(Re)Collection #24: Radiohead
Updated: Mar 31
Brit Pop was king when Number One Cup made its first trips over to the UK and Europe. Of the bands that were popular, Radiohead was one of the few big bands we could identify with. Big guitars, anthemic songs and a bold yet quirky singer. His vaguely misanthropic style lacked that cock of the walk swagger that was so common.
Like many people in the US, I got acquainted with them through their hit Creep. I guess it was ok. I don't know. It didn't make me a fan. I saw them open for REM at one of those indoor/outdoor venues in suburban Chicago. My strongest memory from that show was how the stage lights blinked off then on in time to Johnny Greenwood's downstroke/upstroke guitar chugs right before the chorus during Creep . It was a little on the nose, but I appreciated it. A wink to campy showmanship.
The Bends was the LP that caught my attention. It had a few singles that were played regularly on 120 Minutes. WXRT also played them. Johnny's huge guitar parts appealed to me. Coupled with Thom Yorke's melancholic, wounded vocals, their song stylings were firmly in my wheelhouse. I borrowed our tour manager Paul's copy of the CD and never returned it. Sorry. But it was my tour companion, my security blanket. I wore out that CD.
Number One Cup was poised to do something in the UK and in Europe. In such moments, a band will often look to other bands for some type of guidance. We didn't know them, but a guitar heavy, proggy band doing well made us take notice. Even if we never met them. Even if they never intended to help us. They were an example of a way it could be done. Our tour manager was good friends with their tour manager, and there was talk of the possibility of a tour or opening slot some time in the future. It seemed almost possible.
In 1997, we were invited over to play some summer festivals. One was in France. Our label had set up a meeting with our French label's employees so we could get to know them. They would be working on future releases and helping us get shows in France. V2 was the label. Richard Branson was involved with it after he sold Virgin Records. We did in fact meet him, but I don't remember exactly where or when that year.
V2 had pulled some strings and got us into this big festival in France called Eurockeennes in Belfort. Supergrass, Radiohead, the Smashing Pumpkins, Nada Surf and the Rollins Band would be playing. Though at the time, we didn't know anything about it or who was playing there. We just went.
We flew into London and then drove to France immediately. We made our way under the English Channel on the train and on to Belfort. We slept uncomfortably in the back of a windowless cargo van. It was rainy and chilly when we arrived at the gates of the festival. Something about being in a band, in a van, in travel, tired, hungry and cold brings out a world-weariness that is hardly deserved. We had been flown over and were being driven to a festival in France. It was another free trip. We still groused a bit. (Well, read the record contracts. Nothing is ever free. Money may not come directly out of your pockets, but you still pay for it.)
One thing that struck me about this festival was its frenchness. Bands ate in a relatively nice dining hall. The food was really good. The beer and wine were really good. It wasn't like that at English festivals. The French knew how to treat bands and how to live.
Our show was not looking so good. We were on an isolated secondary stage well up the hill from the main stage. We loaded our gear out of the van, and the stage crew set everything up for us. All the while, we kept watching the field out in front of the stage. It was muddy and empty. I recall thinking that our label reps were going to be disappointed in us. And then it started to pour. Shit. This was going to suck.
5 minutes before we went on, the rain stopped and the sun peaked briefly through the clouds. (In the movie version of the story, a rainbow appeared). It was time to play. We made our way to the stage and were totally shocked when we looked out at the once empty, muddy field and it was packed with people. Total mind fuck. I couldn't believe it.
There are times on stage when I feel like electricity is shooting out of my hands like lightning. I feel overcome with the sensation of well-being and power. Like I could splinter the drums with my sticks. This was one of those rare shows. It was a blur. We played really well.
As we made our way off the stage, our label reps were overcome with relief. I could see it on their faces. We did not in fact suck. That felt good. We impressed them.
Our plan was to check out Radiohead then get back in the van, drive all night to London then fly home. Seth and I walked through the Artist section and out into the main festival area through a large chain link gate. We stood at the top of the hill and waited for Radiohead to play. The Smashing Pumpkins labored their way through their Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness setlist.
I bought the first Smashing Pumpkins single on Limited Potential from Billy Corgan at the record store he worked at down the street from Reckless Records on Broadway. When Gish came out, I bought it and loved it. After that though, I just wasn't onboard with their whole trip. To each his own.
Anyway, as we were waiting, Seth sees Thom Yorke. He is leaning against the chain link fence that we had just walked through. He was on the Artist side though. Next thing I know, Seth is over by the fence. Incidentally, this was shortly after OK Computer had come out and Seth, John and I really liked it. It was an ambitious and proggy reminder of what could still be done with guitars. There wasn't really much like it at that time.
So Seth wanted to talk to Thom. He ended up talking at Thom. He was staring down at the Pumpkins, and Seth was talking to the left side of his little head. That went on for a minute or so. Thom did not answer or say a word. When Seth stopped talking, he slowly turned his head towards Seth, gazed at him with his lazy eye, then wordlessly turned away. Cold move. Seth shrugged and walked away.
For all the emotion and humanity that is captured on the Bends and OK Computer, none of it was available that day. That put-upon shtick of Thom Yorke's that is so painstakingly captured in the Meeting People is Easy Radiohead documentary was on full display. I felt for Seth. It was really no big deal, but it was telling. Ultimately, OK Computer was the end of the road for me and Radiohead. I would check in on them in the following years, but the attitude still seemed to be there. It's a shame because I really used to like them.