This week’s hottest BDS controversy centers around Radiohead. Thom Yorke and company are set to play Tel Aviv’s HaYarkon park on July 19, and a number of their fellow artists want the gig canceled, including Roger Waters, Brian Eno, and Thurston Moore, who signed on to an open letter urging the genre-bending British rock titans to boycott the country.
It’s probably not going to happen. And even if Radiohead ends up backing out, evidence of the band’s one-time willingness to play in Israel is still preserved on YouTube, in the form of this mind-bending recording of the future deities’ April 3, 1993, performance at Roxane in Tel Aviv. As it happens, Tablet’s very own Liel Leibovitz actually attended that concert, which occurred just two months after the release of Pablo Honey, Radiohead’s debut full-length album.
Roxane was in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hachayal neighborhood, which is now the epicenter of Israel’s high-tech industry. Back then, it was a wilderness of warehouses and mechanics’ shops. The club itself was fairly spartan. “Roxane was this place where fucked-up goth and alt-rock kids went,” recalled Liebovitz. “It was literally a big hanger with nothing in it. The sound quality was abysmal and the speakers were shit you would find at a garage sale. … A couple days after Radiohead it was literally a high school band playing at Roxane, ’cause I went to that concert too.”
Radiohead’s career-making hit “Creep” had gotten heavy play on Israeli army radio before much of the rest of the world discovered it. But in the early ’90s, some Israelis still tended to think of their country as a distant backwater, and reveled in the validation of any foreign rock act dropping by. The audience at the Roxane, which Leibovitz pegged at around 50 people, was “amazingly enthusiastic. This was like, ‘Oh my God we’re so international, there’s a band and it’s singing in English, we are the best people in the world.’ Everybody got super excited and pretended we were in a smoky club in London.”
Liel’s key observation here—namely, that everyone just had one hell of a good time at this gig— is richly corroborated in the recording. The crowd belts out song lyrics throughout, not just to “Creep,” but also to relative obscurities like “Thinking About You” and “Anyone Can Play Guitar.” The band played three encores, totaling seven songs. “This is the last one from us,” Yorke lies toward the ends of the main set—“Shir acharona,” the taper frets, as vehement shouts of “no!” issue from the crowd. “This is about the death of music,” Yorke then says, introducing “Pop Is Dead,” “which will happen unless we become extremely successful.”
At the time, few could have predicted that Radiohead was in fact on its way to becoming the biggest band in the world. Hints of their future greatness are scattered around this recording—Jonny Greenwood’s guitar emits a classically Greenwoodian animal growl in the background of “Stop Whispering,” which Yorke dedicated “to peace in Israel.” The encore included the title track off The Bends, Radiohead’s 1995 breakthrough, as well as a searingly stripped-down rendition of “Killer Cars,” that album’s closer. That Tel Aviv show is proof that Thom Yorke had achieved greatness as a rock vocalist even before he had more than a couple of classic songs in his repertoire. In the recording, Yorke’s voice is an otherwordly emotive burst at the high decibels; back at the low end, he sings through a disquieting and sometimes only vaguely human series of shrieks, wails, wavers, and moans. The recording quality of the isn’t great, but you can hear Yorke loud and clear, staking out some uncanny and previously undiscovered Bowie-by-way-of-Cobain-type sweet spot—while still sounding altogether different than any other rock frontman in history.
There’s also a lot in the Tel Aviv set that roots it in the early years of Radiohead’s march to dominance. The band has performed “Creep” once in the past seven years; they played it twice at Roxane’s, all the way through. Their weirdo show-closing cover of “Rhinestone Cowboy” is a minor revelation, partly because you could never imagine Radiohead playing something like it nowadays. This was also an intimate gig, small enough that Yorke could thank all of the organizers by name during the encore (“Uzi and Erez and Gil and Shuki”). At that Tel Aviv show, Radiohead was an up-and-coming band playing in front of an audience that was palpably happy to see them. Yorke could feel the love. “You’re definitely the best audience we’ve had,” he said, promising to come back “very soon.”
Radiohead did keep up a connection to Israel, even if they only played in the country a couple more times, in 1995 and 2000. Greenwood married the Israeli-born artist Sharona Katan in 2005 and played on Israeli musician Shye Ben Tzur’s album Junun in 2015—a record produced by Nigel Godrich, a frequent Radiohead collaborator. Ben Tzur opened for Radiohead during some of their European dates this fall. Meanwhile, Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis, an Israeli group featuring Jewish and Arab musicians that began as a tribute to a mid-20th century Iraq-Jewish composing team, toured with Radiohead during some of their U.S. dates earlier this year.
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Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.