“Again, music to slit your wrists to”
It was a batty animated music video lasting almost seven minutes for “Paranoid Android” that made me go out and buy OK Computer. Still in high school, I thought the album was the best thing I had ever heard and played it to death before finding out from a classmate that it was actually the band’s third disc. From there I experienced The Bends—my all-time favorite rock album—and with that Radiohead cemented its place at the top of my musical world.
I made multiple trips to our local Media Play as the 90s completed in order to check the Imports section for however many CD singles I could to grow my library of the band’s extensive B-Sides collection. There were the great tracks “Maquiladora” and “Talk Show Host” exciting my ears from The Bends era and the enticing EP Airbag/How Am I Driving? collected an assortment of OK Computer music that simply didn’t make the cut. Not to be outdone by its aural companion, however, the VHS entitled Meeting People is Easy also called my name and while I hoped it would contain a few of the group’s stellar music videos, what it did offer was even better.
A film by Grant Gee, this rockumentary is more art piece commentary on the struggles of a touring band at the height of fame than a look through concert footage and interviews. Nothing besides the footage making up the heavily played MTV video for single “Palo Alto” is shown to completion. Songs are played in pieces, broken up by others, or turned down so voices of an overlaid press obligation can be heard. Behind the scene video of photo shoots flash onscreen, newspaper and magazine clippings hailing Radiohead as the new powerhouse in rock scroll by, and the strobe lights of concerts along with shaky handheld movies flicker enough to make the cover’s disclaimer of “may adversely affect epilepsy sufferers” a reality.
Gee collages sight and sound in an intense assault to depict the two-headed beast the band was during their OK Computer tour of 1997-1998. Progressing chronologically from show #1 in Barcelona with beginning with a performance of “Airbag” through the likes of #52 in Paris, #82 in Tokyo, and #102 in New York City, we enter the hectic life of a rockstar to experience the glory and malaise. We listen to Colin Greenwood go through a litany of takes to record a radio station tag, “Hello, this is Colin from Radiohead and you are listening to …”; read the countless praise comparing the record to Darkside of the Moon and the songs’ epic quality to “Bohemian Rhapsody”; and watch asinine questions from the media punish the bandmates into a state of despair and utter boredom.
Completely objective, we become privy to vocalist Thom Yorke getting verbally assaulted on the streets of NY as well as voicing his complaints about the crew of “Late Show with David Letterman” before performing “Karma Police” on the show. We cultivate a sympathy for Colin and the strenuous schedule of press duties he does between shows—although he admits no one does more than they want—and hear the in-concert banter about how the band wishes their job allowed for a tour of whatever city they’re performing in. Unfortunately, Parlophone and EMI need them to toe the company line and make the appearances necessary to turn their album into the contemporary classic it has become. After watching their depleting enthusiasm as the film progresses, however, it’s easy to understand why they have since decided to distribute their music independently.
Amidst the barrage of camera flashes and scenes depicting the loneliness of being an alien in New York while Scott Walker‘s “On Your Own Again” plays come memorable moments defining who Radiohead is. Everywhere they turn is another media outlet looking for a story, yet the band never has any easy answers. We see Yorke walking around with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. in one shot and then shrugging off the fact celebrities attend their concerts as no big deal. Where a reporter merely wants some excitement that Tom Cruise and Lenny Kravitz are going to shows, Yorke only shares the fact that he never understood why the famous exist on a higher plane than the general public in America. In Britain, he says, there is always an inherent distrust. All success has either been achieved by cheating or proves the successful to be full of shit.
It’s not all soundbytes of Yorke proclaiming the Western World as loan sharks extorting the rest; We also get some great concert excerpts to temper tidbits like Jonny Greenwood‘s dislike of television interviews for making him appear an idiot or recording acceptance speeches in Japan for awards shows everywhere else: NME’s Best Album of 1997, Denmark’s Grammy for Best Foreign Album, etc. There is a performance of “Paranoid Android” in Paris that becomes broken in half by a stunning shot of “Creep” filmed from the street through the venue’s open doors and above a packed crowd. We hear rare songs like “Pearly” or “Follow Me Around” in sound check and while we’re tapping our fingers or remembering our own concert memories of the band we also begin to understand the amount of work it takes to be a rockstar.
Each member of Radiohead is given time in the film—so while I didn’t mention Ed O’Brien or Phil Selway, they are most definitely a part of Meeting People is Easy—and their acclaim is often juxtaposed with crticism. A group of televised SKY News reporters even go so far as to mock new single “No Surprises” as depressing and far from likable. They joke it is suicidal and laugh that it’s okay because “Yorke ends up drowning at the end” of its video depicting him in a scuba suit filling with water. But we must also accept with the band that yes, bad reviews always seem to make the most sense because universal praise is for saps.
One can never deny Yorke’s satisfaction in seeing 40,000 fans at show #10 in Glastonbury, though, or disbelieve when he says the tour was a letdown after the inhuman feeling of that moment. Footage shows fans in Philadelphia singing “Creep” and those at the front of the stage in Nagoya, Japan rocking out so we realize these Brits are never happier than when making and playing their music. They don’t care about the excess or the fame; they treat their job seriously and have been a huge success as a result. Like them or hate them—that’s something everyone can admire.