OK Computer is 20, part 4 – Guest post #2

And now, stepping up to the plate, Melanie Crew.

Écoutez-vous la musique pop?

That was the important question posed to us one day, in our secondary school French class. My answer was simple. “Je n’aime pas la musique pop.” I don’t like pop music. Aware that my answer was controversial, at a time when all kids liked pop music, I was willing to subject myself to potential ridicule in what was, quite possibly, my first act of rebellion.

My abstension from pop music didn’t last all that long. Within a few years I was glued to Radio One’s chart show like everyone else, engrossed in All Saints videos and dreaming of becoming the fifth member of a girl band called N-Tyce who my family and I had, by chance, seen perform in Capital FM’s cafe in Leicester Square. I mention this gig as the year was significant. 1997 – the year Paranoid Android was released.

I probably wasn’t even aware of Radiohead in 1997. I remember complaining about Oasis every time their songs were played on the radio, but indie and rock music was largely unknown to me: my attention was focused elsewhere. A few years later, when I left London to go to university in Kent, I took with me a few of my favourite CDs: Illumina by Alisha’s Attic, and Mariah Carey’s Greatest Hits.

In the year 2000, I wasn’t listening to Pulp or Blur or any other band with guitars. Not at first anyway. Not until I heard a very strange song night after night, which someone – I always assumed it was just one person – kept putting on the jukebox in Rutherford Hall’s dingy little bar, not far from my room. If I had to name one song that shaped my musical tastes, it was Paranoid Android. Not long after that I started going along to the campus rock club and enjoying songs like Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name. My initiation into rock music had begun. I’d discovered something wonderful: the guitar.

I don’t know what it was exactly about Paranoid Android that I found so captivating. I remember being in my room and hearing a really mournful voice coming from the jukebox. I’d listen carefully, and wonder who it could be. Back then, of course, there was no Shazam to identify the mystery singer. I didn’t even have a smartphone to Google the lyrics. I don’t know how or when I found out it was Radiohead, but I do know that hearing that song changed my understanding and appreciation of what truly constitutes great music.

It was the tonal quality of Yorke’s vocal, the chord changes, the layers of guitar, the strange spoken words in the background. As an introverted student discovering new ways of thinking, lyrics like “with your opinions that are of no consequence at all” just really appealed to me. And I was left spellbound by the song’s melody: the way that the melody, initially, rises and falls in each line, with a different note for each word: “Please could you stop thar noise I’m trying to get some rest”, before one word is drawn out – “what’s thaaaaaaaaaaaat?” You just didn’t hear that kind of thing on the radio.

Nowadays I always say that there’s no need for a song to be over three minutes long. Paranoid Android is over six minutes, yet it never becomes dull – not even after hearing it many, many times. Probably that’s due to the fact the song encompasses different sections. There’s the section at the start, then – after about two minutes – some noisy, insanely complicated  distorted guitar parts, interspersed with snarling lyrics like “squealing gucci little piggy”, and – when you least expect it – a beautiful, rousing, choral section with layers of harmonies sitting behind the lead vocal. Then more crazy guitar riffs at the end.

Paranoid Android is four different songs in one, but somehow it works. It’s an incredible piece of work. And what I find really surprising, given how uncoventional the song structure is, is that Radio One played it several times a day. If I’d heard it on the radio in 1997, who knows what I would have thought of it. But hearing it a few years later, straining to listen from my room, and feeling so far away from the people talking and laughing in the bar, yet somehow so connected with music, was an experience I won’t forget.

 

OK Computer is 20, part 3 – Guest post #1

Actually, let’s do something different. I’m going to hand this one over to Sara Kriegel:

This album. I don’t remember when I bought it. I’m not really that kind of music geek. I remember thinking Creep was stupid and ignoring Radiohead for a while. Then I saw the video for High & Dry. I have no idea even if I owned The Bends before OK Computer. Possibly not. It certainly hardly matters.

What does matter is the utter devotion/partial (total) obsession that came at some point. I watched, full of admiration and a bit of envy, as one of my friends at school learned the guitar parts and played along with the whole album. I listened to it hundreds of times. I hit repeat on track 5 thousands of times. I know exactly how the record starts, and what happens after that. When I hear any song on the radio, I hear the next one begin when it ends. I could listen to it in my head right now. but I won’t. I will keep writing this (soz).

Probably every paper I wrote at uni was written to this album (or The Bends). I had more than one copy so I could leave one in my car. We blasted it out the window while playing Frisbee. We smoked a fair amount of weed and talked endlessly about it. Listen to it again – I guarantee you will hear something you didn’t before. Every fucking time, it gets me all over again.

What the hell do you really say about this record? Guitars, drums, vocals. Goddammit, every angle – nailed. Just Airbag – the first five seconds are a revelation. Who opens a rock album with sleighbells?

People like to accuse Radiohead of being depressing. Those people are depressing. OK, the lyrics lean towards the dystopian, but how can you listen to this and not feel amazing? LISTEN TO WHAT THESE GUYS MADE, DUDE!!! It’s awesome! COME ON!

I even love what I hate. The line in SHA, “making home movies for the folks back home”. I am a big enough nerd to know that was not the original version of this line, and I’ll admit the song on the album is better than previous attempts, but I still believed then that Thom could have sorted that out if he wanted to. But, as with a person, faults become an integral part of what you adore about them. Plus, by the time shit starts swirling around and Thom Yorke is yelling “uptight” over and over, you hardly care anymore.

We don’t need a breakdown of every song here, but I’d be remiss, and Ross would faint of shock, if I didn’t mention Let Down. I don’t know how this song isn’t in the canon of whatever best things are that ever happened to humanity. Phil Selway was hosting a 6 Music show not that long ago, and lamented that they never played it live initially (to which I can attest: five states’ and three countries’ worth of Radiohead gigs in the 2000s always left me – yes, I’m going to do it – let down). but they play it now, now that I’ve given up on seeing them live again because it’s expensive and what really is going to top the first time i saw them in Newport, Wales, in their own acoustically perfect tent in 2000? Baked out of my mind, lying on the ground watching the sunset-pink clouds go by during No Surprises, being SO excited (youth) when they played Lucky because it has my name in it… Yeah, nothing.

Hmm, digress. First Exit Music ends. You’ve been without gravity in the darkness for just over four minutes. Very bad things are going on. But then, suddenly there is a difference between the sky and the horizon… what the FUCK is that guitar doing? I dunno, and before you have a chance to figure it out, here come the drums, doing something equally perfect. Just when you get used to that, enter Thom with lyrics that I’m convinced are just not depressing; they just sounded right along with the music. As a matter of fact, I have no interest in what this song is really about. And crashing cymbals. And all these bouncing dinging twanging noises that take up space in your brain. Then… ‘a chemical reaction, hysterical and useless’… ‘floor collapsing, falling’. Maybe I’m the only one who thinks this, but basically that is love in a nutshell. It’s a love song.

Best if I stop here, and with this: I’m not sure there will ever be speakers big enough or knobs that go to 11 enough for me when it comes to listening to OK Computer. It is possibly why I have tinnitus (which, incidentally, Brits pronounce oddly*).

*This intrigued me, so I asked Sara what she meant and the following conversation was the result. Two useful things to know: Sara is my boss. She’s American.

Ross Palmer [12:19]:

how do brits pronounce tinnitus? how do you pronounce it?

Sara Kriegel [12:20]:

i say tin eye tus

you say tin it tus

Ross Palmer [12:20]:

but that’s correct!

Sara Kriegel [12:20]:

no it’s not

it’s stupid

how do you pronounce

bronchitis?

SUCK IT

Ross Palmer [12:20]:

but the word is related to tintinnabulation – a faint ringing sound

the suffix -itis means inflamtion

tinnitus is not inflamation of the tin

you suck it!

Sara Kriegel [12:30]:

it’s itus

Ross Palmer [12:32]:

you’re wrong

Sara Kriegel [12:33]:

you’re fired

OK Computer is 20, part 2 – Guitars

At bottom, the approach to arrangement that Radiohead’s three guitarists developed during the making of The Bends and perfected while recording OK Computer was simply a matter of listening to what each player was doing and then taking a contrasting approach. Jonny’s playing a distorted riff on the low E string? Then Ed plays a high-pitched melody with a clean tone. Neither Ed nor Jonny are strumming chords? Thom can do that, then.

It sure sounds simple, but rock music has seldom been all that big on this method of arrangement, as it requires the restraint to sometimes play nothing, or very little, if one of your colleagues has already filled all the space with a part that works. Far more tempting to join in, to try to create a bigger sound – and in the 1990s, that was the done thing. The era of Nevermind, Dirt, Copper Blue, Loveless and Siamese Dream was the era of the big guitar sound. On Pablo Honey, Radiohead tried to do this too, but as always happens when it’s not done well, the failed attempt to create a big sound resulted in a small sound.

Far better, if you have three good players and the ambition to try to use them, is to abandon that idea of multi-tracking lots of versions of the same thing, and instead craft guitar parts that complement and contrast. Hence Airbag, Paranoid Android and the beautiful overlapping, cascading guitars on Let Down, one of the best recordings that Radiohead have made, on which the combination of melodies and textures was astonishingly rich.

One of the results of this new approach was a greater visibility for Ed O’Brien (his work on, for example, No Surprises – the high-register arpeggio riff that plays throughout, and contrasting stuff in the middle-8 instrumental section – is absolutely gorgeous) but it takes nothing away from him to say that Radiohead’s strongest weapon remained Jonny Greenwood’s trademark squonky lead guitar – the stuff that made so many guitarists of my generation into lifelong worshippers at the church of Jonny. The Bends is probably still the go-to album if your interest in Radiohead derives mainly from a love of Greenwood’s guitar mangling, but there’s lots to get stuck into on OK Computer, too.

I’ve written before about The Tourist, the closing track. I still absolutely love it. When Greenwood’s raging guitar solo shatters the uneasy calm of the song’s previous three and a half minutes, it’s a moment as raw and exciting as his infamous muted grunts just before the chorus of Creep. It’s often said by folks who dislike fast guitar playing that if you can’t sing along to it, then it’s not a good solo. They’re definitely on to something, but how to account for a solo that’s primarily about texture? You couldn’t sing along to Greenwood’s playing on The Tourist, yet it’s a great solo. It’s not that it’s devoid of melody; it’s that the importance it places on being singable is way below that which it places on noise, on jaggedness and on impurity of form as sonic metaphor for emotion (remember that The Tourist mixes up bars of 12/8 and 9/8, so the song’s very metre resists the deployment of easy riffs and phrases). It’s like some sort of unstoppable eruption.

As are the two solos on Paranoid Android. The first deploys rapid tremolo picking and that old faithful lead technique, the oblique bend, to ear-grabbing effect, while the latter sounds like Greenwood’s envelope filter pedal has grabbed the guitar off him and started playing itself.

To pick just one more example of cool Jonny stuff, the chorus of Lucky sees Greenwood playing a soaring, swooping melody underneath Yorke’s vocal. The similarities between his approach to lead guitar and that of violin player have been pointed out often enough, but this is another one of those songs that reminds us that Greenwood’s training came from playing viola in school orchestras, and that, coupled with his lack of interest in traditional blues-derived lead guitar, does much to explain his singular style. Full marks, too, for Ed O’Brien’s super creative work on the song, which sees him strumming the strings behind the nut while using delay and modulation to create that pulsing/wooshing noise that runs underneath the intro and verses.

Next time, we look at Colin, again, and Thom Yorke’s bits and bobs.

eob3.png
Got enough pedals, Ed?

OK Computer is 20, part 1

On the whole, I try not to put myself into this blog too much. If you’re reading it, I decided at the outset, you’re reading it because a particular song interests you and you want to find out more about it, not the guy writing about it.

But all responses to art are necessarily subjective. I can try to tell you why a piece of music makes me feel the way it does when I hear it, but I can’t guarantee you’ll feel the same way about it as I do when you hear it. The weaker pieces on this blog are hamstrung by my attempt to present an objective front on music I’m heavily invested in personally, and saying nothing about how and why the music really matters to me as a result.

I just can’t do that with the record we’re going to talk about today. It played too big a role in my life as a music listener, fan and musician.

Which is a long way of saying that we’re going to talk about Radiohead’s OK Computer, which turns 20 in May.

I also can’t take my jumbled-up thoughts and turn them into one coherent post. It would verge on book-length, and take several months to finish. Instead, I’ll do a few posts on little aspects of it that interest me, for as long as I can find things to say.

*

When OK Computer came out, I was fifteen, already a fan of the band, and I was waiting for it. Paranoid Android had been released and was a pretty sizable hit single, and like many, I’d gone from being slightly bemused by it to loving it and wanting more. When it did arrive, OK Computer demonstrated a fair few changes from the group’s Bends-era sound, and while I hesitate to use the word progression – much was lost as well as gained – the record is more arrangementally complicated than The Bends.

Most obviously, the band dialled back the heavy guitars even more than they had on The Bends. There are notable distorted parts on Airbag, Paranoid Android, Electioneering, Climbing Up the Walls, Lucky and The Tourist, but most of that is lead guitar; there’s almost nothing in the way of the multitracked distorted rhythm parts that were the foundation of the band’s early sound and of ’90s rock more generally. This more than anything else made OK Computer sound forward-thinking in 1997 – in place of wind-tunnel guitars, there were several complementary, counterpoint parts. It was now possible to pick out which of the guitarists was playing what at any one moment.

The band’s new arrangement techniques are established on the album’s first song, Airbag. Jonny Greenwood plays the distorted bass string riff, Ed O’Brien plays the high-register melody, and Thom Yorke strums the chords. Colin Greenwood doesn’t start playing until well into the first verse, and Phil Selway’s drums are distorted and possibly cut up.* Even more than they had on The Bends, the band members were listening intently to each other, creating space for each other, taking pains to respond to each other without obscuring or overlapping.

This didn’t end up being the group’s permanent MO, as tracks where all three guitarists all played guitar at the same time became rarer in the Radiohead canon starting from Kid A. But it was clearly an important step in the band’s development, one that I remember reading Ed O’Brien talk about excitedly and at length in a Total Guitar interview at the time. It had been a lesson hard learned over the course of the preceding four years and a lot of recordings, some of which sound pretty unimpressive today.

We’ll come back to this more in our discussion of particular songs. But for now I’ll leave you with a picture of Jonny Greenwood playing his Starcaster with a violin bow. Had we all violin bows and Starcasters, perhaps we’d do the same.

Jonny.jpg

*Some of the effects on the album, such as the distorted drums, sound the far side of banal now, in a world where even the most basic DAW has a plug-in that, when applied, can do a passable version of the Airbag drum sound. It’s only fair to keep in mind that OK Computer is an endlessly emulated and referred-to ur-text for a lot of this stuff.

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 5: Mercy, Mercy Me by Marvin Gaye

James Jamerson, the man widely and repeatedly cited as the greatest bass player in the history of popular music (or at least the greatest bass guitarist), was a genius, peerless.

But unfortunately, Jamerson had a weakness for alcohol, a weakness that would eventually lead to cirrhosis of the liver and his death. Motown found that they needed a reserve in Detroit who could be relied on to turn up on time and deliver the goods when Jamerson couldn’t.

Babbitt was that man. He had come into contact with some moonlighting Funk Brothers, including Jamerson himself, while playing sessions at a studio called Golden World, owned by R&B producer Ed Wingate. Through this association, Babbitt found himself playing in Stevie Wonder’s live band, and then Berry Gordy acquired Golden World for Motown. Guys like Uriel Jones and Benny Benjamin who had played with Babbitt at Golden World for Wingate’s sessions knew Babbitt could play – and read written charts – to a high standard, so when the decision was made to try to find a bassist who could bring something of Jamerson’s style to the sessions Jamerson couldn’t make, Babbitt got the call. His first session was Wonder’s version of We Can Work It Out.

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On brought out the best in every musician involved in cutting it, and Babbitt was no different. Jamerson plays on the lion’s share of the cuts, but Babbitt got the sessions for Inner City Blues, Wholly Holy and Mercy Mercy Me.

Mercy Mercy Me has always been my favourite of them. Babbitt’s bass is a big, but not destablising, presence in the mix, and the pattern he plays is glorious. He locks in with the dominant kick-drum strokes at the front of each bar on the root note, before playing a funky melodic pattern with the octave note and fifth, stressing the downbeat by playing the first of those prominent octave notes in time with the snare. I love grooves that work like this, that add high-register melodic elements to a great low-end pocket. John Klinberg’s bass line on Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic is another favourite of mine for exactly the same reason.

He plays that pattern on the E, C# minor and F# minor chords, but changes things up on the B by playing a funky vamp mainly on the root, but incorporating a little chromatic run back up to the E.

It’s details like that run, so like what we think of when we think of James Jamerson’s playing, that have led many to assume he was the player on Mercy Mercy Me. Nowhere but Motown would Babbitt be in anyone’s shadow. He may have gotten his start at Motown because he could reproduce the Jamerson style when called upon, but the man was his own player, and is one of the finest there has ever been.

Inner City Blues; Mercy Mercy Me; Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours; Midnight Train to Georgia; Ball of Confusion; Agent Double-O-Soul; Band of Gold. All Babbitt, all classics.

 

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 4: Fixing a Hole by The Beatles

So Paul McCartney’s a good bassist, huh? Well, thank you, Captain Obvious.

OK, I know picking a McCartney performance isn’t controversial, but this series isn’t called Underrated Bass Players I Have Loved, otherwise you’d have had a series of posts from me about Fred Abong, Jason Moulster and Steve Boone.

The point is, McCartney’s genius in all its forms – singer, songwriter, bass player, guitarist, arranger, producer – is taken for granted these days. It’s not just his accomplishments as a songwriter that are simply filed away as something everybody knows about. While a quick Google search for “Paul McCartney’s best bass lines” will pull up dozens of articles about the man, almost all of them concentrate on the most obvious stuff: his work on songs such as Something, Taxman, Hey Bulldog, Come Together and Tomorrow Never Knows. These articles don’t actually help all that much; they don’t encourage us to listen, and just reinforce old news and received opinions.

To get Macca as a bassist, the thing to do is to throw yourself into some Beatles albums, to hear the stylistic breadth his playing covers, and how his playing elevates even The Beatles’ least legendary records.

To illustrate this, I could have picked one of several dozen songs, but let’s look at Fixing a Hole, from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Fixing a Hole has a sparse arrangement, in which the two key instruments are harpsichord (played, it would seem, by George Martin) and bass guitar: there is no rhythm guitar, as John Lennon plays maracas on the recording.

Around this time in The Beatles’ career, McCartney had taken to recording his bass guitar last, on its own track. This allowed him to size up the rest of the arrangement (which had begun to be arrived at via a more accretive process during recording, as the band only really existed as a recording entity after they retired from touring) and fill whatever spaces were still available. On Fixing a Hole, recorded at Regent Sound Studios, the band tracked live, so McCartney’s playing is a little more raw and spontaneous-sounding than on some of the other Pepper tracks (there are, not flubs exactly, but inconsistencies). Nonetheless, it’s beautifully constructed.

After the intro, once Ringo’s swung hi-hat figure reveals the opening harpsichord figure as a rhythmic fake-out, McCartney begins with the simplest-possible two-note bass line, which actually makes the dreamy verse’s chord sequence sound simpler than it is. After four measures of alternating Fs and Cs, McCartney begins playing a syncopated melody that leaves the downbeat open. It’s a gorgeous little detail; as he sings of letting his mind wander “where it will go”, his bass guitar goes wandering too.

In the choruses, he plays a busier, more insistent line that bounces along between F and C in the first half and C and G in the second. Throughout the song – even with it’s cool lead guitar from George Harrison and characterful harpsichord playing from George Martin, it’s McCartney’s bass that both pushes the song along and glues it all together.

The man is every kind of musical genius.

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 3: Across the Great Divide by The Band

It would be hard to think of another bassist who contributed more to popular music but who is less copied than Rick Danko.

The bass player’s job is to provide low end, supporting and reinforcing the harmony. At its simplest, this means playing the root note of each chord the other band members play, usually in time with some element of the rhythm the drummer is playing (usually the bass drum pattern).

How was Rick Danko different, then? Danko’s bass provided low end, sure, and it supported and reinforced the harmony, but what was unique about Danko in the context of rock ‘n’ roll and roots music is that he played around Levon Helm’s drums rather than locking in with him. The bassists to whom he is most comparable are reggae players, not rock players.

Danko’s lines often took the form of syncopated little melodies or riffs that sometimes, but not always (and definitely not as a rule), connected with Levon’s kick drum. This technique was already in place when The Band signed to Capitol, and is nowhere to be heard in the group’s work as Bob Dylan’s backing band. In effect, Danko cooked it up in Big Pink after the end of the tour with Dyan in 1966 and had it ready to go when the group cut its first album, Music from Big Pink.*

To Kingdom Come, the second track on Big Pink, is a song I’ve written about before. Then I was talking about Robbie Robertson’s wonderful guitar solo. But the song is also notable for Danko’s idiosyncratic bassline.

danko-ing

Those of you who can’t read music or tablature will need to listen to the recording to hear what Danko is doing here. He’s playing a game of hide and seek with the kick drum, playing little off-beat runs, beginning his grace-note slides on the strong beat and hitting the root note on the off. It’s brilliant, and utterly unlike anything any of his peers were doing in 1969.

He’s on similarly great form on Across the Great Divide, the opening track of The Band’s self-titled second album.

The song is a Fats Domino-style rock ‘n’ roll tune with a triplet feel carried by Richard Manuel’s piano (Levon Helm doesn’t really spell out the triplets on the drums, instead merely suggesting them). Underneath that, Rick Danko plays this:

Danko

There are so many Danko-isms in this line that it practically constitutes one big Danko-ism in itself, but let’s actually itemise them: the rests straight after the initial root G and A notes; the rest in the middle of the third bar where you might expect a third C note; the descending triplet run in the fourth bar; and the triplet run from G up to B in the first bar of the verse sequence. This in six bars of music.

As I said up top, Danko’s style was so his own – it came out of who he was and was so much a response to what his band mates did musically – that no one within rock music has ever really picked up from where he left off. You can listen to elements of what he did and hear relations in reggae, in funk, in jazz and in country music, but ultimately Rick Danko was a one-off, and one half of what is possibly the finest rhythm section in popular music.

*I’m not actually a huge Basement Tapes buff, but it would be fascinating to listen to them with an ear to whether Danko was debuting ideas and techniques that would become part of his style when playing Band material.