Radiohead Is a Cult and Arenas Are Their Church
The band’s long-anticipated return to Toronto was an ideal opportunity to unravel their records' hidden layers.
Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Radiohead have a reputation for making music for nerds. There are leagues of channels and forums dedicated to deconstructing the technical details of their records, and the peculiar attributes to their artwork. Though it’s undisputed that the band is a critical and commercial triumph, they tattooed themselves into music history by existing in it as an enigma. For all the impasse on how good or bad Radiohead really is, what the band does best is manipulate one of our most natural impulses. Curiosity underwrites the marvel of Radiohead. Their live performance is a chance to catch a glimpse of all their mystery coming undone, which is what took place when they returned to Toronto in mid-July, after a decade of silence.
Expected to play in June of 2012, a tragic stage collapse at Downsview Park took the life of dear friend and drum technician Scott Johnson, which resulted in the rightful cancellation of the scheduled show. A lack of justice and accountability hangs like a spectre over the unresolved accident and left the band’s subsequent tours bypassing the city for six years. February’s announcement of their long-awaited return meant that Toronto had approximately ten minutes to get their hands on one of 40,000 non-transferable Radiohead tickets before both shows completely sold out. Reminiscent of the delirium spurred by Pink Floyd or The Beatles, there’s a culture of scholarship that underwrites Radiohead’s demographic, and the fabled crowds drawn by the band make that evident.
Radiohead’s arsenal of unexpected instrumentation and eclectic time signatures makes for an artfully academic approach to rock. Their live performance is an opportunity to unravel the conceptual intricacies of their work. What Anna Petrusich aptly coins a “brainy largesse” begins to resemble an intellectual pursuit for the listener. It’s a chance to witness the seemingly impossible assembly of detail come together in real time. That’s why watching the band recreate its music on a stage forges such a chasm in people’s lives.
A kaleidoscope of monochromatic light refracted through the Scotiabank Arena as Radiohead took the stage. Thom Yorke opened the set with “Daydreaming” from A Moon Shaped Pool . His haunting falsetto unwaveringly silenced the arena with unprecedented haste. Beams of light traced artificial constellations onto the walls of the stadium, as the fragile twinkling of synthesized bell chimes pierced through the arena. 20,000 bodies filled that auditorium—each one stood astounded and willingly mesmerized.
The band’s performative precision commands a studious amount of attention. People go to Radiohead concerts to actually listen to the music. To see the makeshift sleeping quarters set up in the general admission queue—all while overhearing diehards boast of how their patience had reached heights of 30 hours and counting—reminded me of the mania that music documentaries often attribute to classic rock pioneers.
With a catalogue as expansive as Radiohead’s, it’s no surprise that the two-hour setlists for each night had no more than three crossover tracks—those being “Daydreaming”, “Ful Stop”, and “Bloom”. The thoughtful sequencing of the setlist went uninterrupted until the final track of the encore. Met with worldwide envy for it, Toronto experienced the first performance of “Talk Show Host” since 2015. The climactic bitterness of “Exit Music (For A Film)” not only depicted the natural arc of processing anger but recreated both of the band’s soundtrack contributions to Romeo + Juliet . To send the web into a frenzy over what tracks have or have not been performed—and in how many years—exudes a subtle grandeur that makes their presence feel significant.
You can trace the stages of your own lifetime in the masses they draw, between encounters with the awkward and string-armed teenager you once were, or the aged fan you’ll become as you grow old with their records. For all the time people spend trying to understand their music, it may very well be the emotional investment that means the most to them. Offering just enough detail to pore over, the band shrouds itself in myth. Their performances bear the same weight as the records they parse from.
Alex Ross points out in his New Yorker profile of Radiohead that there’s “a sense that the band members have laboured over every aspect of the product.” As the group slinked into their broodily-resigned address, “You And Whose Army?”, an unsettling close-up of Thom Yorke’s watchful eye was televised for the audience. The interplay of the stark visual and the unnerving lyrics enunciated a political commentary that affirms their transcendence. Between the hand-drawn diagrams as cover art for their records, or the horde of murderous bears with wide-eyed grins printed onto the Toronto-exclusive merchandise, the band is rife with riddles, and it’s an intentional play on how much they know we’ll crave an answer.
Taunted by the come-hither of how lyrically vague they are, we can’t resist the temptation to insert ourselves into their deliberately choreographed narratives. Radiohead comes from a time where albums were tangible and meant to be heard in their entirety. OK Computer, as pointed out by music critic Tim Footman, is “a collection of songs purposefully placed next to one another”—a consistent quality throughout their catalogue that bolsters their gravitas. They’re telling a story that’s abstract enough to make room for us, and we invite ourselves in. Driven by curiosity, we look to connect and understand, and this is the foundation of the cult-like audience that adores Radiohead.
In Grant Gee’s impressionist documentary, Meeting People Is Easy , Thom Yorke intimately reflects on how bands like The Smiths inspired his musical upbringing. “The freakiest thing about all of this is the idea that you would be one of those bands to somebody,” he muses. “That thing of it being imprinted on your heart, you know? Every note of it.”
The chorus of strangers that bellowed the hook to “Reckoner” with perfect clarity made it clear that Radiohead harness the human experience as they oscillate between the emotional and the cerebral. Thom Yorke closed the show by thanking Toronto for making the band feel welcome again. Seconds after the audience’s explosive applause broke out, Yorke strummed the opening chords to “Fake Plastic Trees”, lending a monumental evening the impassioned finale it deserved.
Radiohead gives us reasons to probe and interrogate, but their aversion to the spotlight revokes any access to actually do so. They weave ‘whispered warnings’ into their recordings, and bury cryptic motifs in their artwork. All musically gifted and educated, no creative decision seems less than logically calculated—yet, we can’t seem to figure out what any of their misspelt words mean. Incessantly prompting unanswered why’s, this is how the band became known for making history with gestures as simple as breathing air.
What took place at the Scotiabank Arena is the sort of event that marks a page—if not several—in Toronto’s music history. Radiohead have the ability to speak to sentiments that, too often, language fails to adequately grasp. Between the poignant lyricism and poetic narratives that have enraptured fans for more than two decades, Thom Yorke’s existential musings imbued the grunge-laden overtone of the late 90s with a softer and more experimental palette. The cultural, historical, and emotional impact of how Yorke’s words are woven is a scarce substance within modern music that elevates Radiohead into an experience of the highest regard.
Corinne Przybyslawski is on Twitter.