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Radiohead and me

headphones

I was a tourist, but also trying to be a detective. We ambled over the bridge and looked down at the Thames, making its quiet way towards London. Naught. In the town centre St Nicolas’ Church surrendered no clues, and I wondered what influence the former MG car plant had with its suggestions of status and privilege.

Abingdon is six miles from Oxford, and we were there visiting friends. It’s the birthplace of Radiohead. Following the requisite pub lunch, we took a stroll. While our hosts knew nothing of the town’s famous sons I attempted some connections. Any signs in the market square that could further decode “Karma Police?” Would Abingdon Gaol’s architecture enlighten my reading of “Pyramid Song?”

Of course, my thinking assumed that art is chiefly autobiographical. We often want it to be. But, was mine a ridiculous quest? Having worked for a decade near Kensington in Adelaide’s east, I’d not gained much geographical insight into Paul Kelly’s back catalogue.

However, it was also a sensible quest, for music is more meaningful if we can somehow make its birthplace enchanted. Landscapes might matter, even for Radiohead, whose existential songs are devoid of setting.

Driving home from Oxfordshire I acknowledge that from a wholly unremarkable village, a remarkable band emerged, as we’d hope.

*

Indeed, it was commuting up Kensington Road past Norwood into Paul Kelly territory (I taught two of his nieces) when on Triple J I first heard “Paranoid Android.” After, Mikey Robbins and The Sandman linked it to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I devoured as a teenager. References to Douglas Adams’ cult novel are infused across the record.

I was spellbound, apprehended by the song’s circuitous, multi-part structure that also announced Radiohead’s dominant theme: the horrors of modern life. They continue to explore this with gallows humour and compelling soundscapes. Perfect through headphones.

That afternoon I bought OK Computer.

*

Arriving in Singapore my wife and I bought smartphones, onto which I uploaded my CDs. I then rambled about that hot, teeming islet, accompanied by some beloved collections, which both isolated me and somehow welded me to those equatorial streets. Now, back in Australia when I put on Exile on Main St, Belle and Sebastian’s Tigermilk or Vampire Weekend’s Contra I’m walking through the thick heat at Robertson Quay.

Great albums present discovery and rediscovery as every track enjoys periods of personal high rotation in which it becomes the favourite. I like these evolutions in my explorations of an artist.

A few Octobers ago, around our Phuket pool, I played OK Computer. Horizontal on my sun lounge I became enamoured with the final song. The waltz-tempo and cathartic rhythm of “The Tourist” deliver a telling full stop to this record of splendor and portent. After a ferocious guitar solo, it closes with a single note struck on a triangle. Superb.

I also recall eating pizza by that pool when a neighbouring family leapt up and scattered. An emerald snake had appeared at their feet, and startled, it slipped hastily over the pavers and climbed a palm. We peered up at it, hanging green on a frond, fifteen feet up like reptilian tinsel. Could a frightened snake populate a Radiohead song? Feature as a symbol of contemporary alienation? Don’t be silly, I thought. Have another heat, the Chang’s getting to you.

*

In a distant Port Pirie winter, we lit a backyard fire and sat about it in black coats. The grey smoke phantomed around and through us while we drank shiraz and stories and music. It’s the year PJ Harvey released Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, but what I remember from this evening is Radiohead’s second offering, The Bends.

I remember “Fake Plastic Trees” and aside from the consciously tautological title I love the soaring atmospherics of the guitars, although now Radiohead hasn’t been a guitar band for two decades. Throughout, Thom Yorke invests his vocals with vulnerability, and this matches the dread and defiance of the lyrics.

The next afternoon I bought The Bends.

*

1993 in a forgotten pub. “So, what do you think about that British band Radiohead? You know that song, “Creep?”

I replied. “Not much. Reckon they’re a one-hit wonder.”

Oops, but who can tell? Radiohead’s debut, Pablo Honey is a turgid mess, and proposes no capacity. However, about this time a blonde leg-spinner took 1/150 in his first Test…

*

I subscribe to Spotify because I love suddenly recollecting a song, and then hearing it within seconds. As a streaming service, it’s brilliant. Nevertheless, it worries me how the artists receive miniscule royalties, such that their yearly dividend may only allow a band to huddle naked around a can of flat Fanta.

I do prefer an artefact: vinyl, CD, even a cassette, but visiting the local K-Mart with three discs by the execrable Pink isn’t worth the free parking. I remind myself to buy a turntable, and return to that dear friend, the past.

A Moon Shaped Pool is the record Radiohead promised to make all millennium. When everyone’s asleep I sometimes listen to “The Numbers” through headphones. Concerning climate change, this track exquisitely combines fragile metaphor, guitar, and tinkling piano. I love a string section, and the urgent stabs accentuate the ominous themes.

Given their form I hope Radiohead continues. The menace of neo- conservativism and dire planetary health means there’s still much for them to ponder.

hitchhiker

4

Exile on Adelaide Oval: Stone[s] the Crows

HQ

The piano accordion was his passion. For years he performed across the district. A livestock and grain farmer of German descent. So for Christmas his teenaged son, my mate Chris, bought him the New York City drugs and sex soaked Some Girls by The Rolling Stones.

Chris is not alone in offering such gifts. I’ve ordered SK Warne’s autobiography for our youngest, Max. The No-Shane’s-not-named-it-ironically, My Autobiography. It’s perfect for a four year old. Nevertheless, growing up in a dusty town, The Rolling Stones were the band.

Motorists had expectations of me, an adolescent working at a country servo. Smoke and steam, bonnet flung up. Returning from Cadell, the Riverland’s minimum security prison, haunted types’d ask me, “Do you think it’s the head gasket?” I was more familiar with Dollyworld in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee than lumpen V8s. And being a brash undergraduate, I once replied, between swigs of TAB, “Sorry, I can’t help you. I’m a historian.” I was nineteen.

Late every Sunday my cousin Boogly cruised down the hill past Nugget’s Clare Castle Hotel and Trotta’s Hardware to the Esso. Every Sunday I heard Boogly coming, ‘Slave’ from the Stones’ Tattoo You walloping from the speakers in his HQ Holden Kingswood. The music was ridiculous. The music was cool. We loved it.

Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it

Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it

Do it, do it, do it, do it

Don’t wanna be your slave

Don’t wanna be your slave

Don’t wanna be your slave

Genius.

Released in 1981, Tattoo You is their last good record. For their first twenty years The Rolling Stones were VVS Laxman, and for the next thirty they’ve been Jim Higgs, Test batting average: 5.55, but without the menace.

We’d be on the Hill at Adelaide Oval as Viv and Clive and then Viv’s son Richie Richardson went a-clubbing. In the drenching sunshine Nick’d emerge from the bar behind The Duck Pond banner. Juggling trays of West End draught, he’d then recite Mick’s opening to the Stones’ live record Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out, “We’re sorry for the delays. Everybody ready? Let’s really hear it for the next band, The Rolling Stones!”

Tramping into my 21st at the Kapunda Golf Club, Nick was Mick with a Union Jack flag right across his back. In the middle of a pub conversation someone’d channel Jagger, “Charlie’s good tonight.” Or,“ I think I’ve busted a button on my trousers. You don’t want my trousers to fall down, do you?”

Mum and Dad saw them in 1965 at Centennial Hall, but many preferred the support act, Roy Orbison and his operatic baritone. The Stones’ musical and biological mortality threatened, so when the 1995 concert at Footy Park was announced, I had to go. Nick prophesised, “Skeletor (Keith) probably won’t be back in Adelaide. Ever.” Who could disagree?

On an April Tuesday, I pointed my Nissan Exa at Whyalla, eluded the roos, boarded a Piper Navajo Chieftain, and sat on the forward flank as they ran through

Not Fade Away

Tumbling Dice

You Got Me Rocking

Live with Me

Sparks Will Fly

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

Beast of Burden

Far Away Eyes

Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)

Rock and a Hard Place

I Go Wild

Miss You

Honky Tonk Women

Before They Make Me Run

Slipping Away

Sympathy for the Devil

Monkey Man

Street Fighting Man

Start Me Up

It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)

Brown Sugar

Jumpin’ Jack Flash.

My ultimate Stones set list? Anything from Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers. The matchless run of form in rock history. Broadly coinciding with Sturt’s SANFL flags in 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1974 and 1976. Finally, The Beatles, mighty as they’d been, released Let It Be; fatigued and plodding besides some scattered gems.

Ideally, they’d play Exile on Main St in its entirety. In his excellent book on the album Bill Janovich argues

Exile is exactly what rock & roll should sound like: a bunch of musicians playing a bunch of great songs in a room together, playing off of each other, musical communion, sounds bleeding into each other, snare drum rattling away even while not being hit, amps humming, bottles falling, feet shuffling, ghostly voices mumbling on and off-mike, whoops of excitement, shouts of encouragement, performances without a net, masks off, urgency. It is the kind of record that goes beyond the songs themselves to create a monolithic sense of atmosphere. It conveys a sense of time and place and spirit, yet it is timeless. 

When I was nineteen I borrowed the cassette from the State Library, played it lackadaisically in my HQ Holden (everyone in Kapunda drove a HQ) to and from uni, and rejected it. It had country music on it. I was nineteen.

Today side 2, the country side, is my favourite side of any album. Beyond the second side of Abbey Road with its illustrious song medley, or the first side of Belle and Sebastian’s Tigermilk. Exile is muddy and nocturnal. Not only are they the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band. They are the greatest country band too.

The modernised Adelaide Oval hosts The Rolling Stones as Melbourne and St Kilda meet in Round 1 at Docklands. Sympathy for the Bedevilled, or Sympathy for the Devils, who torch a dwarf?

A Showdown then follows. I’ll be in Koh Samui, but will listen to Exile as a tribute. Tex and Paddy are surely Stones men. It would be boorish to say the Power are Beiber types, so I won’t. They’re not even piano accordion fans.

Enjoy the concert. And the footy.

mick