Before Radiohead conquered the world, it was already Israel’s darling

On Wednesday evening, the groundbreaking rock group Radiohead is slated to take the stage in Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park and put on a multi-sensory and undoubtedly sweaty performance for thousands of devoted fans, despite calls for band members to cancel.

Its summer tour coincides with the 20-year anniversary of the album that brought it international fame: “OK Computer.”

The 1997 album’s chilling lyrics and experimental melodies plucked it from the mixed bag of alternative rock groups of the mid-90s and placed the group in the pantheon of rock legends, pushing the boundaries of rock music and inspiring a generation of indy bands. (Though some say their next album, Kid A, was their finest work.)

But before Radiohead became international sensation, it was an Israeli one.

In 1993, the band released its first album, Pablo Honey, and on it, the song “Creep.”

Radiohead lead vocalist Thom Yorke sings in the music video for the band's song 'Creep' in a 1993 music video. (Screen capture/YouTube)

“Creep” is a song of adolescent self-loathing over an unrequited love, with a dreamy tune interrupted by heavy, distorted guitar dead notes. “I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here,” sings lead vocalist Thom Yorke in the chorus.

The album and song brought the band limited success in its native England and initially little recognition in America, but in Israel it went over like gangbusters.

“The funny thing about Radiohead early on was that they were more famous abroad than in England,” Tim Greaves, Radiohead’s longtime tour manager, told the New Yorker magazine in 2001. “They’d go around in a van, playing in sweaty little clubs. Then they’d go to Israel and they were rock stars.”

It all began when a copy of the song was presented to Army Radio disc jockey Yoav Kutner in 1992, when it was released as a single before the album came out. Kutner fell in love with the song and played it repeatedly on the popular radio station. (Kutner could not be reached for this article.)

From then on out, “Creep” was everywhere in Israel, on the radio and MTV Europe (back in the halcyon days of MTV actually playing music on television), along with Beck’s similarly pejoratively titled “Loser.”

At times in the mid-90s, Israeli radio listeners could count on hearing “Creep” multiple times a day. And in 1995 the infectious song became even more unavoidable in the Jewish state when the popular clothing brand Castro used it in a commercial for its winter collection.

In it, a man in a trench coat and nothing else flashes a pretty girl as she walks by him on the street, only to be shocked when the girl, also wearing a trench coat, does the same.

(According to Daniel “Dan-Dan” Matyuk, a former editor of the army’s Galgalatz music radio station, the clothing brand was too thrifty to pay for the song itself so it went instead with a cheaper cover of “Creep.”)

Even as the band shifted from the straightforward rock of Pablo Honey and The Bends and started making music that was “more challenging and complex,” something about Radiohead resonated with the Israeli public, Matyuk says.

The band’s music contains elements of alienation, futurism and cynicism — all things that the stereotypically sarcastic, defensive and technology-addicted Israeli public should love.

But, according to Matyuk, it’s “hard to pin down one element and say, ‘That’s why they love them in Israel.’ I don’t know how to explain exactly, there’s something in their music. And not just in their music, it’s something about what type of band they are, how they make music.”

The band has changed a lot since “Creep,” shifting from the grungy sounds of “Pablo Honey” and its sophomore record “The Bends” to a more complex style of music, like the dystopic vision of reality presented by “OK Computer” and on its next album “Kid A.”

Yet Israelis have stuck with it through the maturation process, as seen by the 50,000-plus people expected to attend Wednesday’s concert.

Elinora Shekercioglu, who co-founded an Israeli group called BigMouth that puts on parties and events celebrating British music, takes a historical approach when looking at what makes Israelis love Radiohead.

“It started with ‘Creep.’ And I think the love developed because Israelis have a loyalty, especially if it’s something that we helped grow and prosper,” she says. “Israel loves to coronate a new band.”

Earlier this year, BigMouth put on the event that kicked off the sale of tickets for Wednesday’s Radiohead concert.

‘I think the love developed because Israelis have a loyalty, especially if it’s something that we helped grow and prosper’

Shekercioglu, 34, recalls listening to “Creep” as a kid, when Radiohead was still the type of band that was in the domain of cooler older siblings.

“I was in elementary school,” she says. “My brothers and sisters went to [Radiohead’s first Israeli concert in 1993]. ‘Creep’ was where it started.”

She laughs realizing that she’s been a fan of Radiohead for over 20 years. “I’m an old hand now,” she says.

Shekercioglu was in high school when Radiohead’s second album, “The Bends,” was released. She bought that one and those that followed.

“That was the anthem of my high school: ‘The Bends,’” she says. “At my age, they’re a band whose lyrics come from a place that I less appreciate, but when I was a teenager, it was a much better fit.”

When the band released the album “In Rainbows” in 2007, which had the rarely seen, though not original, pay-what-you-want price structure, Shekercioglu even shelled out the recommended five dollars for a digital copy, unlike this freeloading reporter.

“They understood that you can’t stop technology. They were some of the first who said, ‘We can’t change the world. We’ll change ourselves,’” she says. “I appreciate that. And they’re still that way today.”

According to Matyuk, Israel’s relationship with Radiohead is two-sided. It’s not just that Israeli love Radiohead; Radiohead seems to love Israel.

Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead plays guitar at a concert in Amsterdam in 2016. (Yasuko Otani/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0)

For one member of the band, guitarist Johnny Greenwood, that love is perhaps more focused on one Israeli in particular: his wife, the visual artist Sharona Katan.

Greenwood and Katan have three children, who each bear thoroughly Israeli names: Tamir, Omri and Zohar.

The band’s apparent love and loyalty to Israel has come out amid some controversy surrounding Wednesday’s concert. Activists who support boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel over the conflict with the Palestinians — notably Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters — have called for Radiohead to call off the performance, saying that it normalizes Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

In May, a group of artists published a letter denouncing Radiohead’s decision to play in Tel Aviv.

Other bands who scheduled performances in Israel have been met with similar backlash, but most ignore the criticism or brush it off with an innocuous statement about not taking sides in the conflict.

Radiohead, on the other hand, has come out swinging, denouncing Waters and apparently cursing BDS activists who came to one of their shows in the UK.

In an interview with Rolling Stone last month, Yorke said he found it “patronizing in the extreme” that a group of international artists, including Waters, “choose to, rather than engage with us personally, throw shit at us in public” by publishing an open letter.

Film director Ken Loach speaks at a rally for workers' rights in London (CC BY 2.0 Bryce Edwards via Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this month, director Ken Loach spoke out against Radiohead on Twitter, saying it either had to “stand with the oppressed or the oppressor.” (In the Twitter-battle, Loach neglected to mention that, unlike Radiohead, he apparently does not feel that he has to honor that decision and has his films shown in Israeli cinemas year after year.)

Responding on Twitter, Yorke defended his stance, saying, “Playing in a country isn’t the same as endorsing its government. We’ve played in Israel for over 20 years through a succession of governments, some more liberal than others. As we have in America.”

The lead singer added: “We don’t endorse Netanyahu any more than Trump, but we still play in America.”

Michael Stipe, of R.E.M. fame, stood by Radiohead, publishing a picture on Instagram saying so, with the caption: “Let’s hope a dialogue continues, helping to bring the occupation to an end and lead to a peaceful solution.”

‘I appreciate that they have an opinion and aren’t afraid to express it’

Both Shekercioglu and Matyuk think Radiohead’s stance also maintains the relationship between the band and its Israeli fans.

“I appreciate that they have an opinion and aren’t afraid to express it. The fear to express your view is logical, but they’re not afraid… and they do it publicly, on Twitter, on stage, in a bunch of places. That deserves appreciation,” Shekercioglu says.

Despite the apparent love for Israel, this will be Radiohead’s first concert in the Jewish state in nearly 20 years. It last played here in 2000, at Tel Aviv’s since-demolished Cinerama.

The band has a “memory that Israel was an important point in their career,” Matyuk says. “So they still come, despite the boycotts and Roger Waters and all the reasons not to come here.”

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