Sixty-five days to go until May 6, the likely date of the UK general election, and things are looking a bit blank as regards that key feature of modern politics, the rock star endorsement. Apparently the Lib Dems have bagged Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Razorlight and The Kooks (please, spare us the collaboration), but there are slim pickings so far for Labour and the Tories. Clearly voter disenchantment extends to the guitar-and-mansion-owning classes.
But last week a genuine rock heavyweight broke cover when Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke played a rare solo show in support of Cambridge’s Green party candidate Tony Juniper, former director of Friends of the Earth. In keeping with the environmentalism it was a stripped-back, no-carbon-footprint sort of a show: just Yorke, a piano, some guitars and a cheap-sounding Casio keyboard. Opening song “The Clock”, from his 2006 solo album The Eraser, found him darkly crooning “Time is running out” and “Wake up”. It wasn’t exactly D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better”.
Apocalyptic themes are common in Yorke’s lyrics. Yet he was unusually relaxed at the Corn Exchange, as if revelling in this one-off outing as a solo performer. “The Clock”, shorn of The Eraser’s tense electronic production, was reinterpreted as a Woody Guthrie-style protest number, the bearded Yorke strumming a guitar in the manner of a folk singer manqué. “Harrowdown Hill”, his bleak, paranoiac account of the 2003 death of the Iraq weapons inspector David Kelly following a row with the Labour government, was given a looped punk-funk bass line that thudded away as insistently as a conspiracy theory.
The evening had an anything-goes atmosphere. A messy rendition of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” found Yorke hitting all the wrong notes; yet elsewhere his singing was majestic, more tender in this setting than the anguished wail heard at Radiohead’s stadium shows. New songs were debuted: “The Daily Mail”, for the “open-minded”, was an impassioned diatribe; “Give up the Ghost” inventively combined looped vocals and beats to a stirring climax.
There was the usual danger of rock star politicking: Yorke’s fame, in the context of a venue full of ardent fans, largely overshadowed the cause he was espousing. But thankfully there was no Sting or Bono-style grandstanding. ()