Over the past twenty years Radiohead managed to achieve something no other rock band ever has: enduring outsider art rock credibility that shielded them from the media machinery they came to loathe at the end of the millennium, and enduring popularity that meant they could drop their last, 2016 LP, A Moon Shaped Pool “without doing a single interview and it still topped the charts all over the world,” Rolling Stone writes,” even if Drake and Beyonce kept them stuck at Number Three in America.” How did they do it?
Twenty years ago, New Yorker music writer Alex Ross described pop music as “in a state of suspense. On the one hand, the Top Forty chart is overrun with dancers, models, actors, and the like; on the other hand, there are signs that pop music is once again becoming a safe place for creative musicians. The world fame of Radiohead is a case in point.” Do we still see a dichotomy between “dancers, models, actors” and “creative musicians” like Radiohead in pop music? Perhaps it was a false one to begin with.
Despite their ambivalence about pop (and halls of fame), Radiohead hasn’t necessarily wanted to be pegged as standard bearers of the avant garde either. As drummer Phil Selway put it in the year they released Amnesia, the second of two of the most bafflingly oblique, yet strangely danceable rock albums in popular music: “we don’t want people twiddling their goatees over our stuff. What we do is pure escapism.” Yet after OK Computer, they emerged sounding like a band trying to escape itself.
They never wanted to be a collection of celebrities. They were happiest in the basement, co-creating a sound that is certainly greater than the sum of its parts but is also very much, Ross writes, the sum of its parts: “Take away any one element — Selway’s flickering rhythmic grid, for example, fierce in execution and trippy in effect — and Radiohead are a different band.” Even their programmed, electronic beats sound like Selway’s playing. “The five together form a single mind, with its own habits and tics — the Radiohead Composer.”
After detonating expectations that they’d continue on as a typical arena rock band, they were free to make music that met no one’s expectations but their own. That creative freedom unleashed in the next two decades a handful of albums solidifying their status as “Knights Templar of rock and roll” because of their willingness to change and adapt, while always playing to their strengths: their single-mindedness when playing together and the refined songwriting of Thom Yorke, showcased solo in the first episode of their producer Nigel Godrich’s “From the Basement” series. As mentioned in another recent post, the series featured intimate live music performances of bands, without a host or audience.
In later episodes, however, from 2008 and 2011, respectively, further up, the band played the full albums In Rainbows and The King of Limbs to perfection. Under the former video, on their YouTube page, one commenter jokes, “what a great band. I hope they can get out of the basement someday.” It’s funny because it seems like that’s exactly where they’d rather be. See more live performances from the “From the Basement” series here.