I remember very well the day I bought Radiohead’s OK COMPUTER. I was living in Helena, Montana, for the year, and I made a not atypical trip down to my favorite weirdo store, Hastings, to get some comics. You know, the usual batch of Batman and sci-fi titles.
While there, I spotted a stack of CDs labeled something like “prog for a new era.” Intrigued, I had to check them out. They turned out to be the Radiohead cd, OK COMPUTER. Money was rather tight in those days, so I decided to get the cd rather than the stack of comics (I bought just two comics on that weekly trip—such restraint!).
As with almost every other American my age, I had heard Radiohead all of the time during their “Creep” days. Not only had American alternative radio played the G-verion of “Creep” nonstop, but then Tears for Fears did a cover of it. It was everywhere in the early 90s, a defining song for the alternative rock movement.
Getting back to my apartment, I popped the CD into my sound system and was rather taken with what I heard. This wasn’t wasn’t the newer prog I was used to at that point in time, what would be called “third-wave prog.” That is, it didn’t—to my ears, at least—sound anything like Spock’s Beard or Marillion. Well, maybe a little like Marillion, but not enough to dominate my impression of the album. Instead, it struck me as a very 1997 take on a 1975 classic. OK Computer sounded exactly like what I would have expected when a good alternative band embraced Pink Floyd. This was “Welcome to the Machine,” 22 years later and rather updated.
I liked it, but I saw OK COMPUTER as a part of what I hoped would be the band’s trajectory rather than an end point, in and of itself. Indeed, I thought the first six tracks of the album the equal of anything I’d ever heard. Once the computer voice began on “fitter happier,” though I began to lose interest. To this day, I think the first half of the album is astounding, while I think the second half feels like really, really interesting filler.
I wanted to see where the band had been, however, so I bought their previous two albums as well as an EP or two and various single releases. Though I thought Radiohead made a decent prog band, I thought they made an outstanding rock band. Songs such as “Blow Out” and “Street Spirit” were equal or better than even the best rock songs of the 1970s.
I went on more than a bit of a Radiohead obsession from OK COMPUTER through HAIL TO THE THIEF, buying every single thing they released and watching everything I could about them. College students came to my house so that we could watch Radiohead live. I even had traveling friends and family digging for particular Radiohead releases in Asia and Australia.
Though I won’t go into their two best albums here, I still believe that KID A (2000) and AMNESIAC (2001) are two of the greatest albums of the last sixty years, equal to anything made in the rock or prog world or prog-pop world. This is especially true of KID A. With these two albums, Radiohead truly progressed beyond rock and prog, creating (or discovering) a voice uniquely their own.
When HAIL TO THE THIEF came out in the summer of 2003, I was rather disappointed. The album was fine, but it was nothing compared to any one of their previous releases, and not even in the same land mass as KID A.
At least as I saw it. Where was the innovation, where was the discovery, the excitement? This was simple navel gazing, music to depress. It seemed more a drug than a work of art.
Since 2003, I’ve continued to purchase every single thing Radiohead releases, hoping that they might attain and reclaim their once held excellence. Each new release has been satisfying, but not astounding. From HAIL TO THE THIEF to IN RAINBOWS to THE KING OF LIMBS—and all the live and studio tracks in between—I’ve felt that Radiohead had simply become a stoner band, releasing one relatively good but not great track after another, each maintaining the same sound developed around the time of HAIL TO THE THIEF. The excitement was gone, and now it had become a form of cool droning and wallowing in nihilism and profit. If anything, I felt like Radiohead was taking advantage of me, throwing the love and loyalty I had offered them with KID A and AMNESIAC in my face. Ok, I didn’t quite take it this personally, but here’s hoping you know what I mean. They had gone from great artists to effective profit makers.
MOON SHAPED POOL (2016) has only been a part of my life for a week now. About two weeks ago, I had posted my favorite albums of 2016 (thus far), and one of my great fellow progarchists, Eric Perry, rightly asked, “but what about the new Radiohead?”
New Radiohead? What? I’ve been following them since 1997, and I didn’t realize—for the first time since—that they had a new album? Or, I had forgotten.
Last week, thanks to the fine profit-makers at amazon.com, my copy of MOON SHAPED POOL arrived on my door step. Thank the good Lord for Eric Perry! What a joy. From the opening note to the final one, MOON SHAPED POOL is something gorgeous. I’m not ready to review this new album yet, as I want to do it justice. But, let me just state here: Radiohead is back. Not the droning, give us your money Radiohead, but the Radiohead that takes art seriously, the Radiohead I fell in love with in 2000, is back. It’s been fifteen years since that band released AMNESIAC. But, that band is back.
More to come. . . .