After ‘The King Of Limbs’ becomes Radiohead’s lowest charting album since ‘Pablo Honey’, Hamish MacBain argues that it’s about time Thom and co came clean over one or two things…
Here are some things that have been written about ‘The King Of Limbs’. Apparently “it feels timely – released just as the country protested the privatisation of its own forests, but also in tune with the turn of the year, buzzing with fresh life right on the cusp of the vernal equinox”. We’ve learnt that “it stops short intentionally, almost confrontationally, as if Radiohead are trying to ask a new kind of question about their music”. One publication was moved to call it “a radical reinvention that fuses timeless langour with post-modern darkness over towering ziggurat electronica”.
The last one of those is a spoof (not that you could tell) that ran in the week before the album landed, on Vice’s website. But it’s not like you’d have to look hard to find more beyond-parodic musings. Another tells us we can take Thom merely singing the line “Open your mouth wide” as “shorthand for the primal self-expression and un-tethered imaginative possibilities that remain the source of great art and music, and which exist in their purest form in the free jazz, folk idioms and experimentation for its own sake that Radiohead seem to be looking to for inspiration”.
But enough sniggering at over-analysis of Radiohead, fun as it is. The thing that all of these reviews have in common is that they all conclude that ‘The King Of Limbs’ is Radiohead treading water musically. All of them. Every single one. There are excuses made for this: maybe this is just “throat clearing” for other soon-to-come releases. It might be “an attempt to deliberately downsize expectations” (a claim that mirrors Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith’s claim in the film that his band’s “appeal is becoming more selective”). Pitchfork awarded the album 7.9 out of 10. 7.9! What is that, a hi-hat sound away from 8?
Bottom line: that tree? If Thom chainsawed it down and built a fence, it would collapse under the weight of bums perched on it. A couple of weeks after the dust has settled – and ‘The King Of Limbs’ is available as a ‘Man’-defying jewel-case CD in HMV – the simple truth is clear: Radiohead have made a crap album that no-one wants to say is crap. Or rather, no-one wants to believe the truth that the pioneering, sticking-it-to-the-man jig is up, and Radiohead are going to live out the rest of their existence putting out Flying Lotus/Four Tet impersonations. This is fine for them – why Liam G gets stick for putting out music that sounds a lot like the stuff he loves and they don’t is a gripe for another day – but what does it mean for everyone else out there? If the reviews of ‘The King Of Limbs’ show anything, it is that where Radiohead go, others will follow and believe, no matter what.
The ‘Radiohead Way’ has been taken as modus operandi by a generation. Thou shalt always be “innovative”. Thou shalt release thine records in an “innovative” fashion and not care about money or people taking it for free. Thou shalt hate The Man. So what happens when they’re not doing any of this anymore? When they’ve effectively cut the apron strings, have led people into a war, and are – as ‘The King Of Limbs’ suggests and its reviews hint at – ducking out of it entirely, with the intention of becoming just a band, who make music they like and sell it?
To expand on an oft-repeated argument, Radiohead’s views on the music biz are more than simplistic and insulting. They’re dangerous. When you’ve had the luxury of a decade selling albums for £14.99 a pop, and the chance to take a couple of mil to headline V Festival, and encouraged people to ‘pay what they like’ for your album when your renegotiations with a (very) major label fail, it’s easy to go around saying the industry is evil/fucked, and for Ed O’Brien to make wildly ill-informed claims like, “You’ve got to license out more music, more Spotifys, more websites selling more music. You’ve got to make it slightly cheaper to get music in order to compete with peer-to-peers.” Here are the facts: no-one has been paid anything significant for Spotify plays. Ask the numerous bands who are perceived as being big – I’ll spare them the indignity of being named – but still work day jobs.
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Ed O’Brien wouldn’t know this, because a) he doesn’t really need to know, as his mortgage is covered by ‘OK Computer’; and b) he has clearly done zero research. Saying it is up to the evil multinationals to find a way of monetising music is utter bullshit. Their whole ‘Us Versus The Music Business Capitalists’ schtick is paper-thin rhetoric with zero basis in reality, and boils down to nothing more than a marketing gimmick to help them sell more copies of Radiohead albums. Double pack, with a photograph, extra track, a tacky badge, and the feeling you are taking on the corporate evil.
Another fact: everything Radiohead do is a marketing gimmick, and not a selfless leading of the way for younger bands to follow. The ‘pay what you like’ ‘In Rainbows’ scheme was good for them, getting yet more bloggers championing their subversive ways. But the money they lost would have been spent on marketing anyway. Asked in 2009 whether he thought the ‘honesty box’ scheme worked, Thom Yorke said: “Oh, yeah. It worked on two or three different levels. The first level is just sort of getting a point across that we wanted to get across about music being valuable.
“It also worked as a way of using the internet to promote your record, without having to use iTunes or Google or whatever. You rely on the fact that you know a lot of people want to hear it. You don’t want to have to go to the radio first and go through all that bullshit about ‘What’s the first single?’, you don’t want to have to go to the press. That was my thing, like, I am not giving it to the press two months early so they can tear it to shreds and destroy it for people before they’ve even heard it. And it worked on that level. And it also worked financially.” The key part there is: “rely on the fact you know a lot of people want to hear it”.
For everyone else with a brain, the biggest, most-looked-to band in England doing this was cheapening music, and massively accelerating the process of making being in a band full-time impossible. Why, ask music fans, should I pay full whack for a Horrors album when Radiohead – the saviours, the overlords – are giving theirs away for next to nothing? This at a time when it is crucial people realise that the bands they have only just started to love will simply not exist without financial support.
There is no way you can say that an honesty box scheme is a viable business plan for a new band nobody has yet heard of. Same thing with ‘The King Of Limbs’. It’s easy to stick a record out with no promotion for next to nothing when you’re Radiohead. But who else can get away with it? Radiohead, of course, are simply sticking to their boneheaded stance that “When the corporate industry dies it will be no great loss to the world”, that the internet is brilliant, and that glitchy laptop beats give you a moral high ground over people with guitars.
What they are certainly not doing is providing any answers – or going by the new album, any music – with any substance. If, for example, they had gone public with what went right and wrong with the honesty box thing, then talked about how they were going to improve it this time around, how it could work for others, then they would be heroes. But they don’t. They remain silent – read “enigmatic” – save for a few vacuous and incomprehensible – read “mysterious” – soundbites, because they know this is what people want from them, what guarantees more fawning analysis, and sells their records. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?
This article originally appeared in the April 23rd issue of NME