Tag Archives: Radiohead

‘We know where you live’ – Radiohead in Portland

Radiohead, Portland, April 2017

Radiohead, Portland, April 2017

As I walked out of the RDS on the night of June 21, 1997 little did I realise that it would be 20 years until I saw Radiohead perform again.

Or that it would be in a city on the other side of the world, a few thousand miles from where Thom Yorke once floated down the Liffey.

But Portland, Oregon, where the band played last weekend, has one thing in common with that summer’s night in Dublin – plenty of rain.

My abiding memory of the RDS show is Yorke, arms extended, singing “rain down on me, from a great height“, as the heavens opened over Dublin.

Portland’s Moda Center is an indoor basketball arena, so there were no such apt theatrics last weekend. Instead there occurred a performance far more powerful than the one I’d seen during the band’s purported OK Computer heyday.

In fact, Radiohead appear to have left their most popular album behind; only ‘Airbag’ and ‘No Surprises’ were aired at the Moda Center (the latter was admittedly one of the highlights of the night, not least for the reaction to it’s “bring down the government, they don’t speak for us line“).

Instead, some 20,000 of us were treated to a loud, jittering, two-drummers-and-plenty-of-knob-twisting production that – days after Khan Sheikhun gas attack and shortly before the U.S. dropped the GBU-43/B MOAB bomb – seemed perfectly in tune with the times.

Songs like ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘Idioteque’ were full-on sensory attacks, performances whose lyrics (“women and children first, and the children first, and the children“) did little to reassure.

Even when things quieted down, during ‘Lotus Flower’ or ‘You and Whose Army?’, the tension remained, the sense of dread shifting from the public to the personal.

It erupted close to the end, with the performance of ‘Burn The Witch’, a song of round ups, gallows, persecutions, and paranoia, an anthem an the age of ICE arrests.

“Burn the witch, we know where you live,” intoned Yorke.

The Nineties couldn’t have seemed farther away.

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Morning glory – but life’s a different story

NME - August 1995.

NME, August 1995

Is it 25 years since Britpop emerged? Yes, as BBC’s Radio 6 Music has persistently reminded me in recent weeks.

My first, immediate, thought on being reminded of this is: what the hell happened to the last two decades? It seems like only yesterday that I bought a copy of Blur’s “Parklife” as a birthday gift for my sister, and only a couple of months since “Don’t Look Back In Anger” was released.

But no. We’re as far from the heady days of “Animal Nitrate” and Ocean Colour Scene now as we were from The Beatles back then. And to be honest, given the output of some Britpop bands (that’d be Ocean Colour Scene again), 25 years isn’t far enough away.

While I listened to, and liked, some Britpop, it was never truly my thing. For every spin Elastica got, the first Radiohead album probably got three. Damon Albarn’s pubs ‘n’ dogs Essex stories paled in comparison to what I considered to be, at the time, much more important – the po-faced politics and visceral sonic stab of “The Holy Bible“.

Not being inclined, then, to listen to hour-long ‘wish you’d been there documentaries’ on the part of various English journalists and DJs, it recently occurred to me – what’s my one quintessential Britpop song? What single tune summed it up for me?

There could be only one, a release that towered above the rest. It has it all – the middle-class obsession with property, city dwellers who are “successful fellers”, Benny Hill-esque models falling around haystacks, and Damon Albarn’s vocals. The video was even directed by Damien Hirst. What could be more 1995 than all that?

Not to mention the fact, 20 years older and supposedly wiser, I still kind of like Blur’s “Country House”. Even if that “reading Balzac, knocking back Prozac” line gets stuck in my head for days afterwards, every time.

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Hail to the grief – Willy Vlautin and Thom Yorke

Thom Yorke, 2013. Pic: Yasuko Otani

Thom Yorke.
Pic: Yasuko Otani

“Multilayered tinklings and murmurings”.

“A subliminally shimmering aura”.

“A spiral of tension, cryptically portraying a society ignoring its own witch hunts as a clattery, insistent string arrangement ratchets up the dissonance and agitation”.

Three sentences from one review of Radiohead’s new album – a release that, at times, seems less a suite of music and more a herald of the End of Days, a soundtrack to the collapse of 21st century consumer society.

But what if Radiohead’s post-millenial tension is not your thing? Then you might turn to James Blake, another artist who released an album last week. Worth a listen, you ask?

“The melancholic funk of ‘I Hope My Life (1-800 Mix)’ or the dive bomb synth swoops of ‘Radio Silence’ show Blake’s ability to orchestrate moments that mimic the stark romantic bombast of a Caspar David Friedrich painting,” says Pitchfork.

This is when I reach for my Revolver. Or the latest – and final – Richmond Fontaine album.

The Portland, Oregon, band don’t do sweeping existential soundscapes – creeping, trailer park existentialism is more their style; less how did we end up here, than how did end up here (and why’s my wallet empty, and my hand still bleeding)?

Willy Vlautin

Willy Vlautin

Bandleader Willy Vlautin doesn’t have Dylan’s songbook or Springsteen’s bombast. Nor can he offer the song-for-song batting average of John Prine or the gut-wrought polemics of Steve Earle.

But what he does offer is fear – the terror felt by people at the end of the line or crashing headlong toward it – tempered by small moments of release.

I Got Off The Bus, the keynote song on Richmond Fontaine’s last album, contains more dread than Radiohead’s Burn The Witch and more regret than their Daydreaming.

Like Daydreaming, the Richmond Fontaine song has, at its root, a broken relationship; but whereas Thom Yorke goes for the too-clever option of singing the phrase ‘half my life’ backwards, Vlautin plays it straight.

“I called a girl I used to know
A nurse from Saint Mary’s
We had a place on 7th street
But I Ieft her in a rough way
Her dad said she got married
Was living in Stockton with a baby
He said he couldn’t remember me –
But I knew he was lying
The night seemed never ending…”

Needless to say, the song doesn’t end well for Vlautin’s drifter. But his short, desperate story contains more humanity than a ‘tense, cryptic portrayal of a society ignoring its own witchhunts’.

Perhaps that’s because – as Thom Yorke once put it – all of us are “accidents waiting, waiting to happen”.

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