Hits with a Cutting Edge

Nicholas Jennings November 13 2000

Hits with a Cutting Edge

Nicholas Jennings November 13 2000

Hits with a Cutting Edge


Nicholas Jennings

Things got off to a spooky start when Radiohead took to the stage recently at Toronto's Air Canada Centre. Nothing, to paraphrase John Lennon in Strawberry Fields Forever, seemed quite real. Over a disturbingly repetitive bass, the Eng lish group's front man, Thom Yorke, serenaded the sold-out audience with a strangely disembodied voice on The National Anthem, one of the songs from Radiohead's brave new album, KidA. "Everyone around here," Yorke intoned, looking alienlike and vulnerable in the spotlight's glare, "everyone has got the fear." Keyboardist Jonny Greenwood added to the ten sion, twirling the dials on a transistor radio that emitted a se ries of discomfiting squeals and drones. Meanwhile, a dizzy ing light show of flashing strobes gave all the band members'

Things got off to a spooky start when Radiohead took to What is going on here? Play is a left-field hit that has sold

the stage recendy at Torontos Air Canada Centre. Nothing, five million copies worldwide. Kid Ás success is even more to paraphrase John Lennon in Strawberry Fields Forever, unlikely: the album made its debut in October at No. 1 in

seemed quite real. Over a disturbingly repetitive bass, the EngNorth America without the benefit of a single or a video_

lish groups front man, Thom Yorke, serenaded the sold-out both of which the commercially ambivalent Radiohead reaudience with a strangely disembodied voice on The National fused to issue. While some observers continue to declare the Anthem, one of the songs from Radioheads brave new album, decline of pop music, citing the shift to the lightweight prodKidA. “Everyone around here,” Yorke intoned, looking alienuct of Britney Spears, ’N Sync et al, Moby and Radiohead are like and vulnerable in the spodight’s glare, “everyone has got proof that not only is the genre still alive and evolving, but the fear.” Keyboardist Jonny Greenwood added to the tenthere is an audience hungry for the cutting edge.

sion, twirling the dials on a transistor radio that emitted a series of discomfiting squeals and drones. Meanwhile, a dizzying light show of flashing strobes gave all the band members’ movements a jerky, mechanical appearance that conjured up visions of the creature in one of Radiohead’s most famous songs, Paranoid Android. The entire concert, in fact, lived up to the edgy, experimental spirit that pervades Radiohead’s latest work, proving that Yorke and his bandmates are determined to take pop music in new directions. As Yorke professed to one reporter recently: “I’m bored with the rock thing; aren’t you?”

Such pronouncements may not be surprising coming from a man who once wrote a song called Pop Is Dead. But while Radiohead still had at least one foot in the mainstream pop camp until recently, with Kid. A the Oxford-based band has completely abandoned standard guitar-rock structures.

Full of electronic beats and bleeps, vocal distortions and odd time signatures, the album has more in common with recent recordings by Beck, Moby and even Madonna’s latest than anything by Oasis, Blur or other British guitar bands of the 1990s with whom Radiohead first emerged. Like American artist Moby’s ambient Play, Kid A blends oldand newworld sounds to create a liberated, 21 st-century pop music that is both compelling and, oddly enough, commercial.

Radiohead and Moby prove that pop is still alive and well

Sitting in a quiet dining room in a renovated 19th-century Toronto courthouse on the afternoon after the concert, Radiohead’s Greenwood (Yorke, who writes all the lyrics and is

in effect the band leader, does not give interviews) described the fractious 16-month process that resulted in Kid A. Guitarist Ed O’Brien wanted to return to Radiohead’s roots and make a guitar-based record. Yorke had other ideas, preferring more of the free, cut-and-paste world of hip-hop DJs and dance remixers—the “two turntables and a microphone” ethos about which Beck, another innovator who has enjoyed commercial success, rhapsodized in his 1996 hit Where It’s At.

Yorke’s approach won out, and band members threw themselves into the experimental process. Greenwood, who studied classical music and psychology at the same private school that his bandmates attended, introduced a proto-synthesizer called an Ondes Martenot, once used by French composer Olivier Messiaen. Like Radiohead’s best-selling last release, 1997’s OK Computer, Kid A takes dreamy twists and turns, but often veers off into dark, nightmarish cul-de-sacs. Yet there is a hopefulness to the songs, much like that found in heroes of anti-utopian novels such as George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxleys Brave New World. Greenwood notes that Yorke,

joked that companies such as Ford, Molson and Nike had sponsored each song the band performed. “It’s mad,” says Greenwood. “Thom speculated that one day the city of Toronto itself is going to be sponsored.” Although they are both politically motivated and share a thrilling sense of musical experimentation, Radiohead and Moby couldn’t be further apart on the issue of sponsorship. Moby, born Richard Melville Hall, has freely allowed each of the 18 songs on Play to be licensed for use in films, TV programs and commercials. In fact, Moby’s electronica music has appeared in ads for Labatt, Baileys, Nissan and American Express. For Hall, a native of New York City and a former Marxist punk rocker, it’s all a matter of pragmatism. He recalls first being offered a large sum of money—about $225,000— five or six years ago by the automobile manufacturer Range Rover to use one of his songs in a TV ad. “I figured if I said no they’d still make the commercial using some cheap knock-off of my music,” Moby insists. “So I decided to do it and donated the money I got to Greenpeace and Transport 2000.” Since then, Moby has continued to make donations to various environmental causes, although he admits he’s “not 100-per-cent altruistic, because I do like money, or at least the security that it represents.” In Toronto recently for an appearance on the MuchMusic Video Awards, in the midst of his 21month world tour, Moby sat in the offices of « his Canadian distributor, and reflected on I the unexpected success of Play, which has I spawned such worldwide Top 10 singles as ° Bodyrock and Porcelain. “It’s an eclectic ^ record when most successful records are

who writes all of the band’s lyrics, has in fact read Orwell’s classic so many times that his copy is now dog-eared and full of pen marks. For Kid A, he adds, Yorke wrote a series of long and short phrases, threw them into a hat and then chose them at random to form the lyrics for the album’s songs. The result is a series of elliptical yet haunting fragments that work their way into the subconscious. In Optimistic, the phrase “you can try the best you can, the best you can is good enough” serves as a hopeful refrain in a song about a bleak world of dinosaurs roaming the earth and big fish eating little ones.

As such lyrics suggest, Radiohead has a political agenda.

Along with supporting such movements as Free Tibet and Drop the Debt, which seeks to eradicate Third World debt, the band has embraced Toronto author Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, about the branding of the planet by such corporations as IBM, Starbucks and McDonald’s. During the band’s Toronto performance (one of only three North American stops), Yorke

kind of one-dimensional,” he says, “an idiosyncratic one when most are quite formulaic, and I’m 35 years old when most hits are made by people who are 18.” Like Massive Attack’s 1998 album, Mezzanine, Play is one of those records that seems to be everywhere: in dance clubs, elevators, the local hairdresser’s. The reason for its ubiquity can be traced to its artful mix of traditional blues and gospel with modern synthesizers and dance beats, which adds a human warmth to an otherwise cold and technical pastiche.

A man who once made the Guinness Book of Records for producing the fastest record on earth, the 1,000-beats-perminute techno hit Thousand, Moby has slowed things down and created a classic with Play. Like Radiohead’s Kid A, the album offers an intelligent alternative to the angry rap-metal and breezy dance music that have dominated the charts. Both recordings, arguably the two most important releases in recent years, bode well for pop music’s future. ED