CW50 - The Bands Edition - No. 4
3rd Place: 0
2nd Place: 2
1st Place: 3
"Yet another U2 clone". That was the initial reaction to Radiohead when they appeared - hardly bursting - on the scene in 1993. How wrong they were. Two decades on, this five-piece from Oxfordshire is now one of the most well-known and polarising musical acts. Few who have heard of them don't have an opinion on them - fewer still don't have a strong one. To some, they were the potential saviours of the stalling field of British rock with albums such as The Bends and OK Computer, the successor to the mantle that had been held by Oasis and Blur who then abdicated that responsibility for pretentious dalliances. To their legion of die-hard fans, however, they are one of the most innovative and unique bands in history their blend of alternative rock, Warp-inspired electronica, jazz, Krautrock and modern classical setting them apart - and ahead - of the pack. This is not a band, however, marked so much by their massive impact on society, their pioneering of a new musical genre or style (as of yet) or their decades-on influences of the big bands of the 21st century. This is a band defined by their ever-changing music, and it's there where we have to look to understand them.
"You float like a feather
In a beautiful world
You're so ****ing special
I wish I were special"
* Their debut single and the song that originally put them on the map after its 1993 re-release. It still remains one of their most popular songs, although its appearance in live shows has been sparse for the last fifteen years - ironically, because it was so popular that their other songs tended to be starved of attention in comparison. In many ways signalled what Radiohead would be for the next decade - a musically adept rock band trading on the collective disquiet and disconnectedness that typified (and continues to typify) the modern, corporaratised Western world.
"All these things into position
All these things we'll one day swallow whole"
* Though there were signs in other songs they'd written this is the first and clearest snapshot of the what the emotional content of Radiohead's music would be in years to come. Pitch-black, so much so that Thom Yorke admitted that he found it hard to reconcile the naked despair of the lyrics with the adoration of the crowds singing along. But sing they did, because this is still one of their most popular songs. They probably shouldn't have written such an addictive underlying melody if they wanted it otherwise. It actually stands in stark contrast to the lot of The Bends, which is much closer to the conventional British rock sound of the 90s than at any time in Radiohead's career, with heavy but attractive guitar melodies and personal, grounded lyrics.
"When I am king you will be first against the wall
With your opinion which is of no consequence at all"
* The key track of OK Computer, the album regarded by a huge portion of fans as their zenith and by many as their genuinely great album. Most definitely not a straight up-and-down rock number, it's been compared to Bohemian Rhapsody in ambition and in its multi-section structure, but the similarities probably end there. This is OK Computer in a nutshell - chaotic, captivating, unashemedly anti-capitalist and anti-establishment, and along with the album at large catapulted Radiohead into superstardom, showered with critical praise for so adroitly sticking to the narrow line between challenging, thought-provoking music and broad-spectrum accessibility. Unfortunately for those who had anointed Radiohead as the next great *rock* band, however, this superstardom was entirely unwanted and the band was going to take a very big turn away from the latter.
Everything In Its Right Place
"There are two colours in my head
There are two colours in my head"
* "If there's one band that promises to return rock to us, it's Radiohead". That's what one magazine said in the leadup to Kid A. When people around the world put their headphones on and played the Kid A opening track, they knew that Radiohead had very different ideas. OK Computer was supposed to be their way of conveying their anger at 'the system', and the commercialisation of the world, and it infuriated them to the point of despair to see it too being horribly commercialised. The result of this sense that their previous work was pointless, useless and bereft of meaning because of this was Kid A, an album that resulted from this will to reject whatever The Big End Of Town stood for, and do things Their Way, completely new, without being bound by any notions of convention or accessibility. This track, a direct representation of Thom Yorke's inability to recognise the artistic content of their work with their sudden, unwanted fame. But beyond the shock of processed electronic keyboard in place of guitars and repeated, abstract lyrics in place of chorus-verse was an intense exploration of how much can be done with nothing but harmony, vocals and musical sense. The perfect scene-setter for the album to come, one of the polarising in recent times.
"I have seen too much, you haven't seen enough, you haven't seen it
I'll laugh until my head comes off"
* So you've listened to most of Kid A. Up to now, for the most part, you'd have heard a rigidly structured but fairly introverted album, mostly feeling, exploring boundaries rather than actively pushing them, with plenty of tracks as much about creating atmosphere than making any firm statements. So when were Radiohead really going to unleash? The answer lay here in five minutes of apocalyptic, oppressive electronica. The album centrepiece, it appears stripped-down to the point of minimalism, with crashing but repetitive percussive lines underlying a melody that was as simple and pure as it got, and vocals on a very narrow range of notes. Yet as usual with Radiohead not is everything is as it seems: the sum of it all was a song of startling complexity and a focussed, almost personal sort of intensity. It is pure paradox - rigidly structured yet deeply unbalanced. Thematically simple but with seemingly contradictory lyrics. Controlled chaos. For me, their greatest song by a country mile. Not even live versions can do it justice.
Life In A Glasshouse
"Well of course I'd like to sit down and chat
But of course I'd like to stay and chew the fat"
In many senses, those with a keen ear shouldn't have been so surprised by the sudden outburst of electronic influences that appeared on Kid A. In reality, they'd been present under-the-surface ever since The Bends, and OK Computer was packed with them (something many "expert reviewers" managed to miss). The same was true with jazz, also a huge influence since the days of OK Computer. Very rarely, however, had this come to the fore, often appearing in small segments where the music is just a little more fluid, the rhythms looser and the tonality weaker. It got its proper due, however, on Kid A and most particularly on Amnesiac, often described as Kid A's twin brother, and most obviously on the album closer. With a freeform brass backing underlying the plaintive, atmospheric lyrics, this is much more New Orleans street march than English pub.
"Beauty will destroy your mind; spare the gory details
Give them gift-wrapped to the man with everything"
* A several year hiatus after Hail To The Thief, their last album with EMI, before In Rainbows was an indicator to keen followers of the band that their sound was going to change again (notwithstanding the fact that they'd already played most of the songs live anyway). Word was that Radiohead would pare back from the naked aggression and intensity of the previous ten years for something more relaxed and accessible. But would those kind of reserved, laid-back numbers hold up against the Idioteques, Paranoid Androids and There Theres? The answer was yes, as proven by tracks like Reckoner, but the relaxed, laid-back atmosphere of the band's current music hasn't stopped them experimenting. With the immense popularity of dubstep in the UK in recent times, rhythm became very much something to be played with again on The King Of Limbs, in ways that hadn't been done in Kid A. Much of their recent music is of this vein - still in that same relaxed mode but with more electronic and rhythmic experimentation than had been seen since those halcyon (YMMV) days. The Butcher is a (personal) standout of this process - in many ways, like Idioteque in its basis on layered percussion with a deceptively simple melody and vocals. Whilst it is a very different song, it also has that surprising complexity and keenly focussed structure. And in the end it is straight-up Radiohead - trading on disquiet, unbound by genre, keenly experimental, making music in its most essential form.
Radiohead - Idioteque (Live in Paris 2001) - YouTube
Thom Yorke (Vocals, Guitar, Piano)
Jonny Greenwood (Lead Guitar, Keyboards)
Colin Greenwood (Bass Guitar)
Phil Selway (Drums & Percussion)
Ed O’ Brien (Guitars & backing vocals)
Pablo Honey (1993)
The Bends (1995)
OK Computer (1997)
Kid A (2000)
Hail to the Thief (2003)
In Rainbows (2007)
The King of Limbs (2011)
Radiohead: The Best Of (2008) Compilation of singles, album tracks and one b-side
Download these songs:
Creep; Street Spirit (Fade Out); Paranoid Android; Everything In Its Right Place; Idioteque; Life In A Glasshouse; The Butcher
Write-up by Spark