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Radiohead: 21st Century Beatles


One of my favourite phrases is “the new Nirvana won’t sound anything like Nirvana”. I like it because it is true. Nirvana were a breath of musky air and changed the sound of contemporary music for a decade, possibly forever. Now grunge is part of musical history and doing it again would be very difficult.

The other reason I like it is because whilst everyone was looking for “the next Nirvana” (a weighty title which has dragged many a promising band down to the depths of mediocrity), they forgot to look for “the next Beatles”, who have, funnily enough been around since the era of grunge relevancy.

This allowed them to avoid the “next Nirvana” tag and allowed them, however reluctantly, to become the biggest band in the world.

The band I am referring to is, of course, Radiohead.

This might be a bit of a surprising conclusion to draw and some fans (of The Beatles and Radiohead alike) might even consider it blasphemous. But then that is why the previously mentioned phrase is so important. The new Beatles don’t sound anything like The Beatles. But they do have a lot in common.

  1. Both bands changed their names before they found major success. The Beatles went through a number of names before settling, whilst Radiohead changed their name from “On A Friday” at the request of their then record label, EMI. Sure, this is a bit flimsy, but people underestimate the impact of a great band name.
  2. Their initial sound was of the popular music of the times. In the case of The Beatles, this was rock n roll, with Radiohead it was grunge.
  3. They experimented wildly and took their fans with them. The Beatles released the phenomenal conceptual pop art masterpiece Sgt. Pepper. Radiohead released experimental minimalist electronic noise rock Kid A in an effort to lose some of their new fans and ended up becoming even more popular. Rarely is such experimentation greeted so enthusiastically.
  4. The both brought certain techniques into the mainstream. One of the most common misconceptions is that The Beatles invented or discovered a great number of studio tricks, when in actual fact, they used recently discovered methods to fantastic effect. Their biggest impact in this regard was to popularise such techniques and bringing them into the mainstream. Radiohead did a similar thing, albeit on an electronic level. The music they created was great, but the techniques and style were not new, but remain one of the few, if not the only band to have so much chart success with such sounds.
  5. They both took chances. The Beatles could easily have continued putting out the same sort of music for their entire career, but they experimented and tried all sorts of things, creating a brilliant catalogue of work. Radiohead did they same. They could have stayed as a guitar rock band, but they decided to take their music in strange new directions.
  6. Both bands were fronted by politically driven singers. John Lennon famously had big dreams about changing the world and made a number of very public stands for and against all sorts of things. This can be seen in Radiohead with Thom Yorke and Radiohead pleading with people to bring down the government, and actively supporting the Occupy movement, to a far greater degree than say, the supposedly political pop punk band Green Day.
  7. They were both experimental with their releases, albeit in different ways. The Beatles popularised the concept album, whilst Radiohead literally gave their 2007 album, In Rainbows, away for free and offered downloaders the opportunity to pay what they felt was fair.

Of course, some of those links are a bit tenuous, but then this article is not a scholarly work. Though I do suspect such an endeavour would make for fascinating reading.

What I hope to get across is that when people say modern music is terrible, they are wrong. And when they say there will never be another Beatles, they are wrong. They are in fact already here, they just don’t sound anything like The Beatles.

I honestly believe when we look back in 20/30/40 years time, once all the chaff has fallen by the wayside, we will be amazed by how much brilliant music was (is) actually around.

In short, Radiohead are the modern day Beatles and if you ever get the opportunity, go and see them live.

You will not be disappointed.

2 thoughts on “Radiohead: 21st Century Beatles

  1. I can only hope Radiohead doesn’t come to so upsetting an end! The thing that, for me, really unites these two bands is that both bands insisted on making albums that were satisfying and rewarding for themselves, instead of catering to wider listenerships or trying to predict their audience’s tastes. The thing I love about pretty much every Beatles album is that you can hear the band having fun. There are always jokes, always really simple tracks, always adventures. With Radiohead there’s WAY less fun, obviously, but that gets replaced by sincerity, which for me is the hallmark of every Radiohead album and one of the main reasons I love them so much. When you’re together for so long, when you’re so wildly popular, when you’re critically acclaimed, when you get everything you ever thought fame and fortune could give you (like both of these bands did), then the music starts being, truly, an end in itself. When bands are making music for no other reason than to make their lives meaningful (and, by proxy, their fans’ lives as well), then you get to the real next level music, the legendary stuff, the kind of stuff both Radiohead and The Beatles make/made.

    Awesome post.

    • Thanks for the reply.

      I agree entirely with the first point. They really only interested in pursuing their artistic visions.

      As for the fun, I’m not entirely convinced. With The Beatles, there was a lot of tension at the end and they ended up recording their own songs in separate rooms. But then they are still full of life, which just says so much about their talent and their enthusiasm for the music. At the beginning, there was certainly that fun though. Listening to Twist And Shout, the joy just shines through.

      As for Radiohead, I think the fun in their music gets played down somewhat, due to the more experimental nature and the obtuse lyrics. As a result, the fun the band were having gets lost, unless explicitly pointed out, though I’m not sure that enhances the enjoyment of the music. I’d even posit that at this moment in time Radiohead are having more fun than they ever had, given the have absolute creative freedom to do as they please, entirely on their own terms and on their own schedule. Compare it to Meeting People Is Easy, which makes being in the band look like hell.

      What is so impressive about both bands is that unlike, say Oasis, they didn’t disappear into this totally self-indulgent, creatively bland spell, resulting from too universal acclaim and adoration.

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