Turn Tune Drop Out Radiohead
SAN FRANCISCO -- Sometimes, if you're lucky, you can see with your ears
as you listen with your eyes.
Radiohead can do that to you.
They're onstage now. I can hear them from the back of the Bill Graham Civic
Center on Thursday night, as I am lost in a crowd of taller people. Their massive
sound ebbs and flows, swelling ever so deliberately, a turbulent ocean of
noise that is at once sucked like a vacuum into a trickle of acoustic guitar
and the impossibly sad whine of singer Thom Yorke.
Colorful lights flash around the stage, the colors painting the sound as it
fills the dead space above us. A red glow bathes the British pop band, making
its music seem to emit heat. Radiohead have just finished the opening number
'Airbag' and the greeting from the sold-out crowd is deafening.
From my spot to the left of the sound board, I can see the King Kong-sized
shadow of guitarist Jonny Greenwood reflected against the wall to the right of
the stage, but there's no sign of Yorke, anywhere. He's a small guy, yet with a
colossal voice that seems to leap in a single bound almost acrobatically and
then easily somersault back into place. He's singing a line from 'Karma
Police' now. 'He buzzes like a fridge/He's like a detuned
He's practically moaning it, as Greenwood's guitar churns relentlessly,
crackling like an iceberg slowly breaking apart. I hear early Pink Floyd in
the sound as it swirls above and beyond the stage. I see what looks like five
ladders rising up behind the band, and once every now and then, if I crane my
head and rise to my toes, I can make out a small figure moving about the
stage. His whole body is vibrating in a sort of mock seizure.
It must be Yorke, I think. And then he's gone again.
The next tune is 'Subterranean Homesick Alien,' the third song on their critically acclaimed
OK Computer . 'This is for the cheap seats down in back,' I hear Yorke
say, and I am wondering if that means me, though I am standing. There's a
choir of voices coming from what sounds like a synthesizer, and Yorke
stretches his words out for miles, deforming the syllables so they're
In so doing, his voice becomes a part of the sonic collage that Radiohead are
It's getting warmer in here as Radiohead trips lightly through 'Just' off
their album The Bends . A 'Live 105' balloon, or two, or three, bounce
around the audience, a cliche that shocks me out of my trance long enough to
look around the upper decks. A few fans stand and sway, apparently caught in
the whirlpool of noise.
'Please play 'Creep'!' a young woman yells desperately.
But Yorke can't hear her, not that it would matter. He hasn't played the
band's breakthrough single since beginning this tour last year and there's no
reason to think that he's going to start now. Thanks to MTV and radio overexposure,
it's too familiar.
And it's clear that Radiohead are not interested in the familiar.
They are not about image. It's obvious in the way they hide inside the colored
lights and smoke, and in the way their performance takes on a life of its own
even to those lost in the crowd.
The red hot lights on the stage cool down to a royal blue just in time for the
ending of 'Climbing Up The Walls.' I can hear Greenwood tapping on a
xylophone, the sound like tiny doorbells ringing randomly. I imagine Yorke
picking at the strings on his black acoustic guitar to the hypnotic nursery-
rhyme melody of 'No Surprises.'
When we reach the eye of this psychedelic storm, we are treated to one of
Radiohead's best, 'Fake Plastic Trees,' which is nothing if not a celebration
of ambience, of exploding green light and bursts of guitar, bass and drums,
fully loaded with effects. And in Radiohead's trademark style, it is all very
suddenly sucked into thin air, leaving only the singer, his guitar and his
Before it is over, however, the swirling noises and digital effects pound at
the walls of the theater one more time.
And then, playing the part of the mad conductor, Yorke hammers at the air with
his microphone, as if banging on an invisible door.
At least, that is how I heard it in my eyes and envisioned it through my ears.