Thom Yorke Radiohead and Trading Solo
A very long time ago around 1991 there were these two bands, suspiciously eyeing each other from the safety of their new major label deals that somehow seemed the most likely of their generation to break through to the big time. Both were highly intelligent, both had a left field and a political edge, both were defiant outsiders in the cosy music industry circles both singers had eye afflictions; in addition both put their faith in Caffy St Luce of Hall or Nothing Independent Publicity to present them to the world, and both inspired devoted, one could almost say obsessive fans and fanzines one fanzine 'Insane', edited by the ever knowledgeable Val Savage, even promoted both bands simultaneously.
And the names of these two bands? Radiohead and Manic Street Preachers.
History has gone on to show the astuteness of early fans such as Savage, as these two bands have gone on to be two of the biggest on the planet.
I find it a bit strange that this book doesn't mention any of early Radiohead's early connections with The Manics, but there's not many other stones that Baker leaves unturned. Although the book is 'Unofficial and Unauthorised', its obvious that the author has trawled through piles of press cuttings and radio and TV interviews to illuminate his subject, and every major twist and turn of Yorke's unique career is illustrated with at least one quotation. The writer has also tried hard to talk first hand to those in the know, such as school friends, college contemporaries, recording engineers and other bands and friends from the Oxford scene with an insight into the factors that made Radiohead one of the most original and influential bands on the planet.
Baker accepts the common consensus that Radiohead only really started to be 'so fucking special' with the release of OK Computer, and it seems that I'm in a minority of one in valuing their first album, Pablo Honey, above all the rest. So much is it accepted wisdom (even amongst some band members) that the first album was rather an embarrassment, that the writer does not even argue the point, just expecting us to agree with him. Which I don't. Some of the other great books put out by this publisher have made me eager to go back to an artist's work and re-evaluate my opinion of it, as the writer's enthusiasm for their subject has been contagious. For all its careful research and well-written anecdotes, this book fails to inspire me to revisit the records I've not fallen for (in Radiohead's case, that's all those after The Bends) and give them a second chance. All it's made me do is dig out Pablo Honey again.
Which is not to say that I've not learnt a lot from the book, nor that I didn't enjoy it, as the reverse is true in both cases. In fact it has managed to confirm me in my prejudices that have had me sticking with the Manics over the past 20 years, while losing interest in Radiohead. Thom Yorke, despite all his undoubted imagination, perfectionism, ideals and talent, comes across as a bit of a whiny tosser : he is lead singer and lyricist for a band, yet he hates it when people analyse his lyrics and wonder what they mean, he bristled at being ruled over by a record label but found the freedom of releasing his own music even more distressing, he couldn't function in a recording studio but then couldn't work in a space specially constructed for the band nor in various luxurious mansions they rented out, he protested at Tony Blair and was desperate not to turn out like Bono, but then was eager to distance himself from producing a 'protest record', even watering down the implications of the title 'Hail to the Thief', he finds recording almost unbearably difficult (the band nearly split up as they worked on most of their albums) but finds live shows equally unsatisfying, he wakes up at night worrying about global warming yet his stadium tours have a huge carbon footprint, he claims to hate rock music and guitars yet has made a very good living from it. Above all, he seems to find fronting one of the most successful bands in the world, an opportunity many longingly dream of, at best irksome and at worst, soul destroying and unbearable no wonder he refers to the band as 'a monster'.
Now of course I've no idea what it's like to to Thom Yorke, so I can't criticise him for any of the above. It's to the credit of Baker's book that, despite its generally reverential tone, it points out all the contradictions in Yorke's position and is a lively, entertaining, informative read. What it fails to even attempt to do is to explain why anyone should see OK Computer and subsequent album as anything but self-indulgent prog rock bollocks, responsible for ruining hundreds of young bands.
Time to send away the tigers?