A line from “Nude,” the third song on Radiohead’s In Rainbows, guides this essay: “Don’t get any big ideas.” Readers are asked to set aside the Karl Marx they know from The Communist Manifesto, from the history of Communism or Marxism. Marx himself would ask this of us: hearing that a group was calling themselves Marxist he said, “I at least am not a Marxist.” Admittedly, approaching Marx without preconceptions is difficult or impossible—approaching a “Nude” Marx is maybe, as the Radiohead song says,”not going to happen.” Yet, this may be the best way into his difficult, dense philosophy for beginning and advanced readers alike. That said, to begin, Marx’s philosophy could be summed up by a sentence that pre-dates the multi-volume monument known as Capital: “Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.” This sentence captures what later writers have dubbed “dialectical materialism,” the name later given to Marx’s philosophy. But a name isn’t needed to understand the core of Marx’s position: people exist in tension between what they make of the world and what the world makes of them.
Radiohead’s music, art and career plays out this tension—sometimes the world wins, sometimes Radiohead wins. Right now, arguably, with the successful digital self-distribution of their latest album, Radiohead is winning. And I don’t use the word “winning” lightly. Make no mistake: Marx saw this tension as a struggle, one to be won or lost, for better or worse. It is this notion of struggle that I trace in the real-world struggle of Radiohead as it’s voiced in songs (”Dollars & Cents,” the song from Amensiac this essay takes its title from), artwork (the anti-advertising of Hail to the Thief’s cover art), and the band’s record-industry relations, and lately happy lack thereof.
Since at least 1997 Radiohead has lived uncomfortably with the record industry’s control over their music and lives. That the “dollars & cents / & the pounds & the pence / the mark & the yen” were cracking Radiohead’s soul, is painfully clear in Grant Gee’s 1997 documentary Meeting People is Easy. Yorke explains in an interview at the close of the OK Computer tour how record-industry economics strip a musician of the ability to take risks, to experiment musically: once “people start to give you cash” Yorke explains, and “that’s how they get you.” As Gee’s documentary ends, we watch Radiohead disintegrating, yet amid this disintegration emerges “Nude,” a song that survived the soul-cracking we watch during Meeting People Is Easy, a song that appears, ten years later, on In Rainbows. This move from the palpable disaffection that permeates Meeting People Is Easy to the effortless, straight-forward and human-made sounds of In Rainbows isn’t obvious, but Marx’s philosophy helps us make sense of it—how history has made Radiohead and how Radiohead is making history.