Long live Radiohead (and also Paolo Angeli)
At the end of 2018 Paolo Angeli realized his last record 22.22 Free Radiohead and I found myself facing a problem: how to adequately review this disc having only a brief knowledge of this group? I admit. When Radiohead raged in the late 90s and early 2000s, my ear, my attention was attracted to other sounds. In 1997, while “Ok Computer” reigned, I was fascinated by the debut of “F♯ A♯ ∞” by the Canadians Godspeed You Black Emperor! and in 2000, the year of the magnificent “Kid A”, their “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas” loomed over my CD player together with Catartica by Marlene Kuntz, at the releases of the Ninja Tune, of the Tzadik …. etcetera.
I had listened to Radiohead’s records and I liked them, but I hadn’t bought them, I told myself “well you have all the time, they are mainstream records, I’ll buy them back later.” Maybe I was just a little snobbish, maybe they didn’t hit me that much and eventually I didn’t recover those records. In the end it took Paolo Angeli to “force me” to buy their CD box and listen to them carefully. And it was just now that I did it.
The Radioheads were a pleasant surprise. A bit like those books that you want to read for quite a while and then when that moment finally arrives, everything is even more beautiful than you imagined. I listened to the seven CDs of the Album Box Set. Seven spectacular records: Pablo Honey, the Bend, Ok Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, I Might Be Wrong – Live Recordings and Hail To The Thief and I have thought something about them.
Radiohead was the last great, art British rock band. The healthy response to the Oasis’s post-Beatles, cocainic, arrogant and brash mix. The last children of a cultural tradition that was born in British art schools and that, at the end of the 90s had seen them become the la st rock’s templars, one of the most carefully vivisected groups analyzed by the specialist press. The last big band influenced by the sounds of the late 70s, early 80s. The name of the band, Radiohead, has a “noble” origin: it’s the title of a 1979 song by Talking Heads, another cult band, New Yorkers emerged from the no-wave and the CBGB stage, famous for their witty and cryptic texts and for the neurotic energy of their music.
They were good, very good. In 1997 with Ok Computer they were able to capture and interpret a wave of generation anxiety with titles such as Karma Police, Paranoid Android and Climbing Up The Walls with lyrics that talked about the new wave of information technology, riot police, obscure computer jargon, flows of information, poor policy. One of the things that struck me most when listening to their music, their lyrics and reading the covers and notes of their records is the highest attention to every single specific detail. Everything seems to demand an interpretation. Charts. Diagrams, color strokes. Scattered words. Symbols. Signs. Words spelled curiously. Everything is articulated narration.
The point is that the Radioheads were able to put their unmistakable signature on every single sound, on every detail. Over the years many groups have thrown fragments of classical and electronic into their cauldron. The Beatles were by far the most brilliant in this assimilation of other genres. Other second-level bands have drawn on these genres with the aim of “ennobling” their pop form with the result that their orchestral crescendo or their jazz deliriums have turned into yet another form of cheap kitsch. But not Radiohead. This band has been able to create an unmistakable brand, which allows them to maintain a very high professional level. One of their distinctive features is the use they make of musical space. They manage to saturate it brilliantly by moving continuously. Even in the apparent moments of stasis their music moves relentlessly, probing the ceiling or sinking under the floor. When it seems to be still, it is actually folding itself up, wrapping itself like a spring, ready to jump in an unexpected direction. Take the Ok Computer / Kid A / Amnesiac / Hail To The Thief quadrilogy: it’s a hypnotic mixture of rock riffs, jazz chords, classical textures and electronic noises that expresses a poor balance between art, avant-garde and pop achieved by the band, where the interaction between the instruments seduces the mind as much as any that has been created in classical music recently, but which at the same time also makes us want to move and jump.
Simon Reynolds analyzed the Radioheads in a brilliant Wire article edited in July 2001. That number angered several loyal readers of the British magazine: his staff had dared to put a Tom York’s black and white photo on the cover. Rob Young defended the choice in his editorial by stating that if he had initially underestimated the band, believing it was the umpteenth product of the bold Britpop, he had then had to change his mind about the creative surge of the trio Ok Computer / kid A / Amnesiac. An interesting recognition from what has always been the most important, the most snobbish among the magazines that deal with border music. Reynolds traces some interesting analogies between the layered and casual way of working of the Eno’s Oblique Strategies and the creative tension and erratic ways of working of the band within their fundamental trilogy. References to Eno also appear in their quotations. The Radioheads are citationists. Their music always refers to something else, the references are as obvious as they are carefully masked and reworked. Greenwood loves to quote his beloved Messiaen, but the references to jazz, to Charles Mingus, to Alice Coltarene to the electric Miles Davis are evident both in Kid A and Amnesiac. It must not have been easy to get these results and creative levels without the individual personalities of the band coming into conflict with each other. Alex Ross maintains that the five elements of the group together form one single mind, what he calls “the Radiohead Composer”. A sort of collective intelligence that lives in their music and that revolves around an absent center.
Then I went back to listening to 22.22 Free Radiohead by Paolo Angeli and the listening was definitely different from the one I made months ago, with the CD just released, when I hadn’t yet entered the music of the British band. This new listening has asked me a question: how far can you go in reworking a music to be able to define it as an interpretation? Does it mean playing covers? I do not think so. The covers look like faded photocopies, what’s the point of playing music exactly like on the original record? Does it mean paying tribute? Also. If one decides to interpret music, it implicitly pays tribute to its author.
Listening again 22.22 Free Radiohead I thought about the standards of Jazz, the creative way in which jazz musicians approach to American popular songs and change them into something completely new, sometimes, as in the case of Derek Bailey, leaving only the skeleton or a vaguely external form and revolutionizing the whole context. But here I believe that the context is really different. Paolo’s record is not the set of a series of covers, it’s not a standard game, it’s a well-coordinated set of 22 tracks that allude, reflect, recreate the same Radiohead that emerge after being filtered by the musical being that is Paolo Angeli.
In a certain sense Angeli doesn’t play Radiohead, but takes up their narration and continues it, vivifying it. He takes up the Ok Computer / Kid A / Amnesiac / Hail To The Thief quadrilogy and takes it forward projecting it into a very different historical moment and context. If Radiohead had been able to understand, interpret and stage a subtle moment of generational existential angst, Angeli resumes their music, freeing us from this anguish, showing us new possibilities in a Mediterranean light. I think this new narrative ability is one of the possible keys to reading this record and the big leap forward made by Paolo. Radiohead have a new narrator. Long live Radiohead.