When Radiohead took to Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage in 1997, they made history. Widely regarded as one of the greatest headline sets, not just Worthy Farm folklore, but in UK festival history as a whole, Thom Yorke and co. emerged icons from their first time topping the bill in Pilton. Twenty years later, fresh from the release of last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool, the Oxford band returned to the Pyramid last night to attempt to repeat the glories of that day – a tough ask for a group more used to looking forward than looking back. April Clare Welsh headed to the festival to find a band in triumphant, reflective mode.
Radiohead don’t really do nostalgia. Throughout the course of their nine-album career, the indie kings of reinvention have made future-facing record after future-facing record, confounding critics and rewriting what people thought they knew of the Oxford band.
They’ve typically approached live shows with the same instinct. Despite being one of the biggest live bands on the planet, the five-piece have historically had trouble reconciling the anthemic nature of their blockbuster hits with their constant impulse to experiment and move forward. Rather than cash in on the crowd-pleasing portion of their back catalogue, Radiohead have always curated set lists that demonstrate a deep level of stubbornness verging on a quintessentially English sense of awkwardness about celebrity. The seven-year period in which the hit that made them, ‘Creep’, was banished from their set lists wasn’t an oversight, put it that way.
Or at least, this was the case for Radiohead. Last night, 20 years after the release of their landmark OK Computer and subsequent celebrated headline performance at Glastonbury 1997, they returned to the festival’s Pyramid Stage for a hit-packed show marking the anniversary of that seminal album.
They begin with a weird trio of songs (‘Daydreaming’, ‘Lucky’, ‘Ful Stop’) that almost deflect the anticipated grandeur of this extra special show. But fans who had turned up in their tens of thousands to see tracks from that particular album live (and hopefully reignite the magic of Glastonbury 1997) are in luck: the first half of the set explored the OK Computer chapter of their career with highlights like ‘Airbag’ and ‘Lucky’ present and correct, interspersed between lesser-celebrated later album cuts like ‘Nude’. Over the course of their two-hour plus set, they seemed to move through their extensive repertoire with this yin-yang concept in mind – both celebratory and reflective. Taking in a palate-cleansing deeper cut after playing a massive hit almost felt like they were trying to wash away the taste of fame the latter glimpses.
Thom Yorke’s lack of on-stage chatter has come to be his MO for live performances over the years, and tonight is no different. He seldom speaks throughout, except when shouting “strong and stable” during Hail to the Thief favorite ‘Myxmatosis’ and telling Theresa May to “shut the door on the way out,” a politically-charged remark that’s met with a huge wave of Jeremy Corbyn chants. It’s a unifying moment, and proof that Radiohead have the platform to make some serious impact when they choose to get on their soapbox.
Another side of the group’s politics isn’t met as rapturously on site, however. Radiohead are scheduled to perform in Tel Aviv next month, despite an open letter recently issued by Artists For Palestine UK arguing that the band should be lending their support to the current widespread cultural boycott of the region, not breaking it. Palestinian flags are on display at the beginning of their set tonight and the presence of a Radiohead 4 Palestine group at the festival suggest this controversy is far from being resolved.
That distraction aside, the set zips to conclusion with energy and emotion to spare, before ‘Creep’ – once despised by the band – brings their performance to a close. Numerous fan theories, some more convoluted than others, have speculated that A Moon Shaped Pool could be their last. Sure enough, the nostalgia that has crept into this otherwise traditionally nostalgia-less group’s practices recently – A Moon Shaped Pool resurrected a number of old tracks that were thought abandoned by fans – certainly supports the idea that this current Radiohead tour may be something of a victory lap.
Whether they are about to shut up shop at some point in the not too distant future remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely knowing the band’s level of industry. Whatever happens, this was another milestone moment, for the festival, the band and fans. Radiohead don’t really do nostalgia, but 100,000 people here are thankful at Glastonbury they did.
April Clare Welsh is on Twitter