Intimate Live Performances of Radiohead, Sonic Youth, the White Stripes, PJ Harvey & More: No Host, No Audience, Just Pure Live Music

It should be clear by now that rock and roll pos­es no dan­ger to the sta­tus quo. Fair enough: It’s going on 70 years since Elvis and Chuck Berry freaked out par­ents of scream­ing teens, and 50 years since Iggy and the Stooges ripped up stages in Detroit and the denizens of CBGB made rock sub­ver­sive again. That’s a long time for an edge to dull, and dull it has. Per­haps nowhere is this more in evi­dence than rock films like CBGB, which “some­how man­ages to make punk rock bor­ing,” and Netflix’s The Dirt, a movie about Möt­ley Crüe that gives us as much insight into the band as a cou­ple spins of “Dr. Feel­go­od,” argues crit­ic Bri­an Tal­leri­co.

Yes, we can chalk up bad rock films to lazy film­mak­ing and stu­dio greed, but there’s also a gen­er­al sense that the cul­ture now under­stands rock only as a mat­ter of ges­tures and anec­dotes: the mak­ing of the music reduced to styl­is­tic quirks and kitschy arti­fice.

This is in con­trast, Radio­head pro­duc­er Nigel Godrich felt, to ear­li­er media like the live per­for­mances on The Old Grey Whis­tle Test. (It’s cer­tain­ly in con­trast to John Peel’s raw ses­sions and films like Urgh! A Music War.) In mak­ing his From the Base­ment series, Godrich said, “I’m a sad fan try­ing to bring the mag­ic back to music TV.”

Just as rock pho­tog­ra­phy was reduced from “total access all the time” to well-kept mar­ket­ing and PR (or so claimed the late, leg­endary Baron Wol­man), rock per­for­mance has become over­pro­duced spec­ta­cle in which it can be dif­fi­cult to tell pre-record­ed tracks from real play­ing. Add to this the loss of inti­ma­cy in live venues in the time of COVID, and we get even far­ther away from the music’s cre­ation. Godrich and pro­duc­er Dil­ly Gent con­ceived of From the Base­ment years before the pan­dem­ic, but it’s almost as if they antic­i­pat­ed a cul­tur­al cri­sis of our moment, the enforced sep­a­ra­tion from the mak­ing of live music.

Like the best Zoom con­certs, From the Base­ment, pro­duced between 2006 and 2009, eschews the trap­pings of host, audi­ence, and stu­dio light­ing for an imme­di­ate expe­ri­ence of live cre­ation. It’s a safe, ster­ile envi­ron­ment — miss­ing are mosh pits, fans swarm­ing the stage, and the sex, drugs, and vio­lence of old. But to pre­tend that rock is dan­ger­ous in the 21st cen­tu­ry is noth­ing more than pre­tense. There’s no need to turn the music into the edgy spec­ta­cle it isn’t any­more (and has­n’t been since “Creep” ruled the radio), Godrich and Gent’s con­cept sug­gests. In doing so, we miss what it is now.

Or as Thom Yorke — whose band got first dibs, play­ing “Video­tape” and “Down is the New Up” in the debut episode — remarked, the show “was excit­ing because it came from the desire to cut out the crap that lies between the music and the view­er. To get plugged straight into the mains. No pro­duc­er or direc­tor egos mess­ing it up.” See From the Base­ment per­for­mances from Radio­head, Son­ic Youth, the White Stripes, and PJ Har­vey above and many more archived at the From the Base­ment YouTube chan­nel here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

An Archive of 1,000 “Peel Ses­sions” Avail­able Online: Hear David Bowie, Bob Mar­ley, Elvis Costel­lo & Oth­ers Play in the Stu­dio of Leg­endary BBC DJ John Peel

Radio­head Will Stream Con­certs Free Online Until the Pan­dem­ic Comes to an End

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke Per­forms Songs from His New Sound­track for the Hor­ror Film, Sus­piria

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.