This week my head has been full of Radiohead. I can't get enough: on one hand they know how to make rich, interesting music (Kid A) while on the other they know how to sound like a "real" rock band (as in those quiet starts that explode moments later, or the crushing intensity of the guitar solo in Just). Their best music has a unique, ambivalent quality, too, which somehow manages not to interfere with its intensity. (It's almost as if they've taken our ideas of past rock music and used them much as Warhol used photo-journalism - as in their allusions to Bohemian Rhapsody in Paranoid Android). I thought it was just me until I read Thom Yorke saying something similar (he's talking about the album, The Bends): "It was like there's a secret camera in a room and it's watching the character who walks in - a different character for each song. The camera's not quite me. It's neutral, emotionless. But not emotionless at all. In fact, the very opposite". And again, on OK Computer: "Loads of the music on OK Computer is extremely uplifting. It's only when you read the words that you'd think otherwise."
It all began a few weeks earlier. Amy and I had been sat in the car on the edge of the moors outside Hebden Bridge (outside the Shepherd's Rest pub, for the sake of any local readers) eating fish and chips, listening to the Proms on Radio 3. I'd turned it on in the middle of a piece for string orchestra. We had no idea what it was: possibly Penderecki, I thought, at first. (Moments reminded me of his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima). It was one of those moments when the place you are in and what you are feeling at the time conspire together to make your mind more receptive than it usually is. Outside the wind was riffling the dry, long grass on the hillside, and it was as if the movement of the grass was actually creating the shimmering string-sounds we were listening to. Life was a film with a soundtrack, and I felt helplessly embedded in it.
When the piece finished we discovered what it was: Popcorn Superhet Receiver by Jonny Greenwood (the Radiohead member) and for me, it knocks spots off a lot of contemporary classical music being written in Britain at the moment (well, at least most of the things I get to hear). It is driven by a real expressive impulse. It is neither afraid of being challenging one moment nor afraid of being simple another.
When I was younger, attempts by classical musicans to make rock music (and vice versa) were usually dire and misguided. Deep Purple's famously dreadful Concerto for Group and Orchestra springs to mind. To make a particular kind of music one has to intuitively understand how it works and what it's trying to say: too often when people cross from one genre to another they only seem to understand the surface texture. The results are empty. Popcorn Superhet Receiver is different. This, for me, is the work of a musician who tries to make sound serve his creativity, be it the sound of a string orchestra or a Fender Telecaster. And what goes for Greenwood goes for Radiohead as a whole. As the composer and conductor Esa Pekka Salonen put it: "When I heard OK Computer, after five minutes I said, 'I actually get this. I understand what these people are trying to do.' And what they were trying was not so drastically different from what I was trying to do."
5 years ago