It was 20 years ago tonight when Radiohead warmed up for their Ok Computer Tour with a wee secret gig at the Mandela Hall in Belfast. It is seen as one of the significant moments of rock in Belfast over the past 30 years. A couple of years ago BBC Radio Ulster's Across The Line show did a documentary of the concert. That is where I entered the story. As we mark 20 years, let me tell it again...
In Jimmy Devlin’s research of the concert he came across my review of the gig, put on my then state of the art website Rhythms Of Redemption. The site had been graciously created by Gareth Dunlop and Rick Munro and they made me a pioneer and thus one of the few, if anyone, who reviewed this incredible moment in rock music history. I had forgotten the review, but finding it realised that I had used it in its entirety in my chapter on Radiohead in my book The Rock Cries Out. Note to self - blog gigs immediately. They are a record far beyond yourself!
Being asked to contribute to the Across The Line documentary my mind went back to that week in June 1997. It was quite an event. Radiohead were on the cusp of becoming the biggest band on the planet. The Bends had made ripples BUT OK Computer, just released that week, was proving a critical sensation. At a time when the Britpop of Oasis and Blur was ruling the world this was something more profound, more robust, more long lasting. It was described as a Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band type record; iconic and ground breaking.
A friend, Peter Taylor, noticed a small poster coming out of another event. Could it be true? Could it be that Radiohead would play such a small venue as the Mandela Hall in the Queen’s University Student’s Union in less than two weeks? Could tickets really be on sale in a few days? We went for it and queued for tickets. They put the sale day back but we complained so much that they promised us tickets. We got them. We were elated.
As the night approached my wife took sick and a student living in the Student Halls, where I was Chaplain, Gareth Black guitar hero with Belfast band Halcyon Days, benefited. I benefited too as the sickness was the very early days of pregnancy with our Kid A, Caitlin!
Sitting in the BBC studio talking about the gig with Jimmy I realised what a privilege it was to be in that hall that night. Surely it was the best night to ever see Radiohead. They were at their commercial peak. They were being heralded as the biggest band in the world. Two weeks later they blew Glastonbury away with one of the best ever concerts at the biggest festival in the world.
Radiohead weren’t from Belfast, weren’t even Irish, and yet they chose the Mandela Hall, where we could walk to it and home after it, for a small warm up gig to try their new material, in front of a few lucky fans. The fact that the press weren’t invited explains how I became one of the few people to document the event. The last lines of my review rings true even all these years later…
“You do not need a Pop Mart or extravagant stage show to be the best rock 'n 'roll band in the world. That is the message that Radiohead were sending to Bono and his electric co last night in the Mandela Hall. It was a bit like a private party as just over 500 fans were spellbound and in disbelief as this exceptional band played a warm up gig for their RDS show on Saturday. The hype is high after Monday's release of the far from difficult third album OK Computer and the new songs mingled with the more immediate favourites from The Bends and of course Creep. Guitars shimmered, swirled and swathed and then went burning, blistering and bludgeoning behind Thom York's unique vocal. This boy is one minute angel and next the X files freak of the week. The gig too is one massive contrast, stop and start, gentleness and frenzy, beauty and terror, tenderness and rage, hope and despair. Quite indescribable and like nothing else the world of Britpop has to offer. Phil Spector never imagined a wall of sound like 1997. Airbag and Paranoid Android take more time to seep through than Fake Plastic Trees, Street Spirit or High and Dry, yet Lucky and The Tourist are personal favourites tonight, but this band are going to be around for long enough to give you time. They are probably by now the best rock band in the world and last night they played in Queens' Students Union. Nice dream.”