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The return of Radiohead: No surprises? How about a new album...

Radiohead never follow the expected route. After the sudden news of their latest release, Andy Gill celebrates the band's contrariness

Was it mere coincidence, do you suppose, that Radiohead should quietly announce the imminent release tomorrow of their new album, The King of Limbs, on the eve of the British music industry's big annual backslapping beanfeast?

Well, what do you think? Is there a chance that this most pragmatically principled of modern bands might accidentally have chosen that date? Or was it perhaps deliberately picked as a sly snub to the occasion, a pointed reminder that music isn't about awards and champagne and dressing up, but is actually about, y'know... music?

Whatever their intentions, there's no doubt that Radiohead managed to trump the figurehead annual event of an industry with which they have struggled to find much common cause. So much so that for their previous album, In Rainbows, they effectively opted out of a system which many artists, ranging from Prince to George Michael, have depicted as little more than indentured label-slavery.

If the industry establishment may have been disgruntled by the timing of the announcement, the band's fans were sent into delirious tailspins of delighted anticipation and uninformed speculation, as interweb message-boards were buried in a blizzard of what were, mostly, little more than inchoate expressions of delight: something along the lines of, "Yaaaaaay!!!!!", followed by the poster's smiley-face emoticon of choice. A sly, chucklesome spoof "first review" of the album on the Vice website elicited responses ranging from the irritated ("You DICKS"), to the drily appreciative, to the shamefully gullible ("I'm confused, is the author so unqualified that he mixed Pablo Honey and Kid A up?"). Unless, of course, that was a double-bluff spoof response to a spoof review. Who knows? But the gaiety of the online nation has certainly been added to by Radiohead's announcement.

What has passed largely unremarked, however, is how the band managed to write, record and design a complete album package – one apparently including a pair of 10-inch vinyl discs, and hundreds of artwork images – without even the merest whiff of their intentions working its way through the rumour mill? Usually, with such a high-profile act, one of the lower-order functionaries at a pressing-plant or photo-lab would have taken the opportunity to make a few hundred quid by leaking something to the gossip columns, but this arrived as a bolt from the blue, suggesting that perhaps the band command a little deeper respect among those workers than, say, Madonna or Cheryl Cole.

As far as uninformed speculation goes, my own suggestion is that, going on past evidence, The King of Limbs will be... exactly what you don't expect it to be. Hasn't that been Radiohead's modus operandi, virtually since they entered the public consciousness with the belated success of "Creep" in 1993, more than a year after its initial release? At that time, the band were not unfairly described as "Nirvana-lite", thanks to the song's self-lacerating outsider cri du coeur and the pervasive use on their debut album Pablo Honey of the classic grunge soft/loud dynamic.

Radiohead - There, There

But any fans expecting more of the same on their second album would be disappointed – or more likely delighted – with The Bends and its precursor, the "My Iron Lung" EP. The delayed impact of "Creep" had resulted in the band having to spend months promoting it on tour, when they would have preferred to be working on new material. "It was like being held in a timewarp," they complained, a situation in which they came close to breaking up. "My Iron Lung" was their ambivalent response to the situation, a metaphorical acknowledgement of the way "Creep" had sustained their career, but only at the expense of constraining their freedom: "This is our new song/ Just like the last one/ A total waste of time/ My iron lung."

It was the pivotal lesson of Radiohead's early career: never again would they allow themselves to become trapped by the expectations aroused by success, whether from fans or from the industry. From that point on, they would pursue a sometimes contrary muse with dogged disregard for what everyone else was doing.

Indeed, it often seemed as though contrariness was a crucial component of their aesthetic and methodology. Thom Yorke once commented on the sad truth of one of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies dictums – "Whatever worked last time, never do it again" – as it applied to recording, agreeing that "whatever method you have at this particular moment will never work again". Hence the shift from Pablo Honey's grunge-lite to the elegant, considered sonic architecture of The Bends, on which the band's phalanx of guitarists – Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien – explored new ways to combine their talents. Yorke himself also developed into a distinctive singer, with an intriguing depth of idiosyncratic soulfulness allied to a serpentine sense of melody. Where most of Pablo Honey could be roughly located on a matrix of influences, a song such as "Fake Plastic Trees" was genuinely innovative, pointing the way towards a broad, open field of possibilities.

It was the kind of drastic artistic change that causes label heads to go prematurely grey, but The Bends had the unforeseen effect of helping the band re-establish itself as a sophisticated arena-rock outfit with the rare ability to project powerful emotional content through complex musical structures. "When The Bends came out," drummer Phil Selway later observed, "everyone went on about how uncommercial it was. Twelve months later it was hailed as a pop classic. The record company were worried there wasn't a single on it, and we ended up with five Top 30 hits from it."

Accordingly, when the time came to make the follow-up to The Bends, their record label was more sanguine about their direction, although a few eyebrows must have been raised when it became known that the band had given their producer, Nigel Godrich, a blank cheque to buy whatever equipment he felt necessary – from antique plate reverbs to analogue synthesisers – which they would explore while recording the new material. The eventual bill was enough, they admitted, to buy a country house, but the guiding imperative throughout the whole process was "to have complete and utter freedom", according to Yorke, "to do what we want, and make mistakes, and just put the energy into it."

The result, of course, was OK Computer, now routinely voted one of the greatest albums of all time in music magazine readers' polls, and a massive commercial success despite the group's apparent determination never to use one structure or melody when three or four could be crammed into a single song. With its shifting time signatures, multi-sectioned song suites and unusual sonic strategies, OK Computer was effectively the rebirth of progressive rock, albeit with a caustic, existential concern with modern tribulations replacing the hippie era's escapist cosmic whimsy. Not that Yorke would have any truck with the notion of "progressive" rock. "Progression implies music was stupid to begin with and then it got cleverer," he told the music journalist Phil Sutcliffe. "That's just fucking daft. It's different, that's all." Yet around the same time, he also acknowledged the complexity of the album, admitting, "What really blew my head off was the fact that people got all the things, all the textures and the sounds and the atmospheres we were trying to create."

In the wake of another round of touring, the group again came close to breaking up. Yorke suffered severe depression, which brought on writer's block, and the members' different ideas about the band's future direction seemed to presage solo careers. But once again they somehow reinvented themselves, turning away from the guitar-based rock on which their reputation was forged, and creating music heavily influenced by jazz, electronics and the avant-garde. Electronic music, they explained, took the emphasis off personalities, which was another way of accessing the freedom vital to their creative development. The result was two of the most unusual releases ever to top the album charts, 2000's Kid A, followed a year later by the equally challenging Amnesiac.

The varied Hail to the Thief, released in 2003, was like a summation of Radiohead's development so far, with the crowd-pleasing guitar-rock restored alongside the more recent electronic and experimental elements, the songs reflecting disparate influences such as Can, Neil Young, the Stones and Olivier Messiaen. The restoration of relative sonic normalcy was viewed by some cynics as the band's attempt to bolster its commercial appeal to potential business suitors, their contract with Parlophone now being fulfilled.

But, four years on, they had not made any move to get in bed with another corporation when they announced their intention to make In Rainbows available through their website for whatever fans were prepared to pay, the most shocking example so far of their contrariness. It seemed to go contrary to economic sense, but such was the quality of the music – many believe it the band's best album – that it developed a considerable commercial momentum. Their music publishers Warner/Chappell, who handled the international licensing agreements, subsequently revealed that despite the number of fans downloading it for free, pre-release sales proved more profitable than the total income from sales of Hail to the Thief. Somehow, though pursuing a policy aimed at self-preservation through prioritising creative freedom over commercial imperatives, Radiohead found a way to make it pay without asking for money.

Clearly, however, the number of freeloaders was significant enough to warrant a change in the sales strategy for The King of Limbs, which takes its name from a thousand-year-old oak tree in Savernake Forest, close by Tottenham House, where Radiohead recorded parts of In Rainbows. Once again, there will be a lavishly packaged edition available for more ardent fans and those who value the sound quality of vinyl, but the £6 download doesn't seem to be bad value for those of more straitened circumstances.

Whether what you get for your £6 will live up to your expectations is more uncertain with Radiohead than most bands. Given their predilection for complexity and instrumental density, I'd appreciate some well-placed lacunae of silence, a gentler sonic topography, with maybe a few vocal harmonies – which, given their avoidance in the band's career, may be a shrewd bet if they're feeling as contrary as usual. But whatever it sounds like, it probably won't be what you expect.

'The King of Limbs' will be available to buy from www.thekingoflimbs.com tomorrow

Head of the list: the best albums

The Bends

The band's first commercially successful album, in 1995, 'The Bends' is their most accessible, brimming with anthemic rock songs. It showcases them as both an arena rock band with complex songwriting, and as masters of channelling emotion, with the emotive 'High and Dry' and 'Fake Plastic Trees'. It yielded five Top 30 hits, and is rightly hailed a pop classic.

OK Computer

Their first No 1 album (all of their albums since have topped the UK charts), 1997's 'OK Computer' is often regarded as one of the best albums ever made (it was 'Q' magazine's top album of all time). Ambitious prog-rock stylings, and shifting textures and moods are seen in the six-minute multi-part masterpiece, 'Paranoid Android'. Yorke's lyrics comment bleakly on the future, and there are melodic hits, too.

Kid A

After 'OK Computer', Yorke suffered depression, then writer's block, and the group threatened to implode. But a bold experiment saw the band swerve into electronica, with jazz influences. The result? Genre-defying, captivating songs such as 'Idioteque'. Despite no official single to launch it, and its experimental nature, it was the first of their albums to top the American charts, hailed Album of the Decade by 'Rolling Stone'.


Expected to be a return to a guitar-based sound, 'Amnesiac', recorded at the same time as 'Kid A', and released a year later, was an experimental offering in a similar vein, although with a less obviously electro sound. Sombre in sound, it boasts live favourites 'You and Whose Army' and 'Pyramid Song', and the hypnotic, cyclical melody of 'Knives Out'.

In Rainbows

After 2003's 'Hail to the Thief', the band left their record label EMI and went it alone, with a groundbreaking pay-what-you-want digital album, later released on CD. The making of the 2007 album was fraught, but its contents are their least gloom-laden.

Elisa Bray