The Predictable Irony of Liking Radiohead

Radiohead's Hail to the Thief

The Predictable Irony of Liking Radiohead

Radiohead's Hail to the Thief

The Predictable Irony of Liking Radiohead
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The year on rewind.
June 5 2003 12:28 PM

Radiohead's Hail to the Thief


Dear Gerry,


I know we're supposed to be talking about Radiohead, and hell, we're supposed to be done, but I can't resist making one point about Cat Power and John Darnielle: I've seen them both several times, and their live shows have nothing in common. Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) is a gifted singer, but some unspecified problem makes it hard for her to get through a show without multiple apologies and mistakes. John Darnielle could not be more different if he were Manute Bol. He faces the audience, plays energetically, interacts extensively with the audience, and pauses only briefly between songs.

Back to Radiohead. I think we can even come together here. Your rhapsody was effective, not so much because it made them sound unique (it made them sound actually more like Pink Floyd) but because you obviously love their music, and I respect that. Getting excited is what it's all about—we agree on that. I've been pounding their CDs all week, and the predictable irony is I ended up liking Radiohead, though my suspicions and objections were confirmed. I made a best-of CD in the process and it just kills. Here it is:

1. Planet Telex (The Bends)
2. High and Dry (The Bends)
3. Fake Plastic Trees (The Bends)
4. My Iron Lung (The Bends)
5. Airbag (OK Computer)
6. Paranoid Android (OK Computer)
7. Subterranean Homesick Alien (OK Computer)
8. Let Down (OK Computer)
9. Karma Police (OK Computer)
10. Electioneering (OK Computer)
11. Everything in Its Right Place (Kid A)
12. The National Anthem (Kid A)
13. Optimistic (Kid A)
14. 2+2=5 (Hail to the Thief)
15. Sit Down, Stand Up (Hail to the Thief)
16. Sail to The Moon (Hail to the Thief)
17. Scatterbrain (Hail to the Thief)

Hail has one of Radiohead's strongest 1-2-3 openings.  (You were right about "Sit Down.") OK Computer is almost perfect for eight tracks, but falls apart after that and feels overrated. Amnesiac I play end to end. That's a great record. (I skipped the live record because it's live and the first one, Pablo Honey, because it seems sort of anomalous.)

I wasn't trying to tweak you by saying Radiohead is ignoring 30 years of pop. I meant it: There's little ideological or musical trace of punk, hip-hop, or beat-oriented club music in their work. That means something, though we would argue about what. The studio tomfoolery and electronic rejiggering they engage in are not different enough from what Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, and Pink Floyd were doing 30 years ago to be called different. These are common avant-lite upgrade antics that bands have been using for years to "raise" their artistic profile, since the Beatles ruined everything. (Or made everything better—I get confused.) Perfectly good bands like Radiohead, Wilco, and the Flaming Lips go into the studio, hit the Pretentious Button, and people roll over like puppies. (I mean, before the Beatles, would anybody have even sat still for Sigur Rós?) These bands are not untalented and studio trickery can be hot, but I do think there is an overdeveloped and unfortunate correlation between a band's stock rising and that band increasing its store of avant foolishness. There's some class fear and bad faith at operation here—nobody wants to feel square, or worse, uncultured, and so they nod along to the echo chamber and the Stockhausen quotes. Then, live, the band plays the catchy songs and everyone is happy.

All this flapping I'm doing is an attempt to place Radiohead in a historical context and take a position on how their stuff is perceived and consumed. None of this has anything to do with whether or not they can make good records. In the Making Good Records contest, everything is allowed, including theft, erasing history, and downright pretentiousness. Hell, I love the White Stripes but they're acting as if the last 40 years of pop music haven't happened. The context and the art certainly inform each other, but they are also separate. And my Radiohead best-of mix is going with me in the car this weekend.

Just trying to put everything in its right place,