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Michael's Number Ones: "There There" by Radiohead



DATE

WEEKS

July 12, 2003

6

I don't know how I'm going to write this one.


That's the thought that keeps crossing my mind for this column. Because this was Radiohead's only #1 hit on my chart, and while I still really like it, they've done better songs. And Radiohead don't seem like the band to distill into a five or six minute read. They're too prolific and weird and just awesome to do that do. But that's the breaks.


One thing I know for certain: America has never fully appreciated what Radiohead has brought to the table. I'm probably including myself in that declaration, but not by choice. My chart pretty much missed Radiohead's peak creative era. Nevertheless, in 2003, I knew better than to overlook a new Radiohead song or album, and so "There There" pretty much was the song of my summer that year. That works for me.



Thomas Edward Yorke was born in 1968 in the town of Wellingborough in England. Yorke's family moved around the United Kingdom when he was a child until they finally settled in Oxfordshire when he was 10. Brian May of Queen and Siouxsie Sioux were pivotal figures in Yorke wanting to become a musician. He started writing songs at the age of 11, and eventually formed a band called On a Friday with classmates Ed O'Brien, Philip Selway and Colin and Jonny Greenwood.


On a Friday wasn't really a full-time endeavor for any of its members as they all went to college to earn degrees. While he was in college, Yorke was involved in a car accident that was influence many of his songs in the years to come.


By the early 90s, On a Friday got a record deal with EMI, and the group changed their name to Radiohead. Their first single as Radiohead was released in 1993 as grunge was at the height of its popularity. "Creep" fit in with the rock zeitgeist at the time, with its crunchy guitar work and feelings of alienation. But if you told anyone at the time that Radiohead would become one of the most successful, avant-garde groups of all-time, and that "Creep" would still be the song they're most known for, I doubt it would've made any sense.



Critics weren't really impressed with "Creep" or Radiohead's debut album Pablo Honey. But it did the job of getting their feet in the door. The song reached #7 in the UK, and became their biggest hit in the United States, reaching #34 on the Hot 100, and #2 on the Modern Rock chart. The fact that Radiohead have never reached #1 on alternative radio is a grand indictment of radio in general.


Radiohead's trajectory improved dramatically with their next album, 1995's The Bends. In my mind, it's still their best album. Yorke's songwriting is crisp and introspective, and the music runs a gamut of emotions without ever feeling disjointed. There's also quite a few bangers on the record. Songs like "The Bends" and "High and Dry" and "Just" all radiate out of the speakers. And then there's "Fake Plastic Trees".



There are some songs that, given enough time, come to destroy you. That's the case with "Fake Plastic Trees". It starts with a spare melody on acoustic guitar and gradually builds into something cathartic and glorious. The video for the song, with its fluorescent supermarket, only adds to the emotional powerhouse within the song. I wish I could write a whole post on that song alone; maybe someday I will.


The success of The Bends led Radiohead to get lumped into the Britpop trend that emerged in the mid-90s, with bands like Oasis, Blur, and Travis commanding attention on both sides of the Atlantic. Soon, however, Radiohead blew past all those groups. Their 1997 album OK Computer saw the band explore themes of dystopian consumerism, perhaps foreseeing how the technological advances of the last 25 years have made society more isolated and cynical.



OK Computer was a critical smash, and the album was even nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys in 1998, losing to Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind. (The Grammys had an annoying habit for a long time of treating Album of the Year as a victory lap for all-time great artists well past their prime. Again, this could be a whole other column.)


Radiohead continued to push the limits of their sound with their next two albums, 2000's Kid A, and 2001's Amnesiac. The band embraced ambient and electronic music, and continued to be critical darlings, even if their songs had a hard time gaining traction on the radio. It helped that they made their music videos into artistic triumphs, although by this point they were relegated to MTV2 as the flagship gradually moved away from music altogether.


Around this time, Yorke was disturbed by the presidential election of 2000, in which the clusterfuck of the Florida recount led to George W. Bush being elected despite dubiously losing the national popular vote. Yorke observed a culture of "ignorance and intolerance and panic and stupidity" surrounding the election, which was only heightened after the 9/11 attacks and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus came the cheeky title for Radiohead's sixth album, Hail to the Thief.


If Hail to the Thief is Radiohead's commentary on the state of U.S. politics in the early 2000s, it feels more intellectual that outraged. That's not a bad thing, and it's what you would expect from a Radiohead album, but I don't think it captures how pissed off some people were about the Bush administration. Other artists were creating more forceful calls to action; a few of those songs will eventually appear in this column.


"There There" was the lead single from the album. Yorke actually came up with the song during the Kid A sessions. Still, I can see the song being a commentary on conservative politics and being guided by faith rather than reason. "In pitch dark, I go walking in your landscape. Broken branches trip me as I speak." He sings about a siren singing you to a shipwreck, obliquely calling out people who vote against their own interests in favor of the loudest voice in the room.


Musically, the song feels dyspeptic and paranoid. I love songs that build up to an explosion, and that's what "There There" does. It's easily one of the best tracks on the album. It also feels at odds with a lot of rock music I liked in 2003. But then Radiohead always seems to be at odds with whatever trends are ascendant at any given time.


Predictably, the song did better in the UK than the United States; it got to #4 on the UK Singles chart, while it only reached #14 on Billboard's Modern Rock chart. The video for the song, a stop-motion freak-out directed by Chris Hopewell, did get constant airplay on MTV2 and Fuse, and it only enhanced my love for the song at the time.


Two more singles followed from Hail to the Thief, and one of them, "Go to Sleep", got to #18 on my top 40 later in the year. Radiohead took a break after the album cycle wrapped up, and Yorke released a solo album called The Eraser in 2006, and his song "Black Swan" got to #20 on my chart that year. Jonny Greenwood, meanwhile, composed the score for the amazing Paul Thomas Anderson film There Will Be Blood. That film wouldn't be nearly as powerful without its music, but the score was ineligible for the Academy Awards because Greenwood used pre-existing material. No one said the Grammys are the only awards ceremony to get thing screwed up.



By the time the band came back together in 2007, they were without a record deal, and decided to self-release their next album, In Rainbows. They famously were the first artist to release an album by allowing fans to pay whatever they wanted, if anything at all. I remember how big a deal this was at the time. Some people championed it as the future of the music industry, while others feared it would lead to the industry's demise. Spotify was only a couple years away by that point, and it ultimately meant artists didn't have to price their music at all.


I like In Rainbows better than Hail to the Thief. There's a jazz-like quality to many of the songs, and the record as a whole feels tighter, more focused. The lead single was "Bodysnatchers", a jangly, nervous banger that wound up being Radiohead's last top 10 song on the alternative chart, where it reached #8. On my top 40, it did better, peaking at #6.


Radiohead released two more albums afterwards, 2011's The King of Limbs, and 2016's A Moon Shaped Pool. They've always being a going concern on my radio, and they came close to another #1 song in 2016 with their song "Burn the Witch". It peaked at #2 for three weeks that summer.



Radiohead haven't released any new albums since 2016, but three of its members, Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and Tom Skinner, formed a side project in 2020 called The Smile. The Smile seem to be Yorke's main focus at the moment. They've released two albums in the last three years, with Wall of Eyes coming out this past January. None of the songs I've heard from The Smile have really resonated with me, so they don't have any top 40 hits on my chart yet, but that could always change over time.


So I don't know if we'll see Radiohead or Thom Yorke in this column again. I feel like given the long layoff for the band that a new Radiohead album would be a pretty big deal whenever it happens. Or maybe Yorke is happy to explore new ideas with The Smile or other projects. After all, just because you feel it doesn't mean it's there.


THE NUMBER TWOS

Linkin Park's sleekly frenetic jam "Faint" peaked at #2 behind "There There". It won't be ignored.



HONORABLE MENTIONS

Norah Jones' blissful, meditative crooner "Come Away with Me", the title track from her Grammy-winning debut, peaked at #9 behind "There There". I want to walk with it on a cloudy day in fields where yellow grass grows knee-high.



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