When Radiohead takes the stage at the American Airlines Arena this Monday, kicking off its first U.S. tour in four years, the British band will do so as contemporary rock 'n' roll elders undertaking yet another victory lap. But unlike so many arena-friendly rock practitioners (R.E.M., U2) or postpunk crossovers (Sonic Youth, the Pixies) that paved the way for Radiohead's weird yet accessible pop-rock blend, this particular trip around the track belongs to a group that's not only rock 'n' roll's latest great rock band. Quite possibly, Radiohead might be its last.
Britpop vs. grunge. When Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O'Brien, Colin Greenwood, and Phil Selway — now collectively recognized as Radiohead, one of the biggest bands of the past 20 years — introduced themselves to the world with 1992's "Creep," rock was already old hat. A half-century of guitars, bass, and drums had yielded so many variants, subgenres, and microscenes that it had become difficult to believe they were all the distant reverberations of Chuck Berry's dirty-nasty blues. Plus, rock had seemingly hit its peak in the pop/mod/psychedelic '60s, flaring up near the end of the decade before slowly burning out during the post-Altamont '70s.
From the late '60s onward (and thanks to the likes of Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5, the Velvet Underground, and the burgeoning punk and avant scenes), rock discourse was dominated by rebellion and rage. Punk begat hardcore, which begat emo, which begat indie. And by the late '80s, the dominant paradigm had been tagged grunge.
Epitomized by the slacker aesthetic and punk-metal-pop fusion of bands such as Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and, most notably, Nirvana, grunge supposedly redeemed rock's dalliances with frivolous fads like hair metal and reasserted the genre's prominence on Michael Jackson-dominated airwaves. However, not everyone was appreciative of flannel, dank basements, and long hair.
While Seattle's Sub Pop-centric underground buzzed mightily, redefining rock 'n' roll and giving way to college rock (later dubbed indie), another rock revival was taking place across the pond in direct response to grunge's unkempt caterwaul. Taking their cue from the Kinks, the Beatles, and other British Invasion bands of the '60s, groups such as Oasis, Blur, Pulp, and Supergrass championed a new wave of tidy anti-grunge that would come to be known as Britpop. The genre discarded the raucous distortion of its American peers and instead opted for classic pop composition and a distinctly British approach to lyrical subject matter, presentation, and fashion. While North America had unleashed rock's latest barroom brawl, Great Britain was inviting the genre to take a seat at high tea. "If punk was about getting rid of hippies," Blur frontman Damon Albarn chirped at the time, "then I'm getting rid of grunge."
Nirvana lite. Britpop's dandyisms and sunny, jangling guitars left little room for Radiohead's moody melancholia circa Pablo Honey, the band's debut full-length album released in 1993.
That record reveled in its outright (though watered-down) take on grunge. But Radiohead was not only playing a genre out of vogue in its homeland. The band wasn't even doing it with the same ferociousness as its counterparts in America. Some critics went as far as to call the group "Nirvana lite." Simply put, the British were not impressed.
But grunge was never about the Brits anyway. And back in the States, another single from Pablo, "Creep," had become a bona fide hit, receiving heavy airplay on radio and MTV and eventually leading to Radiohead's earliest North American tours. Yet despite that success, the band was already shifting toward a less abrasive, more accessible sound, which emerged fully formed on its sophomore record, 1995's The Bends.
With its densely layered, shoegazing guitars and consistently sentimental singles such as "Fake Plastic Trees," Radiohead's second album captivated an audience in the band's motherland. However, not until 1997's OK Computer did the group finally graduate from simply trying to hold people's attention to releasing era-defining rock statements.
From neo-grunge to art rock. In 1997, Rolling Stone critic Mark Kemp declared OK Computer "a stunning art rock tour de force," making specific reference to Radiohead's increasingly complex compositional prowess — its winding song structures, atmospheric guitars, and use of synthesizers; and the unapologetically maudlin musings of Yorke, the group's existentially flamboyant frontman.
The album was compared (both favorably and critically) to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, an expansive concept album by a rock band at the height of its ability. "Others may end up selling more," Nick Kent wrote in Mojo after the album's release, "but in 20 years time, I'm betting OK Computer will be seen as the key record of 1997, the one to take rock forward instead of artfully revamping images and song structures from an earlier era."
As it turned out, OK Computer not only was one of the '90s most important rock albums, but also it completely defied the underground-mainstream dichotomy. Yes, Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement had attempted to transcend that divide, and Green Day had succeeded. But only Radiohead released a rock album that honored the natural evolution of its sound while simultaneously challenging and winning the wild acclaim of fans and critics alike.
Kid A, Amnesiac, and Radiohead's rebellion. Considering Radiohead's contrarian tendencies (e.g., playing grunge in a sea of Britpop and steering away from past successes), it's no surprise the band would end up rebelling against rock 'n' roll itself.
Though resoundingly considered the group's finest creative moment, the electronic experimentation of 2000's Kid A was a radical departure comparable to Dylan plugging in or Neil Young releasing a vocoder synth-pop album. It featured a largely computerized framework augmented by highly processed guitars and other instruments, alongside eruptions of horns and strings. Essentially, Kid A was Radiohead's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the record's kitchen-sink approach could not have alienated fans more.
In 2001, Yorke told Mojo: "I was really, really amazed at how badly [Kid A] was being viewed... because the music's not that hard to grasp. We're not trying to be difficult... We're actually trying to communicate, but somewhere along the line, we just seemed to piss off a lot of people... What we're doing isn't that radical."
In many ways, the frontman was right. Krautrock, psychedelia, No Wave, and other experimental rock genres had proliferated since the '60s, while entire generations of musicians had visited the terrain explored on Kid A and that record's companion followup, Amnesiac. However, when was the last time those sonic concepts had unfolded in the mainstream? Much like the aforementioned Beatles and Floyd opuses, Kid A was not just a relatively dense package of frustrated expectations and studio grandeur. It was an album poised to challenge the average listener.
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Return of rock. Since the one-two punch of Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead seems to have settled comfortably into playing the role of elder rock kings. The band's three albums released since 2002 — Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows, and King of Limbs — have all been praised by critics for their "more accessible sound," which is to say straight-forward, melodic, and just rocking enough.
If those records had been the band's initial statements, they wouldn't have even yielded the "Nirvana lite" press assessments that placed them in opposition to Britpop's cheeky sheen. But Radiohead is Radiohead, and its legacy could inflate even the most flaccid record. Furthermore, the band has maintained relevancy by embracing the Internet's download free-for-all. Beginning with 2005's In Rainbows, the band has self-released its albums via a pay-what-you-want download system before allowing major record companies to release deluxe physical copies further down the line.
If rock was already on its way out when Radiohead got its start, it's practically a blip on the pop music radar in 2012. While nearly all genres have been infected by digital culture, mainstream rock 'n' roll has remained frozen in time. Can you think of the last rock band that mattered? Was it Radiohead?