Why Radiohead Should Stop Touring

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
June 27 2012 8:29 AM

Why Radiohead Should Stop Touring

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Thom Yorke of Radiohead in April

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella

Radiohead is the best large venue band I have ever seen perform, on or off drugs, in the history of my interest in music. They are the early 1980s Van Halen of auditory cortex high-kicks. They’re as improvisational and fluid as Phish without the masturbatory soloing (though they do seem to share some tour-following, nitrous-huffing fans). The band’s light and video shows, together with its disorienting, mesmerizing, fantastic music, makes the Flaming Lips’ theatrics look like cheap parlor tricks.

But Radiohead should stop touring. The recent death of Scott Johnson, a beloved member of their stage crew, before a scheduled Radiohead concert in Toronto was, of course, a horrible accident, caused by an unlikely stage collapse. But it has highlighted the band’s more ordinary difficulties—and even fundamental disagreements—with the mechanics of live performance.

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As much as fans, including yours truly, have loved seeing Radiohead, and have come back again and again—16 of their 22 scheduled arena and festival performances are sold out, from Lisbon to Auckland—the band itself doesn’t seem to enjoy it much. Anybody who has seen the alienating OK Computer tour documentary Meeting People is Easy, or heard lead singer Thom York talk about how it almost destroyed the band, knows this.

Jetting around the globe doesn’t fit in with the band’s politics, either: It’s one of the worst things you can do if you’re concerned about climate change. In 2007, Jonny Greenwood said the band was trying to reduce their use of air travel because of the carbon emissions involved; when asked whether they’d considered the carbon-offset solution, he hinted at the group’s hand-wringing: “I’m not sure that that’s enough, to buy off our guilt with money.”

Even putting aside the band’s apparent distaste for an endless litany of disinfected hotel rooms and their sincere efforts to tread lightly on a planet they’re worried we’re destroying, there is a more touchy argument for quitting: Their live performances are starting to slip. And it’s not really the band’s fault—it’s a consequence of their continual evolution as musicians.

If there’s a single artistic move that defines Radiohead, it is challenging their listeners with stylistic left turns. From the alternative rock of The Bends sprang the post-rock soundscapes of OK Computer; from there, the electronic explorations of Kid A and the mixed-meter B-side rabbit-hole Amnesiac. Hail to the Thief’s jagged sequence veered from beat-heavy panic attacks to dirge-y jazz. But at some level, all of those records rocked. In Rainbows and King of Limbs, on the other hand, while excellent pieces of work, are headphone albums, recordings of beautiful and challenging music that even a Sigur Rós fan might prefer to enjoy in the comfort of his or her own home. This stuff is for your record player.

The band has tried to re-imagine their live performances just like they’ve tried to revolutionize the music marketplace, streaming performances of new albums live from the studio, for instance. And that’s of course to their credit. Radiohead has always put their art—and their fans—ahead of the industry they’re in. No doubt they feel some obligation to those fans who have supported them through all their musical changes, and who want to come out and see them live, hear their musical heroes in person. But Radiohead has done more than enough. They have made their mark and then some. We should all let them go home.

Ben Johnson is the producer of Marketplace Tech from American Public Media.