You over there, sipping your latte, we know you love them. And you over there, glowering over your Keystone Light, we know you hate them. It’s been established over and over that Radiohead is one of those bands that invites reaction. Be it outpourings of ardent loyalty, vaguely puzzled boredom, or unadulterated loathing, everyone has an opinion. (You in the coma, I bet you have one, too.) They are one of the most glorified, idolized and deified bands ever to have top-10 hate lists levied against them.
I only have one question. Why Radiohead? No one in the band is an outspoken Scientologist, no one has saved anyone’s life, committed any lewd public acts, financed an orphanage, or tried to overthrow any foreign government (aside from the odd political jab). No, I suspect this has more to do with the music. People either get it, or they don’t. If you do, this will be a feast of consensus for you to gorge yourself on. If you don’t, maybe this will shed some light on things. If you hate them, you’ll probably be pissed off. Maybe you should go make a sandwich or something.
Awesome fills. No one really notices fills in most songs. Those are the little parts that go between the big parts, which 80% of people don’t pay attention to. But in songs like “Go To Sleep” (at about 2:26) and “There There” (3:23), they get pointed out as “that sweet guitar part” -- especially if you count the Greenwood guitar chunking in “Paranoid Android” (2:44) and “Creep” (:58), which people actually have a tendency to air-guitar.
Quirky drumming. Phil Selway has the arduous task of being Radiohead’s drummer, and I can only imagine it’s full of satisfaction woven with livid frustration. This is because with Radiohead percussion, nothing goes the way you’d expect. “There There” doesn’t see a single snare until after an entire verse and chorus has passed. “Sit Down. Stand Up” sees the kit yielding more than three quarters of the song to an electronic beat machine, and everything released after Kid A is a struggle for control between acoustic skins and electronic ticks. In fact, a straightforward beat is as tough to find as a front-row ticket. I’d really want to hit something, too.
Alien lead guitar sound. It makes appearances throughout guitar-heavy numbers like “Paranoid Android,” “Just” and “My Iron Lung,” usually when the shit goes down and Johnny Greenwood’s hair gets flung around. It’s a shrill, petulant sound that would be fitting of something called the Screaming Martian pedal, and its abrasiveness gives the band an air of non-compliance you can feel. Ouch, we like it.
Dour realism. This is probably a point of contention with some people, but negativity can sometimes be incredibly satisfying. A fair point of view on humanity is that very little is just or unbiased, and a lot of the world is bullshit. If so much of culture is designed to distract and placate people, then something needs to keep drawing attention to it. In that context, Thom Yorke is like the guy standing in the middle of the cracked-out, Kool-Aid-soaked, underage pageant-teen limo orgy saying, “you guys should probably be using protection….”
Yorke's voice. Another thing some people can’t tolerate is that Thom Yorke doesn’t sing like Bono, or David Lee Roth, or even that squawky guy from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. He uses what is more or less his speaking voice, unpolished, with nothing but his morning Cheerios channeled through it. Though he’s an accomplished singer (On some tracks, ‘haunting’ is a better word), his croon has human imperfection. Some people sneer at this unabashed “uncoolness,” but to most of us it just makes him mortal, like us, or David Duchovny. Contrast this against soundscapes and lyrical imagery that seem to come from an invisible artistic mountain spring, and you have an anti-star who could do some serious shit-talking … if he gave a damn.
Lazy eyelid. This is cheap, but one cannot imagine Yorke without taking into consideration his droopy left eyelid, which is a result of what he calls a “botched surgery.” This tiny physical imperfection, along with Yorke’s decidedly non-jock nature, would keep most lead singers from advancing past the mainstream pop culture high-school beauty contest -- which tends to reserve the upper ranks of musical prestige for the likes of Kid Rock, Linkin Park, Jay-Z and Shakira. Despite this, Radiohead’s considerable fan base forces the hair-judging, ab-inspecting execs to make way. There may be no Hollywood billboards, and MTV may not have aired one of their videos since 1997, but here’s one more symbol of the common man giving the finger to the popularity mill and its evil lipo-tattoo-nose-job factories.
Green policy. One way to make people pay attention to a cause is to have it sponsored by a behemoth, and I don’t think anyone even had to pay the band to adopt their hempalicious touring methods. Among the measures taken to decrease their ecological tour footprint: transporting gear by sea freight rather than gas-guzzling air freight; using canteens instead of disposable water containers; traveling by bio-fueled bus; and the well-known measure of endorsing mass transit over mass car trips where their concert following is concerned. Next will they adopt a stray kitten for every tour date? Maybe.
Band unity. Every musician knows band relationships can be straining, and “if the band hadn’t broken up” is a sad cliché that’s been heard more times than Van Halen has swapped lead singers. But despite their 15-year snowballing from one-hit-wonder status to shelving a half-dozen awards, including two Best Act In The World Today trophies, they have the same dog-eared lineup as always. And I hear they travel by itty-bitty clown car.
Subtle image. One concept that seems to be lost on modern pop is the notion of not spelling everything out in big pictures with huge, red arrows and flashing captions for everyone to pick up on. Green Day is not punk because they are anti-establishment and DIY, they’re punk because they sport spiked hair, chains and ironic ties. Toby Keith is not country because he croons folk tunes and reminisces on the good ol’ days, he’s country because he has a big ol’ cowboy hat and a goatee and stands in front of rustic backdrops. Radiohead can’t be pegged so easily. The drawings of nightmare creatures and road-sign symbols associated with them give them an urban, psychological feel, and their Do-Whatever-The-Hell-I-Want attitude makes them a little punk, but you can’t slap a label on ‘em that easily. So I guess that makes them, what, indie? Totally.
"The waggle." You’ve seen it. In every live performance, whether he’s singing “Climbing Up the Walls” or the birthday song, Yorke’s shoulders waggle up and down and his head lobs side to side. It wouldn’t be Radiohead without it.
Warm blanket aura. The final entry on this exhaustive list, and probably the most signature Radioheadism, is what happens after all the songs end, in the thirty or forty seconds of silence that follows. You feel good. Kind of like how you might feel after reading this list, if you’re already a fan. If you’re not a fan, you’re probably annoyed and infuriated – and well, sir, that is how I feel after listening to anything by Three Doors Down, Staind, Nickelback, My Chemical Romance, and almost anything you’ll find in the top 40. My overall point is that whatever your opinion of Radiohead is, they did a lot to earn it, and you have every right to your opinion. And if your opinion of them is negative, you’re totally, absolutely, ridiculously wrong.