The following is a guest article by James Armstrong.
Few bands from the mid to late 1990’s could claim to have changed the modern musicscape quite like Radiohead. Two names straight from the top hat that everyone will have heard of, Oasis and Blur, are both undoubtedly great bands in their own right but they haven’t really pushed the boundaries of what’s possible on stage and in the studio in the same way. Following the musical and popular culture big-bang of the 1960’s, Liam Gallagher and Damon Albarn became far too infatuated with their respective idols – John Lennon and Ray Davies. Whilst they were spending time trying to emulate their heroes’ successes (and to be fair, not doing a half bad job from time to time) a more introverted and just –as – talented – if – not – more quintet from Oxford were fast becoming the true musical chameleons of their time; shedding their skin after every album and allowing a beautiful new creature to emerge with every one subsequent. What’s more, you get the impression that they largely did it on their own. Anyway, enough speculation, we’re back in the room in 2012 and what of tonight’s concert? As a huge fan myself and having seen them before, I knew full-well that we were in for a treat. The 02 Arena provided the perfect backdrop for what would be a show of truly epic proportions. Huge ceilings packed to the rafters with die-hard fans, an amphitheatric stage, comically overpriced beer and hot-dogs, a dazzling array of lights and effects and, of course, Radiohead themselves.
The first thing you notice when watching them play live is that they’re just bloody great musicians. That’s it. It’s not as complex as everyone makes out; Thom Yorke and his band of often not-so-merry men have always been about the music, no more and no less. After all, 1995’s rock masterpiece The Bends takes its title from the fact these guys rose too quickly to stardom after starting out and soon became sick of all the pressure that goes with it. Still, it’s staggering to think as they walked onto the stage tonight to rapturous applause that they used to play in a group called On A Friday whilst they were all students (so called because that was the only day on which timetabling allowed them to all get together), playing to a minute crowd half-composed of their family members and screaming profanities into the microphone when the speakers messed up. Since then, second best was never and will never be good enough for Radiohead. Their setlist tonight, however, was a testament to this perfectionism; one spell-binding display after another. We barely got an opportunity to recover, such is the amazing way that their songs, often well over ten studio years apart and in greatly contrasting styles, always seem to segue so seamlessly.
Their setlist on this second night of two shows at the O2 was roughly equal parts from In Rainbows, the innovative and brilliantly melodic set of tunes which everyone paid what they wanted for a few years back, and their most recent LP King of Limbs, which was perhaps unfairly met with tepid reception by fans and critics alike. You can say what you like about both (I happen to love In Rainbows but can take or leave KoL) but there’s no denying that both records are greater than the sum of their parts when played live, just like Radiohead themselves. Three of the unlikeliest of heroes of the evening came from KoL; “Feral”, “Bloom” and set opener “Lotus Flower” - accompanied with some pretty incredible and effervescent jiving from Thom, something which he kept up for pretty much the whole two hours.
“Feral” in particular was a real highlight – as Thom sang his voice was passed back through some kind of vocal cloning device and by the end of the song there were six or seven voices all singing out of phase at the same time. This was all great, but the question everyone really wanted to know in the crowd was when we’d hear something from the coveted trilogy of The Bends, Ok Computer and Kid A. After all, music buffs the world over perennially rank all three as amongst the very best albums ever recorded, the prior two often only losing out to something understandable like Revolver or The Beach Boys’ legendary Pet Sounds. Our prayers were answered just two songs in with a superb rendition of “Airbag” from Ok Computer. Brothers Jonny and Colin Greenwood’s guitars shimmered whilst Thom’s falsetto soared and made the idea of a near miss at speed in a Porsche (the “fast German car” referenced in the lyrics) seem almost appealing.
As the set ebbed and flowed, the band managed to captivate us further with new song “The Daily Mail” halfway through. “It’s a quality newspaper!” smirked Thom as he rolled a piano to the front of the stage, which would make up somewhere around half of his audience participation for the evening. Kitted out pretty casually with long hair tied back in a ponytail and trademark scruffy beard, he’s clearly been to the Van Morrison school of how to converse with the fans. The song itself though was vintage Radiohead – a gentle, piano driven lullaby twinned with Thom’s crooning, then suddenly erupting into a full on rocker involving the whole band and sending the mosh pit into full swing.
The Radiohead big guns, “Paranoid Android” and Street Spirit (Fade Out)” came in towards the end of the set and made you realise just why you were at the gig in the first place. “Paranoid Android”, in my opinion, wipes the floor with that other pretender to the rock opera throne “Bohemian Rhapsody” which it’s often compared to. It just takes you more places than the Queen song (which is still very good, of course). In 3 unbelievable segments you are at full exposure to every ounce of this band’s endless talent, a song which manages to be at once melancholic and uplifting. Overall, it fit in well with OK Computer’s unique selling point of being a concept album without really being one at all – the theme being pre-millennia angst over where technology and humanity in general was heading. Meanwhile “Street Spirit”, a fitting set closer, was everything that it always has been since its creation: hypnotic, hauntingly beautiful and a taste of things to come in what would turn out to be three encores (take note, there’s always an added bonus of attending the last night of a tour - the first night only got two). Added to all this, the lighting and mini orange screens staggered diagonally above the stage showing one band member each made sure that tonight Radiohead were just as impressive visually as they were sonically. The first encore admittedly got off to a slow start with two more KoL songs “Give Up The Ghost” and “Morning Mr Magpie” which lost the crowd just a tad. What we had to remember of course, that this is Radiohead, and an album like King of Limbs would probably be the highlight of a lesser band’s discography. All was not lost of course. In came the amazing “Planet Telex” , “Everything In It’s Right Place” and “Idioteque” for a breathtaking closing salvo of music to save the day in an inter-stellar burst. No-one wanted the show to end at this point, but all good things must come to an end and this does sadly include Radiohead gigs. As an experienced gig-goer, I always know it’s been a show to remember when two things have happened. Firstly, that the band experiments a little bit and the songs manage to sound even better live than on a CD, and secondly, that you’re walking to the tube afterwards mesmerised by the evenings events but still lamenting all of the songs that didn’t get played. Tonight the boys from Oxford ticked both boxes and then some.