Whatever It Was That Made You Love Them in the First Place
First off, I want to start by saying that I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.
With that out of the way, I want to talk about this Spin article that recently came to my attention. The thesis of said article, written by Chris Norris, is that, as he so cleverly stated, “Radiohead kinda blow.” To begin with, I dislike the faint-hearted kinda. Be a man: say it.
The sub-thesis of the article is that it’s all gone to hell since after The Bends (1995) and their (according to him) masterpiece, OK Computer (1997), that everything that they’ve made after hasn’t been as good. The fact that he doesn’t see Kid A (2000) for the brilliant work of art that it is (and miles better than OK Computer) is enough to allow you to dismiss his article out of hand and without a second thought. Kid A is the peak of Radiohead, as good as they’ve produced.
So he missed their high point by one album. He put it at 1997, for an album that was probably recorded in 1996, and I put it at 2000, for an album that was probably recorded in 1999. That’s not much of a difference in what has so far been a sixteen-year career, and that’s not really where my problem with the article lies.
Neither is it with his thesis. He has to know that it’s a joke to say that they blow, that saying it brings dishonor to him and to his people, and that his is an idea that is not to be taken seriously. Anybody with any aesthetic training and/or sense is going to recognize that Radiohead doesn’t blow. I’m going to go so far as to say that it’s probably impossible for them to blow. There may be peaks and valleys in their current discography, and there will assuredly be peaks and valleys in whatever their complete discography turns out to be, but most artists will be looking up yearningly and dejectedly at those valleys. If they look up at the peaks, their hearts will explode.
My problem is with the fact that Norris has no idea about how art is made, about what goes into its creation, and about the progression that an artist inevitably (and almost involuntarily) makes as he or she moves through time and from work to work.
(This next part may seem a little out of bounds in whom I’m going to compare to Radiohead, but hang in there for a little bit and it will all make sense.)
The group whose transformation that I can most closely compare to that of Radiohead is that of John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet.
(And, no, I’m not saying that they’re anywhere in the same league with the Classic Quartet. John Coltrane is by far my favorite musician, though favorite musician isn’t anywhere near close to being an adequate description of what Coltrane means to me. His music is embedded in the core, man, deep in there. It probably even makes up a part of that core, a large part.
If I were to start trying to do the math on that core, I’d say that Coltrane and his music make up about 24.4% of it. Whitman’s poetry makes up about 20.3%, and those are the two big chunks.
Also in there is Akira Kurosawa, at about 9.7%. His Ran makes up 30% of that 9.7%. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles share 9.3%, with the Rolling Stones getting slightly larger share. Edward Weston’s work is about 7.43%. Aretha Franklin's classic work has 5.69%. Chain of Fools and Call Me share 37% of that 5.69%. Woody Allen, through about 1994, makes up 5.14%. The Beach Boys have a solid 4.7%. Their Caroline, No is 29% of that 4.7%. Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant gets 3.23% all to itself.
But I digress, badly. The point of the above paragraph started out to be that Coltrane is of major import to me. I wouldn’t use him or his work thoughtlessly, without care.)
What I mean is that Radiohead have to go where their collective muse takes them. Wherever their collective muse takes them, just like Coltrane did.
If they’ve gone far from their sound on The Bends (and they have), it was because they had been driven to go that far by all that there exists—time, age, experience, engagements with more and more work, refinements in their crafts and in their aesthetic principles—that can drive artists forward, that can drive them further and further away from whatever it was that they once were, further and further away from whatever it was that had once made you love them in the first place.
So there you are, left behind, bereft, a little wounded and a little confused. But Radiohead continued to grow like it had to, just like I know that Coltrane did.
And it hurts me, actually causes me deep sadness to know that Coltrane essentially blew up the Classic Quartet after they recorded First Meditations. Rashied Ali came in as a second percussionist, and that was enough to drive Elvin Jones, my favorite percussionist in all of music, out of the Classic Quartet. I can’t even think of that without thinking of how horrible it must have been for Jones to have to leave what he had to know was the greatest jazz quartet that had ever been (and that we now know probably will ever be).
Pianist McCoy Tyner left shortly thereafter, and that was it. Coltrane kept making albums for the few years that he had left before cancer got him, and I’ve got most of those, too, but there aren’t any among them that I love anywhere near as much as I love A Love Supreme.
But even A Love Supreme had the Classic Quartet heading off in an ever more avant-garde direction. It was obvious that Coltrane was chasing after something. There was some sound that he was trying to find, that he was trying to create, and A Love Supreme was just a stop along the way, a stop that was a great work of art, clearly, a stop that means more to me than I have the language to express, but just a stop.
(I mean, if we extend Norris’s subterranean idea that artists shouldn’t change and leave us behind, I guess that Norris would have a problem with Dylan going electric or with Miles Davis going electric. No Highway 61 Revisited or In a Silent Way.)
Ultimately, I can’t begrudge Coltrane for going after that sound that was somewhere in his heart and in his mind, though I’m glad that all of those changes in Coltrane’s band happened before I was born and that I only had to experience and get through them after the fact, through reading about and listening to his work. I know that I would have had a difficult time understanding and getting through the dissolution of the Classic Quartet if I had been around to witness it.
So, for the same reasons, I can’t begrudge Radiohead for going after theirs.