The Greatest Gig I Ever Saw: Radiohead At Glastonbury, 1997

Glastonbury 1997 was great for all sorts of reasons. Radiohead at their peak was something special however...
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Glastonbury 1997 was great for all sorts of reasons. Radiohead at their peak was something special however...

Radiohead_Berkeley_California_23-6-2006

A friend of mine recently remarked that Radiohead never really wanted to be a rock and roll band. I kind of know what he means. For nearly a decade and a half now they've buried the considered cliches of the genre under an avalanche of arch intellectualism and binary codes. Each one deeper and more abstract than the last, leaving the listener puzzled as to whether they've hit upon the formula of a studied inner meaning or whether they're playing self indulgent parlour tricks, creating pastiches of themselves.

In 1997 however, things were different. Whether they liked it or not, the band were one of the biggest and most recognisable  rock and roll bands in the world at the time. They had arguably made the decades most vital two albums too. Firstly 'The Bends', a huge and anthemic guitar based album that had surpassed the poor reception of their debut album and threatened eventually to turn them into a genuine stadium act (which they would probably have loathed). Perhaps sensing this, they had followed it with a genuine masterpiece. Whilst 'OK Computer' was the antithesis of its predecessor, it had hit its mark both critically and in terms of musicality. The power chords may have been displaced and buried subtly into the mix but in their place was a swathe of gorgeous melodies and symphony. It had an other worldliness too, that seemed to signpost a brand new map reference for intelligent rock music. Even in its short release time, it seemed a game changer.

Which all boded well for a headline slot at that years Glastonbury. For many in the crowd the anticipation was huge but for others up to their waist in the obligatory Somerset mud, there was a sense of them waiting to be won over too. Interestingly, the coda of Britpop and especially Oasis, still hung huge over British rock music. With their first two albums, the Manchester band had suffocated the idea of art rock being anything more than a ghost whisper in the dark, and with a concert at Knebworth a year earlier had pretty much set the standard for breaking down the barriers and dissipating the link from the band to their audience. The question mark over Radiohead was whether they could pull it off to a crowd that big, especially with an ethereal record like 'OK Computer'. and crucially to a crowd that wasn't entirely their own.

As they launched into the mournful 'Lucky' that night however, something began to stir. Its slow tension seemed to reverberate into the night air like a threat. It was sinister and strange, and up front Thom Yorke seemed to revel in its delivery. By the time the number had finished and he had cast a great pistolero sneer at the audience, he seemed less of an introspective rock star and more of a man who was fully encompassed by his art and more importantly meant proper business.

And so it began. What Iggy Pop once described as conjuring up the great 'ohm' spirit of rock and roll. Something primeval and vital. The crashing guitars of 'My Iron Lung' reverberating around Glastonbury, as the crowd began to shift and twitch in alchemy. It was an instant connection. And also a master class too. Cleverly Radiohead managed to keep a 100,000 people off balance from then on in. The thundering guitars of tracks from 'The Bends' were interspersed with the slower numbers from 'OK Computer'. Fire and ice. Always building to that perfect peak moment when the spiritual, teasing connection to the audience was complete.

That number was 'Karma Police'. Radiohead's most anthemic track and beautifully weighed into the middle of their set like a blue centre light popping in the distance. In almost complete darkness, Thom Yorke bowed his head into his microphone and wrung it out, vein by vein, drop by drop. It's eerie refrain of 'this is what you get when you mess with us' was called back and fro from singer to audience in perfect synchronisation. Spine tingling. Beautiful. Hope and heartbeat sprung forth in four minutes of the worlds greatest art form. From that moment on, the battle was pretty much won. They had nothing left to prove.

There were still fantastic moments to come that night however.  The hilarious irony of 'Creep'. The thundering Nirvana like 'Just'. Great punk rock right hooks delivered by a band who suddenly found the time to loosen up and enjoy themselves. What had started off as a stand off had come full circle into a genuine celebration. By the time they got to their gorgeous, acoustic tracks like 'Fake Plastic Trees' and 'High and Dry', there was even time for a grandstand finish. And a kind of exorcism too. For although the spectre of Britpop never really walked in the shadow of Radiohead, they still had to break free from its populist optimism. On a murky night in Somerset they also reminded us that the devil has all the best tunes.