I think it's hard to remember a time when Radiohead wasn't a groundbreaking band. Well, upon viewing the (relatively) recently released DVD of a live set from May 1994, a lot of memories and thoughts came rolling in.
For a brief moment, forget about OK Computer, the career-defining album the band released in 1997. Back in '93 and '94, they could have very well been perceived as a grunge knockoff from the same school that Bush came from. They had an enormous-selling single called "Creep," a song that seemed to bottle all of the things perceived as stereotypical grunge. With its mopey, self-deprecating lyrics and soft to blaring dynamics along with an accompanying video featuring a singer with bleach-blonde hair looking like he's asleep at the microphone, Radiohead seemed to fit perfectly with the times. Yet the band was more than just their grungey contemporaries: they put out a stellar second album that put them in another place way far away from anyone else. Since then, a number of acts have taken their lead, but before that happened, Radiohead really had nothing to lose or gain by playing the London Astoria in May 1994.
The Astoria London Live features Radiohead presenting soon-to-be classics (aka, songs from the sophomore album The Bends) and songs that they would rarely play live ever again (aka, songs from their debut album, Pablo Honey). The set is surprisingly top-heavy with songs from The Bends along with highlights from Pablo Honey. Since The Bends had yet to be completed, a few arrangements on songs are different. Hearing the drums kick in halfway through the first verse of "Fake Plastic Trees" and hearing a cold intro to "Black Star" are very subtle differences than their recorded versions, but I thought this was a cool little alternate look at these songs.
Once The Bends was released, it surprised a lot of people, including myself. Here was the "Creep" band making something a little more tuneful and incredibly more mature than anything else out there. I was slow in being convinced, but when I saw Radiohead open for R.E.M. in late-'95, I was pretty blown away. I may have my memories off, but I vividly remember when a lot of mainstream rock critics were declaring "rock is dead" in 1996 and 1997. For every one Radiohead, there was about fifteen grunge placeholders (like Seven Mary Three and Silverchair). Plus, there was some overcrowding in the world of British imports (a certain band called Oasis comes to mind). The thought to make was easy: guitar rock was dead in the US mainstream and something new had to come. Eyes were on electronic-based music from England as the next big thing.
Well, despite the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers having hit records, electronica was not the next big thing. The album that turned so many heads (and I believe shut up a number of "rock is dead" critics) was Radiohead's OK Computer. I'm still amazed at how far a band went from Pablo Honey to The Bends to OK Computer in just four years. The sad thing is, judging solely on Billboard singles charts, Radiohead is sometimes seen as a one-hit wonder. Nevermind all the times that MTV and M2 played "High and Dry," "Paranoid Android" and "Karma Police" back in their day, the only single of their's to cross over into the mainstream was "Creep." That's truly a shame, but I think the same could be done to Pink Floyd. A couple of their songs ("Money" and "Another Brick in the Wall Part II") ranked high on the charts, they weren't like Diana Ross & the Supremes with a string of number one hit singles.
Maybe I'm comparing Jupiter to Pluto here, but Radiohead is one of those bands that really gave us grunge fans something to really sink out teeth in with as we started college. I still think highly of Radiohead, especially The Bends and OK Computer, and there isn't a doubt in my mind that the band will be held in high regard as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd someday in the future. Just by watching The Astoria London Live made me realize that this stuff doesn't happen overnight.