‘People called us ugly ducklings, so we had to turn around and start using it.’
Thom Yorke was born with a paralyzed left eye, and in his early years had to wear a patch as he was receiving surgery. The last operation went wrong and he was left with a drooping eyelid. That slight imperfection in his facial image makes him look different, rather like the way David Bowie’s different colored eyes make him look different. This little imperfection gives us the viewer the permission to look twice, because we have to.
Radiohead are a non-conformist band, temperamental in their attitude and their sounds. There is an early picture of the band showing Yorke with a skinhead, in leather, and giving the finger with his bandmates watching on. Most of the pictures from the early hard touring times show no grace or style. The band was never a bundle of laughs, but rather characterless ugly ducklings that turned their image to their own advantage. When a song like “Creep” is your anthem, it’s likely you might attract a misfit audience. But Yorke doesn’t see ugliness as the problem: “There are bigger criticisms you could level, that there is self-hatred in the music and anger and vitriol.”
In the early gigs, the band would finish with “Pop Is Dead” and “Anyone Can Play Guitar”, songs that are an attack on those that “Think that growing their hair and wearing tight leather trousers constitutes being a rock star.”
Yorke and Radiohead seem alienated from aspects of modern life, and at times from aspects of their chosen profession and industry. They also rebuff academic study and suggest that the music speaks for itself. On this subject, it’s worth looking at some of Radiohead’s early visual work from around the time of The Bends so as to consider how the visual culture of the band complements their music, their feeling for their audience, and what they want to say through their music and art.
If Radiohead are seen as the last great British rock band before the digital revolution in pop music, is this revealed in their use of complimentary media like videos and films? Is it visible in their live stage shows of the team or the covers of their albums? Does the visual culture of the band capture the essence of the music?
I will do this by looking at three of the band’s early visual artifacts: the video of their gig at the London Astoria in May 1994; the videos that they released around the time of The Bends and OK Computer (compiled and released under the title of “7 Television Commercials” in 1998) and the music documentary Meeting People is Easy, directed by Grant Gee. This was also made in 1998 and is primarily concerned with the live touring after the release of OK Computer.
Radiohead Live at the Astoria, London, 27 May 1994
This is the only live video that Radiohead have released officially. There are, of course, many live videos generated by users currently residing on YouTube and Vevo that track the band throughout the years. But whatever else this video at the Astoria achieves, it does show that Radiohead were a ‘90s band before they were anything else. The video captures the early or earlier days before the changes to come after the release of The Bends in 1995. It also helps capture Radiohead as one of the last great rock bands before the onset of the digital era in popular music.
The evidence for this is in the video itself. There are few pictures of the audience, a young, enthusiastic bunch of student types not unlike the band—not really the misfits one would be led to expect. This is 1994, and the audience does not spend time holding up their mobile phones recording the experience.
The video lasts about 67 minutes, and features songs from Pablo Honey and The Bends. This was May 1994, a time before they actually recorded The Bends, when some of the songs were still in development.
The first thing you notice is how conventional some aspects of this rock show are. Radiohead in the early ‘90s still had a bit of rock swagger and pomp about them, a real earnestness in their playing, like many bands of the time. Some commentators might read this as a lot of post-grunge rock posturing, and others as a reflection of youthful energy. The band had been together for almost ten years by this time, and there is considerable competence and musicianship in this performance.
The second thing you notice is that Radiohead seem to be a band with a lot of guitarists, one of whom seems to be an interloper from another band as he spends a lot of time in an intimate relationship with his guitar and fiddling with pedals to get the right sound. Notice Jonny Greenwood’s stance: his arched body and hair flop over the guitar, occasionally rising up energetically and aggressively to join in with the rest of the band.
Yorke is the most distinctive looking of the bunch: bleached blonde hair, slightly androgynous, thin and smaller than the rest of the band, but clearly the leader. Yorke and Jonny look like the only two who have thought about their image at all. Ed O’Brien is in a plain white shirt and blue jeans. Colin Greenwood is the most static, perhaps the coolest, standing at right angles to everyone else, maybe in private conversation with Phil on the drums. Their clothes are circumspect; there is little by way of uniform.
Yorke leads what interaction there is with the audience. The interaction is minimal but audible: basic introductions such as, “This is a new song”, “This is called ‘Ripcord’”, and “Thanks very much”.
The lighting is simple, with a few strobes from time to time. Often, the band is bathed in blue light. There is no neon banner proclaiming, “This is Radiohead!”
Musically, the dynamics are excellent, moving from quiet to loud, from fast to painfully slow. Yorke’s voice is not only high pitched, but also angst-ridden, if not a little miserable at times. His is a voice that transcends the immense sound of the noise of guitars and effects.
“Black Star” is the fourth song in the set list, and the first to hint at the future sound of the group. “Fake Plastic Trees” becomes the slow number in the set. “Creep” is greeted with recognition in the normal way.
This Astoria show captures a band without an image, one not trying to push the “Radiohead identity” that we have come to know. Instead, these guys are just trying to play the songs and actually enjoy themselves. This concert is a significant part of the Radiohead archive, catching the band at an early stage of development at a time when they were not assured of future success and had not fully developed their artistic vision. The Bends appeared ten months later.
7 Television Commercials (1998)
There is more than a touch of irony in the title 7 Television Commercials. Yes, they used some video directors who were also well known for their television commercials, but in collaborating with such directors, were they lending themselves to commercialization or sending it up? The best way to tell is to look at the videos individually. That might tell us what Radiohead felt they were selling to us. I think it is simply their artistic vision.
“Street Spirit (Fade Out)” (directed by Jonathan Glazer)
This is monochrome video; the black and white seems ageless and surreal. The sky is black; darkness hangs over the entire video. The wind blows. A few streaks of lightning flash through this darkness. Ominously Yorke stands looking over his shoulder, deciding whether to jump, arms stretched out he does jump off the top of a trailer caravan. He falls in slow motion and seems to strike the ground below, which quickly switches to a prone Yorke lying on top of a car. He is perhaps dead, or contemplating death and the hopelessness of his predicament. The rest of the band play supporting roles as characters around him, appearing out of sync and time with him, freeze and unfreeze in their movements.
The pulsing minor arpeggios are relentless, and Yorke’s vocals are frighteningly emotional. The video mimics the sense of the song, a meditation on the hopelessness of life, which will inevitably end in death. “Street Spirit” is a song that finds its singer in existential crisis.
It speaks of “rows of houses”; the video gives us a trailer park of caravans. All those that live here may well end here.
Yorke has talked of this song as being his darkest. When the band plays the song live, it is kept near the end of the performance, down the setlist because the singer finds the performance draining. He looks out across the crowd and he is chilled when he considers their fate.
Music video scholar Carol Vernallis suggests, “Videos mimic the concerns of pop music, which are usually a consideration of a topic rather than an enactment of it.” In this case, director Jonathan Glazer provides us with a set of images that match the emotion of the song. Glazer is well known for his TV commercials and his use of monochrome, most notably in the famous Guinness commercial of the surfer waiting for the perfect wave and the horses emerging from the surf.
“Street Spirit” is full of similarly dark symbols: the dragonfly descending, the dog held by a chain, the dark tree, and the feathers blown on the wind. Perhaps the most striking image is of levitation, with the final image being of Yorke hanging in the air. Levitation in mysticism is a sign of enlightenment, of rising above nature and not being constrained by it.
The key line of the song is its final line, which repeats: “Immerse your soul in love”. Despite the overwhelming feeling of dread, there is hope—or at least a glimpse of it. Between the video and the song, Radiohead and Glazer capture the overlap between religion and art, as well as the insight that both of those disciplines provide in terms of man’s predicament. If this is a commercial, there is nothing to sell, apart from insight itself.
“Just” (directed by Jamie Thraves)
Music video making is rather like filmmaking in reverse: the soundtrack is created first and then a film is made to go with the track. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case with the music video for Radiohead’s “Just”, where the band is tangential to the main narrative of the video. In this case, Radiohead are playing in an apartment above the street where the main action of the video takes place. “Just” is a music video where you can say that the musical peaks and troughs match with the visuals on the screen.
Saul Austerlitz, in his history of the music video, describes “Just” as the best example of a mystery video. A man lies down in the middle of the street for no obvious reason and refuses to budge. Members of the public and the police ask him to move along, but he tells them he won’t get up and that if he knew what he knew, they wouldn’t ask him. Eventually, the crowd persuades him to tell them what he knows. The closing shot is a tracking shot across the crowd who have all decided to lie down on the street.
Whilst most of the story is told through subtitles, the subtitles are not included when the secret message is revealed. This narrative has perplexed Radiohead fans and many others. This can be read as a metaphor wherein the band is the purveyor of hidden truths, which suggest that Radiohead’s music requires a special understanding. Yet the group remains deliberately evasive about the deeper, layered meaning of their music. As Phil Selway suggested in an interview with the New Yorker’s famous music writer Alex Ross in 2001, “Really, we don’t want people twiddling their goatees over our stuff. What we do is pure escapism”.
Musically “Just” is quite short on lyrics (it was allegedly written about a narcissistic friend) and sharply written, particularly in its series of quite novel guitar parts, which build up and scream at the listener. This is particularly effective at the end of the video, when the camera passes over in disbelief. The “do it to yourself” lyric sounds like self-abuse of some sort; you can’t blame your situation on anyone else.
Put simply, this video is a cryptic one. It hints at deeper meaning, but it all might just be a joke. Is this Radiohead’s sense of fun?
“High and Dry” (directed by Paul Cunningham)
This video appears to have a clear narrative. The band arrives at a diner (Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktails in San Leandro, California) where there are other patrons. Juust as you might find in any diner, those patrons all have a backstory of their own. In this cas,e we get an insight into a number of them. The stories are revealed in the standard cinematic way through the use of flashbacks.
A young couple and the diner’s main cook seem to be involved in some criminal activity which requires the couple to place a key in the butter. In another story, the camera tracks across the diner and focuses in on a briefcase belonging to a businessman who is hiding something, which is hinted at in flashback. In the end, the two dramas are resolved when the guilty parties are betrayed, the cook gives the couple a time bomb, and the businessman is ambushed and seemingly murdered.
As Vernallis suggests, it is often the case the positioning the artist at the center of music video narrative or non-narrative pulls at or distorts the meaning of the video, a good example being Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”. That doesn’t happen here, however. The musicians play small parts in this video, which completes the narrative without concentrating it on themselves. Yorke plays the biggest part, encountering the man with the briefcase and a young kid in the men’s room. On paper that sounds awkward, but in the video this is the most innocent part of the story. Ultimately, all the action seems to have been manipulated by the man in a grey suit, who bears some resemblance to Charles Bronson.
What does the video mean, then? Radiohead had two videos made for this song. The first is a British version in black and white, directed by David Mould, which has the band out in the desert with tanker and film equipment. At the end of the video, it rains on the band but they go on playing. That setup might have suggested some risktaking when it was conceived, but the obvious link to the lyrics would not be challenging enough for a band looking for originality in their videos. The band asked for another video, the result of which is the Cunningham version, which was released only on 7 Television Commercials.
The song is not one of Yorke’s favourites but it is one of Radiohead’s most accessible, and has been performed on reality TV talent shows the world over. It’s a great pop song.
In the video, Yorke and the band effectively disassociate from the song. Yorke appears with badly dyed and cut hair. He doesn’t mouth any of the words, but he does briefly smile. The band doesn’t play any of the music. “High and Dry” has a video that the group is only tangential to. Communication between the band members is minimal, and the video ends in explosions and violence with only the man in the grey suit looking any way happy.
Does that represent how they feel about this music? This is really not us. This is someone else’s story.
“Fake Plastic Trees” (directed Jake Scott)
“Fake Plastic Trees” is perhaps the closest song to “Creep” on The Bends. Musically, it follows a similar quiet-loud-quiet paradigm. This is not really reflected in the video at all, however. The video actually places the band (or at least Yorke} in a more central position in the video. This is perhaps the song and video which suggests the “7 Television Commercial” title of the video.
Yorke and the band members are sitting inside large metal shopping trolleys and are propelled up and down a long shopping line bathed in bright lights and lined with garish coloured bottles and boxes. It’s also not clear who is doing the pushing, although it is implied that it is the viewer that means we are effectively doing the shopping here.
The shopping aisle is an extended metaphor for life itself and the shallowness of consumerism. There is real anger from Yorke in this song, which is matched in the video by his arms being outstretched in his shopping trolley, rather like the reverse of “Street Spirit”.
I am reminded of the Verve’s later video for “Bittersweet Symphony”, with a purposeful Richard Ashcroft brushing aside all of those he encounters on his metaphorical walk through life. The “Fake Plastic Trees” video is more concerned with what is authentic and real—not fake. Without being overly academic, the video is an example of Jean Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality, a state in which people are unable to distinguish the fake from the real. In “Fake Plastic Trees” we have a bizarre set of characters walking up and down the aisle, in search of meaning in life. This is a genuinely existential video, as poignant as the music which it supports.