1-Video_TalkShow Call it Cobain's Law of Musical Martyrdom: The world historical significance of any given rock star is directly proportional to that star's susceptibility to motorcycle accidents, shootings, suicide, or psychic breakdown. It's a principle that lets you plot a straight trajectory from Dylan to Lennon to Cobain to (assuming you believe what you read in the papers) Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke—"A fine prospect," according to Melody Maker, for the latest re-enactment of rock's own personal Jesus myth. "Another martyr in the making, another young blade ready to slash himself to pieces." (Click the picture above to see a clip of some talking heads taking pleasure in a depiction of Yorke's demise, taken from Grant Gee's excellent 1998 Radiohead documentary, Meeting People Is Easy.)
Radiohead, of course, had the mixed fortune of entering the charts in 1992—the year punk famously "broke"—with a song called "Creep." This was a grim, operatic hymn to emotional dislocation and unrequited love. "I'm a creep," Yorke sang before breaking into a cracked, plaintive falsetto. "I'm a weirdo/ What the hell am I doing here?/ I don't belong here." The lyric seems to echo both Nirvana's "Negative Creep" and Beck's "Loser," and that, coupled with Yorke's tortured vocal, was enough to pigeonhole the Oxford quintet as Britain's answer to the newly commodified ennui of America's slacker scene.
2-Video_FridgeBuzz But Radiohead quickly distanced itself from the song and struggled against the association (a discomfort Radiohead's fans interpreted as further evidence of their status as tormented rock icons). Perhaps as a result, Yorke gradually abandoned the confessional mode, trading his depressive monologues in for broad meditations on the effects of media-saturation and industrial blight. On Radiohead's next two records, choirboy harmonies collapsed into screaming guitar solos, anthemic melodies were transposed into minor keys, and lyrics swam in and out of focus. Complicated or not, Radiohead's music continued to strike a chord with the mainstream rock audience, which had no trouble keeping up—the band's third record, OK Computer, sold close to 5 million copies and was hailed by critics as a last, best hope to appear for the stagnating rock scene. Despite their best efforts, Radiohead seemed unable to outrun their image as rock's reigning messiahs, and during a grueling, media-saturated tour in support of OK Computer, Yorke does seem to have experienced something like a psychic breakdown.
And it's here that Radiohead's story begins to get really interesting. On the verge of collapse, the band retreated into the studio, where they lay their instruments in a corner, drew lyrics out of a hat, and recorded what may be the strangest record a major artist has ever produced. Radiohead was not the first rock band to embrace electronica—an ambient, groove-driven music that emphasizes process over personality. U2, for instance, had exploited electronic sounds to inject a sense of modernity into a formula that had grown stale and self-parodying (the gambit failed, and U2 has recently announced that they're "reauditioning for the role of 'world's greatest guitar band' "). But Radiohead embraced electronica at the peak of their game; just as the world had begun hailing them as rock's saviors, they rejected the medium.
Kid A was a fantastically difficult album—a collection of heavily processed songs punctuated by electronic speed bumps alerting the listener to the fact that this was not an album built simply for grooving. The record was released without the benefit of singles, videos, or conventional advertising. Yorke's vocals were sliced up, synthesized, run backward, or looped over themselves. Phil Selway's steady backbeat was replaced by rickety, homemade drum machines, and guitarist Johnny Greenwood traded his six-string in for an Ondes Martenot. Sitting in on a Saturday morning BBC broadcast dedicated to explaining the album's influences, the Greenwood brothers (Johnny's brother Colin is Radiohead's bassist) spun tracks by Mingus, Messian, and Princeton professor Paul Lansky. Aside from Radiohead, the only rock band represented was the quirky Stephen Merritt project, Magnetic Fields.
3-Video_GivingYouCash For once, fans were perplexed. Radiohead, it seems, had committed the greatest sin known to rock: They were holding something back from the audience, turning away, hiding. The band, Nick Hornby wrote, had "suffered a failure of courage," and "come to hate itself." Radiohead was taken aback by the mixed reception—from their perspective, they'd simply taken the white noise that had become a part of their daily grind and incorporated it into their music—and approached the release of their new record, Amnesiac (which consists of songs culled from the same recording sessions), with trepidation and a bit more formal introduction. The release is being advertised widely, and the band is touring behind it. But if, for most rock bands, hitting the road in such circumstances would signal retreat and regression, it bears keeping in mind that Radiohead has never acted like most rock bands.
Yorke and his mates are well-spoken, well-read, and unfailingly polite—once, when an opening act trashed its hotel room, Radiohead was found out to have snuck in afterward to tidy up. The group shuns the spotlight, avoids drugs, groupies, and other temptations of the road, sprinkles its tour diary with references to Christopher Hitchens' latest articles in the TLS, and passes copies of Naomi Klein's No Logo out from the stage. Yorke, who recently became a first-time father, used his royalties from "Creep" to buy a house—it has a 25-year, fixed-rate mortgage—and the band has set aside enough money to start their own label in case Capitol drops them (an unlikely prospect no matter how esoteric their records get).
Moreover, Radiohead's methods of distributing their product, and relating to their audience, stand in stark contrast to those of any rock band that's come before them. The group allows fans to tape their shows (a brisk trade is carried out over the Internet), releases some of their best material on B-Sides and EPs, and refuses to give studio recordings precedence over live performances (songs, for them, are works in progress whether or not they've been committed to record, and they often float around on the Web in one form or another long before they're taken into the studio). As a result, Radiohead's music tends to seep into the world as if it's being filtered through an IV drip.
This may or may not be a winning marketing strategy, but Radiohead already has more money than they know what to do with. Listening to Kid A and Amnesiac back-to-back, you can't help suspecting that, had they culled the more accessible tracks from both albums (you wouldn't know it from Nick Hornby, but those tracks are there), the band would have come up with a commercial success on the level of OK Computer. Radiohead, it seems, could have "saved rock" all over again if they'd cared to. They didn't.
The surprising thing about the Kid A sessions isn't how much machinery the melodies are sifted through, it's that so much of what's meaningful makes its way through the static. The electronic foundation may take some getting used to, but the vulnerability Radiohead fans treasure has remained intact, and the record's interplay between man—Yorke, whose intensity is undiminished despite the manipulations his voice undergoes—and machine is entirely in line with the band's preoccupation with technology's dehumanizing influence. The melodies emerge gradually but are surprisingly easy to grasp (and maddeningly hard to shake) once you pick them out. And their lyrics—which have been branded as so vague as to be meaningless—turn out to be blistering. "You can keep the furniture," Yorke sings in "Morning Bell," "Cut the kids in half/ Release me." Short of getting into the details of the prenup agreement, how much more specific could the band be?