Experiments in Sound and Sense: Radiohead (2000-01) – Influences

III. Radiohead – Influences

“I swore I saw a light come on”

Image via pitchfork.com

After the overwhelming global success of OK Computer, Radiohead was placed in the discomfited position of discovering a definitive popular music formula and deciding whether detriment to their short term goals, to take more direct inspiration from their influences therefore retaining an identity and more importantly self interest. They are a band who essentially pick their influences in a more conscious manner than most, establishing esoteric artists who accordingly shape the sound of their upcoming record; and this was fundamentally the difference between their guitar-dominant yet still somewhat unfamiliar sound and other guitar-heavy Britpop bands of the 90s such as Oasis and Blur. This is the defining reason alone that the OK Computer process was crucial in influencing the outcome of their fourth album. Yorke forever craves to amalgamate broader influences into the band’s current sound, daring to tread beyond this straightforward guitar and vocal formula.[1] In Kid A they successfully combine Yorke’s passion for electronica with Jonny Greenwood’s modern classical and jazz influences; resulting in an ‘eerily comforting blend of rock riffs, jazz chords, classical textures, and electronic noise’.[2]

“The first thing [Yorke] did after the [OK Computer] tour was buy the whole Warp back catalogue”[3], striking a deep chord with I.D.M resulting in a profound effect upon Yorke’s perception of what producing popular music was about[4], the notion of the traditional ‘pop song’ and the expectations of a band with three guitarists. Artists such as Sheffield based duo Autechre[5], the ‘most inventive and influential figure in contemporary electronic music’[6] Aphex Twin, and to some extent Boards of Canada all revived Yorke’s passion for the dance music he was already mixing as a DJ whilst attending the University of Exeter.

Idioteque contains two credited samples, one from Paul Lansky’s computer tape piece ‘mild und leise’ and ‘Short Piece’ by Arthur Kreiger, both heard on the compilation entitled First Recordings-Electronic Music Winners (1976).[7] And although uncredited, ‘Hunting Bearsbears an uncanny resemblance to Brian Eno’s ‘Zawinul/Lava’ from Another Green World (1975).

Radiohead have always been an intellectual rock band, literature playing a defining role in the band’s social movement and most consciously Yorke’s lyrics. Three members read No Logo by Canadian journalist Naomi Klein.[8] This of course resulted in a gigantic gigging-tent free of corporate logos and slogans to tour under, and a proposed title for the album. Furthermore Yorke’s obsession with The Beatles resulted in close bedtime readings of Revolution in the Head: the Beatles’ Records and the Sixties by Ian Macdonald (the best book on The Beatles) during the Kid A/Amnesiac period.[9]

In terms of fusing genres, Radiohead’s rate of success is quite staggering, since this is no easy feat in terms of credibility retention. The influence of jazz musicians like Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, in particular their albums The Complete Town Hall Concert (1962)[10] and Bitches Brew (1970) respectively, are noticeable in the chaotic brass parts of the  ‘The National Anthem’ denouement, and the more traditional jazz elements contained within ‘Life in a Glasshouse’, played by trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton. A veteran whose direction was paramount to the recording/release of the latter.[11]

Polish modern classical composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s influence during the OK Computer period transgressed to the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions where he continued to inspire Jonny Greenwood’s string arrangements. ‘How to Disappear Completely’ and ‘Pyramid Song’ are both haunted by that atmospheric, slightly atonal soundscape of which Greenwood is renowned. ‘I got very excited at the prospect of doing string parts that didn’t sound like ‘Eleanor Rigby’, which is what all string parts have sounded like for the past 30 years.’[12]

The experimental music scene that materialized in Germany by the name of ‘Krautrock’, gained recognition in Britain during the 1970s when it was popularised by revered British DJ John Peel. Yorke has said ‘Stone Roses wouldn’t stop name checking [Can] back in the day. And so we, back in 1990, bought all their records’[13] consequently paving the way for their discovery of Neu! and Faust. Yorke dreamed Radiohead would, like Can, record every sound created in Canned Applause[14]; an improvisational avalanche that can be recognised in the bass ostinatos of ‘The National Anthem’, and the transitional jam between ‘Optimistic’ and ‘In Limbo’.

Throughout the song arranging and recording processes the whole band drew substantial inspiration from Talking Heads’ album Remain In Light (1980).[15] For Yorke it was a crucial insight into various methods of beating writer’s block, specifically finding refuge in ‘the way David Byrne was writing the lyrics for that record’:

“He had notes, no songs. Start a rhythm, here’s a riff and it keeps going…everything is essentially fragments ’cause he’s taking things from notebooks. So what I often tried to do with the writer’s block thing was just basically have all the things that didn’t work and stopped throwing them away, which I was doing before that, keeping them and cutting them up and throwing them all in a top hat and pulling them out. That was really cool because […] I managed to preserve whatever emotions were in the original writing of the words but in a way that it’s like I’m not trying to emote.” VPRO ‘Lola da Musica’, aired on October 19th 2000.

‘Everything In Its Right Place’, ‘Kid A’, ‘The National Anthem’, ‘Optimistic’, ‘In Limbo’ and ‘Idioteque’ were all done this way; a Dadaist system of working that also inspired the newspaper ‘cut-up technique’ David Bowie experimented with in the 1970s.

-James Godwin, December 12th, 2010

[1] Letts, Marianne, “How to Disappear Completely”: Radiohead and the Resistant Concept Album, p.30.

[3] Eccleston, Danny (October 2000). “(Radiohead article)”. Q Magazine. Retrieved 2010-01-18.

[4] “We write pop songs, as time has gone on; we’ve gotten more into pushing our material as far as it can go. But there was no intention of it being ‘art.’ It’s a reflection of all the disparate things we were listening to when we recorded it.” Entertainment Weekly, October 24th 1997.

[5] Zoric, Lauren (2000-09-22). “I think I’m meant to be dead…”. The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/friday_review/story/0,,371289,00.html. Retrieved 2010-01-07.

[6] Lester, Paul (2001-10-05). “Tank boy”. The Guardian http://arts.guardian.co.uk/fridayreview/story/0,,734809,00.html. Retrieved 2010-01-07.

[7] Tate, Joseph ed. The Music and Art of Radiohead, ‘My Radiohead Adventure’, Paul Lanksy.

[8] ‘Ed’s Diary’, 25-02-2000, http://www.radiohead.com

[9] Tudor, Alexender (2009-08-27), ‘Radiohead re-issues: new editions of Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to The Thief assessed’, http://drownedinsound.com/in_depth/4137663-radiohead-re-issues–new-editions-of-kid-a-amnesiac-and-hail-to-the-thief-assessed

[10] Zoric, Lauren, (2000-10-01), “Fitter, Happier, More Productive”. Juice Magazine. Retrieved 2010-01-20.

[11] Greenwood, Jonny (2008-04-28). “Humph”. Dead Air Space http://www.radiohead.com/deadairspace/index.php?a=366. Retrieved 2010-02-08.

[12] Footman, Tim, Welcome to the Machine: OK Computer and the Death of the Classic Album, p.99.p.102

[13] BBC Radio 1, With Gilles Peterson co-hosted by Thom Yorke, broadcast 20th January 2010.

[14] Eccleston, “(Radiohead article)”.

[15] VPRO ‘Lola-da-Musica’, Dutch Television, aired on October 19th 2000.

Copyright © 2010. James Godwin. All rights reserved.