Tag Archives: Let Down

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

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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?

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 4 – San Geronimo – Red House Painters

Anthony Koutsos used to have one of the most thankless jobs in popular music: he was Mark Kozelek’s drummer in Red House Painters.

Thankless because Red House Painters songs were long and slow. Very long and very slow. Often with no dynamic shifts at all, or with only a barely perceptible rising intensity. Playing them was an exercise in self-abnegation. Drummers that don’t have a tendency to push the tempo a little over the course of a long, slow song are rare. Drummers who don’t push the dynamic either, and who are happy to play for two or three minutes without a single fill, they’re even rarer. Anthony Koutsos is not a one-off in rock & roll, but he’s pretty close.

By the time the Red House Painters cut Ocean Beach in late 1994, Koutsos had been occupying Kozelek’s drum stool for five years, during which time he’d patted and rimshotted his way through several Kozelek epics – Medicine Bottle, Down Colorful Hill, Katy Song, Funhouse, Mother, Evil and Blindfold – some of the slowest, darkest, most intense songs in the alternative rock canon (seriously listen to Funhouse. It ain’t the Stooges).

How did he do it? Well, the only thing I can think of, as a part-time drummer (unfortunately, very part-time at the moment), is that Red House Painters songs often had pretty cool drum parts, distinctive rhythmic patterns that belong definitively to the parent song (what do I mean? Well, think of, say, Ringo’s drum part on the verses of Come Together. Ever heard that exact part in any other song?). Anthony Koutsos did this kind of thing frequently, only at 16rpm, and quietly, which is actually quite an achievement. Listen to his patterns on the drum versions of Mistress and New Jersey, the Katy Song lick in the verse that misses out the second backbeat, causing the song to feel like it’s turning around upon itself every two bars. These drum tracks are distinctively Koutsos’ own – belonging to these songs and these songs only – and if he needed motivation to remain in a band that forced him to play slow and quietly all the live-long day, that would probably be enough.

San Geronimo was his big moment on Ocean Beach, and it’s one of my favourite Koutsos parts. By this point in the Red House Painters’ career, their music had begun to open up a bit and was no longer so intense and claustrophobic; by the standards of, say, Medicine Bottle, San Geronimo is almost breezy.

Underneath a tapestry of chiming and semi-distorted guitars, Koutsos keeps time on his toms, laying off the snare drum until the stuttering pre-chorus section, during which the interplay between his drums and a guesting Carrie Bradley’s violin first establishes itself. It’s a neat lesson in how a drummer can provide a supporting base for a song and leave room for a little push in the choruses without turning the song into Smells Like Teen Spirit. And frankly, I’m a sucker for using a rack tom in lieu of the snare. Radiohead’s Let Down, Talk Talk’s The Rainbow – a lot of my favourite songs do it.

But Koutsos’ best moment comes in the half-time middle section, where he and Bradley take over. The rest of the band play the changes on the one and sustain them but otherwise let Bradley’s harmonised violin line duet with Koutsos’ ride cymbal and snare fills. It’s a beautiful, weightless little passage, the most pretty to be found on any Red House Painters record. Kozelek’s songwriting was always passionate, but the Red House Painters’ delivery of it had always previously been chilly. San Geronimo, though, is earthy and warm. Bradley’s violin is like gulls calling on a late summer’s day, and Koutsos gets the tasteful, simple little instrumental section to show how crucial he’s been to the band’s music all along.

After RHP broke up, Koutsos continued to play drums with Kozelek in Sun Kil Moon while building a real-estate career in San Francisco. He’s made of stern stuff, then, even if you now hate him on a point of principle.

red house painters
Red House Painters, Koutsoson right in hat and shades