Radio daze

This time around, Radiohead show little musical progression and aren't trying to save the world. But, says Nick Hasted, is that really any wonder?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In 2000, Radiohead's Kid A was delivered to journalists like Holy Writ, handed out individually to the chosen few in a candle-lit chamber. It's 2003, and Hail to the Thief turned up in my post yesterday, as casually as the gas bill. Last weekend, too, the interview-loathing, serious-minded Thom Yorke not only played on Jonathan Ross's frothy Friday night chat show, he walked over to Ross's sofa, for a strained effort at matey normality. Before he escaped, Radiohead had agreed to write our next Eurovision ditty.

Completing the mystique-stripping picture, for many, is Hail to the Thief itself. "We decided we were not going to progress," Yorke has said of it, accurately. The electronica-embracing leap Kid A made from OK Computer - the revered rock albatross around Radiohead's necks - has not even been attempted this time. Hail to the Thief instead has more of the guitars and epic melancholy they made when the world loved them. It "signals the band coming to their senses," a relieved NME sighed.

Even the anti-globalisation, anti-Blair politics they helped define with Amnesiac, Kid A's companion, seems to have been buried back in the mix, at this of all times. Asked if Hail to the Thief's title is a reference to Bush's disputed election (the subject of the book from which the phrase comes), and they claim it is not. It all smacks, not of a return to sense, but of an ordered retreat, from responsibilities that Radiohead can no longer bear. It's an understandable reaction. Radiohead have been buffeted by more pressure than any other band of the recent past, acting as lone pioneers staking out what a rock group can be now, even as record industry and personal pressures have threatened to snap them like twigs. OK Computer's semi-prog expansiveness put them on the cultural front line in 1997, the year after backward-looking Britpop's high-water mark.

Kid A then saw them continue as point men from rock into avant-garde electronic back-waters, much as Bowie once had. Alone in their "classic" rock-clutching generation, they had devoured the new culture of computer-made music. Scorning singles, videos or interviews, they slammed it to the top of charts world-wide. With Amnesiac, they then took on a second lonely mantle: as the single popular political band, absorbing experience of burgeoning street protest to spit veiled threats at Blair. In effect, they were the musical wing of a new counterculture: its Bowie, Beatles, Floyd and Clash. And still, all the world really wanted was OK Computer Part II.

The impossible contradictions of such a position have stymied them musically, first of all. If you listen to their records now, OK Computer is not the landmark at all. Though it contains some devastatingly lovely songs, its lyrics of alienation are sometimes over-literal, and its music is reassuringly rock in its sadness and euphoria - emotions built for stadia, a path which, if followed, would have made them Simple Minds. It is Kid A, in part Yorke's reaction to the "bollocks" of OK Computer's over-acclaim, which sounds astonishing: spinning tectonic plates of electronica, rock and orchestras, with Yorke's buried words sometimes swinging into focus, and memorable riffs and melodiesthroughout. Amnesiac's re-engagement with anger and activism, after Kid A's glacial beauty, confirmed the sessions as a rock breakthrough. The question on the world's lips should have been how Radiohead would move forward from it, not when they would trudge back to OK Computer. But today's musical climate is not nearly so brave.

Kid A, though nominally well-reviewed, was really reacted to with dismay by most music journalists and many musicians. Where The Beatles' musical expansion had a community of like-minded musicians pushing in the same direction to aid them, Radiohead live in a lonelier, more atomised time. "I've never met any other band who are so into making music," the electronic artist and friend of the band Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, told me. "They talk about it all the time." But no one in rock speaks their language. Amnesiac, like theanti-war marches, suggests a counter-culture community starting to reform. But for now, Radiohead are on their own. Who needs it?

Hail to the Thief's political retrenchment is for similar but more subtle reasons. The band's first test as rock figureheads for a new radical crowd was the Twin Towers' destruction, soon after Amnesiac's release. "What am I supposed to say?", Yorke pleaded from the stage that week. His advice to audiences on Radiohead's current tour has been equally stumbling, announcing Thief highlight "The Gloaming" as "about the rise of the Right. You know? Those maniacs. You have to stop them." Asked by NME if Radiohead had a responsibility to address world events, he made his discomfort at leading plain: "No, absolutely bloody not. It's embarrassing. I was making a conscious effort not to." So Hail to the Thief sinks its political ideas into a murk of allusive lyrics. A head-on "protest record" would be "shallow" these days, Yorke argued. If you want Dylan-like succour for your anti-war feelings, then, you'll need to dig deep this time. Superficial Spokesman for a Generation is a job Radiohead have refused.

The simple truth may be this. Radiohead are still only four fairly ordinary, young middle-class men from Oxford, no more super-human than you or I. Yorke especially, with a history of illness and depression, is hardly equipped for a long life in the suffocating bends of super-fame, pop and political leadership. Hail to the Thief is a disappointing rest-stop, a relaxation of their long march forward. But, isolated and exposed, what more can they do? While we wait for their next radical salvo, perhaps we could consider changing things for ourselves.