Tag Archives: Exit Music

OK Computer is 20, part 5 – Bass

As we noted recently, Colin Greenwood’s imaginative bass playing has always been crucial to Radiohead’s sound, but on OK Computer, his contributions were foregrounded as never before. His is often the dominant instrument in the mix, and if you were to call him the album’s MVP, I’d not argue.

From the start of the record, on Airbag, Colin is controlling the way the music feels – controlling it by not playing for large sections of the song. He doesn’t play his first lick until the intro is over and the first verse has already started. What’s really cool is that he simply plays variations on this little pentatonic lick (it’s just E, G and A) all the way through the song, varying the phrasing and rhythmic emphasis. He plays it in the verses, when the chords are all variations and augmentations of Aadd9. He plays it in the chorus, when the song’s harmonic centre shifts from A to E major. He plays it under B7 and F# minor. F# minor, for heaven’s sake! It should sound godawful. It sounds brilliant.

(On a side note, Airbag’s riff-led bass and stop-start drums point the way forward also to Kid A‘s magnificent The National Anthem. Almost all the ideas that are present on Kid A are there somewhere on OK Computer and the B-sides and EP tracks from the same era. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy – and fun – to look for them.)

If Airbag is Colin Greenwood at his most minimal, Paranoid Android’s four contrasting parts give him an opportunity to throw all kinds of stuff into the fray – a different style for each section, almost. Most notably, his busy, emphatic bass is a driving force when Thom Yorke sings “What’s that?”, and during the 7/8 section in C minor Greenwood’s high-register melodic line sounds like something Yes’s Chris Squire might have cooked up – certainly you didn’t hear anything else in mainstream rock music at the time that sounded like that.

On Exit Music, Greenwood is silent until 2.50. Up to that point, the song crackles with tension, from a combination of Yorke’s obsessive chord changes and the use of harsh and inhuman-sounding Mellotron choir (as creepy as it is at the end of Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me). After a drum fill from Phil Selway, Greenwood’s bass enters, its brutally distorted tone an unforgettable shock the first time you hear it. Distorting an electric bass increases its already long sustain still further, and compresses the signal to the point of almost steady-state persistency. On Exit Music, this allows Greenwood to increase the claustrophobia to a near-unbearable limit, and it turns the song from lament to curse.

On Climbing up the Walls, Greenwood repeats the trick from the beginning of the song, though this time he’s abetted by Phil Selway’s doom-laden snare drum – with the snare wires off, that slack-tuned drum tolls like a bell every time it’s hit, and Selway hits it hard, and often. Meanwhile, Jonny Greenwood creates all manner of creepy noises and effects to create the sound of someone going mad. Yorke’s desperate, feral screams in the final few bars of the song are the only way such a piece of music could feasibly end.

But while the lo-fi fuzz of Climbing Up the Walls and Exit Music is certainly ear-grabbing, Greenwood is just as effective during the album’s softest moments. His work on Lucky and in particular No Surprises once again demonstrating his soul and Motown influences (his fat, warm Fender Precision sound is as classic as it gets), put to work in a very different context. He gets huge mileage from simple idea employed at the perfect moment. That climb back up to F for the final half-verse that he does in tandem with Ed O’Brien’s guitar is a beautiful moment, so simple and oddly sincere in an album that’s often about alienation and can be musically cold and cerebral. It’s a big warm hug of a bassline.

I’ve said before, recently, how much I love Colin Greenwood’s playing – how much the band relies on his range of techniques and approaches to allow them to go to all the places they go. OK Computer isn’t a standout effort from Colin – it’s just par for the course with him. Every record they make, he delivers the goods. But with so few distorted-guitar rock songs on OK Computer, it is perhaps a little easier to hear how much he contributes.

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 1: Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was by Radiohead

Many neophyte bass players assume that because the primary job of their instrument is to provide low end, they have to play each root note in the lowest possible octave. Depending on the type of music the young bassist plays, it may be years before they begin to realise the musical effects that can be achieved through other approaches.

Familiarity with the work of Colin Greenwood might help to flatten this learning curve. During Radiohead’s glory days of The Bends through to Kid A (OK, not everyone’s going to agree that this was when the band were at their best, but it’s my blog so that’s what we’re going with), Colin was the band’s oft-overlooked secret weapon. Thom Yorke’s voice and Jonny Greenwood’s endlessly inventive lead guitar got most of the critical plaudits, but Colin’s playing on those three albums function as a sustained masterclass in what can be done by the bass player within a, more or less, traditional rock band setting.

He’s so eclectic and adaptable that there doesn’t appear to be any one feel or sound that constitutes the Colin Greenwood style. On Airbag he’s ultra-minimal, not playing a note until 30 seconds in, long after Phil Selway has started drumming. On Exit Music, his bass is a brutally distorted noise that pushes its way in unexpectedly and then dominates the song’s final minute and a half. Bones sees him uncharacteristically swaggering, somewhere between Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Slade’s Jim Lea. How to Disappear Completely is free-ranging, scalar, essentially a walking line. Colin Greenwood is about being whatever the song needs, and he has the ears, the chops and the imagination to transform himself on almost a song by song basis. The young player can learn half a dozen invaluable new techniques from the songs on any single Radiohead album.

Possibly my favourite Colin Greenwood part is one I’ve mentioned here once before, Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was, from The Bends. Bullet Proof is one of the softest pieces on the album, a narcotised wisp of a song, with ambient noises running all the way through it, apparently improvised by Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood without listening to the backing track on headphones (this may be overstated since a lot of the noises are specifically tonal, unless producer John Leckie got the scissors out).

Colin plays up in the bass guitar’s second octave, using the A string at the 12th fret to play the root of the A minor chord and going up from there to play C, B and D notes at the 10th, 9th and 12th frets of the D string. The notes are mainly held and allowed to ring. The combination of a high register and thick tone (contributed to by playing the notes on a lower, fatter string at a higher fret) gives the song a feeling of weightlessness yet allows Greenwood to carry the verses almost single-handedly. His restraint is admirable, and lasts until the final chorus, when he allows himself a few more expansive melodic ornamentations. Even so, Bullet Proof is an object lesson in how the position in which you decide to play a note and the tone you use are just as important as the choice of note itself, and shows just how valuable Colin’s contributions are, even on songs when the bass guitar plays a low-key supporting role.