This article originally appeared in the August 28, 1997 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
"I wanna be Jim Morrison," sang Radiohead's little, underconfident, un-Jim-like frontguy, Thom Yorke, in one of the lesser-known tracks on the British band's 1992 breakthrough debut, Pablo Honey (Capitol), a punk tune called "Anyone Can Play Guitar." More than the loser anthem "Creep," which became the disc's biggest hit, "Anyone Can Play Guitar" made a case for Radiohead's tenuous, third- or fourth-generation connection to the rebellious spirit of 1976-'77. But even back in 1992 the band's dramatic guitar anthems represented a version of punk that had been distilled through the soaring atmospheres of U2, the soul-searching strum-and-chime of the Smiths, the orchestral pop of Echo and the Bunnymen, and the brooding minor-key abstractions of mid-period R.E.M. All these groups have been mainstays of Newbury Comics, the locally based record store that hosted Radiohead's show, featuring openers the Dandy Warhols and Teenage Fanclub, last Saturday at Harborlights Pavilion.
As the sentiment of "Creep" ("I wanna be special") and "Anyone Can Play Guitar" suggested in '92, Radiohead never had any intention of stopping at a few simple guitar chords that anyone can play: they had grander ambitions. So just as Newbury Comics has grown in the '90s from a small, scrappy operation to a big revenue-generating chain, Radiohead have emerged as heavy hitters in the post-grunge alterna-rock sweepstakes. They drew a capacity crowd to Harborlights (5000) and played for two hours. And at least in terms of audience reaction, Yorke fulfilled his dream of eliciting Jim Morrison-style adulation.
Blanketed in rock fog illuminated ominously by dark blue and green washes of light, they opened with the dense-textured "Lucky," from their new OK Computer (Capitol). With its soul-searching "standing on the edge" lyrics and echoey guitars, "Lucky" invites comparisons to the U2 of The Unforgettable Fire. This mellow yet rousing drama set the tone for moody selections drawn almost exclusively from OK Computer and 1995's similarly styled The Bends (Capitol). Johnny Greenwood, the guitarist who provided the jarring explosions of noise on "Creep," spent half the night playing keyboards, adding depth to the swirling atmospheric shadings favored by second-guitarist Ed O'Brien, and leaving Yorke's emotional voice (which reminds me more and more of Ian McCulloch's) to penetrate the heavy drone of Colin Greenwood's bass and the muscular pound of Phil Selway's drums. This wasn't as much fun as the leaner, younger, more limber Radiohead who toured behind Pablo Honey in '93. But the hymnlike quality of new tunes like the acoustic-guitar-based "Exit Music (For a Film)" and the complex arrangements of "Karma Police" and the robotic "Climbing Up the Walls" added up to something big, grand, and impressive.
The exception was "Creep," the hit Radiohead often choose not to play these days. "I hardly remember doing it," admitted Yorke as an intro, having dedicated his rendition to Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie, the local Fort Apache studio duo who produced Pablo Honey and mixed tracks on the band's two subsequent discs. With Yorke, O'Brien, and Johnny Greenwood all wielding guitars, Radiohead seemed to relish the opportunity to dig into something simple and straightforward. Maybe they were just happy to be playing a tune they don't get around to much anymore, but there was something, well, special about "Creep." Made me want to hear "Anyone Can Play Guitar." Unfortunately, that one didn't make the cut.