[20 May 2012]
Radiohead is a band that has spent the better part of their career re-inventing themselves. They’re not necessarily the most consistent band of all time, but one has to give them credit for always trying to keep moving, and never falling into the same trap of simply sticking with their established sound. This constant aesthetic shift has occasionally frustrated some fans, but it also makes them one of the more exciting and unpredictable bands out there, even in the third decade of their career.
So it’s a bit ironic that Mac Randall’s Exit Music: The Radiohead Story has also been reinventing itself as it chronicles the band’s history. While each iteration of Radiohead feels like another layer to an increasingly complex group of artists, the successive editions of Exit Music (now in its fourth revision) seem shallower and shallower, a writer phoning it in and only barely keeping the book up to date. Exit Music starts off strong and ends with a whimper, as Randall’s well-researched, well-documented origin stories of the Oxford quintet descends to a lazy recap of magazine interviews and message board reactions.
To be fair, this is not entirely Randall’s fault. Throughout their career, Radiohead has made it a point not to fall into the standard “rock band” persona. This means their openness with the press has become extremely limited, and their operations have become far more secretive since moving off of a major label. But while mysterious and reclusive, the members of Radiohead are not hermits. One begins to get the sense that Randall has not done the necessary research, and is merely writing new chapters to the book as quickly as possible, in order to bring the history up to date for each successive album release.
Exit Music starts off very strong, and Randall can at least make a claim toward being a bona fide expert on Radiohead’s early career. The first few chapters try hard (perhaps too hard) to connect the dots between past and present, delving into the members’ childhood at English boarding schools (even going so far as to discuss the specifics of their academic curriculum) and, most notably, comparing Thom Yorke’s childhood injuries to the dark lyrics that would follow. But despite trying to create an aura of historical inevitability for the ascendence of Radiohead, Randall refrains from being hagiographic. He clearly likes the band, but he’s also unwilling to swallow everything they say or do wholesale.
Part of the joy of reading the first part of Exit Music is Randall’s willingness to question the official story of the band. He flat out doubts the tale of how the band’s demo tap wound up in the hands of Chris Hufford, and at several other points in the band’s early career, Randall studiously triangulates his way through interviews, old magazine articles, and recollections of former colleagues to try and determine what exactly transpired at any given moment. Randall shows a real joy in delving into details here, and his detective work makes for fascinating reading.
In it’s early sections, the book also refrains from existing merely as a Wikipedia-style summary of the band’s exploits. Randall does a good job peppering the important names and dates with smaller, more personal anecdotes (such as Thom Yorke’s affinity for Beavis and Butthead) that serve to personalize a band often criticized for their aloofness. Randall also makes it a point that Radiohead was not born in a vacuum; he provides an excellent portrait of the English indie rock scene in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The book also intersperses the history with Randall’s more personal reactions to each of Radiohead’s albums, and it’s nice to see some serious music criticism exist alongside the biographical details.
But after an excellent and detailed summary of the band’s first two albums, Pablo Honey and The Bends, Randall’s assiduous research starts to flag. While nearly discussing these two releases track-by-track, he only manages to give the broadest of overviews when it comes to Radiohead’s third and most acclaimed album, OK Computer. This is strange only because interviews of the time point to this album also being a laborious thing to pull together, but Randall’s account largely glosses over the arguments within the band at the time.
As the second half of the book begins to falter, it becomesclear what the problem is: the author just isn’t as excited about Radiohead’s post-OK Computer output. This is not an invalid viewpoint there are plenty of music nerds across the Internet who would be more than happy to explain to you why they stopped listening when Kid A was released. But Randall’s lack of excitement means that the book shifts from a hardcore fan excitedly revealing the secrets behind each Radiohead track to a slightly bored music critic summarizing each album in a few paragraphs.
By the time that Exit Music gets to Kid A and Amnesiac, the book has been reduced to a secondhand account of other journalists’ reporting on the band. The careful fact-checking and cute anecdotes that flavored the first half are gone. At times, the book borders on tedious, especially when Randall feels compelled to rattle off the setlists from each concert on the tour. His list of how many times Radiohead has played “True Love Waits” live has all the mark of a tired perfectionist, and none of the enthusiasm of a fan who actually likes the music.
The rest of the book flies by at a rapid pace. To give you an indication, Randall writes 164 pages on the band’s early career and first three albums, and only 118 pages on the other five LPs. Whereas Randall carefully accounted each band member’s early education and college choices, he flies through their marriages and children so quickly that it’s easy to miss. The book only gets more rushed as it goes, and it ends not with the point-of-view of a Radiohead expert giving his opinion, but the point-of-view of a common fan wondering what’s next. The prose, which started so informative and didactic, ends as someone who knows nothing about the band aside from a quick Google search and a few magazine interviews.
Even more egregiously, Randall doesn’t place the band in any sort of larger context. A book like Exit Music is the perfect chance to make a larger statement about what Radiohead means to the world of modern music. Randall summons a few words about the pay-what-you-want release of In Rainbows, but it’s nothing particularly original or anything you haven’t heard before. Instead, the book punts, framing Radiohead as pioneers without going into any details as to why one can make this claim.
So, while Radiohead continues to thrive and release thrilling material in this new decade, it might be time for the band’s chronicler to hang up his hat and stop updating this book. Anyone looking for an informative and detailed account of the band’s early days will be pleased; anyone hoping for an analysis of the last decade of Radiohead’s output will inevitably be disappointed.