The first cut is the deepest, and Radiohead’s Creep cut me in a big way. It was one of my first experiences of a rock band. I watched the film clip, mesmerised. The picked tremolo notes rang like a macabre musical box while the chorus cut through like a chainsaw. Who were these pale, effeminate men, slinging and scrunching their way through such a pretty tune? In the stage lights Thom Yorke looked alien. His face contorted in ecstasy and angst. Johnny Greenwood hid behind a wall of noise and fringe, revving his guitar like a lawnmower.
When asked about Creep in 1993, Yorke said, “I have a real problem being a man in the ’90s. Any man with any sensitivity or conscience toward the opposite sex would have a problem. To actually assert yourself in a masculine way without looking like you’re in a hard-rock band is a very difficult thing to do.”
Until then my poster boy for masculinity had been Lenny Kravitz, strutting his way through 70’s pastiche glam. Radiohead sat brooding in the corner of the charts party, showing how vulnerable rock could be. No more Party Uncle, this was Arty Dad sitting me down with a bag of minor chords and telling me the birds and bees of sexual emotions. My world was ready for the juxtaposition of self-loathing in popular song. John Lennon had sung I’m a loser, Henry Rollins I’m a liar and Dennis Leary I’m an Asshole but they were all delivered behind a front-line of irony. Thom Yorke was compellingly exposed. An anti-hero who didn’t ask you to believe in him. His karaoke-slaying falsetto and crooked-eye weirdness gave the impression of a long suffering schoolboy – a life spent reading in shady rooms, sticky with illness, never getting enough sun.
Creep was a song for a generation of boys lusting clumsily through the schoolyard of life. Yorke said: “It is one of the things I’m always trying: To assert a sexual persona and on the other hand trying desperately to negate it.” Repressed sexuality was something that would define my school years. On one hand I was trying to be nice and Christian, and on the other I was feverish with hormones, keeping a diary of which girls had looked at me that day and taking too many baths.
Drying up in conversation, you will be the one who cannot talk
All your insides fall to pieces, you just sit there wishing you could still make love
When I first heard this lyric I nearly cried with embarrassment. Any closer to the bone and I’d have a heart attack. When asked what inspired the songs on The Bends Thom Yorke replied “Impotence.” While he was probably referring to a more general feeling of powerlessness, I clung to the word like a life raft. I’d just spent a bleak Australia Day home alone not having sex with my girlfriend. My Oasis poster wasn’t helping. I could hear Noel and Liam dissing me, back with another one of their cock-rocking bleats. The Bends was audio balm – gentle medicine for my collapsed soul. Someone felt as sad as I did.
* * *
Kid A is my favourite Radiohead album, and in my opinion the last musical masterpiece. I remember bringing it home in second year Uni – my flatmate Adam and I turned off all the lights and lay on the lounge-room floor, swimming in sound. A few days later I was home by myself listening to the vocal crescendo of ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack.’ The CD skipped, causing Thom Yorke to hold the note indefinitely. Perfectly.
I’ll see you in the next liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii…
I stared at the stereo in disbelief. It was bizarre and beautiful. A moment created just for me.
I remember Triple J’s Morning Show first playing my favourite track The National Anthem.
“It’s a long way from Creep isn’t it?” Said Francis Leach, with a sense of respect and trepidation, as if he still wasn’t sure which camp he belonged to. The disc dropped like a buzz saw, cleaving the world in two like great art. There was no sort-of liking Kid A, you were either saluting their inventiveness or mourning the lack of guitar songs. On writing the album Thom Yorke said he’d “completely had it with melody” and just wanted rhythm. He liked the idea of his voice being used an instrument rather than having a leading role.
The National Anthem is menace and finesse. Ominous and tough. Haunted and defiant. Entrancingly simple and deftly layered. It’s strut-prog drone-funk that flutters the subconscious and churns the stomach like butter.
At 0:01 we hear an electro glitch, the delay of a switch – the mother ship of malevolence warms her valves. The bass lays cables of dark fuzz, the stunningly primitive three note loop lurking down the scale. (Yorke wrote the riff when he was 16). The cymbal smashes in like white sun on ice, leading a galloping drum pattern, swinging and bowling like an eight legged kinetic road horse.
At 0:22 the cymbal is robbed on the first bar – delectable editing from Nigel Godrich. The percussion jumps a ravine before picking up on the fifth. It’s dropouts like these that add funk to the fury. At 0:54 there’s lashings of ride cymbal smacking. Beneath it synth lasers spiral and howl like remote space stations shooting digital comets into the lunar abyss. Snippets of ghostly brass warp and warble. The song paces back and forth like a horseman.
When I listen to The National Anthem on public transport, I feel tough and fucked up at the same time. It’s the soundtrack for my loner superiority. If I were a professional wrestler it would be my themesong. I’d be called The Ultimate Worrier. My signature move would be The Schitz. I’d wriggle my limbs uncontrollably, psyching out my opponent.
Synths and cymbals stop. Vocal begins.
Everyone around here (kickety-snarity-kickety-snarity)
Everyone is so (smasssshhhhhhhhhhh) near
and so alone.
Thom Yorke’s voice has a metallic echo on it – half robot / half ghost. We are treated to a Theremin trail and the wack-tableaux of a child’s la la la. It’s an eerie nod to the patronising monotony of city living. The lobotomy of misspent intelligence. The kid in the back seat of the car, young and free, poking his tongue out as your blood boils.
Everyone / Everyone is so near / Everyone is ? fear / It’s all a lie / It’s all a lie.
There is no song more audacious. From it’s very title it runs a dark claw beneath the stiff upper lip of modern day Britannia. It’s the Kraut-rock opera for a traffic jam, a pummelling hymn for those encased in the metal coffin of capitalism. The spiritually constipated. The Ok Commuters. It’s an unromanticised, unapologetic, undiluted musical army barnstorming the restrained recesses of popular music and turning over tables like Jesus in a temple. Charlatans! Hypocrites! It cries. Your pomposity and saccharinity has stagnated. Where’s the show don’t tell?
At 2:38 horns become weapons. Radiohead show us what blood and guts sounds like. The microscopic screech of a life half-lived. Amplified. Contorted. Mutated beyond human shape. Alarm wails for the professionally world-weary. Rails buckle under artificial heat. Trains of thought rattle and tip. Dreams lay crushed in stagnant ambulances. Unapproachable wounds. The blunt reality of our unpublishable selves.
Nick Drake sang I am the parasite of this town, while Trent Reznor wrote You could have it all / my empire of dirt. REM’s Everybody Hurts film clip features human traffic stepping out of their cars and moving on. The closing three minutes of The National Anthem is a furnace of sonic distress. A brassy black hole where sentiments melt down to their base elements and erupt with backlogged, unresolved emotion.
It’s all a lie.
It’s all a lie.
At 3:46 there is respite. The song stops to breathe, like a crazed man tired from self-rumpus. Voice and trumpet are one. Blood flows. Traffic moves. At 4:03 a string is tightened. Nerves pull taut. At 4:08, a death scene. A lone trumpet speeds out of control. A poisoned wind-nymph spiralling through death throes. It’s musically graphic. The sound paints a thousand pictures.
The horns are wonderfully ugly, like the creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth, there is a labour of love in their ghoulish design. They bleat like sheep, wail like children, harrumph like Roald Dahl characters, zigzag like autistic etch-a-sketch, compete like sperm, jostle like chimps and clog up the void like orchestral off-cuts. As with an audio Jackson Pollock, strips of colour have been thrown on the canvas with such precision of vision that the final mix, as messy as sin, convinces the audience it is as much and as little as it needs to be.
By 5:00 the song’s been going for dog days. No more ABAB. This is alphabet soup. I want to cry. Sympathy for the demons. The subconscious hits and conscious misses. A booklet of bruises. At 5:15 the song runs out of steam. In the studio Johnny Greenwood orders the players to choose a random note, waving his stick like a wizard. “Just blow. Just blow, just blow, just blow.” There are two such ghastly blasts. The sword is driven into the dragon. Swirls. A chilling vocal sample. Man caught in limbo. Falling awake.
Delay is sped up and sped down – the Godrich signature.
Finally, there is end.
The National Anthem is compelling, disturbing, offensive and exciting. An anthem that hammers the dimensions. Each play, a moment in history. A personal revolution.
* * *
To off-set their overblown presence, Radiohead are often met with a teenage aloofness. “I kind of stopped bothering with them.” They dwell in their own chamber – off the mainstream radar but alternatively popular beyond scale. I like to think of them as The Beatles of my time. Too often they are the round peg for my holy soul.
First published Mess+Noise 2011.
Illustrations by Leigh Rigozzi.