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.