Climbing Up the Walls
Stuck Inside the Radiohead Bubble

There aren’t many people who can say they designed something truly iconic. Ray Cusick was one of them.

In 1963, a fledgling British science fiction show named Doctor Who received an initial order of 13 episodes. It was a tricky program, aimed at families, yet featuring an irascible old man kidnapping two schoolteachers and dragging them through time and space. There was nothing like it at the time, and no indication that it would become a raging success, so all involved treated those initial 13 episodes as the only ones they would ever get to make.

And then, something extraordinary happened, and that something extraordinary was called the Daleks. It’s hard to imagine a time when the evil pepper shakers were an unknown commodity, but they first trundled onto our screens in the show’s sixth episode, on Dec. 28, 1963. The reaction was instantaneous and widespread. We laugh at the term “Dalekmania” now, but it was a real thing – the Daleks were a national craze, and all by themselves, they ensured Doctor Who’s future beyond those initial episodes.

While Terry Nation gets all the credit for creating the Daleks, Ray Cusick is the man who designed them. Using what he had – plywood, tricycles, bathroom plungers – Cusick created a unique and striking bad guy, one far creepier and more interesting than Nation’s vague descriptions in his script. It was the look of the Daleks that captivated the youth of Britain in the ‘60s, and though he never received a penny beyond his BBC salary for crafting them, Cusick was the man to thank for that. And blessedly, fandom eventually did thank him.

While it’s been clear for a long time that the Daleks would outlive Cusick, that possibility became sad reality on Friday, when Cusick died of heart failure in his sleep. He was 84. Rest in peace, Ray, and thank you for not only designing the Daleks, but giving Doctor Who the boost it needed to continue on. Everyone watching the show now owes you a great debt.

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This month, Radiohead’s Pablo Honey turns 20.

If you ever hear anyone tell you that they predicted from this album that Radiohead would one day be one of the most important and influential bands on the planet, you have my permission to call that person a filthy liar. Pablo Honey, to be blunt, isn’t very good. Its worst song, “Creep,” became its biggest hit, but even the better tracks are frustratingly average. No one could have known that, a mere four years later, these lads from Oxfordshire would create the best album of the 1990s, OK Computer.

Since then, millions of words have been spent trying to figure out how Radiohead went from a pub band to perhaps the most artistically intriguing group in the world, able to somehow sell the general public on some of the most cerebral, bizarre music ever presented to a mass audience. Radiohead is able to do seemingly anything they want, on their own schedule, without a hint of artistic compromise, and whatever you feel about the music they’ve been making for the last 12 or so years, that’s a position any band would envy.

Radiohead’s influence and autonomy often overshadows that music – you still hear more about the pay-what-you-want online release of In Rainbows than the songs contained on it. That’s partially because the band has become more and more insular as the years have worn on. Their last effort, 2011’s The King of Limbs, was typically twitchy and difficult, and made in a vacuum. The band offers you no way in except through their own work, and no air escapes. (And keep in mind, I liked that one.) No other band sounds like modern Radiohead, and no other band would want to.

The Radiohead bubble even extends to Thom Yorke’s solo projects, which provide an interesting case study. In 2006, Yorke released his first solo album, The Eraser. It was a mechanical, melody-free bore, meticulously built on computers – the very definition of a one-man project. When it came time to play these songs live, though, Yorke assembled a band. And what a band – powerhouse drummer Joey Waronker, bassist Flea and percussionist Mauro Refosco, along with longtime producer Nigel Godrich. I don’t know about you, but I would see that band in a heartbeat.

Reviews from the Eraser tour were glowing. The band – soon christened Atoms for Peace – had reportedly opened up Yorke’s cold, clicky tunes, finding the beating hearts beneath. I never saw the shows, but the notices made me optimistic. And when the band headed into the studio, determined to capture their synergy on disc, I couldn’t help but remain hopeful. I mean, just look at that lineup. There’s no way that Yorke could take this group of musicians and make something removed, something mechanistic, right? I mean, right?


The debut from Atoms for Peace is called Amok. It’s packaged in a near-complete replica of the accordion-fold sleeve that housed The Eraser, and for good reason – this is The Eraser Part II. If you were hoping that playing with a new set of musicians – and especially this set of musicians – would push Yorke into new territory for the first time since the ‘90s, keep on hoping. Instead of meeting Flea, Waronker and Refosco halfway, Yorke and Godrich have brought them into the Radiohead vacuum, and sucked all the air from their lungs.

Or at least, I assume that’s what happened. The only reason I suspect any of those three musicians are even on this record is because the liner notes tell me they are. The percussion all sounds mechanical, or sampled from organic drums and looped. The bass is muted, if it’s present at all. Only on a couple of later tracks does it sound like it was performed by a human. Everything else is chilled synths and clack-clack drum machines, with Yorke doing his now-trademark barely-tuneful moan over the top.

In short, it sounds like Radiohead. Within that framework, Yorke and Godrich do some pretty good work. “Default” is particularly interesting, with its blossoming synth chorus, and “Reverse Running” stands out as one of the few tracks on which Atoms for Peace feels like a band. (A robotic, soulless band, but still.) But it’s hard not to hear Amok as a lost opportunity. Yorke needs new blood to shake things up, and if Flea, Waronker and Refosco can’t manage it, I have no idea what it will take to pull him out of the bubble.

It’s pretty clear that Radiohead decided to live in that bubble while making 2000’s alien Kid A. I’ve often wondered what they might have sounded like had they continued down the OK Computer path, evolving as they went. There’s no way to know that, but what we do have are bands influenced by Radiohead’s golden years, bands who end up finding new corners in that sound to explore. And one of the best of those is Everything Everything.

The Manchester band’s second album, Arc, actually mixes up a slew of influences. I’m hearing Andy Partridge in some of Jonathan Higgs’ topsy-turvy vocal melodies, and the precise, full-blooded arrangements of Minus the Bear throughout. But Radiohead is definitely the touchstone. Arc is full of the kind of songs I wish Radiohead would write these days. I can even hear Thom Yorke singing something like “Torso of the Week,” with its electronic pitter-patter drums and cool synths. But then it slips into the chorus – the chorus! – and instantly overtakes everything Radiohead has done in more than a decade.

There are 13 songs on Arc, and not once does the band offer something weak or half-assed. Opener “Cough Cough” hits like Bloc Party, but soon evolves into a stunning pop song, the kind you wish they’d play on the radio. Dig the frenetic keys during the “coming alive” section, and the eye-widening key change at the end of each line of the chorus. Higgs has an immediately recognizable voice, elastic yet inwardly drawn, and Arc gives him a workout.

I want to live in the alternate universe in which “Kemosabe” is the number-one hit it deserves to be. It’s an effortless-sounding glide of a tune, with an infectious chorus that slides up out of nowhere and invades your head space. In this universe, “Duet” is also a hit. If Snow Patrol could get it together and write an interesting song, it might sound like this. Or at least, like the first half of this – the second half is a buildup to a string-laden explosion. It’s mighty. “Amourland” is another slinky should-be hit, and “Feet for Hands” is incredible, like Muse with an acoustic guitar.

Much of the second half of Arc is given over to epic ballads, like the final stretches of OK Computer. “The House is Dust” starts with drones and a plodding beat, but ends with Higgs and a piano, lamenting his finite existence: “I wish I could be living at the end of all living just to know what happens…” “The Peaks” is among the most striking songs on the album, a rich requiem for a lost world: “I’ve seen more villages burn than animals born, I’ve seen more towers come down than children grow up…” They don’t shy away from the synthesizers, but they wring heart and soul from them.

Arc may be the finest album I have heard so far this year. But even beyond that, it serves as proof that there is life – real, wide-open, warm-blooded life – in the sound Radiohead pioneered. Yorke doesn’t seem interested in tapping into it, so I’m glad to have bands like this one, who mold it into new shapes, and breathe new purpose into it. It’s hard to say what Radiohead would sound like if they finally popped their bubble and opened up to the world. But with tremendous bands like Everything Everything out there, it’s also hard to care.

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Next week, Trent Reznor and They Might Be Giants. Two great tastes that, frankly, would taste horrible together. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow me on Twitter @tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.