Rock: Middle-youth? That's the fans, not the band
Sunday 23 November 1997
Anyway, if Radiohead thought that the archetypal "Creep" fan was creepy, they didn't know the half of it: Middle-American youths have been joined by "middle youth". For those of you with more significant things to read about, "middle youth" is a shiny new media label, currently being slapped on Brits in their thirties who act as if they're in their twenties. And apparently Radiohead are the archetypal "middle youth" band. The group's exquisite ragings against the world have been adopted as music to dance around the ash floor of your loft apartment to, music for people who want to stay on the cutting edge, just as long as that edge has a safety-rail of guitar, bass and drums.
The Radiohead backlash must, therefore, be just around the corner. But it isn't going to start here. Just because no one hates Radiohead these days is not a good enough reason to hate them. Instead, here are some of the reasons why awestruck love is still more appropriate.
First, they're one of those few bands who believe that music did not reach its emotional pinnacle with "Three Lions": Yorke's voice is one of the most dreadfully plaintive sounds you can hear without clubbing a baby seal. Second, they're one of those few bands who believe that the word "orchestral" doesn't just mean renting a string section for your ballads; and that three guitarists can be used to better effect than, like, making the music three times as loud. On "Karma Police", Ed O'Brien can be silent for a whole minute, adding a two-second whine of feedback only when the song requires it. Such is the music's bold complexity that you can pick a member at random to watch for a song, with no doubt that it will be interesting to see what he does.
Ever since Jonny Greenwood came up with that rifle-cocking crunch that leads to the chorus of "Creep", Radiohead have dared to come up with sound effects that aren't in the sonic library known as The White Album, and have filled their arrangements with battling rhythms and dynamics. And, I should add, this obvious intelligence doesn't stop them being a speaker-damaging, string-breaking rock'n'roll band (see point one). When dance-derived music is perceived as the future, Radiohead are a one-word argument for guitar music having a place in it.
Much as they must gag at the notion of being a middle-youth lifestyle accessory, Radiohead are unlikely to react with a Blur-style overhaul of their sound. After all, in their case, middle youth hardly corresponds with middle-of-the-road. They've reached their current status by making exactly the sort of uncommercial music they wanted to, and I expect they'll continue to do so. The fact that they still play "Creep" in concert is evidence that they don't feel bound to abandon a great song just because too many people like it. You can't choose your fans, but you can ignore them.
You had to feel sorry for Radiohead's support act, Teenage Fanclub, who had the job of filling a two-thirds empty hangar with mild-mannered, neatly structured songs, each one incorporating little gaps which gave the drummer time to push his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. While it's unfair to say that the Fanclub are merely the Bootleg Beach Boys/Byrds, that's partly because the music of the Beach Boys and the Byrds underwent radical changes over the years, while Teenage Fanclub's style never moves on.
It never moves the listener either. The reviews of Songs From Northern Britain (Creation) painted the Fanclub as Ovid, Shakespeare and Simon Bates put together when it came to articulating the nature of love. I'd disagree. Delightful as their tunes can be, following the line "I didn't want to hurt you" with an immaculately Barber-shop harmonised "O-oh yeah," drags the Fanclub down to the level of pastiche. It sounds as if they've had more experience of love songs than they have of love itself: more knowledge of the Byrds and the Beach Boys than of the birds and the bees.
If you know Meredith Brooks solely from her typically thrusting, pop- rock anthem, "Bitch", then you probably think she sounds just like Alanis Morissette. If you've listened to her album, Blurring the Edges (Capitol) and read her interviews, you'll know better: she does sound like Morissette, but she thinks she doesn't.
There are differences, of course, but I don't know if it's in Brooks's interest to dwell on them. Where Morissette is vulnerable and angry, Brooks is hard and aggressive, an old-school Fender-totin' rock babe. In short, she looks like Xena the Warrior Princess would if she swapped her sword for a guitar; and she sounds like Morissette would if she had hung around the Los Angeles rock scene for a decade before becoming a star.
At the London Astoria on Wednesday Brooks put on a straightforward, no frills, soft metal show. You'd think she was being punched in the stomach from the faces she made during her guitar solos, and she had a habit of leaning against her bassist in a matey sort of way that wouldn't have looked out of place at a Bryan Adams concert. Maybe it's unfair to call her the new Alanis. But would she really prefer to be the new Joan Jett instead?
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