Tag Archives: No Surprises

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.

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.

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Got enough pedals, Ed?