quarter of a century even after you’d written 200 other great ones, imagine how you’d feel. I don’t even like seeing photos of what I was even wearing back then.
Over the course of their career, the band, both individually and as a group, have never been afraid to place themselves squarely on the chopping block of the haters, using their powers for the forces of good. Sort of like a 5-man Bono, if you subtract the God complex and sunglasses and add a basic understanding of life post-1989. They’ve remaining politely political on the global scale, fought against evil corporations (Spotify), championed the work of “alternative” thinkers, (Naomi Klein’s No Logo), invented the new “overnight album release” paradigm still used today (hello Beyonce!), released pay-what-you-like digital albums alongside deluxe fan-friendly physical versions of albums, brought up-and-coming bands along on tour (Deerhoof, Sigur Rós), stayed active outside of the band releasing solo albums (Phil Selway, Thom Yorke), formed supergroups (Atoms For Peace), scored Oscar-winning films (Jonny Greenwood with There Will Be Blood and Inherent Vice), popped up for surprise DJ gigs toe-to-toe with actual DJs (Four Tet, Flying Lotus), worked with cutting edge remixers (Caribou, Jacques Greene, Pearson Sound, Blawan, basically anyone but Paul Oakenfold), always chosen top-notch collaborators (Björk, PJ Harvey, Modeselektor) and essentially spoke their mind no matter what.
So whether you think Radiohead are phonies or geniuses, you can’t deny that they’ve stayed true to whatever they believed in musically, politically and personally since the 1990s. Those ageless Oxford punks have earned the right to do so by gambling it all with every with every album. Which, after all, is the very definition of punk.
DON’T AGREE? Read Jonny Coleman’s take here.