A Beginner's Guide to Radiohead
  • MONDAY, JUNE 19, 2017

  • Posted by: Jake Holzman

Just a warning: right now, you're going to see a lot of posts online about the 20th Anniversary of Radiohead's masterpiece OK Computer. Even Radiohead themselves are celebrating the milestone with the upcoming re-release of the album, titled OKNOTOK. Of course, there's nothing wrong with any of this (we also like to celebrate important music anniversaries!), but I think that it's all much more catered towards current Radiohead fans than it is towards prospective fans. And that's kind of a shame. They're one of those bands whose influence is so deeply ingrained in the DNA of our favorite modern-day artists that it can be easy to take their importance for granted. But it can also be really, really intimidating for a beginner Radiohead listener to know where to start in their discography. Their sound has taken so many different shapes over the years that it might be difficult to fully understand the group, and what you can expect from their music. I'm speaking from experience there, and I think that, if someone else had helped me find my footing with the band, I would have gotten into their music much, much sooner.

With all of that in mind, lately I've been thinking back on what Radiohead's music means to me, and what they've meant to the music industry at large. So, I put this piece together in the hopes of helping prospective Radiohead fans get started with one of the most influential bands of all time.

IN A NUTSHELL…

First, please listen to this song:


Not bad, right? "High And Dry," off of the 1994 album The Bends, is one of Radiohead's most well-known and widely-loved songs. Chances are it's one of those songs you know you've heard before, but maybe you couldn't exactly place it until now. After all, it's been featured in a lot of movies and TV shows, and it's also been covered like crazy (both in ways in which you'd expect, and ways in which you wouldn't). Most people find "High And Dry" to be a catchy, moving track, and understandably so.

But here's the thing: Thom Yorke hates that song. He even said that he was "pressured" to include it in The Bends' track listing.

From this, you can make one of the most important distinctions about Radiohead: they're incredibly hard on themselves. A song like "High And Dry," that most other artists would be incredibly proud of writing, is often not good enough for them. And, to be honest, once you revisit "High and Dry" after diving deep into the Radiohead albums that are more indicative of their sound, you'll understand why. Lyrically speaking, it isn't Thom Yorke's best. Nor is it their most instrumentally compelling song… and I can just imagine Thom Yorke calling the track "overly-sentimental shite" in an argument with producer Nigel Godrich during recording sessions for The Bends (obviously, I'm quoting nothing there, because I don't know for sure that that happened… but, come on, it probably happened).

You can even see the immense pressure the band puts on themselves in their early history. Take their reaction to the success of "Creep," for example (which I'll still link you to, even though there's literally no way you haven't heard it before).


Again, that's a decent track. Radiohead fans immediately dismiss it (and the rest of their debut, Pablo Honey) as being commercialized garbage meant for the most casual of Radiohead listeners…

...and Radiohead themselves kind of felt the same way.

The first single off of their second album is basically about being suffocated by the success of "Creep." It's called "My Iron Lung," and it features lyrics like "This is our new song/ just like the last one/ a total waste of time/ our iron lung."


Radiohead's first two albums show an incredibly self-conscious alt-rock band that was still trying to figure out their identity. I'm bringing all of this up for an important reason: because Radiohead was so hard on themselves at the time, they forced themselves to experiment with their sound. These experiments led to some of the most creative, influential, and well-received albums of the past couple decades.

It's how the band went from writing music that sounded like this:


And even this:


To music that sounds like this:


...And this:


...And, more recently, this:


Something else I find fascinating about Radiohead is how often they've dug up unreleased material from their past, and made them work for the present. Ideas that the band might have only shown off live, at one point or another, often don't get official album releases until the band is sure that they know what they want to do with them. For example, the song "Nude" off of 2007's In Rainbows used to be called "Big Ideas (Don't Get Any)" when it first premiered live… way back in the 90s. The band was originally kicking it around it the studio during the OK Computer sessions, but were unsatisfied with the arrangement. Then there's the fan favorite "True Love Waits," which used to be a live-only song, dating all the way back to live shows in 1995. It sounded like this in 2003:


...But officially sounded like this in 2016:



It's a testament to how hard-working and dedicated Radiohead is to their music that it'll often take this long for a song to come out, and when it does come out it's often changed entirely.

Needless to say, if all you know of Radiohead is from the more popular singles like "High And Dry," "Creep," and even "Karma Police," then your assumptions about the band are likely wrong. They're one of the most adventurous rock bands of the last thirty years, and they've always been willing to take risks without leaving the confines of one simple goal: writing great pop music.

Or, as guitarist Ed O'Brien explained in 2001 by comparing the experience of being in a band to Woody Allen's film Annie Hall (yes, really):


START WITH OK COMPUTER

I'm not just saying this because it's the 20th anniversary of the album. I really think this is the best place to start.

Whenever I've introduced friends and family to Radiohead, I always started them off with OK Computer, and it's almost always been successful. I think the album is a great "center-point" for prospective Radiohead fans. What I mean by that is, you can start here and learn enough about the band's identity to decide where you'd want to go next in their discography. Chances are, depending on what you liked about OK Computer, you could transition towards most of their other albums easily.

Take a track like "Paranoid Android," for example:


That, right there, is Radiohead's "Bohemian Rhapsody." It's a dramatic song in multiple parts. But if you liked it, what did you like about it? Did you like how awesome the guitars sounded? Well, then go backwards to The Bends. You'll love songs like "Nice Dream," "Just," and "Street Spirit [Fade Out]." Or, you could even move forwards to Hail to the Thief, which has some of Radiohead's very best guitar songs ("2+2=5," "Go to Sleep," and "There There," among others). Then there's songs like "Bodysnatchers," from In Rainbows.

Or maybe you liked the shifting structure of "Paranoid Android." Then, you'll probably want to check out how many times the group has played around with unnatural time signatures. They've done this a few times, and krautrock fans will especially love their work in this regard. So, if that's your thing, you could either go to In Rainbows ("15 Step") or Kid A ("Morning Bell," "Everything In Its Right Place"). That would be just for starters, of course.

Maybe you were more into the moodiness and atmospheric qualities of tracks like "Let Down" and "No Surprises." Well, if that was your favorite part of OK Computer, you could go in a lot of different directions with Radiohead. But I'd say it's all the more reason to check out two albums in particular: In Rainbows and A Moon Shaped Pool. "All I Need" (one of my favorite Radiohead songs), "Nude," and "Videotape" off of In Rainbows will be right up your alley. As far as A Moon Shaped Pool is concerned, you'll probably love the whole damn album. It's one of Radiohead's most heartbreaking and atmospheric releases ("Glass Eyes," "Daydreaming," "True Love Waits," and "Ful Stop" will demonstrate that to you).


SO… ABOUT KID A

You might notice from the last section of this article that I am struggling to follow my own logic, in that I can't really find a lot of ways to connect one of Radiohead's most important albums back to OK Computer. That album is Kid A.


Kid A is the exception to my previous rule. It stands on its own, and it's easily my favorite Radiohead album. Whatever alternative rock characteristics and cliches that the band were still partially defined by, they completely shed with the release of this album. Back in 2000, it was a massive shock. Here's a great interview with Thom Yorke and Ed O'Brien, in which they relate to you the absolute horror of having to play the record for their publishing company:


Yup, the guitars are gone. Kid A was totally unexpected departure from their previous work. "Everything In Its Right Place," "Idioteque," and "The National Anthem" would have never fit on any of Radiohead's previous albums. The record is, above all else, a fantastic piece of electronica. It's the band's most successful experiment to date. Come here when you're ready, or if you simply love electronic music.



ONE MORE THING: EVERY MEMBER IS ESSENTIAL

I wanted to end with this, because it always surprises me that I don't see a lot of people talking about it.

When you think of bands in which every member is noteworthy (and by that I mean unique and recognizable in their own ways), who do you think of? Probably bands like The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, etc. Well, Radiohead should be on that list too. All five of Radiohead's members (Thom Yorke, Ed O'Brien, Colin Greenwood, Jonny Greenwood, and Philip Selway) are absolutely essential to the band's sound. While a lot of bands change their members around every few years and still manage to sound relatively the same, if any one member of Radiohead left the group, their sound would be totally compromised.

I'm gonna prove this to you really simply, with just one song. First, give it a listen:


"Airbag" is the first Radiohead song that I fell in love with. Looking back, I can totally see why: it's the absolute best example of how the band's members come together with their own unique contributions to craft Radiohead's sound.

All of the atmospheric elements you just heard in the song are thanks to guitarist Ed O'Brien. His playing is not to be ignored, as he is possibly the secret weapon behind some of Radiohead's best songs. When you listen to "Daydreaming," "All I Need," and "How to Disappear Completely," and wonder why you're in such a trance, it's likely because of him.

The lead guitarist in the band, Jonny Greenwood, has one of the most distinctive (and imitated) tones of any guitarist in recent memory. He's the one coming up with all those incredible, aggressive riffs, like the one you just listened to in "Airbag." On top of this, he's also a talented multi-instrumentalist. A lot of the group's experimentation (especially in all of those unnatural time signatures) are surely thanks to his influence. Also, he's a highly-respected film composer. The orchestral A Moon Shaped Pool would not exist without him.

Philip Selway's technique has evolved over the years from the more standard alternative rock drumming heard on Pablo Honey and The Bends to a motorik style, often heard in the music of krautrock bands like Can. You just listened to it in "Airbag," as well as an attempted imitation of the electronic drum beats of DJ Shadow. His drumming in "Pyramid Song" is also another highlight for him, as it's one of his most unique and complex performances:


Also, did you pay close attention to the bass in "Airbag"? Well, you should have. The way Colin Greenwood's bass playing pops in and out in quick, unpredictable bursts plays a big part in the song. And, in similar ways, his playing shines through on nearly all of Radiohead's songs. He demands your attention, and his contributions are some of the most memorable . He uses a similar technique to what you heard in "Airbag" in tracks like "Burn the Witch," and Radiohead songs are often centered entirely around his bass parts ("All I Need," "The National Anthem," "Dollars and Cents," etc.).

And then, of course, there's Thom Yorke, who has one of the most recognizable singing voices out there. He has a wide vocal range (from E2 to E6, apparently) and his vocals are often sung in falsetto. That falsetto isn't as present in "Airbag" as it is elsewhere, but what is present is how simply beautiful his voice is. His voice is crooning, soaring, and incredibly emotional. He has influenced an innumerable amount of singers. But it's his lyrics in "Airbag" that stand out the most, to me. He's singing about surviving a car wreck, and the invincible feeling of realizing that you've been born again into your own life ("In a fast German Car/ I'm amazed that I survived/ an Airbag saved my life/ In an interstellar burst/ I am back to save the universe"). The lyrics are just as beautiful as his singing. But here's the thing: that's true for most of Radiohead's material. Thom Yorke is one of the most underrated lyricists we've ever had.

Now go back, and listen to "Airbag" again. But this time, pay close attention to everyone's contributions.



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