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Earl's Court, London
Yahoo Music (November 2003)

“Computers are useless. They only give you answers” – Pablo Picasso

The last time Radiohead played a gigantic concrete shed like this in London, things were going very very wrong indeed. “OK Computer”-mania had filled Wembley Arena with kind of the people that Thom Yorke had pictured when he wrote the line “kicking squealing Gucci little piggy”, and the relentless attention was sucking the lifeforce from the group. Radiohead at Wembley were overblown, soulless, trapped retreading over-familiar anthems that had long since become meaningless. “Kid A” couldn’t come soon enough.

It’s taken a radical creative overhaul over three albums and tours in big tops and intimate venues for Radiohead to return to the scene of their downfall, the arena. A lot has changed. Tonight’s set is drawn mostly from “Hail To The Thief”, with only a handful of crowd pleasers from “OK Computer” and “My Iron Lung” from “The Bends” hanging over from the days when the caricature of Radiohead almost overshadowed the actual band. But even so, the question remains: how do Radiohead retain their integrity in the venue for the Ideal Home Exhibition?

The answer, musically and visually, is they complicate things. While the likes of “Karma Police” and “Fake Plastic Trees” are straightforward, arena-friendly classics perfect for lighter waving and other such traditional pursuits, a song like “The Gloaming” is fractured, disjointed. If you thrust your pint aloft for “Where I End And You Begin” or “Sit Down Stand Up”, you’d end up spilling it all over yourself: the percussion is too intricate, the driving atmospherics at odds with the steady thud of rock.

Just look at Thom Yorke. Where once he was stuck scowling in the spotlight, a sulking schoolboy made to do his party piece, now he’s freaky dancing his little socks off. For a very good reason. He had nothing to dance to in the anthemic days. Tonight he spends most of the gig in motion, limbs flailing at right angles, like Harold Lloyd scurrying after a runaway car in a black and white film. He doesn’t have to worry about unwanted attention. He’s too busy dancing in a world of his own.

The visuals take a leap beyond the obvious as well. Four cameramen perched on the lighting rig high above the band feed back occasional images of Thom from above, while the flickering neon backdrop often throws dramatic, “Matrix”-like hissy fits, all pulsing streams of information and sudden overloads. At one point it looks like they’re playing in front of one of those mirror mazes you find at the seaside, and the connection is obvious: rather than searching for answers, Radiohead are now happier getting lost, wandering blissfully in the labyrinth of the synapses.

The songs that work the best, then, are those that suit the new set up. “Idioteque”, once jarring and difficult, has become spectacular, the rising urgency and almost piston-like beats creating a mesmerising, invigorating, totally enveloping ambience. “The National Anthem”, powered by the filthiest bass riff of all time, is astonishing, Radiohead leaving the petty theatrics of this tiny planet far far behind. The closing “Everything In Its Right Place” is now supremely self-fulfilling, exactly as advertised.

Most of all, Radiohead have fun. Ed and Colin spend a lot of the show pogoing. Johnny’s scoots all over the shop, at one point seemingly manning an ancient phone exchange at the back of the stage. Phil’s in a white suit, very dapper. And Thom plays with a close up camera for “You And Whose Army”, offering out Blair with raised eyebrows and leery hand gestures before bursting out laughing. And that laugh, ricocheting off the concrete walls of the kind of arena that once swamped them, is the laugh of a man who found he could reinvent the world after all.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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