Remember when rock bands really, really mattered?
When new releases were presaged by weeks of publicity, when liner notes were pored over, when tracks were listened to dozens of times to figure out just exactly what that lyric was?
A newly-published anthology of writings about Radiohead, “Present Tense: A Radiohead Compendium”, takes me back to that time.
The book, which (full disclosure) features a great interview with the band by my other half, Clare Kleinedler, documents 25 years of journalism about the group, from their earliest incarnation as On A Friday to global pop domination and beyond.
Reading the articles, what stands out less is their substance (although features like Clare’s, and Will Self’s, built on solid interviews as opposed to opinions drawn from lyrical or musical clues, stand the test of time) than their context.
Almost every one, at least those from the “Pablo Honey” era onwards, is written on the assumption that Radiohead matter, that they are necessary, that they have Something To Say. Reading many of these pieces at the time, from defunct (and missed) publications like Select, I’m sure I concurred.
After all, what else was more important in the year 2000 that the release of “Kid A”? Weren’t the scraps from the floor of the studio used by the creators of “Paranoid Android” worth more than the greatest political, sporting or literary achievements of the day?
Well, so we thought. Now, of course, the idea seems quaint. Other music, other writing, other points of view, all of it available online ad infinitum, along with the passage of time, served to place Radiohead within the cultural context, instead of above or before it.
Reading “Present Tense” is as much as act of nostalgia as anything else, then; I felt a warm familiarity with some of the mundane facts in the articles (mundane now, at the time, revelatory – like how the band was named for a song on Talking Heads’ “True Stories” album).
It also reminded me of a period in my life when I had more free time, and less distractions – enough to allow me to spend whole afternoons picking over the inner musical workings of “Lucky”.
I can’t say I miss this (and I’ve long forgotten the arrangement of that particular song), nor will I miss the last era of the Single Important Rock Band – a strangely reductive concept.
But it was enjoyable to read – for a few hours at least – about how things were. Everything in its right place – in this case, the past.