As Radiohead prepare for their Manchester and London shows – likely to be low on crowd-pleasing hits – Lucy Jones says critics need to stop whinging and embrace the unfamiliar
It baffles me why people buy tickets to see Radiohead and expect a greatest hits set. Hello! They’re not U2. Their musical output is not over. Life didn’t end with ‘The Bends’. Most of the recent whining over their setlists – at Glastonbury’s show last year and the current world tour – originates with fans who had their first Hooch to Pablo Honey in the 90s and simply ignored everything after that, i.e. the band’s greatest work.
An unusually idiotic review for the Guardian earlier this year gave their opening show in Miami two stars and bitched about the band standing “stock still”, Thom being “saddled” to his guitar and the rest remaining “relatively motionless.” What did he expect? Brazilian dancers and 3D fireworks? The piece argued that the band were obliged to play the hits, and suggested they were being self-indulgent.
The same accusation was levelled at the Glastonbury secret show in 2011 and some even left the crowd. Yet, despite the torrential rain, it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. It focussed intently on ‘The King Of Limbs’, with a smattering of ‘In Rainbows’, ‘I Might Be Wrong’ and a ‘Street Spirit’ encore. I’d enjoyed the album up until that point, but something clicked when I saw it performed, propelled by Thom’s palpable enthusiasm and new-found banter with the crowd.
The setlists this year have been ‘King Of Limbs’ and ‘In Rainbows’-heavy (what a surprise!). They’ve also been chucking in rare B-sides and new songs (‘Cut A Hole’, ‘Identikit’, ‘Full Stop’ and ‘Skirting On The Surface’ have appeared, with ‘Identikit’ played 26 times). ‘Bloom’, ‘Reckoner’ and ‘Lotus Flower’ are the most-played songs (46 each) followed by ‘Good Morning Mr. Magpie’, ‘Feral’ and ‘Idioteque.
Rare B-sides include Amazing Sounds of Orgy’ (‘Pyramid Song’ B-side and never played live), the beautiful ‘Meeting In The Aisle’ (‘Airbag/How Am I Driving EP’).’The Daily Mail’ has been played regularly which is great news. There have been no covers so far and sadly no ‘True Love Waits’.
The presence of Portishead drummer Clive Deamer confirms the priority of a forward-looking, polyrhythmic direction. But closers to the sets have been ‘Karma Police’, ‘Paranoid Android’, ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ and ‘Street Spirit’ which slaps down the moronic idea that Radiohead are refusing to play hits to deliberately annoy fans.
If you look back at the band’s setlists over the years, each major tour has been dominated by the present album release (memo to gripers: this is how tours work) with, by and large, a mixture of oldies. When they started off in 1992, performing in small university venues, ‘Creep’ was the most played song. It continued that way through the ‘Bends’ tour in 1994 until they got sick of it, and famously it’s only been played a handful of times since.
Sign up for the newsletter
In 1995 ‘True Love Waits’ appears, as do early covers of Carly Simon’s ‘Nobody Does It Better’ and Blondie’s ‘Union City Blue’. ‘Paranoid Android’ became the new ‘Creep’ during the 1997 ‘OK Computer’ tours and continues to be a favourite to this day. ‘Nude’, now on ‘In Rainbows’, also surfaced around that time.
If you look at the early 2000s during the period of the ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ releases, setlists are still a mix of everything, though ‘Pablo Honey’ starts to be relegated. The most played songs in 2001 were ‘Karma Police’, ‘Lucky’ and ‘Paranoid Android’ from ‘OK Computer’ as well as ‘National Anthem’, ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ and ‘Morning Bell’.
The ‘Hail To The Thief’ tour was the first time I saw them and, already obsessed, I was happy for that album to take centre stage. The rarely played ‘I Will’ was a highlight. Victoria Park’s ‘In Rainbows’ shows in 2008 was a mix of well-known songs and few surprises, which is one of the reasons fans will be so thrilled by the presence of random B-sides on this tour.
Sometimes a big old meze of songs and sounds doesn’t sound elegant. A show that concentrates on one area of their art, punctuated with special rarities, could be a more intense experience. Reports of smiles, banter, multiple instruments and spectacular visual effects suggest this is a celebration the band are really going for.
My dream Radiohead setlist would open with the aural springboard ’15 Step’, before rattling into a matrix of ‘King Of Limbs’: ‘Supercollider’, ‘Good Morning Mr Magpie’ and ‘Little By Little’. ‘Girl (In The Purple Dress)’, the early On A Friday demo that was found last year, could pop up at this point. ‘Like Spinning Plates’, ‘Airbag’ and ‘I Will’ would definitely need to be in there somewhere.
Hits-wise, I’d want ‘You’, ‘Paranoid Android’, ‘Karma Police’, ‘Pyramid Song’ and ‘There There’. Rarities-wise, I’d love to hear ‘Where Bluebirds Fly’, ‘Big Boots’, ‘Palo Alto’, ‘Meeting People Is Easy’, ‘Molasses’, ‘I Want None Of This’, ‘Banana Co.’, ‘Worrywort’ and ‘Talk Show Host’.
My perfect encore would be ‘Climbing Up The Walls’, ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, ‘Separator’, ‘True Love Waits’ and ‘Paranoid Android’ as the closer, the first Radiohead song I heard.
This tour has looked to the side and the future, instead of back. Isn’t that far more exciting?