On Radiohead’s Longevity

Tim Carmody breaks down the amazing aspect that Radiohead has held the collective attention of music nerds for 18 years (with no signs of letting up).

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.

Something I would’ve like to see Carmody address, in relation to time longevity is the number of albums released in what we would consider a the primes of these bands. Radiohead just released it’s 8th studio album, though Amnesiac was something of a Kid A b-sides record. So for sake of argument, the band has released seven full-fledged LPs in 18 years.

Conversely, The Beatles released 12 albums in seven years! The Rolling Stones released 18 albums in those 14 years; I won’t bother with The Talking Heads, Pixies, Velvet Underground or even Bob Dylan (too few albums/years and too many in Dylan’s case); R.E.M. released 12 albums in the 18 years between 1983’s Murmur and 2001’s Reveal; The Who in their 13 years with Keith Moon put out eight albums; Bruce Springsteen nine albums in the 20 years between Born to Run and The Ghost of Tom Joad; U2 released ten album from 1980’s Boy through 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind (12 in 30 years, but we’ll pretend the last two albums didn’t happen); The Flaming Lips account for 13 albums in 24 years.

All of this is to argue that Radiohead has been able to pull this trick off because they happen to be the biggest band on the planet that releases an album every three years or so. If they had been forced to record albums at the feverish pace of the other bands mentioned on this list, it’s doubtful they, or even The Flaming Lips and U2, would have had the career longevity.

In many ways, the careers of bands and athletes mirror each other spectacularly. A relatively small period of creative dominance. I’m not sure how the notion of number of albums records over a duration of time plays into Tim’s theory on Radiohead’s longevity — which he argues is an interesting intersection of critical success, mass popularity, and longevity — but I would certainly be curious his thoughts on the matter.

Update: As Kottke rightly points out, neither mine nor Tim’s post has a mention of pop, hip-hop or R&B, or even country for that matter. But Madonna, Jay-Z, The Beastie Boys, et al. have like 10-15 years of cultural relevance or importance. Jay-Z more than the others. Even Michael Jackson’s run only lasted 15 years or so. Madonna last mattered circa 1995 and the Beastie Boys haven’t been truly important for a decade.

The one person to watch out for is Kanye West. His career has spanned five albums over seven years. He’s now at a place where he can afford to put out a record every two or three years and if they continue to be as good as his first five records they will matter. He’s also ambitious and talented enough to pull it off.

Maybe even Justin Timberlake, if he ever returns to making music and we count his years with N’Sync.

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