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April 12, 1998. A date I will always remember for two reasons. First, it was the first and last time I ever worked on an Easter Sunday and second, it was the first and only time I ever saw Radiohead perform live. I remember it being a very quiet shift at the tool rental store at which I worked at the time, serving only a few customers, receiving more calls from other, busier store locations than actual customers, which all made for a very long wait before the show. It’s funny now remembering how much I was looking forward to it that day, considering the only reason I was going was that I loved the opening act and my friend Terry had an extra ticket. Björk was originally supposed to co-headline the show with Radiohead at the stop at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto but she had to cancel just prior to tickets going on sale and the vacant opening slot was filled by Spiritualized, who already had this job for the other stops along the tour.
It’s a point of fact that I had already seen Spiritualized at a small club called Guvernment the previous fall on their own headline tour in support of “Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space”, a show that I loved and will always remember for many reasons (but that’s a story for another time). And so, I jumped at the chance at seeing them again; Radiohead, for me, was just a bonus. As it would turn out, Spiritualized were phenomenal, doing an admirable job of filling a half-empty arena with their space rock noise, but Radiohead was the revelation. I don’t know what their live show is like these days but in 1998, it was electric and made me an even bigger fan of their music than I already was.
I mention this concert in connection to “Optimistic”, a track that appears on “Kid A”, an album that would come out two years later, because of a (likely unfounded) theory I later developed that it was this tour with Spiritualized that changed everything for Radiohead. When “Kid A” came out, I think a lot of people didn’t know what to think of it. Prior to this album, Radiohead was an excellent guitar rock band and though “OK computer” really pushed the proverbial envelope, it could be considered almost pedestrian when set beside “Kid A”. To me, it sounded like Thom Yorke had spent a load of time with Spiritualized’s evil genius, Jason Pierce, adopted his love of droning rock, free jazz, and experimental noise and leapt off the high diving board without a life jacket. The funny thing is that though I love Spiritualized and everything they produce, “Kid A” and pretty much every Radiohead album that came afterward have never really done anything for me.
Until recently, that is.
(And before I go further, I just want to say that I am not one of those people that slammed “Kid A”, only to much later proclaim it the album of the year. I’ve never hated Radiohead’s later works. I’ve just always preferred albums two and three.)
This week, while listening to “Kid A” in preparation for writing this post, I feel like I heard something there that I hadn’t heard before. “Optimistic”, in particular, got me going with its thrumming and aggressive guitars and pounding drums. These two forces create a palpable tension while Thom Yorke pleads and wrangles with his listeners come along with him for the ride. I listened to it over and over again, each time turning it up louder, the increasing volume making things even more clear. And while I’m not sure I’m sure I’m quite ready to retroactively crown “Kid A” album of the decade or move “Optimistic” further up this list, I think I might be ready to give post-“OK computer” Radiohead another chance.
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