Radiohead started a sonic revolution 25 years ago, and is still leading it

Nearly 25 years in, Radiohead is still the freshest thing in popular music.

You probably can’t get tickets to a Radiohead show. The legendary band, which now tours almost as rarely as it puts out studio albums (about every 5 years) sells out most U.S. shows within seconds. But if you are fortunate enough to have a ticket drop in your lap — as I did for Radiohead’s recent stop at Portland’s Moda Center — you’ll see a modern performance of pop-rock art that’s still more than worthy of the band’s reputation as one of the most innovative music groups of all time.

Seated in a second-tier private suite — a pricey proposition split among over a dozen friends determined not to miss the opportunity — I witnessed a band still secure in its state of iconic rock-god status. A raucous melange of stunning lights (the spider web of crystal-white beams that began the set is a vision still etched in my brain), mystical musical imagery, and chilling interpretations of their seminal works melded with new reveries, this latest tour once again solidifies Radiohead as the reigning monarchs of cutting-edge sound. Especially evident in their live shows, they are legends in their own time; something like a modern Pink Floyd, but with a punk-rock pulse. And nearly 25 years in, they’re still the freshest thing in popular music.

The ‘Kid A’ revolution

My introduction to Radiohead came with the release of 1995’s smash-hit album, The Bends. The superb follow up to their simplistic debut, Pablo Honey, The Bends was nothing less than a milestone in the rapidly expanding alt-rock road map, cutting through the noise with a slew of hummable tunes bundled with pretty soundscapes and intriguing videos.

The band’s next release, its so-called breakthrough album, was 1997’s OK Computer. It took all the beauty and relative rock stability of The Bends and mashed it in a blender, melding a cacophony of electronic ribbons with shredding guitar lines and existential lyrics to create an experimental hunk of rock and roll hybrid. The album hits its fever pitch in lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s recklessly primal guitar solo that splits the middle of the deceivingly beautiful Paranoid Android — still a staple of Radiohead’s live setlist, and still shocking every time.

Then, without warning, Radiohead hit the reset button.

They are legends in their own time; a modern Pink Floyd with a punk-rock pulse.

After three years in and out of the studio, during which frontman Thom Yorke was reportedly suffering from depression and writer’s block, this five-piece, three-guitar rock band released an album all but devoid of the six-string — a deconstruction of their music more fit for the scholastic halls of musicologists than your local radio station.

Culled from dozens of songs, and split into two studio releases (2000’s Kid A, and 2001’s Amnesiac), the work from Radiohead’s Kid A period represents one of the biggest transitional points for any band in rock history. You can think of it in Beatles terms: If OK Computer was Radiohead’s Revolver, then Kid A was their Sgt. Pepper. Only in this version, Sgt. Pepper trades guitar, bass, and drums for a shopping cart of synthesizers and drum machines.

Following the release, two surprising things happened: First, Kid A became a monster hit, reaching number 1 on both the U.K. and U.S. Billboard charts and pulling in an avalanche of new fans, from jazzers and audiophiles, to pop fans and ravers. Second, unlike the Beatles, who retreated to the studio to cultivate their psychedelic sound, Radiohead took virtually every piece of Kid A’s jigsaw puzzle — from the simplest synthesizer line to the most complex sonic effect — on the road for a stadium tour. And it worked beautifully.

For me (alongside many of the world’s most respected rock critics), everything changed with Kid A, and the subsequent tour. My first Radiohead show was their 2001 stop at Washington state’s famed Gorge Amphitheater. As the sun went down and an early moon rose behind it, Radiohead took the stage and changed live music for me, forever.

Their stage show was then (and is still) a transcendent coalition of light and sound, mixing pre-taped recordings, walls of synthesizers, meticulous gear selection, and carnivorous live energy that reconstructs the intricate sparkling facets of their studio sound. Blended with the electrifying live presence of the impish Thom Yorke, the wild Jonny Greenwood, and the rest of them, the band cultivated a rock experience that stands with some of the greatest ever to grace the stage.

And sixteen years later, they’re still doing it.

The aftermath

Since Kid A, Radiohead has released just four studio albums, including 2008’s rock/electronica-hybrid masterpiece, In Rainbows, which the band famously released themselves, and last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool, a somber collection of ethereal musical tapestries (apart from the riotous Burn the Witch) that fits snugly into their sonic collage. Yet, while members have indulged in multiple side projects in recent years (Greenwood has taken up orchestral composing), Radiohead’s stage shows have continued to progress, adding more elaborate visual aids, new methods of sonic delivery, and an ever-spooling thread of connected songs, until each show has become something like one giant composition.

A Moon Shaped Pool’s somber, ethereal musical tapestries fit snugly into the sonic collage.

As seen from my center-stage perch above the standing crowd, Radiohead’s latest performance (my fourth) reinforced how innovative they remain, and how fresh they still sound. The show began with the band obscured in shafts of blinding white light, like an electrified Fortress of Solitude, the warbles of the new tune Daydreaming pulling the audience along into the strange sonic cavern. Moving forward, the sound continued to evolve into a sharp and jagged performance — as rock ‘n roll as I’ve ever heard them, including a wild and raw version of Weird Fishes towards the finale that seemed as if it were going to burst at the seams.

The massive screen behind them morphed into random projections, from jigsaw shots of the crowd and band members, to mesmerizing light designs fit to scorch your retinas. Soaring through a patchwork of songs carefully pulled from across their catalog, the band seemed to be having more fun than ever. That was emphasized by their decision to add Creep, their first hit and previously abandoned song, as a final encore. That triumphant return followed a brilliant collision of the effervescent chimes of 1997’s No Surprises with the furious strings of 2016’s Burn the Witch, effortlessly blending two decades of pop art into a single burst.

And that’s what they do better than any other band I’ve seen. Unlike performances by many of their electro-rock contemporaries, a Radiohead show isn’t just a living reproduction of their hits or a brilliant marriage of sound and light. That night we were gifted with a new creation, as songs weaved in and out of each other like the great jam bands of old, but with the razor sharp precision of today’s most meticulously choreographed pop acts. The result is a unique experience that connects every small part into a greater whole – almost like a Broadway show, but crafted from a decades long list of nostalgic rock tunes new and old.

By the end, I was left nearly as astonished as I was after that first show so many years ago. The world is a very different place than the one I saw that night in 2001, but I left the stadium assured my musical heroes remain among the greatest live acts in the world. Radiohead is one of the few bands of their stature who still understand how to push things forward, and that’s something many popular artists these days are still struggling to learn.

That’s why, over 20 years on, we need Radiohead now more than ever.

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