How do you cope when you love Radiohead and live hundreds of miles away from the nearest stop on the band’s current summer tour? If you’re like me, you have been scouring YouTube for the latest concert videos and downloading secretly recorded audience tapes, though this has only intensified my overwhelming FOMO. As the tour’s rapturous reviews keep reiterating, Radiohead is absolutely killing it right now, reclaiming the majestic guitar jams that for years the band set aside in pursuit of more experimental tangents. In the process, Radiohead has embraced its destiny as one of the great arena-rock bands of all time.
As a long-time Radiohead fan, this is both a cause for celebration and — if you’re missing out — the source of profound anxiety. Each high point feels like a taunting jab. Why didn’t I just suck it up and drive six hours to Chicago? Wait, they played “Blow Out”?? [Looks up flights to Detroit.]
It’s worth noting that Radiohead’s latest peak as a transcendent live act comes 25 years after the band’s first North American tour, when the success of “Creep” made them a surprisingly popular stateside band. A year before Oasis and Blur ushered in American interest in Britpop, Radiohead was the rare British rock group to infiltrate the U.S. pop market, all due to a song that they would eventually resent having to play live. (Though, even on that contentious count, Radiohead has mellowed over the years.)
While Radiohead evolved well beyond “Creep” on subsequent albums, the song did establish the band’s central dynamic. Thom Yorke is the protagonist of “Creep” — he relates the lyric about the inherent alienation felt by an outsider, and his operatic voice conveys the song’s surging, self-pitying melodrama.
When I first heard “Creep” as a 15-year-old — the perfect age for a band like Radiohead to enter your life — Yorke was who I connected with. When I bought Pablo Honey soon after, he was the “star” of Radiohead in my mind. He wasn’t necessarily my favorite member — back then, I was an Ed O’Brien guy. (Even now, Ed is the one I would most want to hang out with, especially since he would be down to get high and listen to jam bands.) But Thom clearly was the guy that Radiohead was “about,” in terms of the point of view that was implanted on the band’s songs.
Every great band — even bands in which each member is ostensibly on “equal” footing — ultimately settles on a single narrative with a lead character. Sometimes that character is obvious, whether it’s Pete Townshend, Billy Corgan, or Hayley Williams. Other times a dynamic between two central figures is paramount, like Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, or Morrissey/Marr. In Radiohead, the public’s focus has always been on Yorke, and it probably always will be. He’s the singer, the frontman, and he originates the songs. If you love Radiohead, Yorke demands your attention.
But in the past decade or so, I’ve heard Radiohead differently than I once did. When I listen to “Creep” now, the focal point in my mind has shifted from the guy singing, “I wish I was special,” to the guy playing the blood-splatter riff in the pre-chorus, a violent eruption supposedly spurred by the guitarist’s desire in the studio to derail a song he despised. While Yorke’s voice and songs remain central to the band’s music, I’ve come to believe that he’s not the one who ultimately makes Radiohead sound special — not to mention tense, foreboding, cinematic, and alive.
That distinction belongs to Jonny Greenwood, the most interesting man in Radiohead. For me, this is now his band.
That is not a knock on Yorke, whose voice — judging by the bootlegs of this tour that I’ve been obsessing over — remains a remarkably pristine instrument. Okay, maybe it’s a slight knock on Yorke. I have to admit I winced when I read a 2017 Rolling Stone Radiohead profile in which Yorke wears “a bleached denim jacket with the collar popped up, a thin white T-shirt and what appear to be leather pants.” If that is what Yorke is rocking in his downtime, the difference between Radiohead and Muse isn’t quite as stark as some of us would like to believe.