Today we’ll be continuing our walk through Alex Ross’s book, “Listen To This”, with a look at the fourth chapter on Radiohead’s “Grand Tour”.
So far, we’ve covered the first major section of Ross’s book, which dealt with providing a wide overview of the musical landscape, from classical to pop. Some of these have dealt more with Ross’s personal relationship with music, but for the most part, he provides a rounded look at the ways music has changed and evolved over the years through the advancement of recording technology, and the ways compositions have stayed same through repeated patterns of common bass lines, for example.
We’ve only just dipped into his next section, in which Ross discusses artists throughout music history. We started this off last time with a look at the life and work of Mozart. And today, we’ll be continuing that by looking at Ross’s coverage of Radiohead’s 2001 tour.
But before we dive into this chapter, first we’er going to give a bit of a disclaimer. Not only for those who aren’t as familiar with Radiohead, but for the nature of the way Ross approaches this chapter, which is strikingly different from his coverage of Mozart.
Radiohead is an English rock band that started out in the late ’80s, rising to stardom with the success of their grunge hit, “Creep”. From there, the band has constantly evolved and changed over the years, and become a sort of almost religious figure for music nerds, hipsters, misfits, and outcasts.
While in our last chapter, Ross handled Mozart’s life from more of a scholarly distance, when taking on Radiohead, his writing takes on a more personalized, journalistic tone. And this makes perfect sense, as Ross is writing about Radiohead’s tour as he accompanies the band, glimpsing insights into the members’ habits and personalities, humanizing them in a way that wasn’t possible in his previous chapters.
In order to give this series a bit more cohesion, we’ll be focusing this chapter less on the tour itself, and more on Ross’s insights into the band, its members, and their music.
Radiohead’s Grand Tour
Early in the chapter, Ross describes the set that Radiohead plays in one specific show in Bilbao, Spain. “It was grand in effect, cool in tone, dark in mood. The set combined music from the band’s breakthrough albums of the mid-nineties — The Bends and OK Computer — with more recent material from the albums Kid A and Amnesiac” (p. 87). He then goes on to comment on the effect their performance had, on both the crowd, and himself, personally. “The interplay was as engaging to the mind as anything that had been done in classical music recently, but you could jump up and down to it” (p. 87).
A bit later on, Ross attempts to capture the work habits and collaborative nature of Radiohead as a single, music-making unit.
“Take away any one element — Selway’s flickering rhythmic grid, for example, crisp in execution and trippy in effect — and Radiohead is a different band. The five together form a single mind, with its own habits and tics — the Radiohead Composer” (p. 89).
Aside from further descriptions and observations of the tour, Ross also contributes some insightful analyses of Radiohead hits. One of these, is of their first major success, “Creep”, and how, even as a grunge song, it stands apart from the genre.
“What set ‘Creep’ apart from the grunge of the early nineties was the grandeur of its chords — in particular, its regal turn from G major to B major…The lyrics may be saying, ‘I’m a creep,’ but the music is saying, ‘I am majestic'”(p. 94).
One specific quote from Ross I’d like to highlight comes at a point in the chapter when Ross discusses Radiohead’s anti-commercial release of Amnesiac. “There are times when Radiohead seem to be practicing a new kind of classical music for the masses” (p. 95).
It’s understandable why Ross, a classical music buff, would make this connection, but I think there’s more truth behind it than his potential bias might suggest. At the end of the chapter, Ross includes an explanation and assessment of “the Radiohead ethic” as he describes it, better than I could hope to.
It is, “a love of the far-flung sounds, a knack for head-turning juxtapositions, a faith in the audience’s ability to take it all in” (p. 100). And with that, we’ll end our discussion for today.
Next time, we’ll move on to Ross’s next chapter, in which Ross gets back to classical with a look at Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.