Hail to the Thief, Indeed 

Hail to the Thief demonstrates why music fans are still music fans.

The Apocalypse -- with its plague of locusts, rivers of fire, and ELO reunion tours -- has not yet had the good sense to occur. Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke must be shocked, having attempted to score our violent and untimely mass demise for years. Meanwhile, music industry weasels repeatedly insisted that the record biz was similarly doomed -- and it's all the fault of you and your computer, okay?

Everyone's wrong. Thom's just excessively gloomy. But the industry weasels, as per usual, are clueless chowderheads.

Yes, Radiohead's Hail to the Thief enjoyed worldwide release last Tuesday; we will only briefly pause to note that it blows. A chaotic, half-assed mess, designed to trigger if-you-don't-absolutely-love-it-you-just-don't-get-it-you-moron reactions in devout fans who inwardly (and correctly) suspect this band was about eight billion times better whilst crafting '90s guitar-rock albums so beautiful grown men openly wept in the streets; Thief just sounds like grown men openly weeping.

But that's neither here nor there. The point: Eight billion people bought it anyway.

And this, despite the record having leaked onto the Internet months ago. Sure, it was rough, uncut, unmastered, incomplete. But with Radiohead, who can really tell anymore? The Internet leak and the final store-dwelling product are not all that dissimilar, giving tech-savvy, Kazaa-loving computer nerds -- the sorts of folks now threatened with ludicrous multimillion-dollar lawsuits by anti-piracy industry flacks -- ample opportunity to download Thief and never, ever buy it.

And yet, and yet. "It's selling like hotcakes, I can tell you that," exclaimed a Berkeley Amoeba Records manager last Tuesday afternoon, Thief's personal D-Day. The threat of illegal downloading eating into her sales did not faze her in the slightest: "Actually, the industry released a study a couple of weeks ago -- it actually helps sales."

As for that bootleg you ganked off Morpheus, "It's not the same thing. You don't get the artwork. You don't actually have it."

Precisely.

Now's an excellent time to revisit and rebuke the myth that illegal downloading will inevitably deep-six the music industry. Oh, the industry'll melt down eventually, a hilarious disaster of last-ten-minutes-of-Blazing Saddles proportions. But pinning all the blame on Internet piracy is absurd. And yes, we're talkin' to you, Metallica, the über-chowderhead poster boys for Napster Neurosis. The band's new St. Anger also was due in stores June 10, but the specter of illegal downloads prompted the band to needlessly release it five days early, as the calm, level-headed mega-stars Eminem and 50 Cent had previously done with their new discs.

St. Anger sales currently linger about the 500,000 mark, despite robust fan discussion about the sonic atrocity of Lars Ulrich's new snare drum sound.

Fans, it would appear, are still fans.

And fans still want the actual album, in the actual packaging, purchased from an actual store on the actual release date. It's a weird capitalist thing, a need to feel like a part of something. It explains why the latest Matrix flick, in all its Rob-Zombie-meets-Fraggle-Rock absurdity, felt just so much cooler on opening night, the theater packed and abuzz, the tension and anticipation coating your popcorn like so much gooey butter.

CD release dates -- the really big ones -- still wield this power. Last Tuesday afternoon's crowd at Amoeba and Rasputin was visibly abuzz, and an informal poll of those who emerged with Hail to the Thief in their grubby paws generated unanimous sentiments: Yes, I'm a huge fan. No, I did not wander into this store and purchase this album by accident or sudden impulse. No, I don't give a shit that I could've heard essentially this very album for free for months now.

"I didn't want to hear it," one fresh-faced twentysomething explained. "My friend has a burned copy, but I didn't listen to it. I wasn't tempted at all."

No, he wants to hear his new Radiohead record now.

Just silently watching someone buy Hail to the Thief that day approximated a religious experience. The gentleman casually approaches the display, pretending to idly browse, but really zeroing in like a German shepherd dog preparing to hump your couch. He picks up the disc, scans the song titles, and ponders ("Hmmm ... 'A Punch-Up at a Wedding'? 'Myxomatosis'? Will this get me laid?"). He puts it back. He hesitates for ten seconds. Picks it up again. Puts it back. Picks up the Hail to the Thief "special edition," which costs three dollars more for reasons even the Amoeba manager couldn't really explain. Scans those song titles, which are exactly the same. Puts it back. Hesitates for twenty more seconds. Picks up the originally fondled copy. Turns it over a few times. Glances around to see if anyone's watching. And slowly, hesitantly, turns and walks to the checkout line.

A breathtaking mating ritual. Downloading bullshit off the Net will never be half as exhilarating.

It's a beautiful thing: Obsessively buying your favorite band's new CD the day it's released, thus proving your obsession. Personally, we did the same thing, just with Grandaddy, those Modesto-bred lumberjack-lookin' keyboard pop dudes who also released their new disc, Sumday, on the 10th. After hours of arduous soul-searching, we'd convinced a publicist to send a promo copy of the disc a few weeks ago. We felt guilty, but we had to hear it. But after a few spins, we mailed it to a far-off friend whose grandmother had just died, and we showed up in Berkeley Tuesday afternoon to purchase another copy.

As for the eight billion of you who gobbled up Hail to the Thief, we certainly don't blame you, although you must admit: Buying the disc was more fun than listening to it.

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