Radiohead’s new album King of Limbs dropped on Friday, prompting much love from the Twittersphere. Maybe too much. The British band hits a kind of sweet spot for the educated set: progressive contemporary music that’s equally accessible whether you’re into old-school prog/classic rock, 90s alternative, or 00s house. Still, some of the exchanges seemed a little, um, exuberant:
Still, I think music fans and cultural observers need to grapple with this a little: Radiohead’s first album, Pablo Honey, came out 18 years ago. Here’s another way to think about it: when that album came out, I was 13; now I’m 31. And from at least The Bends to the present, they’ve commanded the attention of the musical press and the rock audience as one of the top ten — or higher — bands at any given moment. You might have loved Radiohead, you might have been bored by them, you might have wished they’d gone back to an earlier style you liked better, but you always had to pay attention to them, and know where you stood. For 18 years. That’s an astonishing achievement.
Here are some comparisons. The Rolling Stones have obviously outdone everyone in the rock longevity department; even if they were sometimes a punchline, they’ve made solid music and have always been insanely profitable. But really, if you take the stretch from 1964’s The Rolling Stones to 1981’s Tattoo You — which is actually mostly a B-sides album of leftovers from 1978’s Some Girls — that’s only 17 years. If you just do their first album through Some Girls, it’s only 14 years. And that’s when the Stones basically stop evolving as a band and stop being a crucial signpost for popular music.
Very few other rock bands last that long. The Beatles didn’t. Talking Heads didn’t. The Pixies and The Velvet Underground obviously didn’t. The Who only had 13 years between their first album and Keith Moon’s overdose. When Bruce Springsteen had a hit with “Streets of Philadelphia” eighteen years after Born To Run, it was an amazing comeback. R.E.M. had about 20 years of fairly consistent attention between “Radio Free Europe” and Reveal, but that’s an unknown underground band on one end and a kind of boring washed-up band on the other with a peak in the middle.
The Flaming Lips are still pushing it. U2’s been going for about 30 years, although they’ve lost a lot of cred along the way that Radiohead hasn’t. Bob Dylan is a freak. But this is the level we’re talking about here: U2, Dylan, and Radiohead. It’s worth tipping your cap. And watching some videos.