Many of the Radiohead loyal, including yours truly, mythologize their discography by ascribing to it an evolution of musical form and technique - the descent of man from the trees of Grunge. Radiohead are to many of us what the jabbering heads on MTV insist that Nirvana was destined for had Kurt Cobain not turned his head into a canoe; thereby ridding himself of Courtney Love at a time when America was under the illusion that she was a tolerable human being. But I digress. There are many tools of analogy available to the Radiohead fan when making the case for a unique evolving anthology. I humbly submit to you that I can effectively illustrate that evolution with the help of a sampling of my favorite black sitcoms from the 70s, 80s and 90s.
Pablo Honey (1993) – The Cosby Show (1984-1992)
Whitey never had it so good.
Pablo Honey came on to a scene that had already been established. It was a solid offering that, at times, rivaled Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr., but was, flower in a field of flowers. New Musical Express called it “flawed but satisfying”.
Flawed but satisfying. Enter The Cosby Show. The Cosby Show dominated during its time on TV, but the audience was left wanting something more visceral than the humdrum goings on of a family without much of a care in the world. It was a pleasant fiction – a Doctor, a Lawyer and kids who respected them. And not once did Theo have to go to the free clinic because he thought he might have VD. It was light and fluffy (relatively) and the masses ate it up like so many bacon-burger-dogs.
The Bends (1995) – The Jeffersons (1975 – 1985)
You better recognize!!!
In April 1994, Kurt Cobain injected himself with an enormous amount of heroine and shot himself with a shotgun. In his suicide note he quoted a Neil Young song, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”. In 1995 Radiohead released The Bends. Cobain, the man in plaid and the H-fiend was billed as the Lennon who could’ve been because he took himself out while Smells like Teen Spirit was still popular. In the wake of the talking head orgy that followed many in the music know failed to pay attention to what Thom Yorke and crew had done – they made a hit album (PH) and then made a better one – The Bends.
The Jeffersons, like The Bends, was made for the masses, but transcended the colloquial premise of “moving on up the East Side”. The Jeffersons borrowed a taste of All in The Family; just enough to infuse the universal appeal with genuine quality.
OK Computer (1997) – Good Times (1974 – 1979)
Jesus! Is that velour?
OK Computer is widely considered to be the finest Radiohead album. Radiohead put out an album that can hardly be called a follow-up to The Bends (as The Bends was a follow-up to PH). OKC is a total package, complete with the sacrificial radio song (Karma Police) and artsy-fartsy Fitter Happier. It was a total departure from The Bends, which was a good album. OKC was a great album. Radiohead had evolved and invented a new sound. That sound lulled the listener with complex rhythms and attacked with unadulterated beauty.
Good Times was a comedy in which the characters had to struggle through life, through poverty and death. Every season we were entertained by the truly funny episodes and heartened by the close-knit family. And every once in a while we were rewarded with emotionally deep context that drew us into the story and fundamentally affected us. What Good Times did was to make realistic tragedies a constant backdrop for true joy thereby making the contrast more invigorating.
Kid A (2000) – Sanford and Son (1972 – 1977)
Come and get some, motherfucker.
After touring on OKC, Radiohead put out two albums in rapid succession, Kid A and Amnesiac. Kid A in particular was viewed as the most likely to topple OKC on everybody’s awesome list, but although unique and powerful it just didn’t have what it took. It wasn’t subtle enough to be that great, but belying its forwardness is an underlying something. No matter how pissed off you are at something or frustrated or down, popping Kid A in will make you better although you and I will never understand why. Kid A is the brown note for the soul.
I double-dog-dare you to watch Sanford and Son and not laugh. Now can you tell me why you laugh? Was it Fred faking a heart attack or insulting the ugly, infirmed and Puerto Ricans? It doesn’t matter what’s going on because Redd Roxx could deliver the news and you’d laugh your ass off. It was how he looked, how he talked and moved. It was an inexplicable joy to watch that show.
Amnesiac (2001) – What’s Happening!! (1976 – 1979)
Rodge, I'm you mother. My weed should be half price.
Thom Yorke said that Kid A is the sound of watching a fire and Amnesiac is the sound of being in the fire (or something to that effect). Amnesiac is a cacophony of sound. That’s what it is and how it should be approached. There’s nothing to think about. Just relax and enjoy.
What’s Happening!! Actually had two explanation points in the title that ran during opening credits. Its as if the producers were putting a warning up that said just sit down a watch… it’s going to be stupid and you’re going to love it. And there is always room for that!!
Hail to the Thief (2003) – Roc (1991 – 1994)
Fuck you, cracker!!!
Everybody thinks HTTT is about George W. Bush. Thom keeps insisting it is not. Maybe HTTT is so Orwellian themed that King George (the incarnation of the Orwellian nightmare) just fits the part so well. One thing is for certain, HTTT is not a passive album. Its aggressive and stirring and proactive and its got machismo – big sweaty machismo. Myxomatosis actually hurts to listen to. Why put a track on an album that actually induces slight nausea? Because HTTT refuses complacent listeners. It’s all about the mind control baby!!!
Charles S. Dutton exudes the best part we all revere about our fathers. An intrinsic strength… a swagger. If a man like that speaks, you listen, not because you are terribly interested in what he has to say, but because his swagger demands it of you. Roc was the Charles S. Dutton show and it capitalized on his on screen nature. The live season wasn’t good for the show because it put Dutton of kilter and that screwed up the dynamic. You can’t swagger if you’re trying desperately to remember a line. You just look stupid.