Radiohead Persists Amidst Tel-Aviv Show Shrouded in Controversy


On the surface, it may not seem like much out of the ordinary. Radiohead is one of the world’s most popular bands, and they were slated to perform a concert in a city known for its appreciation for the arts.

Radiohead in Tel Aviv, Israel // PC: Aidan Crenshaw

A deeper analysis proves that Radiohead’s performance on July 19 in Tel Aviv, Israel was much more impactful and controversial than meets the eye.

The decision to move forward with the scheduled concert stirred up a wide variety of controversy from entertainment media all over the world, with major acts such as former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters calling for the show to be cancelled on one side, and notable names such as R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe supporting the band on the other.

Unlike many voiced opinions on this situation, I am very fortunate in the fact that I was able to witness the controversy, and the concert, first hand.

As an International Studies major, studying abroad was always in my academic and professional plan for my college experience. As my second year at The Ohio State University was nearing its halfway point, there was no doubt in my mind that I would spend the following summer somewhere far away from the United States.

I made the decision to spend my summer studying at Tel Aviv University in Tel Aviv, Israel.

As the days went on I remember sitting in class on Facebook and saw that one of my favorite bands, Radiohead, had announced a concert in Tel Aviv on one of my last nights in the city. I was instantly taken over by excitement and knew that no matter what, I would be there. As my time in Israel came came closer I began to put more pieces of the logistic puzzle together.

I noticed the venue was a 20-minute walk from my apartment, I saw that my finals would be over by the show date, everything just fell into place and I made a spur the moment decision and miraculously managed to navigate the ticket website to purchase my ticket despite the fact that everything was in Hebrew, a language I do not speak.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most active and ever-present issues in global politics. To put things in the absolute simplest form, the Israel was established as a Jewish state, constructed over the Arab nation of Palestine in the Middle East along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

Supporters of Israel believe that the land is the God-given home for the Jewish people, and supporters of Palestine believe that citizens of the Arab nation had their homes, and their country, robbed from them. To this day, this is the source of inspiration for attacks, protests, and military operations from both sides all over the region.

That’s about all the detail I will go into, as this is an article for a music website after all, however if I sparked your interest on the conflict, please do yourself a favor and look deeper into the situation, as it will only help you understand more.

Radiohead is a band that, historically speaking, is extremely politically charged and motivated. With outspoken left-wing opinions on current U.S. President Donald Trump and Tibetan independence (an issue very similar to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), fans of Radiohead were very surprised to see the band perform in Tel Aviv, viewing it almost as the band’s way of siding with Israel.

This came as a shock to fans of the band and international political junkies alike as the show was announced 12 years after activists for Palestinian liberation called for a worldwide economic and cultural boycott of Israel.

This was met with much opposition in the music and political community. Arguably the most direct form of opposition to this decision was from Roger Waters, an outspoken anti-Israeli activist, who wrote Radiohead singer Thom Yorke an open letter urging the band to cancel the show.

At their preceding shows on the band’s European tour, fans would protest the band’s decision by attending the concert with Palestinian flags.

In response to the massive influx of threats, letters, articles, social media posts, and other forms of accusation against Radiohead, Yorke finally responded to the numerous accusations against the band, claiming that just because they may not agree with the actions of a country’s government does not mean that they should deprive their fans the opportunity of seeing them live, and that music should be an entity that connects and brings people together rather than divide us apart.

Radiohead in Tel Aviv, Israel // PC: Aidan Crenshaw

Yorke also mentioned that the reasoning for continuing with the Israel show from the band’s point of view is similar to the reason that they still perform in America even though they strongly disapprove of the election of current U.S. President Donald Trump.

What many may not realize is that Radiohead has a deep connection to Israel. In fact, it was Tel Aviv that first gave Radiohead international success, after an Israeli radio station was the first in the world to bring significant air time to the band’s first hit, “Creep”.

Additionally, the band played their first show outside of their home country of England in Tel Aviv in 1993.

Radiohead’s founding member and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood is married to an Israeli woman, even further cementing the band’s connection to the country.

During my time in Israel I saw first hand the effects of the conflict on the region and its people. I witnessed Radiohead lyrics and logos incorporated into street art all over Tel Aviv, I heard Israelis not hesitate to vocalize their extremely negative opinions on Palestinians, and even narrowly missed a Palestinian terrorist attack and consequential protests in Jerusalem by a matter of days, but that’s another story.

As the day of the concert came I was filled with a mixture of excitement and paranoia.

On one hand, I was going to see one of my all time favorite artists perform live for the first time. On the other, I knew that given the controversy surrounding the show, I would have to be constantly on edge and aware of my surroundings, never letting my guard down as there was a significant threat for some sort of violent outbreak at the show.

Radiohead chose two bands as their openers for the show. Combining elements of traditional Middle Eastern music and modern rock music, the first opening band, Dudu Tassa & The Kuwaitis put on an incredible performance.

Radiohead in Tel Aviv, Israel // PC: Aidan Crenshaw

Dudu Tassa & The Kuwaits being an Arab band that additionally got to support Radiohead on their most recent tour of the United States, this was a very strategic move on Radiohead’s part, perhaps acknowledging their disapproval to the political aspect of the situation while still remaining dedicated to their fans.

The second opening band was Junjun, a project led by Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood and Israeli-American singer Shye Ben Tzur, which combines the experimental edge of Radiohead with traditional music from India.

I thought it was even more impressive to see Jonny have the dedication to music and overall energy to perform two sets in one night with two different bands.

After what seemed like ages of waiting, Radiohead finally took the stage.

The band then went on to perform their longest set in 11 years, complete with songs from all across their discography with a heavy emphasis on their albums In Rainbows and OK Computer.

The concert included two lengthy encores, one of six songs and the other of four. Altogether, Radiohead’s set was two hours of pure musical bliss. Each song played seemed to flawlessly build on top of the overall spirit of the show, creating a very fluid setlist.

Radiohead in Tel Aviv, Israel // PC: Aidan Crenshaw

Watching the band switch between various instruments to create their unique sound in a performance atmosphere proved to be fascinating. People in the crowd knew absolutely no English, yet never stopped singing along. The crowd was much more quiet and respectful of slow moments in the show as opposed to typical American audiences.

Right before the band’s last song of the night, Thom Yorke made sure to comment on the situation, one of the only times that the band spoke to the crowd:

A lot was said about this, but in the end, we played some music.

You can stream Radiohead’s latest reissue of OK Computer below on Spotify.

Wanna read more? Here are some additional links for supplemental reading:

Thom Yorke Tweet

Thom Yorke Rolling Stone Interview

Radiohead Israel History: LINK 1 / LINK 2

Tel Aviv Setlist

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