28. The Bends / OK Computer – Radiohead
Me and Radiohead go way back. We first met when they were supporting, believe it or not, The Cranberries at Leicester University who were touring off the back of “Linger”. I’d like to believe that I had my finger so firmly on the pulse that I was only there because I’d been tipped off about Radiohead but I suspect it was more that I went to pretty much every gig at the University that year. Sometimes this unearthed a gem (Maria McKee) and sometimes it didn’t (T’pau). In this case it did both. For avoidance of doubt The Cranberries were not the gem.
So the first time I heard “Creep” was at that gig. It’s impossible to recreate now as the song is too entrenched in memory but that first time that Jonny Greenwood’s guitar went into spasm, that stab of distortion into the chorus, was a real jaw dropper. It was visually arresting too, him hunched over his telecaster, slung low, face covered by his hair as it fell forwards, and then this twitching, violent slash over the strings and a burst of white noise erupting. The wannabe rock star in me took copious notes. The only thing I actually pulled off was the telecaster. Maybe the hair.
I also distinctly remember the first time I heard “Paranoid Android” I was stuck in traffic on the outskirts of Liverpool, making my way there for something related to my job at the time working for Boots – back in the days when radio got first play of a song. It’s still vivid for me because the song was astonishing on first listen: those snaking, sinewy verses, tense chorus that hints at some terrible future peril (in so much as it is a chorus) before the build into the off kilter solo and gorgeous break down into the defeated, resigned “rain down” section. It’s still astonishing now. Whisper it but it’s kind of a prog record although I don’t recall much of the cooler-than-thou indie press reporting it as such at the time.
Shortly after that I eagerly purchased “OK Computer” on its day of release – a Monday lunch time mooch around either HMV or Virgin (as was) or Selectadisc in the centre of Nottingham was very much my routine then. That evening I lay on my bed, put my headphones on, closed my eyes and listened to it straight through. It was an event. I sort of miss the days when a record release was an event for me. There was something almost ritualistic to it. The album didn’t disappoint and its over arching themes of a vague pre millennial anxiety and sense of displaced unease resonated strongly with me at the time; echoes of that sense still resonate strongly with me now.
The record sandwiched in the middle of all of this – post “Creep”, pre “OK Computer” – was “The Bends”. Released in 1995 it caught me post graduation, recently moved to Nottingham, trying to figure out what to do with myself. It also largely sound tracked the disintegration of two relationships that were important to me; both of which I can look back on now with fondness but these songs are forever attached to their messy ends. In many respects both records are associated with a time of unhappiness, or at least, a time of uncertainty. In that period I had no idea what I wanted to do (plus ca change…), was clinging on to the idea that old relationships might still work, and gradually became separated from most of my friends who were largely living (and living large) in London. I was scraping by in a job I didn’t really want, sharing a house with people I didn’t really know, and spending any money I did have on train fares to the big smoke. It’s not really a surprise that two albums, more or less book marking the beginning and end of this time in my life, that major in themes of alienation, listlessness, torpor, and a twitchy anxiety should have been so important to me. I probably should have spent three years sitting in a back corner of The Salutation reading Camus. I didn’t. I think I spent it sitting in one of the five homes I had during that time watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It’s angst, Jim, but not as we know it.
In 1997 they headlined Glastonbury. I was, by that point, a regular festival goer and had enjoyed the previous few years in blazing sunshine at Reading, Glastonbury, and the short lived Phoenix festival near Stratford. Had enjoyed the sun so much that for Glasto ’97 a small group of us decided to arrive at the festival site on the Wednesday (it usually ran Friday to Sunday) to soak up the atmosphere, chill out, have a little mini holiday. It basically threw it down for five days, the site turned into a swamp, and we spent our time turning bin liners into makeshift rain coats: it was miserable. Somewhere in amongst the mud though Radiohead closed the Saturday night and it was possibly the finest live performance I’ve ever seen, certainly in the top three. There was an intensity to it, and in the reaction of the audience, that happens rarely and very rarely for me at an outdoor gig. There was a real buzz around the festival ahead of their performance as “OK Computer” was pretty well cemented as album of the year and it turned into one of those very special events, almost a shared communion, between audience and band. Quite a bit of it is on YouTube: here. Inevitably it doesn’t convey the atmosphere – the palpable electricity in the air – but there’s a sense of the intensity.
There’s a bit at 18.30 on that YouTube clip which I remember clear as day when Thom Yorke asks for the stage lights to be turned on the crowd: somewhere in that heaving throng was a 25 year old me. I watched that headline set on my own. Surrounded by thousands of people, obviously, but alone. I was at Glastonbury with a bunch of friends but I deliberately took myself off to watch that performance by myself. I had a strong sense that it would be a deeply personal experience for me and, in some respects, an intensely sad experience. Sad might be the wrong word. It would be – and was – a deeply emotional experience, a space where those songs would connect directly to feelings that were tucked away, hidden, and give them expression. It was a year or two characterized by loneliness and I knew that the songs that would make up their set would speak to that. I remember I wanted it to be a private experience – laughable as that seems in the churning throng – but I wonder now why I wanted it to be private. I wonder now whether I might not have been better off watching it with my friends, telling them I wasn’t happy, and sharing it all.
Within the next six months the relationship I was in was over, which was better for both us, I left my job in Nottingham, and started again in London.
That bit about “maybe” pulling off Jonny Greenwood’s look / hair. I didn’t. I was that skinny then though. Thems were the days…