The Great American Radiohead Experiment


Photo by colm.mcmullan

Robert Christgau, perhaps the most famous rock critic in history, once called Radiohead the “Only Band That Matters,” a title previously bestowed upon British punk band The Clash. Radiohead has put out seven full-length studio albums and have been called the “Pink Floyd of Generation Y.” Whether or not you listen to them or you believe they deserve it, they are the most critically acclaimed band of the past two decades.

I grew up in a middle-sized town in northwest Indiana: too big for John Mellencamp, but not quite large enough to relate to the Rolling Stones’ portrayal of New York in “Shattered.” I used to sit in front of my parents’ stereo and listen to Beatles’ records for hours at a time. I listened to a dozen CDs a week driving to and from my high school. My best friend used to tell me there were three musical phases you would go through at some point in your young adult life; a Beatles phase, a Led Zeppelin phase, and a Radiohead phase. My Beatles phase came young, and my Led Zeppelin phase was throughout high school. Now I write for a couple of music blogs and spend part of my week doing grunt work at a local record label. I have listened to thousands of artists, I own hundreds of records, and I have never had a Radiohead phase. This makes me wonder if it will ever happen to me. Is Radiohead worthy of a phase in my life, or everybody’s for that matter? In order to answer these questions I enlisted the help of experts and conducted a personal experiment (involving five and a half hours of Radiohead) that has never been attempted.

The Experts

In order for Radiohead to legitimately occupy a plane above all other pop bands they have to contribute more to society than ring tones and record sales. According to Brandon Forbes, co-editor of Radiohead and Philosophy, the band is not just a capitalistic juggernaut.

“We had a pretty good hunch going into it, but putting this book together made it plain to us that there are good reasons why Radiohead has succeeded The Clash as ‘The Only Band that Matters’.”

The book compiles essays about the band itself and its music and lyrics, separating them into categories such as “Radiohead’s Existential Politics” and “Radiohead and the Postmodern.” The overarching theme of the book is that yes, it is possible to have a discussion about the band that goes beyond the surface aesthetics.

As Forbes puts it, “Radiohead’s music points toward philosophical analyses of actual experiences in the world.”

However, Radiohead has impacted more than just the philosophical world. They made a cultural and economic splash in 2007 with the unconventional release of their highly anticipated album, In Rainbows. They decided to allow fans to download the album for whatever price they wanted to pay. The results were mixed, and it is estimated that less than half of those that downloaded the album contributed any money to the virtual tip jar. The album was released physically later, but this attracted much less attention than the initial digital-only sale.

This new method, flawed as it may have been, created a whirlwind of controversy about not only the album itself, but about the entire music industry. D.E. Wittkower, author of the essay “Everybody Hates Rainbows,” says that cutting out the middle men of the recording industry is something that plenty of people would not mind doing.

“Music is expressive, and the idea of transforming something fundamentally communicative into a commodity for sale has always been a bit of a house of cards…From the fan-perspective, music as a commodity has always been only a necessary evil and an unwelcome precondition.”
Any band with enough power to make countless numbers of fellow musicians, authors, and professors muse about their work and cultural impact has to be important. Having established that Radiohead does hold merit in intellectual communities, it is time to answer whether or not Radiohead can have a significant impact on my personal life.

The Experiment

What do Radiohead and I have in common? Nothing as far as I can tell. I have never listened to any of their albums all the way through. To me, this does not seem like such a big deal, but to other music writers it is akin to reporting on professional football for a year and then going on vacation during the Superbowl.
In the interests of science and my own personal edification I listened to all seven of Radiohead’s studio albums in a row. According to iTunes that is five and a half hours and 81 songs. There were three bathroom breaks and a phone call from my mother that stopped the music, but other than that it was smooth sailing on a slow Sunday. When I decide to do something I tend to follow the plan through to completion (unless you count my childhood dream of owning a Ford Probe, which I have put on the back burner for now).

I am not a very good scientist. I went into the experiment wanting to like Radiohead. Often I wonder to myself, do I have an inherent dislike for Radiohead, or as perhaps George W. Bush would ask, is it a choice that I freely make? The only band I ever tried to make myself like was Pink Floyd. I remember having a 7th grade duty to hate them since “pink” is in their name (i.e. must be for girls). Then, somebody cooler than me told me they were the greatest band ever so I sucked up my pride, bought Dark Side of the Moon, and listened to it twice through while sitting in my mom’s minivan. Quickly it became one of my favorite albums, and I still love it.
I have listened to a few Radiohead songs before (I think once in high school I fell asleep listening to Hail to the Thief on a long car trip), but I’m still probably an anomaly in the “indie rock” world. Before I listened to all the albums I liked the song “Karma Police” and I have a previously formed opinion (more later) on the single that vaulted them into the spotlight from relative obscurity, “Creep.”

This did not end up like Chuck Klosterman’s essay where he sets out to watch music videos on TV for 24 hours, only to find out that they loop every couple of hours, so he ends up watching the same videos in the same order all day. Radiohead does have seven studio albums and, as I found out, they had quite an interesting musical evolution. What follows is my account of the day when my view on Radiohead became informed, instead of just based on speculation.


Any Given Radiohead Sunday

Released in 1993, Pablo Honey is the group’s first studio album, which is the first step on my journey to enlightenment. The album art is god-awful and for a moment I consider scrapping the whole experiment and throwing on an old Led Zeppelin record.

1 Song In: The first song on the album is called “You” and it sounds more like R.E.M than what I had imagined Radiohead to sound like. It is rather surprising and I can’t say that I dislike it.

2 Songs In: This is the aforementioned “Creep” and my opinion on it has not changed. Anybody who has played the Rock Band video game or has had a roommate trying to learn guitar knows this song and has heard it too many times. Since it is the second song into my odyssey there is no new context in which I can view it, so I still think it is whiny drivel.

5 Songs In: I’ve listened to four full tracks and I have not heard any break beats or electro-sneezes that I expected to hear. This song is called “Thinking About You,” and if Radiohead was an 80’s hair metal band, this would be their “Ballad of Jayne.”

12 Songs In: “Blow Out,” the last song on Pablo Honey is ending, giving me the first glimpse of psychedelic weirdness that I have previously associated with Radiohead.

15 Songs In: This song, “High and Dry,” is the first song that has legitimately wowed me. It has a sad beauty that kind of sums up the rest of the songs I have heard so far.

19 Songs In: More than half way through The Bends, and this song, “Just,” has woken me from some sort of trance. I was either entranced or napping, but I’m not sure which. This song is what I would call rock and roll and boasts a pretty great guitar solo.

25 Songs In: “Airbag” is the first song on OK Computer, which many consider the band’s greatest accomplishment. In an NME article from 1995, singer Thom Yorke said of the album, “You know, the big thing for me is that we could really fall back on just doing another moribund, miserable, morbid and negative record, like lyrically, but I really don’t want to, at all.”

30 Songs In: I can see what Yorke means now as I listen to “Karma Police.” This album ventures more into outer space, with songs like “Paranoid Android” and “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” as opposed to the introspective bent that the previous albums had. Like The Smiths before them, Radiohead was often labeled as a band to listen to only when depressed, since their lyrics were often self-loathing and melancholy. OK Computer signaled a change in perspective as the band began to comment more on the world around them, as opposed to the world inside themselves.

37 Songs In: Starting the next album, Kid A, right now, and feeling the beginnings of the pain this might inflict on my physical self. I feel a little burnt out but glad I decided to undertake this experiment instead of a Whitesnake experiment. Can you believe the band with one video of a model dancing on the hood of a car put out 11 full-length albums?

46 Songs In: This song (“Motion Picture Soundtrack”) has multiple endings and solidifies my view that Radiohead is adept at choosing the last song on each of their albums. I am enjoying each album more than the last, which I am more than half certain is not because I am developing some sort of disorder from sitting in front of my monitor for so long.

57 Songs In: I just finished listening to Amnesiac, which is the most epic album that I have heard so far. It has thunderous bass, but lacks the cohesiveness of Kid A. The albums were recorded at the same time, but their releases were staggered since the band was opposed to releasing a double album. My mental and physical states are on the brink, but maybe the next album will be full of Metallica covers to keep me awake.

58 Songs In: I am listening to the first song off 2003’s Hail to the Thief, which is called “2+2=5 (The Lukewarm).” This album annoys me already for a few reasons. First, did each member of the band get to choose a word of each song title without consulting each other? I do like the title “A Punchup at a Wedding. (No no no no no no no no),” but I think that probably triggered the trend in music nowadays where bands think it is okay to name themselves Somebody Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin.

71 Songs In: Hail to the Thief, like all of Radiohead’s previous albums, builds on their sound, this time adding a creepiness and feeling of impending doom to each song. At points the album falls short and turns into background music, but it has a handful of quality songs. Also, I think this may be the first album that gives credit in the liner notes for playing the “laptop.” If you are allowed to claim that you play the computer, I think the next Britney Spears album will come with a tome full of liner notes.

81 Songs In or The End: I just finished listening to In Rainbows and it went by like a blur. I like the sound of the album as a whole, but there are not any songs that stood out to me like “High and Dry” or “Karma Police.”

Conclusions

Having consulted the experts and gained firsthand knowledge (maybe a little too much) about Radiohead’s music, I have come to realize a few things. The first is that Radiohead is a great band. Who am I to tell millions of people that a band they love is not worth loving? Such a statement always sounds ludicrous and ignorant when it is about a topic as subjective as musical taste. Even if it is not my perception of them, the world sees them as great and credit should be given where credit is due. The last thing that I learned from my time with Radiohead is that I do enjoy their music and their message, even if I do not fully understand it. Now I understand the hype and I can eagerly follow along as the band teeters on the edge of a break up or contemplates the post-In Rainbows world and the evolving (devolving?) state of the recording industry. I may be a late bloomer, but I feel like I am on the edge of a new musical phase…

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~ by masterodisaster on December 7, 2009.

4 Responses to “The Great American Radiohead Experiment”

  1. It would be interesting to get your view on Radiohead’s music after say a year of regular listening.
    The “problem” is that there is just too much to take in with one listen!

  2. That’s a great idea – listening to a band’s entire collection from start to finish.. and this band is the greatest :))
    How come other bands don’t offer their album for “pay what you want”?
    I only know one other band, kind of similar to radiohead actually.
    Everyone’s Talking.
    They have the same deal on their website.
    http://www.myspace.com/everyonestalking
    anyways, cool blog!

  3. In my opinion definitely in the top 10 best bands ever, if not the top 5, and I think they will be remembered as being long after their time. It would be interesting to hear your views now after 6 months of listening to them.

  4. Hey man, thanks for reading! Yeah, I still listen to them sometimes. They have kind of fallen into my music library now. I kind of pick and choose individual songs to listen to. Overall I still like Thom Yorke’s solo stuff more. It feels more cohesive and I like the glitchiness of it.

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