Ok, maybe I’ve been thinking too much, but don’t you see the similarities between the two bands? They both hail from the British isles, formed the ‘traditional’ way (ie: not manufactured), are primarily guitar-driven, have charismatic lead singers, give wicked live performances and can arguably stake claim to the title of the World’s Biggest Rock Band.
But things run deeper still. Both released amazing rock albums (U2’s Joshua Tree and Radiohead’s The Bends) that cemented their signature sound, then felt the need to re-examine themselves in light of the success and adulation that followed. What happened next divides them from the huge list of also-rans and wannabes in the music industry – they showed the world what they were really capable of when the pressure was on.
Both bands threw aside their rock roots and embraced synthesized sound, and in so doing produced what are considered their seminal albums – Achtung Baby and Ok Computer (yes, I know Rattle & Hum is in there with some brilliant songs, but I don’t really count it among their full albums), redefining in the process our perception of what a pop/rock album is.
And from there things get even stranger. The following two releases from each group delved deeper into electronica, confounding critics and alienating traditional fans. Zooropa/Pop and Kid A/Amnesiac could be seen as the culmination of experimentation the bands felt they had to go through with, to truly discover who they were.
Coming out of this soul-searching period, they produced what were 'back-to-roots' releases – All That You Can’t Leave Behind and Hail To The Thief – yet one could tell that they were irreversibly changed. Both were received with a huge sigh of relief from most camps.
And now U2 has a new album in the stores, similar in concept to the last, but so forthright and earnest, one can even detect strains from the early Boy-War days. I’d say they’re now more comfortable with themselves musically than they ever have been. Bono’s voice, while sounding hoarse at times, rings so clear emotionally you’d forgive him just about anything. And the Edge is back at what he does best – influencing the mood and texture of a song with microdynamics, instead of big chord changes.
What then for Radiohead? They were always more off-centre, more abstract, more willing to take the bigger risk not just with sound but song structure. Their lyrics tackled personal neuroses as opposed to U2’s big issues. And Thom Yorke is far more introspective than larger-than-life Bono. Genius or paranoid android? In my opinion both are crucial to Radiohead’s music, and are almost inter-dependent. Instead of hiding them, Yorke has let his eccentricities drive the tone of the band, resulting in pure honesty. And that, like what U2 has done in their own way, is what good music is about.