“People called us ugly ducklings, so we had to turn around and start using it.”— Thom Yorke
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 complementary 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 a 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 on 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.