Sunday’s Radiohead show at the Sprint Center has been sold out for months, like the 14 other shows on the current leg of the band’s U.S. tour.
Sold-out arena shows aren’t common anymore. Kanye West and Jay-Z didn’t sell out the Sprint Center in November; neither did country star George Strait earlier this month.
And the bands and performers that fill or almost fill arenas, whether it’s AC/DC, Tom Petty or Nickelback, usually bring with them a passel of hits and years of radio airplay.
That’s not the case with Radiohead, which makes its mainstream-size stature remarkable.
Since 1992, when its song “Creep” reached No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, Radiohead has put only six other songs on any Billboard chart. The highest of those was “Bodysnatchers” from the “In Rainbows” album, which peaked at No. 8 on the alternative chart in 2007.
You could chalk up some of the hype and interest surrounding Sunday’s show to absence and anticipation: Radiohead hasn’t played in this area since July 1995, when it headlined a show at the Bottleneck in Lawrence. However, Friday’s show at the Scottrade Center was the band’s third in St. Louis since 2003, and it sold out, too.
What’s most remarkable is how this “wacky little prog band from Oxford, U.K.,” as critic Robert Christgau once described it, managed to accumulate critical acclaim and commercial clout without a moment of concession or compromise.
Since the release of “OK Computer,” its third and most commercially successful album, Radiohead has often dared even its most ardent fans to follow its odysseys and experiments in music and sound, some of which required repeated and disciplined listenings before their deepest rewards emerged.
“You can hear ears thinking all over their records,” Christgau once wrote.
Radiohead’s best music tends to thrive between the ears, or in some place transcendent, but hardly soulful or sexual. Lyrically, it tends to be abstract, sometimes to the point of absurdity.
Director Cameron Crowe told Rolling Stone magazine that he chose music from the band’s “Amnesiac” and “Kid A” albums for the soundtrack to the film “Vanilla Sky” because “it’s just rich and multilayered. It’s kind of like you’ve ripped open the human mind, and it’s the thoughts and sounds of what goes on in the psyche. I find Radiohead to be fun as well as challenging.”
The challenge inherent in so much of Radiohead’s music is what makes its wide popularity so uncommon, even extraordinary. The only other contemporary band I can think of that is as popular and committed to its own eccentric and indulgent ways is Tool.
“(Radiohead) has pulled off one of the great art-pop balancing acts in the history of rock,” wrote New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross, an ardent fan who devoted a chapter of his book “Listen to This” to Radiohead.
That balancing act includes the synthesis of many styles and sounds: rock, jazz, classical music, electronica. In 1997, the year of his conversion to Radiohead, Ross wrote of the music’s many intricacies and influences:
“ ‘OK Computer’ has fewer stately airs than ‘The Bends,’ ” the band’s second album, “but it adds layer upon layer of weird beauty. The sound is somehow tall: ideas unwind in every register. ‘Paranoid Android’ is a symphony in six minutes, moving from a shuffling introduction to a hardcore scherzo, then from a slow chorale on the words ‘From a great height’ to a hammering coda. Throughout the album, contrasts of mood and style are extreme: a couple of the songs could almost have been sung by Sinatra (or so it’s fun to imagine), while a couple of others, rescored for bass clarinets, might win appreciative shrugs from new-music cognoscenti at the Knitting Factory.”
To those of us less literate in the many music languages that infiltrate its songs, the challenge of listening to Radiohead can be even greater, which makes the decision to do so a bit abnormal for the typical rock/pop fan.
For me, the rewards — or the “fun,” as Crowe put it — is finding the song within the odd conventions of the music, adjusting to the off-kilter patterns and cadences, discerning the song’s elusive shape and structure, finding its groove and sway, discovering what Christgau called the “discrete pleasures and surprises.”
In some ways, it’s like staring into an auto-stereogram long enough to see the three-dimensional image within.
But consistently creating aural puzzles and new forms of weird beauty isn’t a reliable means to selling lots of records and filling arenas. In a review of “The King of Limbs,” released in February 2011, Tim Jonze at The Guardian wrote, “Bands don’t become stadium-sized cult heroes if they’re nothing more than avant-garde sound-scapers.”
Radiohead also succeeds because its reputation exceeds the collective resonance of its music. Its image has been burnished by events that put the band squarely on the side of its fans, whether it was how it avoided venues owned by concert promoter Clear Channel, as it did in the early 2000s, letting fans pay whatever they wanted for a digital download of “In Rainbows” or charging relatively low prices for its current tour (tickets were $48 and $58).
It all helps create the impression that they are humble musicians, not greedy rock stars. It helps that they don’t dress the part, either.
Ross wrote in “Listen”: “In the old days, rock bands had a haircut, a lingo, a house style. The disconcerting thing about Radiohead is that its members do not really look or act alike. They are basically a group of smart English guys in their late 20s and early 30s. They read books, but they also check the football scores.”
And despite all that has been written about them, both good and bad, the band is seemingly disinterested in its own hype, legend or lore.
Drummer Phil Selway told Ross: “We don’t want people twiddling their goatees over our stuff. What we do is pure escapism.”
And remarkably, it has coaxed millions of people along for the ride.