I don’t see no confusion anywhere

by Steve

I remember hearing Anyone Can Play Guitar for the first time on the John Peel show. Radiohead don’t really seem a “John Peel band”. I’m sure one or two of their songs made his annual Festive Fifty poll that year and he commented that he didn’t even think he’d played Radiohead on his show. But he did. I had recorded evidence.

In 1993 the show was on too late at night for me to listen, so I’d rig up a cassette player with one of those timer devices in the plug socket that you’d usually use for turning lights on and off when you’re away to trick burglars into thinking there is someone in, someone who turns the light on and off at the exact same time each and every day.

I’d only get the first 45 minutes of the show, because of the length of the tape, and one particular week in those first 45 minutes John Peel played Anyone Can Play Guitar. I’d never heard of Radiohead before. I thought I’d discovered an obscure new band. While they weren’t well-known as such (this was before Creep became huge) they were on a major label and you could buy their singles reasonably easily. I found this out when my parents told me Parlophone was in fact a very well-known record label, and then picked up the cassette single for me. What can I say, I was young.

I’m sure I didn’t fully appreciate the song either and took at some sort of face value. It is reasonably anthemic. A song about being in a band sounded cool. It is funny listening to the song now, with the benefit of hindsight. It sounds incredibly conservative compared to what would follow with Radiohead, but there are the seeds of what was to come.

Anyone Can Play Guitar isn’t just an anthemic song about being in a band. It is some sort of meta-anthem. On first listen it is about being in a band, which is a reasonably self-referential act. But is also a comment on the whole redemptive mythology of being in a band – “destiny protect me from the world” indeed. It plays with the Rock Death industry – “grow my hair I am Jim Morrison”/”I want to be in a band when I get to heaven”. Thom Yorke is poking and prodding at these clichés – “I’ll be standing on a beach with my guitar” was probably pitched countless times by bands around this period.

It sounds anthemic, but Yorke is hardly a figure genuinely yearning for fame, and we know that when it visited him he didn’t exactly embrace it. He is almost predicting what will happen to the band, and how they will do everything they can to wriggle free of the hoary old confines of standard rock hegemony. Anyone Can Play Guitar shows a self-awareness of what might come, but can’t resist being anthemic enough, catchy enough to lead them down that path in the first place.

I didn’t pick up on all that in 1993. And perhaps you couldn’t then, you need the distance of twenty years, to see what Radiohead would become. Although saying that, I can still just enjoy the song at that basic level and not read too much into it. Honestly. It might be all those complicated things listed above, or none of them. But it is still a great song however you read it.