Books

'Exit Music' Starts Strong, But Punts on Radiohead's Later Music

A revised edition of Randall's history of Radiohead provides an excellent summary of the band's genesis in Oxford, but provides diminishing returns when it comes to examining the quintet's most recent releases.


Exit Music: The Radiohead Story

Publisher: Backbeat
Length: 320 pages
Author: Mac Randall
Price: $19.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2012-03
Amazon

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.

5

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image