Radiohead, most influential rock band of the century, is never coming back

It would be true to character for Radiohead to quit without bothering to tell anyone, Drew Magary writes

British band Radiohead performs during a summer 2018 North American tour in support of the band's latest album, "A Moon Shaped Pool," at the United Center on July 6, 2018, in Chicago.

British band Radiohead performs during a summer 2018 North American tour in support of the band's latest album, "A Moon Shaped Pool," at the United Center on July 6, 2018, in Chicago.

KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images

When a famous band breaks up, you and I are usually the first to know about it. They announce the end right away in a press release, or via a (supposed) farewell tour, or through each member’s respective lawyers. Even when the breakup is amiable — like REM blessedly retiring over a decade ago, sparing me from the agony of having to hear Michael Stipe’s singing voice ever again — they’re gonna tell you.
 
Alas, that will not be the case with Radiohead. They’re the most influential rock band of this century, and they didn’t get that way by doing s—t that every other band does. In 2020, Radiohead told British hyperbole merchants NME that they were taking a year off from one another. That one year has become two and a half, and I’m here to tell you that it’ll become forever. Radiohead is never coming back. The last time you saw them was the last time you’ll ever see them. They’re done. They’ve broken up, or retired, or they’ve all become ghosts. Phrase it any way you’d like, just don’t bank on them playing at Chase Center a couple years from now.
 
Whether or not Radiohead tells you this directly — possibly in the form of leaking a 60-second demo that, when played backwards, includes lead singer Thom Yorke unintelligibly gurgling “we are dead” in reverse — doesn’t really matter. As GQ’s Clayton Purdum pointed out last year, all of the signs were already there. Radiohead’s last album, “A Moon Shaped Pool,” left no bones to nosh on after its release. Its final track was the immortal “True Love Waits,” a song that both Radiohead and their producer, Nigel Godrich, had spent decades trying to perfect and finally did. That album sounds like a final statement from Radiohead, because it was.
 
And now, this year, we have the Smile, a new band featuring Yorke, Radiohead lead guitarist and all-purpose composer Jonny Greenwood and outside drummer Tom Skinner. The Smile’s first album, “A Light For Attracting Attention,” was produced by Godrich and arrived this spring. It’s a great f—king album. If you’ve been horny for new Radiohead material ever since Pool, and I certainly have been, “A Light” has you covered. I won’t hear a better album all year. All of the modern Radiohead hallmarks are there: Yorke’s mounting dread, skittering and paranoid verses that bloom into fits of orchestral grandeur, unsettling ballads, grower tracks that you’ll WANT to get the hang of, etc. And its closing track, “Skrting On The Surface,” started out, like “True Love Waits,” as a long-gestating Radiohead track itself.

I’m hardly the only one to notice that this band sounds like a continuing incarnation of its predecessor. Music critics have also noted it in their own reviews of “A Light,” and these are not people who usually go for such facile descriptions of important records. Doing so would be too un-Radiohead-like. But hey, at least they didn’t use “banger” or “it goes” to describe any of the best songs.
 
Thus, it’s extremely easy to see the Smile as the new Radiohead. Greenwood told NME that the Smile was created as a result of COVID-19 lockdown and because he’s much more impatient and eager to please audiences than the rest of his (former) bandmates. But again, the signs are there. Every non-Smile member of Radiohead has their own projects, and who’s to say that those men wouldn’t also like to, after spending decades as rock stars, chill out and enjoy the fruits of their labor? They’re entitled. There’s no shame in quitting if you’re a rock star. Beats the s—t out of whatever Bruce Springsteen is doing right now. And wouldn’t it be true to character for Radiohead to quit without bothering to tell anyone? That’s what I would PREFER they do. I don’t want them going on a farewell tour, like Derek f—king Jeter. I want them to do what they want, because that’s how Radiohead became legends to begin with.
 
And that legend was never a given. I was in high school when Radiohead started, back when “Creep” was a smash and they appeared to be one of many, many Nirvana rip-off bands at the time. A one-hit wonder. A minor, slightly annoying, grunge-lite collective. Instead, they went on to produce nine albums — at least four of which are masterpieces — and became the last important rock band. What band has mattered more than Radiohead over the past 20 years? When U2 releases a new album these days, only eight people, all of them likely to be sportswriters, give a crap. When Radiohead so much as posts a crude sketch on their website, half the western world freaks the f—k out. That’s because Radiohead was never a complacent band. They were always curious. They were always eager to try new s—t, even if they failed in the attempt. They never let listeners off the hook. They have never been an easy lot.
 
This is why so many people can’t stand them. I’ve heard people complain about Yorke’s singing voice (why I love his, and not Stipe’s, is a mystery I don’t care to solve). I’ve had friends bitch that Radiohead’s music was depressing. I’ve made those complaints myself until I saw them live and realized that these guys prized showmanship as much as Mick Jagger does. Maybe Radiohead was difficult and divisive and aggressively arty, but they were never boring.
 
More important, their instincts were almost always correct. Back in 2000, “Kid A” was the weirdest thing I’d ever heard. I was practically scared of that album, it was so different. Made me think about death. But “Kid A” doesn’t sound different at all in 2022, nor all that bleak. I’ve seen bleaker things since, and I’ve watched the rest of popular music, in every genre, take so much inspiration from that album that the original work now fits in seamlessly with all of its spiritual descendants. “Kid A” holds up, so much so that it feels shockingly current.

That doesn’t mean Radiohead is relevant to every single person out there half my age. My daughter likes Radiohead, as do some of her friends, but it’d be a real Tom Friedman maneuver to apply that factoid to the entirety of Generation Z. All I know is that, like the Beatles, Radiohead has shaped modern popular music, and younger people unwittingly appreciate their influence even if they don’t care for the band itself. That kind of artist is rare. In rock, another may never come again.
 
Nor will Radiohead. They’ve found an appropriate place to rest, and now they get to live on through both newer artists and through the Smile. I’m going to see the Smile live this fall with my daughter and my youngest son. Those two will never get to see Radiohead live, as I did. But seeing Yorke and Greenwood work their magic, in a much smaller venue than an arena, will be more than enough for them. Perhaps even better than seeing the real thing. Most bands end ugly, so it’s fitting that Radiohead alone found the right way to disappear completely.