Radiohead: Rock and roll's first concept band?
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Recently, I saw Radiohead in concert for the third time. For a multi-platinum band who have yet to break up or go on hiatus, they don’t tour the United States very often, so any chance to see them is a privilege. Not surprisingly, they were amazing live, and their new songs gained a new resonance and depth on stage.
As with any great concert, a reacquainting with the music has taken place. For the past week, I’ve listened to nothing but Radiohead, zooming up and down their albums without pause. I’ve listened to complete records, b-sides, live recordings and interviews. There doesn’t seem to be any drought when it comes to material with this band.
Their genius catalog as a band has as many questions as thrills. What was the theme of the Kid A/Amnesiac period? When will the run of singles following The King of Limbs end? How could Pablo Honey be that bad while, just two years later, The Bends was that incredible? Through all this, what is Thom Yorke trying to say?
Trying to figure out what Yorke or the band are actually trying to say can be an exercise in futility. There are resources, interviews and interpretations abound. There’s no shortage of theories on songs, albums, influences and concepts. It’s the mark of a great band when the music spurs this much discussion. Radiohead as a great band is not a foreign concept.
In all this searching, I stumbled upon this article proposing that In Rainbows, the band’s 2007 album, is really just a companion piece to 1997’s OK Computer. It points to the clues that In Rainbows was released 10 years after OK Computer, was announced 10 days before its release, consists of 10 songs, and seems to fit in the binary pairing of 01 and 10. Considering that OK Computer’s original title was Zeros and Ones, it’s at least an interesting thought.
But what sealed it, of course, is the music. Within that article is a proposed playlist of how the two albums work together, with songs alternating, one flowing into the other beautifully. As merely a playlist, it’s a stroke of brilliance, a rich collection that feels that they’ve always belong together.
So, did these songs actually belong together, or is it just a coincidence? And speaking of which, when it comes to Radiohead’s long-playing albums, is there a greater system at work? Radiohead has long existed within the music scene outside of conventional wisdom while retaining their unyielding position as innovators. Is there at more at work here?
It all begs the question: is Radiohead the first concept band? Not a band that continually releases concept albums, but instead, a band that has carried out their entire career as a vehicle for one long, massive story? Are all their records really just chapters in a far-reaching musical novel?
I’ve long had a theory that Kid A, the band's fourth album, tells the story of a dystopian society, where cloning is common and the people live under the constant threat of a malevolent regime. The songs work as a cycle, spinning the tale of life in this awful existence in the first half, and the beginning of a real revolt in the second half.
“Everything in its Right Place” opens the album and gives a good impression of the constant state of life for the people. They’re mentally taxed and exhausted, to the point that they don’t even know themselves anymore. “There are two colors in my head / what was that you tried to say? / Everything in its right place.”
The story continues to flow, with the new breeding cycle (“Kid A”), national pride (“The National Anthem”) and hollow distance in “How to Disappear Completely,” summed up in its refrain of, “I’m not here / this isn’t happening.”
The revolt begins with the ominous tones of “Treefingers,” leading right into the populist anthem of “Optimistic.” This is the beginnig of civil war, with a call to “try the best you can,” and the rest of the album tells different points of view of the people. On “In Limbo,” they’re just trying to get through life. “Idioteque” shows them trying to organize underground. “Morning Bell” captures a family trapped in the middle of all this, hearing the ringing of the government’s chimes while surveying a totalled, starved life.
“Motion Picture Soundtrack” shows a couple from a singular point of view, resigned to his fate and lilting off into death. There’s no moral or hope at its conclusion. It’s all left incredibly bleak. As the singer tells it, through an organ’s funeral March, “It’s not like the movies / They fed us on little white lies.” Before he’s gone, he has a simple message:
“I think you’re crazy, maybe / I will see you in the next life.”
Through correspondence with my friend Ryan, the initial idea of Radiohead as a concept band was hatched. A tidied up version of how sees the dawn of this overarching plot, as told through the band’s first three albums, follows:
I think i have an explanation for Pablo Honey, and it might mean that Radiohead is a) the first concept band and b) more genius than we all thought. My hypothesis relates to your assessment of Kid A, and basically asks the following question: what if the entire discography of Radiohead is talking about the fall of some society, falling into a crumbling dystopia – with clones?
Just a few examples of the progression:
Pablo Honey: A snapshop of their view of 1990s society – complacent but ultimately unsustainable
- “You” (track 1): "It's like the world is going to end so soon/And why should I believe myself?"
- “Stop Whispering” (track 4): "Dear Sir, I have a complaint / Can't remember what it is / It doesn't matter anyway.”
The album appears to be talking about a non-questioning society, that might have some inclination as to its unsustainability. It's not coincidence that "Blow Up" ends the album.
The Bends: the society becomes self-aware of their problems and the fight begins.
- “Planet Telex” (track 1): the song is about the realization that the world is broken, and the album is about coming to terms with that.
- “The Bends” (track 2): The opening line is, “Where do we go from here?” Followed by "I wanna live, breathe/I wanna be part of the human race."
- Later, there is “Black Star”: "Blame it on the black star / Blame it on the falling sky / Blame it on the satellite that beams me home."
- “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” The closing track: “Cracked eggs, dead birds / Scream as they fight for life / I can feel death, can see its beady eyes / All these things into position / All these things we'll one day swallow whole / And fade out again and fade out again."
Then, what is OK Computer? First, visually — the cover art and all of its weird inscriptions — it is the beginning of what the end looks like. Lyrically, what is it about?
“Airbag” opens the album: “In the next world war / In a jackknifed juggernaut / I am born again.” The end of "Airbag" talks of the interstellar, so maybe the androids are alien, but I've not looked into it more than what I'm saying here.
The rest of the album reads like a perfect play of how the end would look, from "Exit Music"'s anthem of dissent ("we hope that you choke") followed by the depressing daily life account and proclamation of being "crushed like a bug" and then, "Karma Police"'s anthem of taking it back, only to potentially realized it’s not enough or perhaps a dream. Then, of course, there is “Fitter Happier,” the anthem of the clones/aliens/whatever-post-apocalyptic-race
I won't hash out the remaining albums, because I think you summed them up. Perhaps, those first three albums were what led up to it, explaining the musical-pandering element of Pablo Honey. Perhaps, Radiohead is the most genius band in the world, constructing an opus simply through their existence as a band.
Perhaps, I'm reaching.
From there, fitting the rest of the catalog into this narrative, once in motion, is not that much of a stretch. As a companion to Kid A, Amnesiac serves as a series of vignettes on life in this universe. “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” shows a man bitter and tired of the fight: “After years of waiting / nothing came / Then you realized you were looking in the wrong place.” The narrator in “You and Who’s Army?” is a young spirit not yet driven to defeat, egging the “Holy Roman Empire” to bring it on. “Life in a Glass House” is a homily on living within an overbearing state: “Well of course I’d like to sit around and chat / But someone’s listening in.”
Most interesting in this period is “Like Spinning Plates,” which was born when the band spun a tape of “I Will” backwards and dropped in new lyrics, its singer beyond broken and dead: “And this just feels like spinning plates / Our bodies floating down the muddy river.”
Its parent song, “I Will,” was given new life on the next album, 2003's Hail to the Thief, which (in this theme, anyway), seems to take place years later, at the beginning of a new revolution. “I Will” is a song of solitary strength against the system. It’s singer is trapped among death and destruction, but as he says, “I will rise up.”
Hail to the Thief resumes telling a full story, or chapter, through its songs. “2 + 2 = 5” is a simple depiction of the heavy handed state slamming down its people, illustrating the state of affairs at this point in the story. But there are signs that the people are rising back up. “Sit Down, Stand Up” is the beginning of the underground movement towards full-on revolution, the leaders “have not been paying attention.” “There, There” shows the destructive, almost anarchic mentality of the people, warning that they “are accidents waiting to happen.” Their mean streak is shown in “Where I End and You Begin” — “I will eat you alive / There’ll be no more lies.” In a way, it’s the first positive signs since The Bends.
But it ends with “A Wolf at the Door,” a signal that the old foes still linger. Here, the singer is being tempted by those once in power: “I keep the wolf from the door / but he calls me up/ Calls me on the phone / Tells me all the ways he’s gonna mess me up.”
Building in something of a cliffhanger at this point is a smart move, leaving room for the band to operate on its next release. Even the most ambitious band, which Radiohead would have to be for this all to work, would have to leave itself options before sewing up their incredible journey with a bow.
The next album, In Rainbows, of course, fits back into this lengthy narrative when zippered back up with OK Computer. When done correctly, nothing feels quite as satisfying as a prequel that nails it. In this case, the prequel works as an alternate telling. Not only have they left themselves room to carry the story further, they’ve left in enough gaps to expand on the individual sequences.
Not surprisingly, there are some gifted writers residing in Radiohead.
The theme continues with their most recent full-length, The King of Limbs. The material here is a bit more obscure and harder to parse. Is this told from the point of view of the newly-freed captives, or the scheming oppressors plotting their next move?
Most of the songs seem to fit either side, depending on a light or dark interpretation. The record opens with “Bloom,” its singer asking, “So why does it still hurt / Don’t blow your mind with why.” “Lotus Flower” could be told from the perspective of a devil character, tempting an untainted soul with far-reaching promises: “I would shape myself into your pocket / Invisible / Do what you want.” Later, more of his intentions are revealed: “‘Cause all I want is the moon upon a stick / Just to see what if / Just to see what is.” By the end of the record, the people are falling back into old traps and habits. On “Separator,” the narrator laments, “It’s like I’m falling out of bed / From a long and weary dream / Just exactly as I remember.”
The notion that Radiohead has had the wherewithal and motivation to keep moving this story along, introducing characters and themes and moral fables along the way, is somewhat comforting. Even with their newest material, unlike any they’ve released in the past (a common trait of theirs), they have the gumption to follow the trail they began to blaze 20 years earlier.
Or do they? This is just one massive, complex interpretation. Perhaps, it’s all just a reach.
So, is this indeed a reach? Most likely. The idea that they’d purposely record a pandering album to start their careers is enough of a reach to kill this idea; the music business is not kind without instant success, and there was no way to know that “Creep” would’ve launched the band to worldwide stardom as it did.
But that’s part of the beauty of this body of work. Radiohead’s music has been so dense, confusing and interesting for so long that it lends itself to these kinds of conspiracies and theories. Chuck Klosterman once wrote that Kid A predicted the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. My colleague Jonathan Comey recently posited that Radiohead’s catalog is so consistent that a listener can take any random 10-song sample and have a brilliant, cohesive album. There’s the In Rainbows/OK Computer sequence. There’s my own Kid A theory. There are thousands more that are floating around on blogs and comments and in everyday conversation.
It’s hard to envision many bands commanding this kind of scrutiny and attention, apart from the Beatles, maybe Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. But that’s a testament to the work. It doesn’t just exist in its time, it seems to jump dimensions.
Radiohead is one of the greatest bands of our time. Crackpot theories and stretches of logic inspired by this are just another example of their incredible influence.
June 5, 2012
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com