ROCK and roll is roughly 70 years old. That’s just a little younger than Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney. Both of whom are still alive and well, recording and performing, even if most casual listeners only really want to hear the music they made half a century ago. The prancing spectres of his elders have been said to haunt Thom Yorke, the lead singer and songwriter of Radiohead.
He once told friends he planned to quit before he turned 40, before his band became what’s now known as a “legacy act” – endlessly touring the world and playing the hits, putting out the occasional, familiar-sounding album to appease the fans and taxman. Now Yorke is almost 50, and Radiohead are still going after 25 years.
They seem to have cracked the secret of longevity in rock, surviving intact for decades without losing potency, or credibility, or whatever essential mystique sustains a worldwide interest in the work of five quiet Englishmen. To echo a proposition repeated by many music critics around the release of their recent, ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool: they are now, somehow, “the only band that matters”.
They matter to me as much as anyone. I’ve been a Radiohead fan since I was 16, when they released their debut single Creep – an outsider’s anthem that went mainstream. Back in 1992, I was one of millions singing “I’m a weirdo” along with Thom Yorke, though few of us could follow him up to the highest notes at the crescendo. And earlier this summer, at the 2016 edition of the Primavera Sound music festival in Barcelona, I joined a crowd-sized chorus of cracking voices as Radiohead ended their set with a rare encore performance of that first and biggest hit.
“What the hell am I doing here?” we chanted en masse, our shared memory of this song suggesting further questions. Chiefly, for me: “when did I get so old?” But also, and more pertinently: “How did Radiohead come to mean so much, for so long, to so many people?”
Part of the answer is encoded in Creep – the emotional effect of Thom Yorke’s choirboy voice reacting with the acid in his lyrics, the grandeur of the shift from G major to B major that makes its downbeat, even mopey sentiments sound almost ethereal. To accuse Radiohead of miserablism, as non-fans sometimes do, is to miss the majesty built into their chord structures. And to give Yorke all the credit is to neglect the complimentary genius of multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, not to mention the musicianship of Greenwood’s brother Colin on bass, guitarist Ed O’Brien, and drummer Phil Selway.
They first assembled as schoolboys at Abingdon, an elite private prep in rural Oxfordshire, and were given leave to practice in the music rooms by an indulgent teacher named Terence Gilmore-James. Emerging into the grunge era of the early 1990s, their fairly generic guitar sound could not disguise a youthful mastery of tricky time signatures and a winning way with melody. And when Creep made them famous – much sooner in the US than at home in the UK – they quickly got sick of that song and tried hard to move on.
A certain behavioral pattern would recur after the slow-burn success of their second album, The Bends, and instant, overwhelming acclaim for their third, OK Computer. Clearly ambitious but caustic and awkward, Yorke in particular responded to over-exposure by retreating into his notebooks, rejecting every premise of the rock star lifestyle and mythology, refusing at all costs to repeat himself musically.
Having started as a guitar band, Radiohead morphed into many other forms on later records. From Kid A through The King Of Limbs they sounded by turns like an icy, hermetic electronic project, a cerebral beatmaking collective, a post-modern avant-jazz ensemble. Their latest, A Moon Shaped Pool, could be the product of seasoned folk session players fused to a chamber quintet, drawing on Jonny Greenwood’s recent experience as a writer of film scores, and lush string contributions from the London Contemporary Orchestra. But, now as ever, they also, always, sound like themselves.
Pop critic Pete Paphides has described them as “the Radioheadphonic workshop”, coming back together every few years to find some new variation. And the classical music writer Alex Ross calls them “the Radiohead composer”, a single creative entity comprised of all five participants in the process. Ross identified a sonic signature that is audible throughout the band’s many incarnations, particularly in their use of pivot tones, where one chord is held until another forms around it.
Thus do their songs seem to brighten and darken and open wide with a sudden romantic flourish. You don’t need to read music to hear and feel this in the sprawling octatonic range of their riff-heavy 1995 single, Just, or the intricate, glissando harmonics of 2001’s Pyramid Song, an otherworldly dirge of funereal piano with drums that refuse to keep time.
Inspired to write the latter by a typically dense mix of influences – the Charles Mingus track Freedom, The Tibetan Book of Living And Dying, an art exhibition on the Egyptian afterlife in Copenhagen – Yorke was baffled when it went on to become a fan favourite. Radiohead certainly lost some listeners in that transitional phase around the millennium, when their music seemed to favour complex rhythms and textures over strummable, hummable tunes.
But their cult widened and deepened too. Young obsessives unpacked Yorke’s lyrics on early internet forums, debated his deeply ambivalent attitude to technology, engaged with his generally oppositional stances on American foreign policy, corporate control of the music industry, carbon emissions and climate change. There is anger, anxiety and bafflement in much of Radiohead’s back catalogue, a looming doom and gloom.
There is also the hope and promise of deliverance, sometimes obscured by the painstaking nature of their compositions but often revealed in performance. That recent summer night in Barcelona, we kept singing the key refrain of Karma Police long after the band had stopped playing: “Phew, for a minute there, I lost myself.”