The parachute isn’t the answer to everything because maybe the fucker isn’t going to open.
—Phil May, in the liner notes by Mike Stax from the 1999 release of Parachute
When I abandoned the United States for France in May 2013, I spent most of the time on the flight to Paris pondering an age-old question: “Am I running away from something or towards something?”
I had given up on the good ol’ USA following the aftermath to the Sandy Hook massacre, where instead of doing anything to rein in the madness, Americans flocked to gun shops in full support of their constitutional right to lock and load while the NRA-controlled Congress did absolutely nothing. I could no longer live in a society that treated the slaughter of innocents as just another item in the news cycle. Blessed with the fortune of dual citizenship, an employer with European operations and relatives in both Paris and Nice, I put on my parachute and left for La Belle France.
The transition was easier for me than most émigrés, as I spoke the language fluently and had spent a lot of time in France over the years. I ran into a few bumps along the road due to lingering Americanism—forgetting that shops close early and on Sundays, telling service people what I wanted before saying “Bonjour,” smiling too much—but nothing serious. Even though things went well, I think I would define those first three years as running away from something because I still held the hope that the United States would grow the fuck up. That hope was blasted to smithereens when Americans elected Trump. Going to the American consulate and handing in my passport the day after the election ended the running away period—I had passed the point of no return. I’d jumped out of the plane.
After returning from Marseilles that evening, I felt a strange sense of emptiness. After talking it over with partner and family at dinner, I realized that I had abandoned one country but hadn’t fully embraced the new country: I’d made the transition intellectually but not emotionally. I hadn’t defined what I was running toward. I felt like I was falling through mid-air, thinking, “Maybe my parachute isn’t going to open after all.”
Well, thank fucking whoever for Marine LePen, whose blatant racism and sheer stupidity awoke an undiscovered passion for French ideals and the European Union. The En Marche campaign turned out to be exactly what I needed to cement my relationship with my country (although I do wish Macron would lean a bit more to the left). Election night was the night my parachute landed, and when I hit the ground I rolled my body to make for a nice, soft landing.
Okay, I was on the ground was because I was as drunk as a skunk after the celebration and my legs were perfectly fucking useless, but I had to complete the metaphor!
Released in the pivotal year of 1970, Parachute is an album about larger transitions than mine—the multi-layered transitions that replaced the Swinging Sixties with the Disco Era. The broad movement that had fought for civil rights and world peace while dancing to the music of rock and folk icons began to devolve into a melange of alternative lifestyles. Gay liberation took its place alongside women’s lib; spiritual and earthy types left cities and burbs and headed back to nature; social activists either found jobs in the government or joined radical underground movements; the majority thought it was time to grow up and seek employment within the Establishment. All kinds of people were strapping themselves into parachutes.
Music reflected the transitions taking place in the larger culture. The symbolic coup-de-grace to the Swinging 60’s came on April 10, 1970, when Paul McCartney announced his decision to leave The Beatles (a formality, really, since John had told the others back in September 1969 that he was done). The break-up of The Beatles was certainly a traumatic experience for a generation who grew up with them and saw them “change the world,” but their departure allowed artists whose work had been hidden in the Beatle shadow to come to the fore. This newly-discovered diversity eventually led to the destruction of the “Woodstock audience,” music fans who listened to all kinds of music. Rock splintered into its various sub-genres during the 70’s in the same way the Baby Boomers fled into various cultural cul-de-sacs.
Despite critical validation, Parachute did not exactly turn The Pretty Things into household names or boost them to the forefront of those emerging from the Beatle shadow. However, I can’t think of another record that captured the transition from the 60’s to the 70’s as well as Parachute. The album features some of the best melodic rock on record (the style that would retrospectively earn the label, “baroque rock”) while integrating the heavier riff-based guitar rock that would dominate the early 70’s. The Pretties were unique in that they were exceptionally capable in both styles. Their second album, Get the Picture?, is a garage fan’s dream, and their magnum opus, the song cycle SF Sorrow, displayed their talents with more melodic and progressive styles. After some upheaval in the lineup in part due to the disappointing chart performance of SF Sorrow, creative force Phil May and bassist Wally Waller became the songwriting team, approaching their work through the shared realization that the musical and social assumptions of the 60’s no longer had any relevance. More importantly, they had the right temperament to take advantage of a rules-don’t-matter environment, experimenting with different ways to write songs and integrating creativity with daily life:
Sometimes Wally and I would get back at three or four in the morning, stoned out of our brains, and start writing, and write until 12 o’clock the next day, and then go out to a gig. The party was part of the writing. It wasn’t something you stopped working for to do, it just fused into it. It was all of one—the life was all about the music.
—Phil May, in liner notes referenced above
Recorded with Norman Smith of Beatles’ fame (as was SF Sorrow) at Abbey Road, the band brought the same spirit to the recording sessions, working long hours, experimenting and taking the time to get things right. The combination of excellent production, creative freedom and deep social insight is what makes Parachute such an amazing and horribly under-appreciated piece of art.
“Scene One” gets things rolling with an anxiety-inducing build combining Mellotron, rumbling piano and guitar feedback leading to an urgent guitar strum and a furious assault on the drum kit by Skip Alan. The song proper is almost Lizst-like in its dramatic intensity with sharp thrusts and stuttering rhythms. The poem supporting the music is brief, delivered in a wave of complex vocal harmony—an aural depiction of the ruthless energy of a great city:
Stone spires rise high, lacerate warmer skies
Iron laced populations, beneath molten fields
What follows is open to interpretation. In his liner notes for the album, Mike Stax describes the next five songs as two individual pieces and a three-part suite. What I hear is a five-part suite based on the experience of the protagonist in “The Good Mr. Square,” and this is coming from someone who didn’t read the liner notes for this edition until I prepared for this review. One of the themes in Parachute has to do with the migration of significant numbers of 60’s generation to rural areas—the “back-to-nature” movement. On Parachute, this conflict is manifested in the form of an unnamed woman who abandons city life for England’s pastures. The problem with the three-song suite concept is that you lose the conflict—the song that describes her as a city dweller (“She Was Tall, She Was High”) precedes those three songs. Add to that the fact the “The Good Mr. Square” segues seamlessly into “She Was Tall, She Was High”—so seamlessly that you have no idea you’ve moved to a new track—and the five-song suite makes much more sense.
Based on one of Phil May’s short stories, “The Good Mr. Square” is a stunning musical shift from the opener, a simple arrangement of acoustic guitar, bass and light drums containing a perfectly lovely melody spiced with luscious background harmonies. Wally Waller’s vocal is appropriately gentle, and I really love the way The Pretties change the shape of the vowels on those harmonies, moving from “aah” in the first line and “whoa-oh-oh” in the second. Our protagonist is a lonely fellow who allegedly “doesn’t have any hang-ups” and “spends his time looking through other people’s eyes.” The segue is crucial here, for the first four lines of the next song (“She Was Tall, She Was High”) are sung to the melody of “The Good Mr. Square,” which to me implies that Mr. Square is observing this young lass as she passes by his window. Even more evidence can be found in the way the last line of “The Good Mr. Square” is transcribed, ending with an ellipsis (“He spends his time . . .), indicating a continuous narrative.
The woman responsible for Mr. Square’s enchantment is a party chick with serious presence:
And as she weaves her way, through city streets,
The dawn arrives.
In concrete glades of metal grass,
Steel cords are woven tight.
But she is free, f . . . r . . . double e.
She was tall, she was high,
Lord she almost touched the sky,
Today, I said today,
She was tall, she was high,
Lord she almost made me cry.
Some fifteen years later this babe would reappear in Ian Anderson’s “Budapest” (“Yes, and her legs went on forever/Like staring up at infinity”). In response to her inspiring presence, the music becomes more libidinal, with sharp electric guitar cuts and a more intense vocal from keyboardist Jon Povey. The final words on the woman indicate either that the city is taking its toll (“Before the storm subsides, she’s flown/And leaves the body torn”) or that Mr. Square is experiencing deep anguish at her disappearance (or has a hard-on that will never probe her inner secrets).
Mr. Square then encounters the lady “In the Square,” perhaps having struck up some kind of casual friendship with her in the intervening days (“Hey,” she says to her friends, “I met this nice old chap in the square today.”) This is a perfectly sumptuous piece of music with clear baroque flavorings from Spanish guitar and electric harpsichord enhanced by a stunningly effective use of a sitar. The harmonies are once again absolutely gorgeous, sung gently and almost respectfully in support of the idyllic scene:
In the square, she came running,
I was lucky to be there.
In her hair, she wore flowers,
The scent it filled the air.
The flowers represent an important shift in the narrative: our hot city lady is about to go country on us. Mr. Square is appropriately devastated by her departure:
She must leave, not returning,
I was sadness standing there,
A silent square, bus of silver,
With my vision disappears.
Ah, but there’s always hope, even if it’s the terribly fragile hope of an unopened letter. Phil May finally gets a turn at the lead vocal spot in “The Letter,” a more upbeat number reflecting the delight Mr. Square experiences going through the post—the repetition of the line “She wrote me a letter,” with varied emotional emphasis on the part of Phil May, betrays his excitement and anticipation. Two aspects of the story are confirmed here: first, the pair did strike up a friendship with overtones of something more; and second, the girl describes her disillusionment with city life, clearly linking her identity to that tall drink of water in “She Was Tall, She Was High.”
She wrote me a letter
From the green fields it came
She wrote me a letter
Trying to explain
Now living came easy
In velvet valleys of sun
She wrote me a letter
She wrote me a letter
So many questions she asked
She knew, I just couldn’t answer
For they were all in my past
City life was too heavy
So she had run for the hills
A transitional passage highlighted by a intensely-picked bass line segues into “Rain,” where the vocal tone shifts to one of anguish and loss:
When I got to our meeting place
I stared into empty space,
No-one here for me, oh no no no
The phrase, “No, no, no, nobody here for me” is repeated several times during the fade, soon replaced by the dreary sound of cold raindrops. Whether you go with the a three or five-song suite, one thing is indisputable: these are magnificently crafted songs marked by poetic economy and performed with energy, professionalism and tremendous care.
But hold on there, we’re not done yet! Having given the 60’s a beautiful send-off, The Pretties embrace the emerging hard rock movement of the 70’s with the riff-driven ass-kicker, “Miss Fay Regrets.” The band is on fire throughout, bashing the shit out of everything they’ve got their hands on. The lead guitar duet in the break defines the word, “killer,” and as for the lyrics . . . well, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry in response to his story about an arrogant leading lady who peaked in the mid-40’s and now finds herself on the skids. Phil May manages somehow to stoke your anger at this bitch while also making you feel a bit sorry for her . . . but not too sorry:
Well could I spare the fare,
‘Cause your cheque book isn’t there,
Could I take you to where your hotel is?
Oh yes I told them who you were,
But they said they would prefer it,
If you would find another place to crash in,
I know the streets are very cold,
And the shallow walls don’t hold,
The shelter and protection you’re seeking.
And as I walk away,
You turn to me and say,
You’d rather I forget about our meeting.
Although Phil May described himself as a man with feet firmly planted in the city, he was hardly oblivious to the darkness inherent in any great metropolis. “Cries from the Midnight Circus” paints a vivid picture of hookers flagging down drivers “with faces greased and mouth full of shine” (or is it “shite?”—both work). It all sounds both rather sad and harmless at first, but sex workers are always the most vulnerable human beings in any city, as misogyny, dehumanization and guilt infect too many of their customers:
You lie in the alley, with blood on your clothes.
As fingers round your throat they close.
Your cries of murder, splash on the walls
As you die, you think about the injustice of it all.
The music is sexy-sleazy, dominated by heavy bass and improvised bursts of guitar—a soundscape reflecting the sheer noisiness of the city with the ever-present rumble in the background. What strikes me most about this song is its heavy but powerful social message, a feature missing from too many hard rock songs of the early 70’s.
We flip over to Side Two and find “Grass,” a song that has nothing to do with marijuana and everything to do with the city-country contrast that dominates Parachute. The song deals with separated lovers—she in the country, he in the city—and it’s tempting to consider this an epilogue to the suite. Phil May described the song as “a pastoral hymn,” but the language he uses to describe the pain of separation is hardly pastoral:
As silver tears they weave and lace,
Sad patterns upon her face,
She waits for you.
So low below a laser sun,
Through velvet fields she runs,
Reaching for you.
And so you bleed now,
Your hand holds the knife
That is tearing your life apart.
Why don’t you leave now,
The city’s too heavy
And your dreams they melt in the sun.
The melodic progression is fascinating, moving from pure loveliness supporting the country scenes to a more complex pattern in the city scenes—a pattern that refuses to resolve on the root note but leaves the listener suspended in uncertainty. The guitar duets that separate the verses are steeped in blues patterns, synthesizing the aching on both sides of the divide. If I were to choose one song that synthesizes the music of the 60’s and 70’s, “Grass” would come to mind in a heartbeat. What’s remarkable is you hardly notice the synthesis: the song flows easily despite the disparate parts. Equally remarkable are the four-part harmonies, where Norman Smith joins in because apparently only three Pretties could sing.
Up to this point, the songs on Parachute have accepted the notion of the countryside as a soft landing for those fleeing the cacophony of urban existence. That notion is put to the test in “Sickle Clowns,” where the gruesome ending of the film of Easy Rider is used to demolish the notion that rural areas are relatively free from hate. Shee-it, everybody in America knows that! That’s where the rednecks and the white supremacists hang! The “sickle” in the song is not the farm implement or communist symbol but short for motor-CYCLE, and the chord pattern, a modified blues pattern where the emphasis of the root 7th chord is the flattened third and the expected IV (major) chord is iv (minor), would have fit beautifully into the Easy Rider soundtrack. The band is tight and the song definitely gets your hips in motion.
“She’s a Lover” is a more melodic rocker but still pretty beefy, with outstanding support from the rhythm section of Skip Alan and Wally Waller. The song also breaks pattern—twice—in the middle of the song, first with a gentle passage dominated by vocal harmony then by a fascinating instrumental passage that moves in unexpected directions away and towards the base melody. The extended fade features both superbly executed rhythmic shifts from the band and surprising variations to the expected vocal harmonies, enhanced by a call-and-response pattern. The imagery in the song is that of Earth Mother—a sexier, more sinuous version as opposed to those fat broads the archaeologists always dig up in our ancestors’ caves—but still the nurturing image in perfect sync with nature:
With warm breezes
She will wipe away the sigh.
In the green folds of her skirt
A tired traveller lies,
She’s a lover and you know she’s coming through
Later, “She sheds her summer dress/Fearing it displeases you,” indicating that the concept of the dominant female had not sufficiently penetrated male consciousness. Fuck that! When I strip, I choose to strip and I don’t give a fuck who it pleases or displeases . . . though I rather like the awe that stripping can inspire.
Speaking of fuck, I really wish The Pretties had lived in another age with limited censorship and could have titled the next song, “Aw, Fuck It.” As it is, we’ll have to accept “What’s the Use,” which I will admit is probably a more precise choice of words but lacks the emotional impact of surrender. We could compromise and call it “To Hell with It” and I would be mollified. Suppressing my tendency to meander any further, this is a very clever little piece that opens beautifully with a heavily-reverbed piano playing a pattern similar to the gentle melodies you hear in old movies when the characters enter a bucolic town in China or Japan. The music shifts to a waltz for the verse proper, where vague hippie platitudes compete with nonsensical metaphors (“your smile was the wind” makes me think of someone with missing teeth). This absurdity is deliberate, for after the flower children admit they “can’t build to lines of a plan,” the pastoral harmonies and 3 /4 rhythm collapse into a poor-us repetition of “what’s the use, what’s the use.” The 12-string was a nice touch on this piece, a blast of folk-rock that fits the theme perfectly.
Norman Smith received co-writing credit for the lush album closer, “Parachute.” The exquisite harmonies are the work of Jon Povey, who took advantage of eight-track technology and layered eight different versions of himself to achieve the effect. In the liner notes, Jon describes how he pulled off the soprano parts, with Norman taking a more . . . assertive role:
The very, very high ones are very difficult to reach, so Norman used to come up behind me with a drumstick and stick it up my arse whenever I couldn’t reach the note. It was quite effective as well.
The lyrics are quite poetic; I’m not sure I agree with Mike Stax’s opinion that they evoke “The Waste Land,” but I do think they reinforce the themes of Parachute: the flight from city to nature and the uncertainty of a safe landing:
White ice towers, slow dissolving
Below savage moon
Iron cities soon to rust.
Warned first by the gathering shadows
From wide vapor deserts
They turned, turned towards the sea.
Pale worn the walking, pass
Through concrete glades.
Torn shadows, slashed silence
The harmonies segue into an instrumental passage where Povey demonstrates considerable skill on the piano before the arrangement descends and fades into a rising, single synthesized note that sounds like a fading siren . . . a curious warning of what might lie ahead.
Parachute is a wonderful multi-layered listening experience filled with excellent musicianship, superb vocals and lyrics that teem with meaning. It is a tragedy that both SF Sorrow and Parachute both wound up as chart failures due to poor support from EMI in the U. K. and the mind-blowing decision to sign a U. S. contract with a subsidiary of Motown. That is frustrating but I don’t think poor chart sales should minimize the extent of what The Pretties achieved here. Immersing myself in Parachute couldn’t have come at a better time in my life, for it encouraged deep self-reflection regarding a series of major life transitions that I had experienced as the blurry landscape that you experience when riding on a high-speed train. In the future, when I feel like reaching for a parachute, I know I will pause, reflect and think hard about whether I’m running away or running toward.
That’s what great art is supposed to do—get you to engage with your life, provide insight, raise questions—and Parachute does just that.
Although the title Hail to the Thief refers to the stolen 2000 U. S. presidential election and the subsequent madness known as the War on Terror, Thom Yorke has strenuously denied that the album is in any way a political statement.
Hmm. Let’s check the veracity of that bold assertion, she said, admiring her facility with pompous synonyms.
If you compare the songs on Hail to the Thief to the protest songs in Phil Ochs’ catalog, Yorke has a point. Phil’s anti-establishment songs fall into three categories: those dealing with current affairs (murders of civil rights activists in Mississippi, the Chicago convention riots, the Vietnam War); those celebrating the people who “fought the good fight” against the moneychangers and warmongers; and those calling for systemic upheaval. If you use those three qualities to define the protest song genre, none of the songs on Hail to the Thief qualify as protest songs. “I Will” and “Sit Down. Stand Up” come closest, but the lyrics make no mention of the specific events motivating the lyrics—you have to research the backstory to figure it out. There are no references anywhere to heroes of the Resistance, and unlike Phil Ochs and his fellow travelers, Radiohead doesn’t spend a second arguing for massive socio-political change.
Score one for Thom!
Stronger support for the argument that Hail to the Thief is apolitical can be found in the songs themselves. If there is an underlying theme to Hail to the Thief, it’s helplessness. Many of the songs capture the common human reaction to the nightmare of modern politics and governance—WHAT THE FUCK?—and the natural consequence of that reaction: LEAVE ME THE FUCK OUT OF IT. Screw trying to make things better with these clowns in charge; I can’t do a damn thing about it so I’m just going to blow a big protective bubble around me and the people I love and wait this shit out. Ah, but there’s a catch! As we’ll see when we explore the individual tracks, there are unpleasant consequences to crawling into the cave and sealing the exits. If there’s a dominant mood on Hail to the Thief, it’s angst, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or insecurity.”
For the last year, I have existed in a constant state of helplessness and angst because I chose to become politically active, something I never thought possible. Check my bio—my life priorities are sex, music and baseball, not fucking politics! The appalling rise of xenophobic, homophobic hatred in the form of Donald Trump led me to actively support Hillary Clinton, and we all know how that turned out: the day after the election, I renounced my American citizenship. I hardly had time to catch my breath when xenophobic hatred reared its ugly head in France through the fear-mongering fascist Marine LePen, so for the last three months I’ve spent most of my spare time supporting En Marche to secure the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president. Now that Macron has won and I don’t have to sell the house and find another EU country where I can hang my whips, chains and extensive collection of leather lingerie, I am completely done with fucking politics . . . at least for the next five years.
Here’s the thing—I know that my efforts didn’t make one fucking bit of difference: Macron still would have won had I slept through the whole campaign. My activity was simply a psychological reaction to a perceived threat, and I chose the fight response instead of the flight response. Like Prozac, it probably helped ease the anxiety, apprehension and insecurity a bit, but guess what? In the end, I still feel anxious, apprehensive and insecure about the state of our world today, as do most people. We live in a world of systems where individuals don’t matter; the only way to deal with it is to create tiny worlds where individuals do matter and relationships are the center of our universe. The risk is that by disengaging from the real world and all its cacophony, we may wind up making things worse.
Score another for Thom and a bonus point for presenting us with an unresolvable paradox!
The album opens with a chilling argument for staying engaged in the real world, no matter how fucked up and unchangeable it appears to be. “2 + 2 =5” uses the dramatic monologue form to demonstrate the negative consequences of mass exodus into escape pods: you wind up with stupid people who pride themselves in their ignorance, drench themselves in paranoia and believe ludicrous conspiracy theories like Pizzagate that wouldn’t make the cut for a B-grade film. In other words, you get Trump voters. The speaker considers any effort to make the world a better place a lost cause, and consistent with his denial of reality, grounds his belief in the superstitions of Christian mythology:
Are you such a dreamer
To put the world to rights?
I’ll sit home forever
Where two and two always makes a five
I’ll lay down the tracks
Sandbag and hide
January has April showers
And two and two always makes a five
It’s the devil’s way now
There is no way out
You can scream and you can shout
It is too late now
The music supporting the opening passage creates the necessary tension through half-step chord oscillation and harmonic intervals that defy classic harmonic rules by drifting away from the chord. The eerie falsetto in the third verse, floating over lower, indistinct voices and a mandolin-like riff, underscores the sense of the unreal and its inherent fragility. Radiohead breaks the tension with a sudden shift to all-out bash as the character explodes with a defensive response to those who question his sanity—“You have not been paying attention!” As he never reveals exactly what we should be paying attention to, we can classify this and the lyrics that follow as the ramblings of a very frightened human being who lacks confidence in both generally-accepted reality and the alternative reality he has created (hence the subtitle, “The Lukewarm”):
Oh go and tell the king that the sky is falling in
When it’s not
But it’s not
But it’s not
The most disturbing thing about this Orwellian message is that the source of the alternative fact 2 + 2 = 5 is not the state in the form of Big Brother, but most likely the bullshit you find on Fox News, Wikileaks or InfoWars.
“Sit Down. Stand Up. (Snakes & Ladders.)” is indeed a protest song but you’d have to consult Songfacts to understand why: Thom Yorke wrote the song in response to stories about the Rwandan genocide. When you know that, the song becomes quite moving, but there aren’t any crumbs in the song that form a trail to get you to Rwanda, Burundi or anywhere in the vicinity. The African-influenced beats and what sounds like an electronic version of a mbira do give the song an African flavor, particularly in the more intense “raindrops” passage where the bass feels like it’s going to burst your eardrums. Like “2 + 2 = 5,” the song is split into a quiet and loud sections, but unlike the Pixiesque use quiet-loud in their earlier works, the quiet sections are extended builds (extended to three minutes on “Sit Down. Stand Up.”) that set up the full power display. In both songs, the meaning is intensified by this building technique—in “2 + 2 = 5,” the shift to power dramatizes the character’s self-generated instability; here the power shift reflects the overwhelming, unbearable fear of those waiting in line to meet a horrible death.
Obviously we could use something a bit more soothing right about now, and despite valid arguments concerning the track order in Hail to the Thief, the boys nailed this transition. “Sail to the Moon” is a gorgeous piece of music, featuring a guitar-piano-ondes Martenot trio that is lush and lovely, winding itself beautifully around Thom Yorke’s high-register vocal. The song is in part a search for clarity (the subtitle is “Brush the Cobwebs from the Sky”), partly a father’s wish for his son and partly an updated take on the mythology of Noah’s Ark where instead of a god sending a deluge to destroy all the sodomizers and moneyfuckers, we have a human being longing for escape from the man-made catastrophe of modern existence. The present is never far from Thom Yorke’s mind, though, as expressed in the passage where he defies citizenship barriers and reflects on his recently-born son’s future:
But know right from wrong
I can’t believe we live in a world where we are forced to feel nostalgia for leaders with a moral compass.
“Backdrafts (Honeymoon is Over.)” is a fascinating piece where Yorke uses the imagery of being stuck in a snowstorm to reveal the psyche of a group of conspirators whose political hanky-panky is about to be exposed. The lyrics could have been borrowed from Wikileaks’ unpublished hack of the Republican National Committee:
We’re rotten fruit
We’re damaged goods
What the hell, we’ve got nothing more to lose
One gust and we will probably crumble
We’re backdrifting . . .
All evidence has been buried
All tapes have been erased
But your footsteps give you away
So you’re backtracking
Oh oh oh
I love the muffled electronic beats and throbs in this song and how the cottony sound contrasts with the largely unfiltered voice of Thom Yorke, forcing the listener to absorb the lyrics. The piano solo is also placed in the background, underscoring the sense of nefarious things going on behind the scenes. And—not that I have anyone particular in mind—how I wish that one gust could be enough to get rid of all the crooks who use public service for personal gain, but I think it’s going to take multiple gusts and some kind of revolution in human consciousness.
It’s time for that dominant female matriarchy, boys! We won’t let you get away with shit . . . and you’ll love it!
And if I were fortunate enough to earn the exalted position of Almighty Mistress of the Earth, I would immediately order a review of all music videos on YouTube and ban any and all that failed to contribute to greater understanding of the fucking song! That would eliminate 99% of the music videos in existence, restoring the basic truth that music is primarily an aural experience, and is not to be used as a soundtrack for incoherent stories filled with random shots of fake lips, fake tits, fake orgasms and BAD ACTING! I bring this up because one of the videos I intend to preserve is the video for “Go to Sleep (Little Man being Erased.),” the second single released from Hail to the Thief. I was immediately intrigued by this song the first time I heard it because of the 10/4 time signature in the passages driven by acoustic guitar, but the lyrics seemed impenetrable—a strange ramble with references to Gulliver and a classic lullaby. Once I saw the video, everything clicked into place. The scene opens with an overlay of a full red rose over the background of a city marked by classical architecture. A CGI rendition of Thom Yorke enters the scene, sits on a park bench and begins rambling and waving his arms while all the busy, busy people completely ignore his existence. Suddenly the buildings begin to collapse in what looks like a series of controlled demolitions (progress!); neither CGI Tom nor the busy, busy people pay any attention. Once the city is leveled, restoration begins with the construction of replacement buildings in characterless modern architecture. The video ends with the rose returning to foreground, its flower now closed tightly against the cold environment.
Having grown up in San Francisco, a city where busy, busy people on their way to work routinely step over the homeless sleeping on the streets and in the doorways as if they were piles of dogshit, where progress in the form of the digital age capitalism and the invasion of the nouveau riche have transformed the city into another characterless financial center, the video really hit home with me. The blind indifference we show to other human beings who have either had a bad break or suffer from treatable mental illness is something I find deeply appalling. When you combine that blind indifference to suffering with blindness to the destructive effects of progress—a condition facilitated by cultural norms that encourage greed—you create stratified communities where dehumanization is just part of the social fabric. “Go To Sleep” is a title dripping with sarcasm—the song is a wake-up call to face our self-destructive tendencies before it’s too late.
The Greenwood brothers knock it out of the park in “Where I End and You Begin,” where Jonny demonstrates his skill with the ondes Martenot to create an irresistibly eerie soundscape while Colin’s sinuous bass line gives the piece its forward movement. The dominant image of the song is the ouroboros, the serpent swallowing its own tail, a symbol found in Egyptian and Greek mythology, in the worlds of alchemy and gnosticism, in the practice of Kundalini and in the mythological analyses of Carl Jung. The image symbolizes the cyclical nature of growth and the re-creation of self; the act of becoming involves “swallowing” (accepting) the old self and integrating it with the new. Jung linked the symbol to the process of individuation, where the integration involves acceptance of the shadow—all those dark features of our personality we do not want to accept. Given the themes explored so far, I don’t think Jung was what Thom Yorke had in mind. My take is the “gap in between” in this song is the gap between self and other. In a society in denial about the consequences of its actions, relationships—both casual and intimate—are likely to be contaminated by denial and garden-variety bullshit. The repeated fade lines—“I will eat you alive (4)/There will be no more lies” is a cry for intimacy, for unconditional love without barriers. Music and lyrics reflect the mysterious, paradoxical nature of human relationships, making “Where I End and You Begin” one of the richest pieces on the album.
Up to this point, I would argue that Hail to the Thief is worthy of inclusion in the best Radiohead album debate—and we haven’t even covered my two favorite songs! Alas and alack, before we get there we have to deal with the album’s fundamental flaws. The original approach Radiohead adopted in recording Hail to the Thief was a good one for a band who needed to balance the use of digital manipulation that dominated their two previous releases with more human spontaneity: lay down the tracks as quickly as possible and do more “live” recording in the studio to create a sense of immediacy. What tripped them up more than anything else was song selection: Hail to the Thief contains a few really bad ideas that they should have saved for that time in the distant future when Radiohead no longer releases new material and fans suffering from Radiohead withdrawal will ingest anything to relieve the jonesing. Hail to the Thief consists of fourteen tracks, and both listeners and band members have complained about the length of the album. Well, the only reason that length is the problem is that some of the songs flat out suck! Really, would you have complained about the length of a Radiohead album if all fourteen tracks were outstanding?
I’ve seen some argue that the right length would have been ten tracks; I’m going to argue for eleven. The first of the three I would cut is the song I consider the worst thing Radiohead has ever done: “We Suck Young Blood (Your Time is up.).” I’d rather have a double root canal than listen to this fucking song again. Radiohead’s fascination with slow tempos is taken to absurd extremes here—the song slithers like a slug on a cold winter’s day, in large part due to handclaps that make the song seem even slower than it is. We’re talking frozen fucking molasses here, folks! The subject matter—Hollywood exploitation—seems completely out-of-place and trivializes the more significant universal messages on the album. “We Suck Young Blood” . . . well, it just sucks.
The second track I’d wipe from the tape is definitely a thematic fit but is as boring as a guy who only knows the in-and-out move. “The Gloaming” deserves inclusion only for its symbolism, which is a piss-poor excuse if there ever was one. The slow, tape-loop only track destroys the sense of immediacy Radiohead wanted to create, and its placement after the dreariness of “We Suck Young Blood” was unconscionable. Colin Greenwood would have cut this track as well, arguing that it was one of those songs that worked live but collapsed in the studio. Having created playlists where these two tracks are eliminated, I guarantee you will have a better listening experience without them.
And since you can’t get a better listening experience than “There, There (The Boney King of Nowhere.),” eliminating the two draggy songs gets you there a helluva lot faster! The image of the sirens calling you to your death on the cold, hard rock cliffs of the treacherous passage tells us this song is about not falling prey to illusion (“Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there). However, even the presence of mythological horror figures fails to dampen the underlying gestalt of the song: this is one of the sexiest pieces of music ever created. Those pounding jungle drums, that rough, ripping guitar, the deep groove of the bass, Ed O’Brien’s background vocals adding a touch of 21st century Fleetwoods, Thom Yorke’s flowing lead vocal peppered with underlying tension ready to explode—shit, I’m ready to explode every time I hear this song! Let me check—where’s my fucking iPhone? Got it. Clock app. Got it. Now all I have to do is hit the stopwatch and the play button at the same time. Shit, I can’t do this—Ali! Come here! Okay, now—on the count of three, hit the start button. One, two, three! Okay, stop. Got it!
It takes 2.3 seconds for my hips to grind and my sweet spot to start glistening once “There, There” begins. Please excuse me for a few minutes—my partner’s right here, half-naked, and I never miss an opportunity. Watch the nice video from Glastonbury and I’ll be back in about six orgasms.
Uh, I’m not done. Can you please watch the official video while I finish? It’s quite good, and the song has enormous replay value. See ya in a few!
Whew! That hit the fucking spot! I’m having a great time with this review! Let me have a cigarette and change into a mood that’s less comfortable in preparation for the next track. Back in ten.
Ten minutes would have meant a lot of wasted vinyl, but Radiohead would have been well-advised to insert thirty seconds of silence between “There, There” and “I Will,” as I can’t think of two songs more fundamentally different. The first makes you want to get down and dirty while the second brings you to tears. Thom Yorke describes “I Will (No man’s Land.)” as “the angriest song I’ve ever written,” and his feelings of shock and outrage are more than justified. “I Will” is in some ways a companion piece to “Idioteque” on Kid A, answering the opening question of that song: “Who’s in the bunker?” The answer is families with children trying to protect themselves from American bombs, not realizing that the Americans can deploy “bunker busters” at the drop of a dollar. Having seen footage of such an attack from the First Gulf War (the one people refer to as “the good fight”), Yorke’s outrage focuses on the images of “little babies’ eyes” in an attempt to inspire a similar sense of outrage among listeners. The horrifying aspect of the song isn’t so much the imagery as it is the standard response to such barbarity: label it “collateral damage” and move on. “Were any Americans killed? No? Then who cares?”
There are things I miss about the U. S. A., but there are many more things that make me proud to say that I am not an American citizen.
“I Will” fades seamlessly into “A Punch Up at a Wedding,” where Yorke uses the ultimate social faux pas as a way to describe a world where all sense of civility and honor have collapsed into a pointless series of brawls. Sounds like a typical day at the office for the U. S. Congress! Hey! Maybe if they opened their sessions with Radiohead instead of a prayer . . . nah.
Musically, the song is pretty straightforward with a slight funk tinge, executed with precision and professionalism. The connection to the Bush-Cheney regime and their fawning supporters on Fox News can be found in the final passage—if you have access to Fox News, tune in, turn down the sound, watch the talking heads and listen to this verse—you’ll get it.
Don’t infect me with your poison
A bully in a china shop
When I turn ’round you stay frozen to the spot
The pointless snide remarks
Of hammer-headed sharks
The pot will call the kettle black
It’s a drunken punch-up at a wedding, yeah
My second favorite song on Hail to the Thief is “Myxomatosis,” and it’s not just because I’m a bass whore. Thom Yorke has demonstrated a long-standing affinity for strange characters dating back to “Creep,” and the character in this song is one seriously confused individual. Among his many ramblings is the claim that he suffers from myxomatosis, a disease that only affects rabbits. The claim is fanciful and while he may indeed believe that it’s true, the rabbit metaphor effectively describes his mental state:
I don’t know why I feel so tongue-tied
Don’t know why I feel so skinned alive
As to how he arrived at such a state, he seems to have engaged in some grandstanding designed to garner fame and fortune—an effort that failed miserably:
I sat in the cupboard
And wrote it down in neat
They were cheering and waving
Cheering and waving
Twitching and salivating like with myxomatosis
But it got edited, fucked up
Strangled, beaten up
Used as a photo in Time magazine
Buried in a burning black hole in Devon
He admits in the first line of the last verse that “My thoughts are misguided and a little naïve” (no shit), but goes on to confirm his unsuccessful attempt to make a name for himself:
Yeah no one likes a smart ass but we all like stars
That wasn’t my intention, I did it for a reason
It must have got mixed up
Strangled beaten up
Although there isn’t enough information to make a definitive interpretation, I read “Myxomatosis” as a powerful exposé of the modern obsession with gaining Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. Consider the idiots who voluntarily humiliate themselves publicly on Jerry Springer’s show or various “reality shows” where the narrative is twisted by selective camera work to induce the maximum amount of embarrassment. This guy is such a loser he couldn’t even make Jerry Springer! That is a L-O-S-E-R par excellence!
The quirky story seeks extremely well with the fuzz bass-dominated arrangement, and Thom Yorke’s vocal is picture-perfect, especially in the stop-time segments where he goes monosyllabic. I may not know exactly what “Myxomatosis” is all about, but I love the feel of the song and the strange quirkiness of the incompetent hero.
Hail to the Thief should have ended with “Scatterbrain (As Dead as Leaves),” a perfectly lovely melody that describes the scattered state of nearly everyone living in the world today as we struggle to find ourselves amidst an information deluge coming at us at hyper speed. Unfortunately, the album ends with the odd waltz, “Wolf at the Door (It Girl. Rag Doll.),” which fits the album’s main themes from a lyrical standpoint, but feels musically disconnected from the rest of the album. Perhaps it’s the waltz tempo combined with rap, or the feeling that the more melodic chorus is incompatible with the monologue, or the violent scenes described in the lyrics. There’s also something about this song that makes me suspect that it belongs in a musical—and I hate fucking musicals.
Hail to the Thief may not be perfect, but I still think it’s a pretty damned good album, and even more relevant today than it was at the time of its release in 2003. If Thom Yorke thought the Bush-Cheney tag team was a WHAT THE FUCK moment to end all WHAT THE FUCK moments, I can’t imagine what he’s thinking now after another stolen election gave the American presidency to a perfectly horrid little man with one-twentieth the intelligence of GW.
But please, spare me the follow-up album. When Trump goes down, I never want to hear, read or watch anything having to do with that sad excuse for a human being.
Hey! Maybe he’s got myxomatosis! That would explain a lot!