Notes on Radiohead
The weirdest success story in pop
In this midweek edition of your super soaraway Ruffian I offer some thoughts on Radiohead, inspired by a podcast.
I’ve been listening to Bandsplain. In each episode, the presenter Yasi Salek and a guest walk us through the career and work of a particular band, playing snippets of songs along the way (in the UK they’re snippets, in the US I think you get the full track). It’s about ‘cult’ bands but that can mean anything from The Smiths to The Replacements to REM (there’s a 1980s/90s/00’s bias). Each episode is two or three hours long. This might all sound dull and indeed ‘splainy’ but it works because the presenter is female and witty, and while she’s a knowledgeable music fan herself, this prevents the discussion from getting oppressively earnest or nerdy.
There’s a very good episode, actually a pair of episodes, on Radiohead. Salek’s guest for this one is Cole Cuchna, host of the (also excellent) Dissect podcast and a big Radiohead fan. I hadn’t given much thought to Radiohead for a long time until listening to this pod. This band has been a permanent feature of the cultural landscape for the whole of my adult life. For about a decade from the late nineties onwards they were one of the biggest bands in the world and perhaps the most admired. They don’t loom so large these days, but now they are in abeyance we can get a little more perspective on their achievement, which is immense; it’s like gazing up at a mountain outside your house you forgot was there.
No band since The Beatles has been more dogged, to the point of perversity, about following its artistic instincts, while at the same time growing and keeping a vast audience. No globally successful band has ever made music of such difficulty and complexity. Complexity doesn’t always make for good music, and Radiohead’s discography is full of failed experiments, but when they get it right - when they connect the complexity to an emotional current - the result is magnificent.
One way of measuring the uniqueness of Radiohead is to look at their track record of hit singles in America. That’s to say: they don’t have one. They had several best-selling albums in the U.S. and played to massive crowds there without ever breaking the Billboard top thirty. Radiohead is the ultimate ‘albums band’, a band which creates a unique world which takes time to get to know and enjoy. It’s music that teaches you how to like it. That’s always been unusual in pop and in the age of streaming will probably become more so, at least among artists with commercial aspirations.
What follows is nothing like a comprehensive overview of the band, it’s just some notes on what I found interesting to think about after listening to the podcast. If you’re an authentic Radiohead fan do feel free to pitch in, correct mistakes, and add stuff.