Walking On Thin Ice
Radiohead may be one of the biggest groups on the planet, but their dissenting voice and exploratory studio techniques conflict with the commercial pressure to maintain their status. Simon Reynolds speaks to Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood about treading the fine line between selling out stadiums and their role as mainstream ambassadors for musical innovation.
Platinum and gold. The walls of Courtyard Management's office are lined with discs commemorating prodigious feats of unit-shifting in far-flung territories of the globe. Located in the somnolent Oxfordshire village of Sutton Courtenay, Courtyard is the nerve centre for one of the world's most successful groups. But all previous triumphs (Kid A winning the Grammy for Best Alternative Album, the anointing of OK Computer as 'Best Album of All Time' by the readers of Q) surely pale next to the ultimate accolade--making it onto the cover of The Wire.
Seriously, though. Maybe your first thought on picking up this issue was 'whatthefuck?!', and maybe that's an understandable reaction. After all, Radiohead are a group who have chalked up multi-platinum sales in 50 countries. I haven't done the maths (I'm not that crazy), but it does strike me as perfectly conceivable that the total career sales of every other artist featured in this current issue, totted up, still might not match the global sales of OK Computer, Radiohead's biggest selling album to date. And there is a potent argument that a group with this kind of commercial heft and such a degree of mainstream consensus of praise behind them simply has no place on the front cover of a magazine known for championing mavericks and margin dwellers.
But Radiohead have earned it. Consider the facts: late last year, three albums rejuvenated the moribund concept of 'post-rock', Sigur Rós's Agætis Byrjún, Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, and Radiohead's Kid A. All three tampered with post-rock's increasingly proforma formula in significant ways. Godspeed! brought political angst to this generally abstract and dispassionate genre; Sigur Rós added human songfulness to what's usually instrumental mood music; Kid A did a bit of both. But only one of this 'post-rock reborn!' triumvirate entered the UK and US album charts at Number One. Now its sister release, Amnesiac--drawn from the same sessions as Kid A; indeed at one point the two records were set to be a double album--has repeated this extraordinary feat.
What's fascinating, and unprecedented, is just how Radiohead pulled off this swerve from the path seemingly mapped out for them. Just when OK Computer had left them only a step away from becoming the biggest rock outfit on the planet, with Kid A, first, and now Amnesiac they chose to operate as mainstream ambassadors for many of the musical innovators this magazine cherishes. There's glitchtronic contraptions like "Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors"; "How To Disappear Completely" is like a Scott Walker ballad scored by Penderecki; "Treefingers" recalls the vapourscapes of Spirit Of Eden/On Land; the interstellar overdrive of "The National Anthem" is Faust meets Mingus; "Idioteque" samples Paul Lansky's computer compositions; and the thick orchestral haze on "Dollars & Cents" is reminiscent of Alice Coltrane's arrangements on her early 70s albums such as Universal Consciousness.
"Maybe we just took some sort of left turn," says Thom Yorke--Radiohead's singer and by all accounts its aesthetic tillerman--shrugging off the mystery of the group's redirection towards the margins as simply not that remarkable. Relaxed and healthy looking, he barely resembles the gaunt, ghostface figure that appears in the OK Computer world tour documentary Meeting People Is Easy, harrowed by the endless grind of interviews, meet 'n' greets, photoshoots, soundchecks, ligs... Nor is he the prickly blood-from-a-stone interviewee of legend. There are moments, though, where it occurs to me that his 'genial, laidback, unassuming' character might just be another shield: a more sly strategy of self-protection than the 'fools not gladly suffered' persona of old.
'Downplay everything' seems to be the new Radiohead media relations policy--the canny preemptive disarming of any accusations of autohype or delusions of avant grandeur. So Yorke suggests that Kid A was "not as much of a radical gesture as some said". And guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, speaking by phone from Spain a few days later, claims Radiohead just picked up where they had left off on OK Computer. "With us, it's never going to be a case of 'let's tear up the blueprint and start from scratch'," he says. "When the Kid A reviews came out accusing of us being wilfully difficult, I was like, 'If that was true, we'd have done a much better job of it'. It's not that challenging--everything's still four minutes long, it's melodic."
Such self-effacing professions of modest ambition are rather at odds with the impression given by Radiohead in the press blitz that surrounded the release of Kid A last autumn, which painted a picture of a group almost tearing itself to pieces in the struggle to achieve total aesthetic renewal, Yorke spoke of how he had even contemplated changing their name in order to make a break with Radiohead's past recordings, towards which he felt utter alienation. Instead of self-destruction, Radiohead eventually settled on self-deconstruction; discarding or tampering with the two elements most celebrated by fans and critics alike: their guitar sound, and Yorke's singing and lyrics. Kid A is largely devoid of guitars, with Jonny Greenwood preferring to play the Ondes Martenot (an early electronic instrument that dates back to 1928), write arrangements for string orchestra, or even play the recorder. And Amnesiac's slight return to rock is not going to get the fans transcribing fret fingerings and posting 'guitar tabs' up on their Webzines, as they did following the release of OK Computer. As for Yorke's singing, on Kid A/Amnesiac, studio technology and unusual vocal technique are both applied to dyslexify his already oblique, fragmented words. Yorke has said he will never allow the lyrics to be printed and that listeners are expressly not meant to focus on them.
Radiohead's 'not such a radical shift really' line is also belied by Yorke's evident glee at the way Kid A was clearly taken as some kind of stinging reproach by a number of underachieving and deeply compromised Britpopsters, including accusations of "cowardice" from Oasis. "We've obviously riled them in some way," agrees Yorke. Perhaps the Gallagher brothers' broadside is related to Britpop's core ideology of 'make it big at any cost', a rhetoric of shooting for the charts which denigrated older indie rock idealism as defeatist, obscurantist, even elitist. Not only did Kid A resurrect a different concept of ambition--artistic growth as opposed to sales bloat--but it interfered with Radiohead fulfilling their 'proper' destiny of becoming a front rank, U2-sized megagroup.
A brief history of Radiohead: how they got here from there. Formed in Oxford by five schoolfriends--Thom Yorke, brothers Jonny and Colin Greenwood, Phil Selway and Ed O'Brien--the group first grabbed attention in 1992 with "Creep", a single that got nowhere on its first release in the UK, but became a massive hit in post-Nirvana America when modern rock radio programmers picked up on it. In many ways, the 'grunge ballad' sound of "Creep" and its lyrical stance (maladjustment and ressentiment akin to the outcast protagonist of "Smells Like Teen Spirit") made Radiohead an English equivalent to Nirvana. The two groups had similar influences and idols (The Pixies, REM, Sonic Youth), were fuelled by similar distaste for the phoney, and face similar accusations of wallowing in misery. But the crucial word there is 'English'. You can imagine Kurt Cobain, if he'd chosen to live, probably going the unplugged troubadour route, stripping down his sound to let his plaintive songs stand naked and alone, folky and forlorn. You could never imagine him doing a Kid A, plunging deeper into studio science. Therein lies the vast, enduring gulf between American and British ideas of rock.
By 1995's The Bends, the English art rock element was starting to come to the fore. Pop musicians and movie stars began turning up to their shows; stoners and lapsed ravers turned onto the sheer drug-conducive luxuriance of their sound. But it was 1997's OK Computer that really transformed Radiohead into the rock group it was OK for electronica headz to dig. It was also the album where Yorke and co started to complicate the anthemic qualities of their earlier music in earnest, by deep immersion in such avant staples as Miles Davis's Bitches Brew.
A sort of semi-concept album about technology and alienation, OK Computer's sheer magnitude--of sound, thematics, aspiration--served time on Britpop, replacing its laddish anti-intellectualism and vacant hedonism with the glamour of literacy and angst. Noel and Liam are right to feel goaded: Radiohead are the Anti-Oasis, and OK Computer's massive popular success, eclipsing the Gallagher brothers' cocaine-blighted/bloated Be Here Now, announced the closure of an entire era of Britrock. Yet touring and promoting the album for much of 1998 convinced Yorke that it was still too mired in rock tradition, too epic. "It was still pressing all the correct buttons," he says. When Q's readership infamously voted OK Computer the Best Album of All Time (an error of passion perhaps, but certainly preferable to the usual pantheon of Pet Sounds/Revolver/Astral Weeks/London Calling), Radiohead had become rock icons in the most old fashioned sense--the singer as seer, oracle, figurehead, spokesperson.
"I tell you what's really ridiculous--going into a bookshop and there's all these books about yourself," Yorke says of the multiple cut and paste Radiohead biographies that came out in OK Computer's wake. "In a way, it feels like you're already dead. So you've got a kind of license to start again."
Worn out by the experiences documented on Meeting People Is Easy, such as touring America's infamous 'shed circuit' of 10,000 capacity, corporate sponsored venues, Yorke spiralled into a black period of confusion and creative block. His condition was exacerbated by the self-consciousness feedback syndrome induced by being over-interviewed and reading pseudo-psychoanalytical interpretations of his work. "People presume everything you write is completely personal... it feels weird, like someone walking over your grave," he says. He hated the lyrics he was writing. Even the sound of his voice made him nauseous. "Melodies became an embarrassment to me," he said last year.
"It did my head in that whatever I did with my voice, it had that particular set of associations," he says. "And there were lots of similar bands coming out at the time, and that made it even worse. I couldn't stand the sound of me even more." Embarking on the fraught, spasmodic sessions for Kid A/Amnesiac, he "got really into the idea of my voice being another one of the instruments, rather than this precious, focus thing all the time".
This instrumentalisation of the lead singer was just one facet of a total deconstruction of Radiohead as rock group, instigated by Yorke. As guitarist Ed O'Brien put it, the members had to learn "how to be a participant in a song without playing a note". In a sense, every member took on the role of Brian Eno in Roxy Music: a non-musician producer/catalyst, abandoning their designated instrumental function and grappling with unfamiliar sound generation devices as if they were toys. "It's not about being a guitarist in a rock band, it's about having an instrument in front of you and you're really excited by it," says Yorke. "It's like with Jonny playing Ondes Martenot on... just about everything! We couldn't stop him! We had to beg him to play guitar on "Morning Bell"."
Greenwood says the Ondes Martenot obsession dates back to hearing it used in Olivier Messaien's Turangalîla Symphony when he was 15. "I spent years reading all these descriptions of them, I couldn't even find a photograph, and then two years ago I finally got hold of one, and they're fantastic. The best way to describe it is a very accurate theremin that you have far more control of. The most famous use of the Martenot is the Star Trek theme, and it sounds like a woman singing. When it's played well, you can really emulate the voice. I get annoyed with electronic instruments because I reckon the Martenot is a bit of a peak."
With producer and 'sixth member' Nigel Godrich gradually coming round to the new approach, Radiohead embarked upon all kinds of Eno-esque oblique strategies: working on dozens of songs at once; moving on to something different as soon as it got boring or blocked; splitting into two groups engaged in different activities. "It's like you're dabbling, but at the same time, when something really comes off, it's all down on tape," says Yorke. "Nigel's really into the idea of capturing a performance, even if we're doing pure electronic stuff. So it's never like we just program stuff and let it run. There always had to be something else going on, processing in real time."
Another model was Holger Czukay's jam/slice/splice productions for Can. "Dollars & Cents", one of Amnesiac's highlights, was edited down from an 11 minute improvisation. "It was incredibly boring," laughs Yorke, "but it's that Holger thing of chop-chop-chop, making what seems like drivel into something coherent." Then orchestral strings--arranged by Greenwood and recorded in Dorchester Abbey--"were added to give it a sort of authority".
No strangers to the studio craft of overdubbing and effects, on Kid A/Amnesiac Radiohead finally and utterly abandoned the performance model of rock recording and went fully into concocting sonic fictions using the mixing desk as instrument. Answering a fan's query on Radiohead's Web forum, Greenwood talked about being obsessed with "the whole artifice of recording. I see it like this: a voice into a microphone onto a tape, onto your CD, through your speakers is all as illusory and fake as any synthesizer--it doesn't put Thom in your front room. But one is perceived as 'real', the other somehow 'unreal'... It's the same with guitars versus samplers. It was just freeing to discard the notion of acoustic sounds being truer." Speaking on the phone, Greenwood says the idea was influenced by reading Michael Chanan's 1995 meditation on recording, Repeated Takes. "The more concerts we do, the more dissatisfied we get with trying to reproduce the live sound on a record. In a way it can't be done, and that's a relief really, when you accept that, and recording just becomes a different thing."
The most striking departures from the real time three-guitar group sound are pieces such as Kid A's title track, which, with its exquisitely wistful music-box chime and melted-candle Yorke vocal, is worthy of Curd Duca or Boards Of Canada; and Amnesiac's "Like Spinning Plates", whose dissociated drift reminds me of Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom updated for the IDM era. "Plates" is partly built from an earlier song called "I Will" played backwards. Says Yorke, "We'd turned the tape around, and I was in another room, heard the vocal melody coming backwards, and thought, 'That's miles better than he right way round', then spent the rest of the night trying to learn the melody."
Although some have accused Radiohead of jumping on the electronica bandwagon, Yorke says his interest in Aphex-type music actually predates the group's 1993 debut Pablo Honey. "When the Warp thing was first happening, I was really into things like Sweet Exorcist's "Per Clonk". It sounded really amazing coming out an enormous PA system. All that Warp stuff made the bassbins blow with their turbo sounds." Studying art and English at Exeter University in the early 90s, he even participated in a Techno-influenced rock group called Flickernoise as a sideline from Radiohead, but found working with sequencers too frustrating. After the OK Computer tour, though, utterly burned on music containing guitars and singing, Yorke bought the entire Warp back catalogue and started ordering obscure IDM records via the Internet. For a long while during the Kid A sessions, he was totally uninterested in melody, just into exploring texture and rhythm. The result was tracks like Kid A's "Idioteque", which sounds like two-step Garage with a PiL/"Death Disco" twist, but is actually "an attempt to capture that exploding beat sound where you're at the club and the PA's so loud, you know it's doing damage". On Amnesiac, the dirty 808 bass of "Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors" invites you to reimagine Yorke's mid-80s adolescence--not pining indoors to REM's Murmur and The Smiths' Hatful Of Hollow, but spraying graffiti and breakdancing in deserted shopping centres alongside LFO.
All this mixing up sounds very post-rock--unsurprisingly, a banner behind which Greenwood, ever so courteously, declines to rally. More tellingly, it's also very post-punk: the Lydon-like rhetoric of leaving rock for dead ("I never wanted to be in a fucking rock group," Yorke told Spin), the post-Eno/dub embrace of the studio, the forays into electronics, black dance rhythm, jazz. Radiohead are possibly the very last of a generation of groups formatively influenced by the 1979-81 moment. All in their early thirties, they're too young to have experienced Joy Division or Magazine as they actually happened, and thus encountered them through the time-honoured 'older brother syndrome'. Well, an older sister, in the case of Jonny and bassist Colin Greenwood.
Greenwood's guitar sound--more audible on Amnesiac--is firmly in the post-blues, non-riff lineage that starts with Tom Verlaine: that plangent dazzle-ripple-chime. "Our guitars are more clitoris substitutes than phallus ones--we stroke them in a nicer, gentler way," Greenwood once said. When I bring this up, he says he nicked the line from Slowdive, another Thames Valley group. "I think guitars are over-idolised as instruments. All the guitarists I've ever liked have had the Bernard Sumner approach. It's about not practising. I like what Tom Waits said about only ever picking up an instrument if he's going to write a song."
Radiohead's name comes from an obscure song by Talking Heads, whose Eno-produced 1979 LP Remain In Light was a life-changing event for Yorke, both musically and lyrically. "I'd listened to it endlessly but never looked at the words," he recalls, "and when I finally did, it really freaked me out. When they made that record, they had no real songs, just wrote it all as they went along. [David] Byrne turned up with pages and pages, and just picked stuff up and threw bits in all the time. And that's exactly how I approached Kid A... Jerry Harrison, their keyboard player, turned up to one of our gigs, just walked into the dressing room. Poor chap, after we realised who he was, he got grilled for hours on Remain In Light: 'Are they any loops or did you just play it all?' And they played it all, even though it sounds like tape loops.
"Do you know the story about "Overload"? They'd read about Joy Division for the first time in NME, thought 'That sounds interesting', and decided to do a tune based on what they thought Joy Division would be like, never having heard them." Two other things about Radiohead also strike me as very post-punk. First is their quiet but steadfast insistence on "total control", which recalls PiL's (largely rhetorical) notion of themselves as a "communications company" using a major label's marketing muscle but essentially remaining autonomous. In Radiohead's case, "total control" encompasses not just the licence to indulge themselves that underpins OK Computer, Kid A and Amnesiac, but a host of other aspects: the way they have kept their operational base outside London; the obsessive attention to detail that goes into their artwork (Amnesiac comes encased as a hardback library book, complete with much stamped slip; inside, there are lavish colour plate illustrations by Yorke's alter ego Tchocky and university pal Stanley Donwood); the group's Website (also designed by Donwood), via which Radiohead maintain direct contact with its fans. Shrugging off the PiL analogy ("We could never do a record on a par with Metal Box, let alone Flowers Of Romance," says Yorke, "and I'm no Lydon. I can't keep up the attitude!"), Yorke likes to stress that their independence within the corporate mainstream is precarious, dependent on the massive success of OK Computer. Greenwood admits, "We are a little fascistic in how and where our music is heard, but then we can be. If we were struggling, I'm sure we'd sell our music to anybody just to carry on."
The other spirit of 79 quality is Radiohead's relentless bleakness, an alienation that is never entirely private, sourced merely in individual neurosis. Reversing the old post-punk dictum, one might describe it as 'the political is personal'. Yorke has described Kid A/Amnesiac as being about "bearing witness". The things witnessed range from the connivings of politicians (Amnesiac's "You And Whose Army?" is about UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, based on direct encounters that came about through Yorke's involvement in the Jubilee 2000 campaign to write off Third World Debt), to a wider sense of the world becoming ever more overcontrolled, and at the same time out of control.
You can pick up this feeling from the lyrics: oblique images of running out of future, Darwinian dog eat dog struggle, cannibalism, an emotional "Ice Age coming" (an unwitting echo of Margaret Drabble's novel The Ice Age, a counterpart to punk in British literature which captured a mid-70s moment of malaise and crisis in the UK). More than the words, though, it's audible as a certain tenor, even timbre, of voice. "You And Whose Army?" offers words of defiance in a voice that sounds like all the fight has been kicked out of it (which is why it works in 2001, where an update of "Stand Down Margaret" would seem facile). Yorke is literally voicing (rather than articulating) contemporary feelings of dislocation, dispossession, numbness, impotence, paralysis; widely felt impulses to withdraw and disengage that are perfectly logical, dispirited responses to the bankruptcy of Centrist politics, which ensure that everyone remains equally disenchanted and aggrieved.
"It's all so part of the fabric of everything, even the artwork," Yorke says, referring to the recurring, Art Brut-ish schizo-scrawled motifs of Grim Reapers and Weeping Bears. "I couldn't really say it directly so much, but it's there--the feeling of being a spectator and not being able to take part. I was really conscious of not wanting to use a sledgehammer to bang people over the head with it. It's pretty difficult to put into songs. In a way you have to wait until it's a personal issue or experience." In June 1999, the attempt to deliver Jubilee 2000's 'Drop The Debt' petition to the G8 summit in Cologne was when it became personal. The petition's presenters, a group which included Yorke and U2's Bono, were outwitted by the G8 politicians, who denied them their desired photo opportunity in front of the conference's building. "We were made to walk down the back streets, and it was fucking surreal--we had these German military police escorting us down a tiny pedestrian shopping street, we're carrying this fucking banner, surrounded by bemused shoppers."
Playing off Greenwood's love of Polish composer Penderecki, you could describe Kid A/Amnesiac as a Threnody For The Victims Of Globalisation. Yorke says that spending three years in the UK after a lot of time touring abroad was a big influence: reading newspapers, noticing the discrepancy between mainstream pop culture and what was going on 'out there'. Three members of the group read Naomi Klein's anti-corporate bestseller No Logo, and at one point it was rumoured that No Logo would be the album title. Talking about the upsurge of anti-globalisation dissent, Yorke defends the movement from charges of ideological incoherence and being merely reactive. "That's how it's always dismissed in the mainstream media, but that's because it's this coalition of disparate interest groups who are all pissed off because they've been disenfranchised by politicians who are only listening to corporate lobby groups or unelected bodies like Davos [the World Economic Forum]. It's not based on the old left/right politics, it's not really even an anti-capitalist thing... It's something far deeper than that: 'Who do you serve?' It's a new form of dissent, a new politics, and the point is that the most important political issues of the day have been taken out of the political arena. They're being discussed by lobby groups paid for, or composed of, ex-members of corporations. And they spend a lot of effort trying to exclude the public, because it's inconvenient."
Yorke cuts himself short with a self-depreciating "I could go on like this forever, but I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about really!" He's fully aware of the UK tradition of scepticism and low tolerance for popstars who speak out, and conscious of the contradictions of Radiohead as dissidents bankrolled by Parlophone/EMI/Time/Warner/AOL: "We're screaming hypocrites. No, we are!" He also acknowledges that platinum-in-50-territories Radiohead are arguably the hip face of globalisation. Recalling Coca-Cola sponsored MTV events they played in Mexico and Thailand back when "Creep" was a heavy-rotation video, he says, "It was a weird feeling, because you are right at the sharp end of the sexy, sassy, MTV eye-candy lifestyle thing that they're trying to sell to the rest of the world, make them aspire to. It's fair enough to question it. Unfortunately, if you're interested in actually being heard, you have to work within the system." He slips into a comedy Nazi accent: "Zey haff Kontrol!"
If Radiohead are a love or hate proposition--and they do induce violently polarised responses--a lot of it is down to Thom Yorke's voice, the dolorousness that is its natural tone and texture. "Miserabilist", "whinging", "tortured" are the kind of adjectives hurled by the hostile. Fans, in contrast, tend to talk of "beautiful sadness". This split response is reminiscent of how Morrissey divided listeners in 1983 into those who found his voice nectar to the ear or grating as nails on a blackboard. The parallel is apposite. That 1983 feeling is a lot like 2001, with mainstream pop sounding relentlessly glossy and upful. The conditions that made The Smiths (or REM, in Reagan's America) necessary as a counterweight to the likes of Wham! have returned.
The anguished timbre may be an acquired taste, but Yorke is an amazing singer. What's especially impressive about Kid A/Amnesiac is the way he operates as an ensemble player, another colour in the group's palette. Bored with all the standard tricks of vocal emoting, Yorke decided to interface voice and technology and develop what he's called "a grammar of noises". The first two tracks on Kid A, "Everything In Its Right Place" and the title track, are especially striking in this respect, almost a declaration of intent. The words are drastically processed in order to thwart the standard rock listener mechanism of identify and interpret (the very mode of trad rock deep-and-meaningfulness that OK Computer had dramatically revived).
"The real problem I had was with the 'identify' bit," says Yorke. "Even now, most interviews you do, there's a constant subtext: 'Is this you?' By using other voices, I guess it was a way of saying, 'obviously it isn't me'."
Turning the voice into an instrumental texture, Other-ising it via effects, allowed Yorke "to sing things I wouldn't normally sing. On "Kid A", the lyrics are absolutely brutal and horrible and I wouldn't be able to sing them straight. But talking them and having them vocodered through Johnny's Ondes Martenot, so that I wasn't even responsible for the melody... that was great, it felt like you're not answering to this thing."
Another vocal treatment Yorke resorted to was the Autotuner--most famous from Cher's "Believe", but widely used in contemporary R&B as an intermittent glister of posthuman perfect pitch added to particular lines or words. "We used Autotuner on Amnesiac twice. On "Pakt Like Sardines", I wasn't particularly out of tune, but if you really turn up the Autotuner so it's dead in pitch, it makes it go slightly..." he makes a nasal, depersonalised sound. "There's also this trick you can do, which we did on both "Pakt" and "Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors", where you give the machine a key and then you just talk into it. It desperately tries to search for the music in your speech, and produces notes at random. If you've assigned it a key, you've got music."
Elsewhere, Radiohead's 'vocal science' bypassed state of the art digitalia for antiquarian technology and the sort of ad hoc boffinry redolent of John Lennon and George Martin's techniques at Abbey Road during the late Beatles era (Yorke confesses that Revolution In The Head, Ian MacDonald's book detailing the recording of every Beatles song, was "my bedside reading all through the sessions for the albums"). On "You And Whose Army?", the muzzy vocal--which sounds like Morrissey sliding into a Temazepam coma--was an attempt to recapture the soft, warm, proto-doowop sound of 40s harmony group The Ink Spots. "We hired all these old ribbon microphones, but it didn't work because you need all the other gear, like the old tape recorders. So what we ended up using is an eggbox. And because it's on the vocal mic, and the whole band's playing at the same time, everything on the track goes through this eggbox."
Radiohead also used a device called the Palm Speaker on "You And Whose Army?", creating a halo of hazy reverberance around Yorke's vocal. "The Palm Speaker is something else that Monsieur Martenot invented, to go with the Ondes," explains Greenwood. "It's a bit like a harp with a speaker in the middle of it. The strings are tuned to all 12 semitones of an octave, and when you play a note in tune, it resonates that specific string and it creates this weird kind of echo that's only on those pitches."
On Kid A/Amnesiac, Yorke performed his vocals knowing the kind of spatiality it would be moving through. The effects are always 'live', audible to him through headphones. "Nigel Godrich is very into this idea that if you're going to do something weird with a track, you make it weird there and then, rather than doing it in the mix afterwards, because the effect changes the way people play. They'll play to it. And that's really inspiring, because it's like having a new instrument. If you've got an incredibly cool reverb or something on your voice, suddenly you're really excited about what you're doing again."
The vocal tricknology on Kid A was perhaps the most offputting aspect for many listeners, prompting accusations of emotional withdrawal and a refusal to connect with the audience, or the absurd, frequently heard charge, "there are no tunes on the album" (actually, almost every track is structured like a song, and hauntingly melodic). The mixed response Kid A garnered in the UK revealed how the Britpop era has weakened the rock audience's (or more likely, the rock media's) ability to handle anything not blatantly singalong. At its lowliest--Oasis--Britpop was barely more than amplified busking, disregarding the studio's sound-sculpting potential and relegating rhythm to a menial timekeeping role. Call it the new philistinism--as Greenwood commented acidly circa Kid A's release, "people basically want their hands held through 12 "Mull Of Kintyre"s".
Surprisingly, the more trad-rock America gave Kid A an almost uniformly rapturous reception, with two exceptions. One was author Nick Hornby, in his New Yorker rock column, who complained, absurdly, that the album was simply too demanding for adults exhausted by work/parenting, and accused critics who raved about Kid A of thinking like 16 year olds. The other was Howard Hampton in The New York Times, who dredged up that hoary old "it's just like the mid-70s again" scare tactic, a scenario in which Radiohead are the new Pink Floyd and it's high time we had another punk rock.
The Pink Floyd analogy has dogged Radiohead since The Bends. And there are parallels, for sure: the concept album flavour of OK Computer; the lavish artwork (there's a secret booklet concealed inside Kid A's CD case); their obsessive attention to track-sequencing the albums to work as wholes; even the fact that both groups came from Oxbridge towns. Despite a dearth of real sonic similarity, Radiohead are often described by journalists as Floyd-influenced, which Greenwood fears may have stemmed from interview comments "from about five years ago, when I heard Meddle for the first time and liked half of it. And I felt a bit ripped off, because when I was at school, the popular post-punk myth was that Floyd were rubbish."
I'm hardly a fan of that group post-Syd Barrett, but it's worth at least querying why Pink Floyd is such an enduringly potent insult, such an instantly discrediting reference point. Johnny Rotten may have famously scrawled "I Hate" on his Pink Floyd T-shirt (but why did he own one in the first place, I always wonder?), yet of all the pre-1976 dinosaurs, the group were arguably the least decadent, corrupt and aesthetically bankrupt. 1975's Wish You Were Here contains anti-record biz sentiments that anticipate punk; Animals and The Wall are as bleakly no-escapist and apocalyptic in their view of modern society as anything from the post-punk vanguard. At one point in the mid-70s, Floyd even planned making an entire album using household implements, a gambit that would have surpassed in advance PiL's Flowers Of Romance, ATV's Vibing Up The Senile Man, Nurse With Wound, not to mention Matt Herbert.
There's a case for arguing that 1977-style three-chord punk was just a back-to-basics blip in the continuum of UK art rock, and that 'Progressive' pretty much resumed in the form of post-punk, albeit shaped by some new sonic prohibitions/inhibitions. Before 1977, figures like Eno and Wyatt collaborated with Prog types like Robert Fripp and even Phil Collins. After punk, some of those early 70s art rockers fitted the new rules of cool (Eno producing Devo, No Wave, Talking Heads; Wyatt playing with Scritti Politti and recording for Rough Trade).
Perhaps the Pink Floyd comparison has less to do with any real stylistic parallels and more to do with the vein of inverted snobbery that runs through British rock culture, one symptom of which is an abiding discomfort with the notion of 'art rock' itself. "Too fucking middle class, that's our problem!" says Yorke. Radiohead met at the same Abingdon public school, where several members had classical music training of varying kinds. Most went on to university, Cambridge, in Colin Greenwood's case. But what are their qualifications in the university of real life? What right do they have to 'moan' about anything? How can such polite, well-educated, well brought-up, diligent, meticulous young men be 'rock 'n' roll'?
One of the things I like about Radiohead, though, is that they seem comfortable with their middle classness: not proud, conscious of the issue of privilege, but at the same time not adopting 'Mockney' accents or concealing the fact that they are widely read. Amnesiac's title, for instance, was inspired by a passage Yorke read in a book about Gnosticism. Even the fact that Greenwood went AWOL from the original interview at Courtyard's office in order to watch the first day of cricket at Lords seems, perversely, part of their authenticity.
"People distrust learning, don't they?" muses Greenwood. "There's all these stories of Miles Davis going to the Juilliard academy and poring over classical scores in the library. That side of Miles is glossed over a bit in favour of the living on the edge stuff. But it just makes me love him even more, the idea of him wanting to get musical inspiration from everything and everywhere." For his part Yorke attacks what he calls "the noble savage idea of creativity" as "a really destructive myth" and "a trap" for the artist.
"At one point, I started to believe that if you sit down and analyse what you're doing, worry about it, then you're not being your true self. But, for instance, Mark E Smith is not a noble savage--he's a fucking intellectual. With us, though, there's this suspicion of calculation all the way through what we do. Where does this come from, the idea that if you sit down and think about something you can't be emotional in any way? Maybe it's some sort of punk hangup.
"Sometimes, I think they're right about us," he muses. "Sometimes we do over-think things." He think that's why accusations of humourlessness are often directed at Radiohead, despite the fact that in interviews they're perfectly witty. "People used to throw that at The Smiths all the time, but Morrissey obviously had a sense of humour. Even something as dark as "How Soon Is Now" has a quippy element." Imputing humour deficiency is one of the classic levelling weapons in the arsenal of English anti-intellectualism, used to deflate anything radical ("bloody humourless feminists") or pretentious and arty. "How dare Radiohead take themselves so seriously?" is the subtext of much of the animus against Kid A/Amnesiac. Witness the NME album review that began with the words, "The unbearable heaviness of being Radiohead". But it's precisely the group's reinvocation of art rock earnestness, their refusal of levity and frivolousness, that is actually dissident within a pop culture pervaded with post-Loaded bluff, blokey cheer, heterosexualised camp--from Robbie Williams to the rash of 80s nostalgia TV--and 'won't get fooled again' cynicism that aims to trivialise intensity or vision-quest of any kind.
Yorke says he can understand the demand for light entertainment, though. "The reason people are so into escaping is there's a fucking lot to escape from," he concludes. "In a way, the last thing anyone needs is someone rubbing salt in the wounds, which is sort of what we're doing."