To this day, Radiohead’s 1997 Glastonbury performance might be the festival’s most celebrated moment. The group’s first headline spot, two weeks after the release of universally acclaimed ‘OK Computer’, this was one of the world’s best bands hitting their peak. It was emotional, riddled with mistakes, but somehow the five-piece emerged triumphant and heroic. Michael Eavis ranks it as one of his top five favourite Glastonbury sets, and it’s widely acknowledged as one of the greatest gigs ever.
What made 1997 so special was the constant threat of self-destruction. Technical problems plagued the set. Midway through opening song ‘Lucky’, Ed O’Brien sang his backing vocals so out of tune that Thom Yorke burst out laughing. Their biggest moment looked like being a monumental fuck-up. This week (June 8), Yorke revealed he was against playing the show in the first place (“I just needed a break,” he told BBC 6 Music’s Matt Everitt) and that he almost walked off stage. “At one point I just went over to Ed [O’Brien, guitarist]. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘I’m off mate, see you later.’ He turned around and went, ‘If you do, you’ll probably live the rest of your life regretting it.’”
Yorke stayed on stage. Radiohead finished the set. And with that, they’d cemented a huge part of their legacy. This was a band careering towards superstardom and self-implosion at the same time, which is what made it so special.
By 2003, Radiohead were a very different band. They’d had their collapse and rebirth (almost splitting while making ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’, reemerging as an insular, electronically-rooted new entity). They’d sort of ditched guitars for good. But with sixth album ‘Hail to the Thief’, they’d found a middle ground between embracing their past and ditching it altogether. With the era of post-9/11, George W. Bush-led paranoia looming, they had fire in their bellies again. They found themselves capable of applying guitars to enraged beats like ‘2 + 2 = 5’. And equally, they were penning sweet, lulling piano-led tracks like ‘Sail to the Moon’, where Yorke sings to his newly-born son and teaches him the ways of the world. The frontman recently looked back on Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ era with Rolling Stone, and said he’d tell his former self to “lighten the fuck up.” The band weren’t exactly cheery by ‘Hail to the Thief’, but much of their unrelenting angst had given way to a renewed purpose.
If the band’s 1997 Glastonbury set was a mix of triumph and trauma, 2003 was a celebration. Before playing a song, Yorke screamed into his mic in excitement. Starting a looped vocal sample of ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, he uttered the words “hash for cash”, in a mini-tribute to the fest’s dealers. For once, the band were in cheery spirits, and compared to 1997’s near car-crash, they didn’t run into a single technical problem, an ultra-confident evolution of their former selves.
If you were there at the time, 1997 remains Radiohead’s crowning moment. NME wrote at the time: “‘Fake Plastic Trees’ is the peak of a gig that not only surpasses Radiohead’s seminal 1997 performance, but goes way out in front of it with arms stretched aloft, eyes closed and smiling face closed to the stars.” But watching the two sets back-to-back, 2003 had more of a swagger. Classics like ‘Paranoid Android’ rubbed shoulders with the hyper-anxious ‘Idioteque’. Thrashing ‘Hail to the Thief’ highlight ‘There, There’ sounded gigantic. The different phases of Radiohead’s career can often seem diametrically opposed, but here they arrived hand-in-hand. Not only did it cement their status as permanent heroes, it paved the way for the kind of sets they play today, where songs that go unplayed for decades can reappear alongside brand new tracks.
It’s foolish to rule out 1997’s importance, but 2003 also has a huge place in the band’s history. Now it’s over to 2017 to perform the same feat.