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Sound and Fury

All Hail

Everyone who listens to music with any real interest knows the feeling. That sort of fevered, messianic impulse that visits you every couple of years when you listen to something and realize with utter clarity that everyone in the entire world should be listening to this music, immediately and without further delay. And you may be the only one who can tell them before it’s too late. After it’s happened a few times, you learn to distrust your own proclivities. But sometimes you just have to try, because you know that if even one person is struck by the same spirit that has spoken to you, it will have been worth it. So get ready to be preached to.

Radiohead are hardly new kids on the block, so perhaps my obsession needs some explanation. Firstly, I was a late convert; for years I steered clear of them, repulsed by what sounded like endless whiney songs about plastic and supermarkets. “Too long under fluorescent lights,” I thought. “Needs to get out, get laid and stop moping.”

Or perhaps I was put off by the zealous gleam I saw in the eyes of those who told me I “had to hear this song” and threw on “Karma Police.” Prophets have a tough time of it, particularly when they run into rival sects—mine was U2 at the time.

Secondly, Radiohead recently released one of the finest albums of their career. I have never been bitten by classical music the way I am bitten every day by pop music. But in the darkest crannies of my soul I know that classical music has a depth and a complexity to it that pop music, alas, cannot. This is something that rock music snobs try to obscure by knowing tens of thousands of different indie bands, and by endlessly dividing similar guitar music into different categories and genealogies. But for the prophet, there is a simpler solution: just listen to Radiohead whenever feelings of inadequacy start to build up. With a manic, enlightened glint in my eye, I defy anyone to play me five minutes of music with greater depth than “There There” or to find the time signature in “Pyramid Song.”

And finally, I saw them play last Friday. I have been initiated into the cult; I could look around a room and tell who has also seen them play. There would be a secret handshake, or a sigil emblazoned on their forehead, invisible to all those without it and in the shape of that toothy demon from their album art. Because, you see, Radiohead are the best band in the world. And only those of us blessed to have seen them play live truly know it.

Arena shows will kill any mediocre band that ends up playing them. The audience is an opaque mass and the tiny little stick figures with guitars are unable to reach beyond the footlights. But for the best bands, arenas are where they come into their own. On Friday night, the audience as a single body underwent a symbiotic connection to the band, rendering us one being. When Thom Yorke sang “We are accidents / Waiting to happen,” he was singing about all of us there, and we all knew it. When Yorke went ballistic, gyrating around in the stage in a demented head-shaking, knees-up hoedown, we all leapt with him. We the audience were careful not to despoil our sonic umbilical cord by cheering too loudly during songs and were rewarded with a PA that was clearer and crisper than most club shows.

Yorke himself is a prophetic figure. Listening to him sing, “I wish I was special”, it became hard to imagine how the song had ever made sense before Radiohead’s overwhelming fame. And “No Surprises” sounds like it was written yesterday about today’s America; when Yorke intoned “Bring down the government / They don’t, they don’t speak for us,” the audience roared with cathartic acclaim.

I don’t expect you to convert immediately. It took me about four years. But someday it may happen that the heavens will open, light will stream from the sky and you will realize that Radiohead is the only band in the world worth listening to. Possibly even, it will be another band. And you will remember these words, and gnash your teeth as you realize that you will never be able to make the others see what you mean when you say that this is the greatest music in the world. But look carefully and you may catch that gleam in a stranger’s eye that marks them as one of us.

—Crimson Arts columnist Andrew Iliff can be reached at iliff@fas.harvard.edu.