Thursday, March 11, 2010
Since the collapse of the British empire after World War II, the English mostly stopped trying to subjugate native peoples and turned their attention to a different, though related, field: rock 'n' roll. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, Cream, T. Rex, Pink Floyd, Queen, David Bowie, The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, The Clash, Gang of Four, The Fall, The Smiths, The Cure, Joy Division, Blur, Oasis...it's hard to name a rock band that isn't English. Even His Holiness Jimi Hendrix had to go to their side of the pond to find success.
The British music press helps out by finding every band that looks halfway appealing and hyping them until they're the second coming of Oasis, who the media hyped into the second coming of The Beatles. Much like some people in the basketball media compare every good young player to Michael Jordan, every good young English band is the Next Savior Of Rock 'n' Roll. Remember the Arctic Monkeys? Neither do I.
Radiohead, of course, is different. They weren't over-hyped to start their careers, possibly because their first album, Pablo Honey, wasn't very good. And when they were anointed the Best Band Of All Time, Or At Least Of The 90s—this happened sometime between The Bends and OK Computer—they responded not by self-imploded, but by putting out Kid A, which even snobs who only listened to free jazz and “post-rock” had to admit was pretty good. In my part of Brooklyn, where it is traditional to scoff at the bands and things other people enjoy, very few people say they don't like Radiohead—except for “dean of American rock critics” and professional asshole Robert Christgau, everyone who cares about music made mostly by electric guitars has decided Radiohead is a good thing.
I'm one of those people: I have all of Radiohead's studio albums, Thom Yorke's solo project, and a fair number of their B-Sides (“Cuttooth” is under appreciated), I paid a hefty sum to see them in concert on their last tour, I carpooled to that concert with people I met through W.A.S.T.E, the band's social networking site, and I even wrote a fake Thom Yorke blog for a while. I'm listening to the recently-released “These Are My Twisted Words” as I write this. Until recently, if you asked me what my favorite band was, I would have said Radiohead without thinking about it.
The problem I have with them now is that in all the hours I've spent listening to nearly their entire catalogue, I've never heard anything that I would describe as “light hearted” or even “fun.” Radiohead Matters, they're Serious and Thoughtful and Complex, but for a band that plays pop music they take themselves awfully seriously. They kick ass live—for lack of a better term—but they run through their technically demanding songs like classical musicians: accurately, passionately, and with an almost total lack of improvisation or stage banter. Simply put, they don't usually look like they're having a good time up there.
That sounds nit-picky, but isn't it important for anyone who's doing anything as self-evidently absurd as playing rock music for a living be having a good time? Radiohead may be enjoying life, and I've read enough interviews with Yorke to know the guy has a sense of humor, but there's no evidence of that in their music or in his lyrics, which Christgau describes accurately as “how about that, Thom Yorke is bummed.”
Radiohead comes after a long line of important bands who took themselves extremely seriously, but nearly all of their influences were able to write a nice love song or crack a smile when the occasion demanded it. The Beatles were bigger than Jesus, but they were also a lot more fun; sometimes they just wanted you to drive their car or hold their hand. The Clash were serious and politically minded, but also had some lighthearted head-bobbing songs (“Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and “1-2 Crush On You”). Talking Heads, who wrote the song Radiohead is named for, had a whole lot of jokes in their songs and their videos, or at least they did if you got them (“Nothing But Flowers” is hilarious). Even The Cure had that song about Friday being better than all the other days, a level of silliness that would just make Radiohead embarrassed. Heck, even Pink Floyd wrote a few off-kilter love songs once in a while before Syd Barrett lost his brain on a trip.
These days if you asked me who my favorite band was, I'd talk about Talking Heads, who were as artsy as Jonny Greenwood or Yorke but didn't feel the need to beat you over the head with their importance. Or I'd mention the Flaming Lips, who are both crazier and more cheerful than any band to come out of the English music hype machine. Or maybe Pavement, who became a band around the same time Radiohead did, yet didn't end up obsessed with the end of the world (and wrote some of the best lyrics you'll find anywhere). Radiohead is a gloomy band, and these are some admittedly gloomy times, but just because cars and capitalism are slowly destroying us doesn't mean we can't flash a smile or wink at the audience once in a while. Yet Radiohead seems determined to keep a straight face through everything, and though they might be a great band, they'll never be a fun one.
Correction: My mistake! Radiohead did record a happy song, just to prove they could. Here it is: