Home Bookend - Where reading meets review Radiohead: Life in a Glasshouse – John Aizlewood  

Radiohead: Life in a Glasshouse – John Aizlewood  

by Venky

(Image Credit: http://www.waterstones.com)

Thomas Edward Yorke, Philip James Selway, Colin Charles Greenwood, Jonathan Richard Guy Greenwood, and Edward John O’Brien were products of the prestigious Abingdon School, a private educational establishment boasting a rich legacy extending way back into the eleventh century. While these individual names may not immediately ring a bell, collectively they send rock music cognoscenti into sheer raptures. This quintet till date has produced and sold over 30 million copies of their albums. Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for Radiohead.

Cerebral, chaotic and cathartic, Radiohead (a name inspired from the song “Radio Head” on the album “True Stories” by Talking Heads), is emblematic of innovation that is remorseless and ruthless. The band has reinvented itself so many times, and with such vengeance that it is impossible to strait jacket them into any one category of music. Britpop; Progrock; Bossa Nova are all for the less ambitious. Radiohead is destruction. When their first tremor inducing sensation “Creep” rocked the music world like never before, the group did their level best to distance themselves from the song. They strove their best to ensure that their next album ostracized the “Creep” style, let alone remotely resembling it. This extraordinary iteration of conception, adulation, rejection and recreation has been emblematic of the Radiohead way of art for the last four decades. John Aizlewood in a thunderous fashion (reminiscent of Radiohead’s patented eccentricities) brings to his readers the story of one of the most sophisticated and evolved rock bands (sorry for the bracketing of a genre) of our time. Radiohead’s innovation transcended mere music. They upended and literally dismantled the music industry when they put out one of their albums “Rainbows” on the internet and allowed their fans to download the record at a price which they wished to pay! And boy, did the fans pay!

The music of Radiohead stands at the intersectionality of the ingenious and the intellectual. While masters of experimentation, the band also leverages on the rich academic influences of its members. Phil Selway, in addition to his versatility with the drums also distinguished himself in English and History at Liverpool Polytechnic. Ed O’Brien not just strummed the strings of his guitar, but also immersed himself into the intricacies of the dismal science. He studied Economics at Manchester. Colin Greenwood (the older of the siblings), did a thesis on Raymond Carver at Cambridge’s oldest college, Peterhouse, in addition to doubling up as a member of the judging panel that judged the prestigious Arts Council-funded Next Generation Poets competition. The heart of the band, and one of rock music’s greatest vocal performers, Thom Yorke finished a course in Literature and Fine Art at the University of Exeter. Jonny Greenwood was the only odd-man out. He dropped out of a course in Music and Psychology from Oxford Brookes, and that too at the goading of his tutor who saw Jonny’s seraphic potential with a guitar.

The eclectic nature of their songs bear ample testimony to Radiohead’s literary influences. “Nice Dream” pays encomium to Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 masterpiece “Cat’s Cradle”; “The Bends” is a homage to Ben Okri’s haunting novel, “The Famished Road”; and “No Logo” was a direct impact of Naomi Klein’s biting polemical angst against rampant corporate culture and branding that bore the same title as the song.

Even during their punishing road tours, books were never far away from a Radiohead band member. Colin neutralized tour exhaustions by immersing himself into “The Collapse of British Power” by Correlli Barnett, while Jonny combated a vigorous bout of RSI by wearing an arm brace and seeking refuge in “The Sayings of The Vikings”.  

Radiohead began life as a nondescript band with an insipid and singularly unimaginative name “On a Friday”. If somebody had ventured to hazard a guess that four decades later (in 2019) this motely crew would be inducted into  the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, both the performers and their modest audience would have done a double take. A chance encounter with an EMI representative hurled the band into the limelight with their first album “Pablo Honey” in 1993. This was the album that contained the ubiquitous strains of “Creep”, strains that continue to reverberate strongly even to this day.  

 “The Bends” followed in 1995. If “The Bends” eviscerated “Creep”; “Ok Computer” (1997), universally regarded as Radiohead’s greatest ever achievement, just blasted “The Bends” out of the water. “Kid A” and “Amnesiac” in the 2000s became the nemesis of “Ok Computer”. This sustained, conscious and almost celebratory cannibalism was what projected, nay, hurtled Radiohead into the deepest imaginations of their adoring fans. Even the most die-hard Radiohead worshipper could not predict the contours of the succeeding album. This restless, and almost nebulous philosophy of Radiohead was captured succinctly by the Rolling Stones Magazine: “In order to save themselves, Radiohead had to destroy Rock & Roll.” Radiohead did not believe in any zeitgeist. Zeitgeist was them. Each one a Freddy Mercury; everyone a David Bowie.

Aizlewood’ s book is a breezy concoction of Radiohead exploits. They garnered fans by the legion. David Cameron once famously said if he was to be stranded on an island one of the choices of his songs would be “Fake Plastic Trees”. Radiohead also did their bit – and more – for charity. active in promoting political, human rights, and environmental activists for more than two decades, the band has been associated with Missing People, Albert Kennedy Trust, Fair Trade Resource Network and Friends of the Earth, among others. When a hacker stole some of their music and demanded a huge ransom, Radiohead made an entire cornucopia of musical records public, priced them dirt cheap and made over the proceeds to Extinction Rebellion.

A paradox of absolute misfits yet inseparable brothers of destiny, Radiohead has been regaling millions unfailingly and incomparably for the last forty years. It is the fervent wish of every fan and fanatic that they will continue enthralling them for the next forty as well.

Radioheads – Masters of the mysterious.

(Radiohead: Life in a Glasshouse by John Aizlewood is published by Palazzo Editions and will be available for sale beginning 5th May 2022. Thank you Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy).

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