One could argue that Radiohead was the band that made the last great classic rock record with OK Computer and then proceeded to kill it with Kid A, but I think that would be a reductionist view, because what they did was to lengthen their life by destroying all the restrictions that had exhausted the genre. With a career approaching 30 years, Thom Yorke's band has delivered a number of masterpieces and has pushed the limits of what a rock band can, or cannot, play. From Guitars Exchange we want to pay tribute to them by talking about our 10 favorite songs of their career.
No Surprises starts with some light arpeggios from Ed O'Brien's Rickenbacker 360 and then gives way to an acoustic guitar, bass, drums and the privileged voice of Thom Yorke; but what gave it the special touch was Jonny Greenwood ‘putting on Brian Jones' suit’ and playing the Glockenspiel, which complement O'Brien's arpeggios. Then there is one of the most beautiful melodies ever written and Yorke's ability to bend his voice and make wonderful harmonies, all with one of the darkest lyrics of his career, embedded in a song that could pass for a lullaby. The contradiction between the pessimistic lyrics ("A heart that's full up like a landfill, A job that slowly kills you, Bruises that won't heal, You look so tired, unhappy") and the memorable melody is what makes it a masterpiece, as if Louis Armstrong sang "We’re all gonna die" to the tune of What A Wonderful World.
Four chords played over and over again, in the verses and in the chorus, four chords taken from the Hollies' The Air That I Breathe - who would have guessed that on those four tiresome chords one of the most important songs of the 90s would be built? Thom Yorke leaves his soul in a song about his mixed feelings towards a popular girl he liked, but it is Greenwood who elevates it with a guitar that sound like punches in the jaw. The song started slow, on Ed O'Brien's well-known arpeggios in his Rickenbacker 360BT, but Greenwood was not convinced so he decided to give it the edge with an overdose of distortion, hitting his Telecaster Plus mercilessly to get some of the dirtiest and angriest sounds in memory, which serve as a perfect counterpoint to Yorke's distressing screams. Any other group would have finished the song on a high, in that explosion of electricity, but this is Radiohead so they ended up lowering the tempo with that prophetic "What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here". The group ran away from the success of this tune and moved as far away from it as possible, forever after maintaining a love/hate relationship with their most famous song.
The second single from OK Computer is a mid-tempo that opens with Yorke using his Yairi DY-88 acoustic and Jonny Greenwood accompanying him on the piano, dealing with the "karma police", an in-joke for the band, which in this case was related to many of the themes of the album: dissatisfaction with capitalism and even mental health. It is an exquisite song but also disturbing and disconcerting, something that is helped by those strange final sounds that come from O'Brien manipulating the 'delay' on his guitar.
The song with which the world was introduced to the Dark Side Of The Moon of the 90s, OK Computer, could not sound more like Pink Foyd, at a time when the ‘alternative world’ still looked down on Roger Waters' band. The song is composed of different sections, close to the second side of the Beatles' Abbey Road, but again it was Jonny Greenwood who made it distinctive with one of the wildest riffs of the 90s and an explosion of distortion and electricity all of his own. Of course, the almost symphonic change to Yorke's wailing in the middle of the song is another one of the band's best moments. Greenwood's Telecaster Plus comes to life in a science-fiction solo that sounds robotic, close to the themes covered in OK Computer.
Fake Plastic Trees
The closest song to a crowd pleasing anthem, bordering on stadium rock. If they manage to avoid it, it is because of the incredible vocal performance of a sublime Yorke. Inspired by a performance by Jeff Buckley, the singer twists his privileged vocal chords, using beautiful falsettos without sounding affected. It's a heightened performance that was achieved when, after three takes with the only accompaniment of his Takamine EN10C acoustic, the singer broke down in tears. The rest of the song, the delicate strings, the somber organ and the moment when Greenwood and O'Brien's guitars are unleashed, were built on his fabulous interpretation.
Street Spirit (Fade Out)
Street Spirit (Fade Out) was the song that closed The Bends but, to a certain extent, it was the song in which Yorke and Radiohead found themselves and opened the doors to OK Computer's existential despair. It is a distressing song in which it is difficult to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel. It starts again with the arpeggios a là Johnny Marr by O'Brien, but it is Yorke who shines the brightest again with another thrilling interpretation. The singer has talked about the contradictory feelings that he gets from singing it live and seeing thousands of people happy to hear it, oblivious to what he is saying in the lyrics. This has not prevented it from being, to date, the song that has been performed live most often by the band.
If The Bends was a reaction to Creep, then Kid A was their reaction to the success of OK Computer and the avalanche of bands that came afterwards copying their formula, from Coldplay to Muse. Yorke and his crew decided to create something totally radical and new, challenging their audience like no one had done since Dylan's electric conversion in the mid-sixties. Idioteque was one of the wonders that came out of their strategy of getting away from their old instruments and finding something new. Jonny Greenwood started fiddling with a modular synthesizer and ended up with a 50-minute improvised piece that he passed on to Yorke to see what he could do with it. The singer discarded most of it but kept a small sequence that had fascinated him. In this part was a small part of a piece by electronic composer Paul Lansky, and on that he created the melody and the lyrics of this song that sounded like nothing that had ever been done before: intelligent electronics halfway between the dance hall and the psychoanalyst's. The band reinvented itself and Yorke celebrated: "Here I'm alive, everything all of the time".
There There is the best song on Hail To The Thief and one of the great moments of Radiohead in the XXI Century. The song sees the band return to their glorious guitar sound, with Thom Yorke using distortion on his 1959 Gibson ES-125T and Greenwood coming in mid-song with some arpeggios on his Telecaster, followed by an explosion of electricity. It was supposed to be a comforting song, but this is still a Radiohead song, so the feelings are mixed: "Heaven sent you to me, to me, to me? We are accidents waiting, waiting to happen".
An unforgettable song that is on my second favorite album by the band, In Rainbows, an album from which other gems could have ended up here like the glorious Nude, Jigsaw Falling into Place, House Of Cards or 15 Step. The song begins with a nimble percussion and Yorke trying to channel John Frusciante with his 1964 Gibson SG Cherry Red. Then a piano and Colin Greenwood's bass enter, while Yorke continues to polish his beautiful falsetto. Then the song stops, leaving only Yorke's voice and some vocal harmonies. Next enters a beautiful orchestral section arranged by Jonny Greenwood reminiscent of the greatness of Pet Sounds, then the percussion returns and the strings continue. It is a truly beautiful and special moment, proving right to the younger of the Greenwoods when he said that "it was when we recorded 'Reckoner' that we felt we had achieved something special.”
The fourth song that appears in this list of the essential OK Computer, has again the arpeggios of O'Brien with his Rickenbacker 360 Fireglo as a starting point. Throughout the song Greenwood enters with his Starcaster 75 at a different tempo from the rest of the band, achieving a unique counterpoint that sounds like the Velvets, although at a general level the song reminds me more of the 'Wall of Sound' by Phil Spector. Lyrically the song complained about how we are bombarded with sentimentality, making emotions sound fake. Radiohead again transforms the most absolute sadness into something totally beautiful.