Few rock bands have been as groundbreaking or as influential as Radiohead. Few bands have dared to re-invent their sound over and over again, verging on “experimental rock” but shying away from such a title because the experiments almost always work. They have defied convention over and over again, re-inventing the wheel too many times to count, all leading up to last year’s surprising “pay what you feel like” system for distributing their acclaimed new album In Rainbows.
What’s unfortunate, however, is that Radiohead’s visual history is nowhere near as fascinating as its musical counterpart.
With The Best of Radiohead, Capitol has (against the band’s wishes), lined up all of their videos in chronological order and burned them onto a DVD. No, really: that’s it. The main menu allows you to choose an individual video or just play all of them together. There are no setup features, no behind-the-scenes docs, no commentary from the various directors, no nothing.
This bare-bones presentation does little to quell the notion that this is set is being released to make a quick buck, the ultimate cash-in if there ever was one. At the end of the day, all that The Best of Radiohead leaves us with is just a string of music videos collected onto a single disc, making it hard to argue about the necessity of this collection, especially coming from an era where you can type “radiohead” into YouTube and see most if not all of them near-instantaneously.
If we look strictly at the videos themselves, though, we get something stranger: a band that, during their formative years, subjected themselves to styles, whims, and trends—just like any of your run-of-the-mill UK buzz bands. The set opens with their first (and biggest) hit, “Creep”. This relatively uninteresting performance clip winds up visually defining two of the key members for years to come: lead singer Thom Yorke looks eternally pitched somewhere between Edgar Winter and Billy Idol, while guitarist Jonny Greenwood sports a look of perpetual androgyny.
It’s a template that carries through for all the band’s Pablo Honey-era videos including the empty-pool performance clip for “Anyone Can Play Guitar” (note the Christ pose that Yorke strikes at the beginning). With the video for non-album single “Pop Is Dead”, the quirky song is matched by its beguiling clip (in which Yorke is being moved around in a glass coffin), both carrying the air of being some long-lost Blur song. “Stop Whispering” is the “tortured artist” clip (particularly the shot of Yorke being backed into a corner with a looming microphone only feet away), but fortunately the song itself remains one of Pablo Honey‘s few highlights.
It has now become well-known fact that the band soon began resenting the success of “Creep”, and though it opened new doors for them, it also pigeonholed them as trend-followers instead of trendsetters. It wasn’t long before they refused to play “Creep” at concerts, and instead began looking forward towards new, darker, horizons.
The Bends was their breakthrough release, featuring more intricate guitar work and even tighter songwriting. It was far more interesting than anything on Pablo Honey, and the same holds true for the disc’s visual history. Though the promo for “My Iron Lung” is nothing more than a concert performance clip, it’s “High and Dry” that starts showing the band taking the art form of the music video more seriously.
There are two versions of this clip: a rather uninteresting desert shoot directed by David Mould (heretofore known as the “UK” version of this clip), and a spiraling, noir-laced, and very Pulp Fiction-indebted version directed by Paul Cunningham (a.k.a. the “U.S.” version). “Fake Plastic Trees” is that strange Technicolor grocery store clip you may have seen before (paging “Common People”), but in the chronology of things, it was the next two Bends clips that suddenly began to show that Radiohead was to be defined by more than just their music.
“Just” is one of those rare, classic, powerful videos that transcends the medium to become something more. Alternating between a wild, almost schizophrenic performance from the band in an apartment to man in the street below who doesn’t want to tell anyone why he’s lying down, it was the first truly successful marriage of a Radiohead song with a matching, deserving video counterpart. The tension builds as the clip continues, Jonny Greenwood flailing on his guitar like he’d die if he did anything different, the man on the street still refusing to tell gathering onlookers why he’s lying down in the middle of the road. Once the climax hits, he mouths words that only the director (Jamie Thraves) knows, and before long we see everyone lying down as a field of voluntary corpses. It’s unsettling. It’s dramatic. It’s perfect.
The only thing better? Jonathan Glazer’s treatment for Bends’ closing track: “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” Set in a trailer park at night, the band does nothing more than move around while Glazer’s camera alternates between regular speed and detailed slo-mo, occasionally cutting to a shot of a dance troupe decked out in black robes. Logistically, it doesn’t make much sense, but in terms of capturing the fluidity of human motion in an artistic light, it works wonders in tandem with the song.
Of course, it’s well known fact that Radiohead’s next album—1997’s OK Computer—would go on to become one of the greatest albums of the ‘90s/all-time. Though some may still find such praise a bit hyperbolic, few can argue with OK‘s power. Perhaps it’s most surprising, then, that this is also the album that has the fewest clips (next to Kid A, of course, which the band did absolutely no publicity for). “Paranoid Android”—OK‘s sweeping, multi-tiered centerpiece, is given a bizarre-yet-fitting animated sequence in which a young boy goes out with his friend for some drinks, meets axe-wielding fetish-loving politicians, gets to see heaven, and experiences events that are too graphic to be repeated here.
Immediately following this is “Karma Police”, the band’s highest-charting song post-“Creep”. For the clip, the guys re-teamed with Jonathan Glazer—the first and only time they worked with a director more than once. His dark, noir-styled clip is a far grittier nightmare than the one depicted in the “US” clip for “High and Dry”. Here, Yorke is in the back seat of a car that’s driving slowly up a night road, gradually gaining on an overweight man who appears to be running for his life, the car acting as his death angel. It’s a compelling, provocative clip that invokes thought without invoking easy answers, much like OK Computer itself.
The final clip released for OK was Thom’s death-defying video for “No Surprises”, which, literally, is Thom with his head in an upside down fishbowl that gradually fills with water, Yorke almost drowning in the process (note the smile he sports immediately after the water is drained). It’s a strange clip that works in the way that Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” clip worked: sometimes all you need to tell the story is just a human face.
Kid A, the much-anticipated OK Computer follow-up that was unleashed at the start of the millennium, featured the band decamping by doing no publicity for the release. Of course, in following a disc as monumental as OK Computer, doing no publicity was its own form of publicity, often leaving video channels to create their own. In fact, the old pay-per-view music video network The Box actually began running a clip of Radiohead performing the Kid A pivot-point song, “Optimistic”, live in concert.
Sadly, nothing from Kid A appears on The Best of Radiohead disc. We instead get four clips from the Kid A “follow-up”, Amnesiac. Why the band suddenly decided to do videos again for this record is somewhat inexplicable, especially since Kid A tracks kept on getting licensed out to movie soundtracks (“Treefingers” to Memento, “Everything In Its Right Place” to Vanilla Sky, etc.). The first Amnesiac clip is the sad, dark, and somewhat terrifying animated spot for “Pyramid Song”, depicting a man trapped in the wallow of an unfulfilling undersea life. With the computer-animated protagonist looking like a doll made out of ripped construction paper, the clip somehow works with the stark and minimal piano track it accompanies.
With the Smiths-ian “Knives Out”, however, all bets are off. Working with avant-genius director Michel Gondry, this one-shot clip set in a hospital room is something to behold: a woman is getting her limbs removed Operation-style, Thom Yorke’s feet turn into chickens being eaten by hungry little people, a man’s face turns into a heart which stores a valued photo, etc. It’s a strange, almost Dali-esque portrait of a relationship in decline, but the devil is in the details, and this one lends itself to multiple viewings easily.
The same could not be said, however, for Sophie Muller’s gritty “I Might Be Wrong”, which looks (and feels) like it was shot through a pinhole lens in just one day. The last Amnesiac video, oddly, is a mixture of “Push/Pulk Revolving Doors” and “Like Spinning Plates”, here combined to form “Push Pulk / Spinning Plates”, a highly detailed computer-animated clip which, unfortunately, takes far too long to get to its climatic, final image (conjuring flashbacks to the original Matrix).
Indeed, as Radiohead got bigger and better, their visual counterparts became very hit-or-miss. With Hail to the Thief, their last album for Capitol, the group didn’t mind going a little bit overboard with the music videos: for the stunning lead-single “There There”, the group teamed with stop-motion animator Chris Hopewell, who in turn makes Yorke go down a mythical animal-ridden forest, taking magical clothes that are not his and eventually suffering the consequences for removing such sacred objects—it’s a visual thrill-ride.
Same goes for the computer-animated but thematically-incoherent clip for “Go to Sleep”, in which a CGI Yorke is sitting amidst a populace brainwashed by their own daily routines, failing to notice the buildings of their city collapsing and reassembling right before their eyes. The meaning is unclear, but it at least holds better than Ed Holdsworth’s treatment for “Sit Down. Stand Up.” The hand-held clip features no one in the band, and instead appears to be nothing more than filming city buildings at night, filmed out the passenger window of a passing car. The lights and images are trying to sync up with the music a la Gondry’s video for the Chemical Brothers’ “Star Guitar” … but the effect and meaning ultimately fall upon deaf ears (and blind eyes).
The set rounds out with a performance of “2+2=5” at the Belfort Festival which is good enough to warrant more, but that’s something we do not get. We get nothing more. No bonus features or insights to speak of. Just all the videos thrown together in Capitol’s last big cash-grab for the band. Radiohead did make great videos, but not on a routine basis; really, how many times are you going to want to watch the clip for “Creep” ad nauseum? The answer is simple: not enough times to warrant the purchase of The Best of Radiohead.