Everything In Its Right Place
Why make the logical follow-up to OK Computer in a few months when you can go off your rocker for two years? Radiohead don't make things easy for themselves but now, with a new album, a new baby, and a clear head, Thom Yorke wants to talk. Kicking off a 20 page 'Head bonanza, rock's most innovative mind sits down for a very illuminating chat. “We went stark raving mad,” he tells Q.
“Frustration, tension, confusion,” recalls Thom Yorke, casting his mind back to the initial spurts of work for Kid A and its successor, Amnesiac. “We had no distance. It was so intense.” He grabs his hair and shakes his head in mock despair. “Fucking hell,” he marvels. “I was totally convinced we were heading in the wrong direction.”
Yorke may have since come to the conclusion that he was doing something right – but even now, it’s difficult to establish how the world feels about the left-turn that Radiohead announced to the world in late 2000. Certainly, as for The Bends and OK Computer, there is no universally-admiring consensus: for every convert, there is a puzzled soul wondering what on earth happened to the group who wrote Fake Plastic Trees. Only at the music’s most extreme can one possibly allude to any unanimity – it’s a fair bet, for example, that even the most hardened Radiohead zealot is occasionally tempted to nudge the next track button within the opening bars of Treefingers, the ambient wash-scape that marks Kid A's aimless lowpoint.
When Nick Hornby reviewed Kid A for The New Yorker, he sounded very un-chuffed indeed. “You have to work at albums like Kid A,” he wrote. “You have to sit at home night after night and give yourself over to paranoid millennial atmosphere as you try to decipher elliptical snatches of lyrics and puzzle out how the titles might refer to the songs. In other words, you have to be 16... Anyone old enough to vote may find that he has competing demands for his time – a relationship, say, or a job, or buying food, or listening to another CD he picked up on the same day.”
That review still festers with Radiohead's more hardcore constituency. Type “Nick Hornby, Radiohead” into any half-decent search engine, and you'll be confronted by irate screeds. They burst with both righteous anger and the idea that, in the post-millennial era, it is the fate of anything remotely cerebral to be unthinkingly cast to the margins. Surveying the “debate” – roughly, the consumers of the world running back to Chris Rea, while 27 devotees guard the entrance to their cave – you start to wonder how Radiohead have managed to sell any records at all.
Yet they have. Kid A is an American Number 1 album which got its authors on the Letterman show. In July, Radiohead will play a self-organised show to 30,000 people in Oxford. Pyramid Song entered the UK charts at Number 5. Roll over Erik Satie and tell Penderecki the news: there is room for this stuff in the mainstream.
So yes, Kid A (and Amnesiac, which we’ll come on to) requires a bit of “work”, ie you have to play it six or seven times before it decisively reveals its charms. Some of it – the title track, the aforementioned Treefingers – should arguably have remained in the box marked “discarded experiments”. But it soars to pretty dizzy heights on account of two trump cards: the simple quality of music as good as Everything In Its Right Place, Optimistic and The Morning Bell, and the fact that, at a time when most of popular music's ambitions are inch-high, it oozes the desperate desire to go somewhere utterly new.
When the two come together, and you get something s good as the bass-laden coda of The National Anthem, you can only swoon. This is the sound of people feeling duty-bound to push the envelope and pulling off their designs with breathtaking panache. That’s what The Beatles were famous for.
AND NOW WE have Amnesiac, which Nick Hornby probably won't like either. Trailed by whispers of a return to quickly-digestible rock music, which may have been mischievously put about by the group themselves, it is some distance from such talk. In terms of its prevailing characteristics, in fact, Amnesiac is – surprise! – of a piece with Kid A.
“When we were on tour with Kid A,” said Yorke recently, “We had the tapes with us and we were trying to work out a running order. I was listening to Amnesiac a lot then. And it was kind of nice, because it was the secret record. It felt like it was our secret weapon against all the weirdness going on – the fact that we had another one that nobody else had.”
Now it has crash-landed in the public domain, however, it allows yet more light to shine on the 18 months off fall-out, panic and eventual triumph – spread across Paris, Copenhagen and Oxfordshire – that marked Radiohead's progress after OK Computer. Given that there's now a definitive version of, say, You And Whose Army, you can read through Ed O'Brien's infamous studio diaries (still archived at www.radiohead.com) and start to make sense of exactly what this most self-analytical of groups has just emerged from.
“A pretty frustrating day,” he wrote on 27 July, 1999. “It starts well, with a different version of How To Disappear and Everything In Its Right Place... However, we have definitively lost our way with You And Whose Army – it was sounding great last week, so what happened today? Time to go home.”
By 7 December, the song was being re-routed somewhere very strange indeed. “Looked at You And Whose Army again from two weeks ago.” O’Brien wrote. “Tried this different vocal idea that Thom and Jonny had been going on about: three-part but with a very low bass harmony, kind of Ink Spots-esque. This is always dangerous territory, ie there would be nothing more sad than this slick sophisticated '40s vocal group sound.”
For the benefit of younger readers, the Ink Spots were a hugely popular black vocal quartet formed in the early 1930s, whose songs all began with the whimsical guitar figure later used on Toffee Crisp adverts. They're a pretty unlikely touchstone for a modern rock band. Still, for all O'Brien’s misgivings, it is the Spots-cribbing version of You And Whose Army that made the final cut.
It's a good thing, too. The song, as has been well documented, is a wry statement of defiance vis-a-vis the Blair regime – although righteous anger is what he often deserves, the most intelligent response is usually a quiet smile at the ludicrousness of it all. The Ink Spots reference makes that plain – once you know that, you're in on the joke. “It's not meant to be taken seriously – it's a funny song,” says Yorke. And he should know.
Now, with Kid A and Amnesiac completed, Thom Yorke is beginning to get his head around the vexatious path that led Radiohead here. Bouts of all-consuming anxiety are a recurrent feature: there was a huge crisis just after the start of the sessions for The Bends, and spasms of doubt and uncertainty throughout OK Computer. For that album, according to Ed O'Brien, they recorded 16 versions of No Surprises before going back to the original. This has never been a group endowed with the knack of making life easy for themselves.
And so it proved this time. “We couldn't possibly do anything straight until we'd gone and been completely arse-about-face with everything else,” Yorke said last month. “It took 373 days to be arse-about-face enough to realise it was alright the way it was.”
Now, though, Yorke seems to know where they went wrong and how to avoid it happening again. There seem to be two watchwords at the minute: order and leisure. Where once there were 15-hour sessions and 6am bedtimes, Radiohead seem to have established an altogether more structured regime. And, Yorke claims, they now appreciate the need for regular contact with the wider world, to avoid the kind of myopia that has hampered them in the past. Indeed, when he talks about it, there's an ironic echo of Fitter Happier: “At a better pace... slower and more calculated... an empowered and informed member of society.” One should also bear in mind that Yorke recently became a father: he and his long-standing girlfriend Rachel now have a son, Noah. When life takes in rusks and nappies, creative mania inevitably becomes a less manageable proposition.
Yorke was recently described as “Iegendarily hopeless at analysis of either himself or his music”. On today's evidence, that's way wide of the mark: not only can he identify most of the pitfalls into which Radiohead have tumbled, but he can also articulate the thinking behind both his grander schemes and his music's finer details. Thom Yorke, it transpires, knows what he's doing.
That isn't to suggest that all is clinical contrivance and cool heads. Amnesiac, after all, is a more human record than its predecessor-approachable, equipped with the sense of identity Kid A seemed to want to wriggle out of, altogether more emotional. Which, for one reason and another, is where we begin...
Have you ever had to abort a take in the studio because you've got too emotional while singing?
I have to be careful because the rule is, if you're moved singing a song, the result is usually shit. And it's a cruel irony: if you want to sing well, and move an audience, you have to be detached and cool yourself. It's selfish as well: a concert is a shared experience, but if the singer is concentrating on his own feelings, it stops being a shared experience. When I was recording that song with Björk [I've Seen It All], I got all emotional at one point, and she said, Don't do that, it's selfish! And she was right, because when I'm moved, I'm feeling good, but I'm not projecting the lyrics to the audience, and that's what a good recording or performance should do.
And how do you feel onstage?
The ideal mental state for me to perform live is when it feels as if I'm driving through the night. You know that feeling: driving through the woods, you're on automatic pilot, but tense because your vision is limited in the darkness. I perform best when I sort of feel as if I don't know what I'm doing. I'm just doing it, It's like an emotional automatic pilot.
When you recorded Amnesiac, were you able to go in and think pragmatically, “Today, I’ve got to lay down this guitar part”, or do you have to be totally in the right mood to record songs properly?
You mean, to what extent do I have to be obsessed by a song in order to make it work? Mmm… it depends. It's weird, because that changed. In the early days, our recording sessions were very intense and obsessive. For OK Computer, we locked ourselves away like hermits in this gothic house in Bath. There were never any disruptions. That's why we went stark-raving mad [laughs].
We were all insomniacs – keeping crazy hours, working until six in the morning, then getting up at three, and then starting again, for weeks on end. I was a mess. And when things didn't work out, there was nowhere to go: we were stuck there.
But now, we’ve got our own studio, and we walk in cold. We have leisure time: we have time for other activities, as opposed to being totally in the same mindset for weeks on end, We don't feel that the new way of working affects the music all that much, although Nigel [Godrich, producer] says that it does make a difference. Nigel says that OK Computer has this unique, tense vibe to it.
So what happens when the band and the producers are there, but you don't feel like it? Little Richard turned up at the studio one day, said “The Lord doesn't want me to sing today,” and buggered off.
“[Laughs] That's great. Tom Waits used to do that. He used to have a studio in a shed in his garden, where he recorded Bone Machine. Some days, he used to show up for two minutes, and then sigh and say, Nah, it's no good today, and leave. But for us, now, with our new studio, it takes me an hour in traffic to get over there, so once I'm there, I tend to say, Ah well, I might as well stay and give it a go, even when the mood isn't really right.
I really try to relax these days. I used to think everything was a matter of life and death, and every second spent in the studio was crucial. But that way, you go barmy and your work becomes shit because you lose all objectivity. If someone said to me, This bit doesn’t work, I used to explode.
Do you approach writing and recording like work, with set hours, or are you are bit more intuitive?
All of us in Radiohead are definitely the clocking in, clocking out type. It's almost as if we go to the office to work. I always write a song in one go, and I try to stay in the mood. But recording is different, because of the strange people we are [laughs]. I can't sustain too tense an atmosphere for too long, I don't want to get lost in music, because I'm lost as it is. I have a chaotic mind, so I need order as a counterweight to that chaos in my head.
Someone like Picasso had a very strict painting schedule: he'd clock in, start to paint at, say, nine in the morning, come out at six o’clock, and then go and have a swim. That sounds less artistic, but he got things done. With me, I have to have order. It’s very unhealthy for me to do insane, intense recording sessions like the ones we did in Copenhagen and Paris, which make the chaos outside my head as big as the one in my head. It took me a long time to realise that. I think Everything In Its Right Place was the crystallisation of that realisation. Basically that song says, I need order.
What was so bad about the recording sessions in Paris and Copenhagen [where initial, abortive work was done on the two albums]?
Well, the first couple of days were OK, but the next two weeks went badly wrong. The bizarre thing was that when we listened to the tapes from Paris a month later, it turned out we’d done some really cool stuff. And that's dangerous, because then you start to think maybe we must be fucked-up to do good work.
Bono recently said that every great band should begin with a period of just messing about, before going into the studio and starting the serious stuff.
Oh yeah. He’s right. But after OK Computer we spent too much time mucking about – mainly because I was refusing to commit to anything. And my mood of saying no to everything lasted about 18 months. What we tried to do with Kid A and Amnesiac is simply doing what feels right, as opposed to repeating the OK Computer formula and playing safe. Being adventurous and eccentric doesn't scare us, it's liberating. It used to be all pressure. Now, at last, we’re having fun days.
So how would you describe a fun day with Radiohead in the studio?
A fun day is when something actually gets done. When we can enjoy a result; we go in, try out a song, and it actually works. As opposed to me standing in the control booth tearing my hair out, going, This is shit! I'm off! I don't mean we're laughing and pissing around. The way we work, all of our time is pissing around, but none of it is light-hearted [laughs]. In other words: we experiment and play like children, but we're serious.
People don't necessarily associate a sense of humour with Radiohead...
It depends how you look at it. I do have a sense of humour, but nobody can follow it, not even my girlfriend [laughs]. There are things on Radiohead albums that I consider funny. I think the horns on The National Anthem [from Kid A] are hilarious, really funny. And the day that we recorded You And Whose Army? was a very relaxed day, and that song is nor meant to be taken seriously, it's a funny song.
We had such a good time when we did that, and we did about four takes, tried out some cool sounds, and then went home. Lovely. And that lyric is silly, surely no-one can take it seriously? I wrote it as a joke, but then we kept it because it seemed to have some nice connotations.
The lyric of that song is very threatening.
Yeah, it's saying Come and try to fight us if you think you're hard enough. But it's over the top.
The great thing about that song is that you're singing this threat very sweetly. The melody is almost a lullaby.
Yeah, it sounds much more threatening that way, than if a heavy metal band was shouting Come on if you think you're hard enough! That has to do with my interest in disembodied voices: when you're singing, you can use different voices as if you're acting out different parts in a play. I don't see why all Radiohead songs should be sung in the same voice. Then people would say, Oh, that's just Thom Yorke doing his thing. I try to sing in a way that fits the lyric and the subject of the song. If we start to fuck with the sounds and with the voice, it becomes more interesting. It gives me licence to say different things.
When was the last time you were moved by a piece of music – genuinely touched and choked, as opposed to merely being impressed?
I felt very emotional listening to old REM albums recently. I almost cried when I heard Electrolite from New Adventures In Hi-Fi. I hadn't heard those songs for a while. I thought they're amazing. And when REM were making that, we knew them, and when you meet the artist and befriend them, it gives you a different perspective, so it took me a couple of years to be able to hear those songs for themselves, and not think, Oh, it's Michael and the boys. The same thing happened with Up. It didn't affect me at the time, because I was a bit worried about Michael – weird things were going on then. But now, I find a song like Sad Professor very moving.
You mentioned The National Anthem. In the outro there's a snippet of classical music. What is it?
God knows. Jonny was just sitting on the roof meddling with his radio, and we just chose that little classical bit at random, and stuck it at the end. Some of the best recordings happen as pure accidents: you just tune into some channel and something blares out at you.
We used that idea on the Tent Tour, last year: when we played Climbing Up The Walls, we had a real radio playing, and the most random shit came out. We never used a sampler – it was just a radio. Which was weird because some nights a snippet of a local cookery programme would come on, while we were trying to build up this really serious, dramatic sound [laughs]. That was funny, because the local audience could understand what the cook was saying, and we couldn't.
In the live set you're playing this summer, what's the real Heart Of Darkness moment?
We've got quite a few songs that are pretty dark. On the Tent Tour last year, we did I Might Be Wrong [from Amnesiac], and that sounded very tense, very dark, almost menacing, especially because people didn't know it. We set up an enormous light box behind us, and one of the roadies stood in it with devil's horns on, which made it even more menacing [laughs]. You couldn't see him, but when the strobe lights flickered, you could see the shadows of the horns on the big screen. We didn't have it at all the gigs, because sometimes the guy chickened out. Because that strobe light is so powerful, if he turned around, he'd go blind. Satan chickened out – that's a phrase you won't hear often [laughs].
When we do Dollars And Cents live now, it sounds very dark and tense. We get loads of people on our Website saying the live version of Dollars And Cents is much better than the one on Amnesiac. The live one is just a lot faster.
A theory for you. Kid A seemed evocative of scenery – both cityscapes and natural grandeur. Can you see that?
It is very much about scenery. When we started working on it, I spent a lot of my time going on walking tours in the south of England. I explored forests and mountains and rivers. I'd never done that before. I bought that book by Julian Cope [The Modern Antiquarian}, and followed in his footsteps. I also bought another book about Standing Stones and did walking tours to those ancient monuments. I became almost obsessed. So maybe it's because of those leisure activities that Kid A sounds like a landscape soundtrack. It's perfect for walking around and travelling with.
On your Website, a Russian sculptor said he bought a Bulgarian bootleg of OK Computer, which is slightly surreal. Have any of your songs turned up in even stranger places?
The strangest one was when Kid A came out, and Ed was driving around London. He was listening to one of the pirate radio stations, and one had an unknown local rapper who'd got hold of The National Anthem, and sped it up, and over that faster version he did a skank. Ed said it sounded fucking amazing. That's the coolest thing, I love that. Ed said it didn't sound like a Radiohead song anymore, because the skank was mixed to the foreground, and our music was underneath. But it sounded great.
They've just asked us to compose the anthem for the Winter Olympics. That would be strange [laughs]. We're tempted, but there's so much sponsorship and advertising involved, and I don't want Radiohead associated with some cigarette brand that sponsors the Olympics.
You reportedly give these obscure directions when you're working on songs. Instead of saying, This should have a lot of feedback and an abrasive sound, you say things like, This should sound as if you're whacking two wet teabags against the wall.
Yeah, that's true. I tend to do that. In a way, that’s what I enjoy most, and what we’ve become good at: the ability to describe music in an original way, and approach it in an original way. We might be stuck, working on a certain song and I'd say, Maybe this should be a wall of howling feedback, but with the sound of the wheel of all old bike spinning – an old bike, not a new one, because an old one provides a better sound. Sometimes that’s the only way to come up with things that haven't been done yet.
If I describe the music I hear in my head – like, It’s two sumo wrestlers fighting it out in a glassware shop, it tickles the other musicians' imaginations, and by trying to create a sound that resembles two sumo wrestlers fighting in a glassware shop, we come up with new sounds.
The only way of working also compensates for the fact that, technically, I'm a very limited musician. 1’ve got a piano at home now, but there's no chance in hell that I could play this [the jazzy piano music playing in the café]. I can only play, like, four chords. I'm lucky we have Jonny, who's very technical. Jonny did all the horns in The National Anthem. The only suggestion I made was, Let's make the horn section sound like the traffic in New York. Or people stuck in a lift who're really tense and who aren't far from killing each other.
Any other examples of strange instructions?
Sometimes we're very blatant about our influences; about taking other people's records and taking a sound and appropriating it for a song. For instance, for You And Whose Army? the inspiration was The Ink Spots. Jonny and Colin are Ink Spots freaks. So they brought in one of their Ink Spots records and said, What about this kind of sound for You And Whose Army? And that sound, distorted, really helped the song along.
On Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box, you do this kind of Speaking In Tongues singing. But buried in the mix there's someone making sheep noises which you can only hear on headphones.
[Laughs] They did that when I was away. That's Nigel Godrich and Ed mucking about. Amusing themselves by imitating sheep. But that Speaking In Tongues effect is really cool. We got bits of software for the musical computer programmes that don't really work. And sometimes faulty gear produces odd sounds.
I hate to say this, but we’ve all got laptop computers, and some of the days we only played our instruments for half an hour, and worked for the rest of the day on our laptop computer programmes. It’s sad and idiotic, isn't it – five musicians communing by computer. But it was necessary to get all these shreds of interesting sound together. And then we had to force ourselves to pick up our guitars and play, simply to exercise. For a long time, I detested guitars. Now, I kind of miss them.
What do you play as warm-up exercises?
Covers, mostly. At one point, we were doing Stone Roses songs really fucking badly [laughs]. And we played songs by The Smiths, and Magazine, just jamming stuff. In a sense, Knives Out is our nod to The Smiths. Ed played Knives Out to Johnny Marr a while ago, and he liked it.
Playing cover versions is a new thing for us, we never did that before. Maybe its because Ed and Phil went off and did that concert with Neil Finn [his celeb-splattered homecoming in Auckland]. It was so funny: at first they were going to do two Crowded House songs with Neil, but then Ed kept getting sent CDs. In the end, he had to learn 50 songs [laughs]. And the best thing was: he'd be flying for 15 hours to get to New Zealand, and when he finally got there, they drove him straight to rehearsal, so he didn't see a thing of the country [laughs].
On Like Spinning Plates, you sing the lyric backwards. Or is the tape played backwards?
That was Nigel’s idea. I sang ach line. Then they cut it up, and spun every word backwards, and pasted it back together. Then you got an entire line in reverse, but with the words in the correct order. And then I spent a couple of hours singing along to my own singing in reverse, until I could copy that weird reverse singing pretty well. And then I sung the reverse bit myself, which sounds ghostly, like speaking in tongues during some religious African ritual, as if a ghost speaks through me. It took a long time to do, but it was worth it.
Where are you with your sleeve art at the moment?
The artwork for Amnesiac is very different from our other CDs. The artwork for Kid A was really deliberately cold, because we wanted to project distance – as if someone was saying, I don't want to get involved in this. With Amnesiac, our first plan for the art work was to look for old, battered, worn-out books. There are a lot in Oxford: when a don dies, his collection of books comes on the market. I bought a complete set of 19th century books, The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, at the local Oxfam.
We wanted to go to antiquarian booksellers and buy loads of 19th century old books and cut them up the size of a CD case, and include one page of an old book with every copy. But someone at EMI told us that cutting them up would be considered disrespectful to books.
Name a really worn-out record in your collection.
There's an album by a band called Miracle Legion, called Surprise, Surprise, Surprise. They were on Rough Trade. The singer's a man called Mark Mulcahy, who has an album out now. I bought the Miracle Legion record in London, because we couldn't get it in Oxford. And me and my brother wore it out. I hadn't played it in 10 years, but I've got a tape of it in my car now, and I've been playing it compulsively, because it has a very particular mood that you get sucked into. And now I think, No more, I can't bear it anymore.
And to finish: name a film you'd have loved to do the soundtrack for.
Oh, definitely Brazil, the Terry Gilliam film. Fantastic movie. I would get down on my knees and beg Terry Gilliam to let us do the soundtrack for that movie. Or for one of his other movies, like 12 Monkeys. I adored that. It had stuff in it that seemed to come out of my head.
AND WHERE, PRAY tell, do Radiohead go now? In 1997, Yorke identified the slipstreams of his band’s albums as something of a danger zone. “You go through phases of hyperactivity and a lot of it will be bollocks,” he said. “There’s an initial period when you've finished a record and it's over, so you get this surge, like, New stuff! Yes! Fucking hell! New stuff. And it's never that great, usually. You get frustrated with all the things you've forgotten to say on the record you've just done, the things you wanted to put across. But actually you realise that you HAVE said them.”
That might form part of the explanation why Radiohead's initial hints about when their next album might sound like always prove so wide of the mark. Before OK Computer, the band thought they were about to make a stripped-down album akin to Talking Heads' 1977. When asked what might follow that album, Yorke said he quite fancied “a straightforward, optimistic record”. Ed O’Brien reportedly wanted to make an album full of artful three-minute guitar-pop, not unlike The Smiths. And THEN look what happened.
Still, poring over the group's recent pronouncements, you find one or two common threads. “We've talked about doing a guitar album next,” Colin Greenwood said. “The reason we did these two records is to show that anything is possible rather than everything is expected; the last thing we wanted to do was go into the studio and make another version of OK Computer. My best guess for the next album is a combination of Amnesiac with more guitar music. We try not to insult or bore our audience, because we're aware their tastes are moving on as well as ours with music, and it's exciting to be part of that.”
Now, skim back through the interview above, and you find a not-dissimilar sentiment. To recap, then: “For a long time,” says Thom Yorke, “I detested guitars. Now, I kind of miss them.”
CONSTRUCTION TIME AGAIN
Radiohead’s recent, No Logo tour across Britain and Europe took place in specially constructed marquees which the band took with them to each venue, carny-style. Here’s how…
1 & 2: The Radiohead big top freakshow occupies three venues at once. With three sets of 12 poles and two 100,000 capacity Kyam tents, the last show is dismantled, while the next is pitched in two days by a crew of eight, and meanwhile the current venue is transformed into a mobile stadium.
3: Ensuring a steady power supply at all times, the tent has two synchronised 550 KVA generators in addition to local supplies.
4: The mixing desk possesses 48 mono and four stereo inputs.
5: The state-of-the-art PA features seven speakers on each side of the tent, pointing across the audience. These take three hours to put up, angle and then align with lasers for top fidelity. Supplementing them are two onstage overhands and two speaker stacks just to make sure those at the front don’t miss out.
6: In the post-Kid A universe, the band take two pianos on tour, a real one and an electric keyboard, which everyone except drummer Phil has to play.
7, 8 & 9: Lighting the band’s brave new techno world requires 88 show lights, some fairy lights and around 100m of light rope. The backdrop is actually a huge lightbox. Three flat screens – one on each side of the text and one towards the back – relay a mixture of live (from seven cameras) and pre-recorded freaky images to undermine the global capitalist oligarchy.
10: The tent also features a purpose-build laser which projects shapes entirely controlled by the uncompromisingly futurist sounds Thom and the boys make.
11: So uncompromising, in fact, that the band has to ban crowd-surfing and moshing.
12: Finally, with Kid A brutally cast kicking and screaming into an unsuspecting world, shaking the very foundations of the World Trade Organisation, there’s still time to get a T-shirt or perhaps try on a unisex Radiohead dress at the merchandise stall. Who said this big top had no clowns?
The wealth of avant-gardery that informs Kid A and Amnesiac – all at your local Woolies. Possibly.
Richard D James, Warp, 1996
The Cornish electronic maverick first pricked Thom Yorke’s earsback in 1992 with his benchmark debut, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, but it’s the clattering claustrophobia and malevolent wit of James’s fourth album that helped Yorke overcome his post-OK Computer writer’s block and subsequently seeped into Kid A and Amnesiac. Haunting melodies criss-cross sliced-and-diced playground vocals over a bedrock of crackling beats, with regular explosions of aural violence – sound familiar?
As heard on: Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors
Boards of Canada
Music has The Right To Children, Warp, 1998
For those who feel life’s just too short to pretend to like headache-inducing abstract techno, this is the easy-access beginner’s version. The remarkable debut by Scots duo Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin was recorded in a bunker in northern Scotland, and evokes dimly remembered childhoods: naïve pastoral melodies, the distant sound of infants at play and the faint sense that something isn’t quite right. There are flashes of un-Radiohead-like jollity on tracks like Roygbiv, but the abiding sense of disquieting beauty connects with Kid A’s quieter moments.
As heard on: Everything In Its Right Place
LP5, Warp, 1998
The career highlight for Mancunian uneasy listening specialists Sean Booth and Rob Brown – ideal if grumpy, cerebral electronica is your bag. Titles such as Acroyear2 and Caliper Remote are an early indication that this isn’t exactly Phats And Small, but there are enough tunes buried in there to temper the savagery. Asked by Spin magazine to pick his favourite records of 2000, Yorke broke ranks and picked this “because nobody else in the whole world has made anything this year that sounds even close to this record. It sounds exactly like the daily chaos in my brain” This may or may not be a good thing.
As heard on: Idioteque
OHM: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music, Ellipsis Arts, 2000
Aka Jonny Greenwood’s record collection in one 3CD package. This compilation traces the evolution of pre-techno electonica over six decades and 42 tracks, including such boffins as Brian Eno, John Cage, Steve Reich and Karlheinz Stockhausen. It’s not so academic that you feel the need to take notes, either. Opening track Messaien’s Oraison features the Ondes Musicales, a primitive electronic instrument played by Greenwood on Kid A, while Paul Lansky’s Six Fantasies On A Poem was sampled on Idioteque. “Where electronic sound began,” Greenwood rightly comments.
As heard on: Kid A [the track]
Epitaph, Columbia, 1990
Mingus connoisseurs will argue Epitaph is not his best and they have a point: he’d been dead for a decade by the time it was recorded (by a cast of thousands, including some ex-associates). It does, however, include Freedom, the inspiration for Pyramid Song and, by extension, Everything In Its Right Place. “I was just trying to duplicate that really,” Yorke confesses. “Our first version of Pyramid Song even had the claps that you hear on Freedom.”
As heard on: Pyramid Song
Bitches Brew, CBS, 1969
This hipster essential was an oft-cited influence on OK Computer (notably Subterranean Homesick Alien) and rears its head again on the gruelling dynamics of Amnesiac’s Dollars And Cents. Nobody making jazz-influenced rock, or vice versa, can escape the shadow of this landmark in jazz. It revolutionised both genres, thanks both to Davis’s combination of abstract improvisation with muscular rock rhythms and producer Teo Macero’s ahead-of-his-time use of editing, looping and sound effects. Like splitting the atom, a good idea since put to terrifying use.
As heard on: Dollars And Cents
Agaetis Byrjun, Fat Cat, 2000
Ten years ago this Icelandic quartet would have been called shoegazers and given a Chapterhouse support slot, but the vast, wintry beauty of these songs is something else entirely. Singer Jon Thor Birgisson’s high-pitched, indecipherable vocals and the dreamlike haze they generate recall Radiohead’s more narcoleptic moments. Not surprisingly, they were support on selected Kid A tour dates and raves about by Yorke “because I can’t sing that high. It sounds like… sitting in a Land Rover in frozen wastes with the heater blowing.”
As heard on: How To Disappear Completely
Art Ensemble of Chicago
Les Stances A Sophie, EMI, 1970
The quintet’s forbidding name says Go elsewhere for fat-bottomed party trills, but Jonny Greenwood approvingly describes this effort as the “perfect blend of free jazz and soul-funk”, which means the horns may honk and squonk but your hips can wiggle too. Living in Paris, the quintet recorded this for New Wave director Moshe Misrahi. It was never used, but turned out to be a defining piece of avant-garde jazz, featuring the vocals of Fontella Bass (of Rescue Me fame). Theme De Yoyo is a milestone in jazz-funk, back when that word didn’t evoke images of Jamiroquai’s hat.
As heard on: The National Anthem
Ambient 4 (On Land), EG Records, 1982
One of many potential Kid A-inspired mini-debates is Treefingers: essential mid-album breathing space or a whole lot of nothing? If you lean towards the latter, you may want to steer clear of the fourth in the ambient series that Eno began with Music For Airports. Proponents of the breathing space theory should investigate this mellow offering, written to soothe away the stresses of life in New York in the early ‘80s. It has an equally handy application if you’ve had all the Autechre and free jazz you can take.
As heard on: Treefingers
Tago Mago, Spoon 1971
A prog-rock double album for those who don’t like them, ie most of us. A compelling argument for why all modern rock this side of Toploader owers a debt to long-haired Germans and a must-have for any aspiring hipster. The Cologne group’s third album has it all, from spooky minimalism to planet-sized grooves. Long-time Radiohead faves, their influence is writ large on The National Anthem, which shades of Damo Suzuki’s breathy, indistinct vocals and the way bassist Holger Czukay’s trance-like repetition generates angular white funk. Pressed-for-time dilettantes might want to dip into the fine Cannibalism compilations first.
As heard on: The National Anthem