Tag Archives: The Bends

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 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 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.

2015 Clip Show Post

I’ve been pretty busy this last week or so with work and Christmas preparations, and I haven’t really been able to find the time to write anything. So I thought a good way to plug the gap would be to bring forward this year’s clip show post.*

I did this last year, too, and enjoyed the process of putting it together. I’ve gone through what I’ve posted this year (100 posts thus far) and picked out 10 favourites, with a bit of a bias towards posts I liked rather than ones that got a lot of hits. Some of them are brief little throwaways, others are long and rambling, but I like them and they seem to include most of whatever it is that keeps me still doing this.

Elliott Smith’s first two solo records (January)

On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 – Rickie Lee Jones (February)

My Funny Valentine – Johnny Mathis (April)

Radiohead’s The Bends at 20 (April)

No More Amsterdam – Steve Vai feat. Aimee Mann (May)

Holst’s Neptune (July)

The Sound of The Band (August)

Sail On – The Commodores (August)

Almost Here – Unbelievable Truth (September)

Singer-songwriters in 2015 – is genuine originality possible any more? (December)

I hope that some of these are new to most of you and you find something to enjoy here. I’ll be back in a few days – Christmas itself is likely to be a fair bit quieter than the last few weeks have been! Hope you’re having a great time. Take care.

*Do they still make clip shows? You know, like in a sitcom, where characters sit and reminisce about something that happened in an old episode, then they show a clip? It’s been years since I saw one.

 

Radiohead’s The Bends at 20

Like many records that were among my favourites in the 1990s and early 2000s (that is, my teens and early twenties), Radiohead’s The Bends is not one I pull out much anymore. But the recent spate of articles to mark the record’s 20th anniversary prompted me to dig it out for a few, hugely enjoyable spins.

The first listen was pretty weird. I have so many memories connected to this album, and I’d have said it was one I knew well, but while my recall of the key elements of the songs and their structures was fairly unerring, little details did leap out at me for the first time.

First the bad stuff, to get it out the way. It’s definitely a guitar player’s album, which I loved about it in 1996-7 (The Bends and OK Computer were sacred texts to me, and Greenwood and co. sort of guitar-playing high priests), but there are times when the focus is on the guitars so much that it’s to the detriment of the overall: listen to how much more authority Phil Selway’s drums seem to have during the intro to, say, Bones than the during the intro to The Bends; to allow him to fit inside a mix utterly dominated by rhythm guitars, he’s been so heavily compressed on The Bends that not only do his drums sound tiny, they seem to drag behind the beat. Drums give rock music its drive, its weight and its physicality. A more balanced, harder-rocking mix exists within the master tapes, I’d wager. I hope one day some enterprising soul at Parlophone gives album producer John Leckie the masters and lets him do a remix (25th-anniversary edition in 2020, guys? Just an idea).

But the weight given to the guitars by mix engineers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie does allow us to hear how every song on The Bends is filled with amazing parts, whether it’s Greenwood’s constantly ascending octave-chord lead during the intro to Just (repeated at the end of each chorus), the pillow-soft acoustic guitar strumming of [Nice Dream], or the decelerating tremolo effect (Jonny again) in the verse of Bones. Radiohead’s early albums saw Greenwood, O’Brien and Yorke expanding the vocabulary of rock guitar more than any of their contemporaries with the possible exception of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, a veritable one-man factory of astonishing effects and textures.

Let’s take a couple of the album’s less frequently hailed tracks and look a little closer at what’s going on. The “big”‘ songs on The Bends have been dissected and analysed to death, so let’s go with Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was and Bones, a couple of album tracks you’re not likely to hear on the radio soon.

Bones sounds to me like the most confident full-band performance on the album. Some of that may be a perceptual thing, a result of the space afforded to Selway’s drums and Colin Greenwood’s bass (great tone!) by the sparse guitar arrangement in the opening verse. But really, it swaggers in a way that very little else in the Radiohead canon does, and that’s encoded in the song’s DNA. Yorke and Greenwood’s later involvement in the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine merely confirmed what a listen to Bones suggests: that behind their studious exteriors lurked a couple of long-time glam rock fans struggling to get out. The vamp on A played by the guitars at the during the chorus to Bones – possibly the lowest-IQ guitar riff in existence – goes back through Keith Richards all the way to Chuck Berry, but when it’s played with that much distortion and an almost audible leer, the only provenance can be glam. If Noel Gallagher were to end up in a pub with Greenwood or Yorke, they’d be fine as long as they talked about T. Rex and Bowie and Sweet.

Elsewhere during the song, Greenwood pulls out his old favourite, the oblique bend (when a note played on, say, the G string is bend upwards by a tone to sound in unison with a note two frets down on the B string), for lead guitar interjections between Yorke’s vocal (“You’ve got to [whee] feel it [whee] in your bones”). Apart from the decelerating tremolo I spoke about earlier, none of the stuff going on in Bones is clever or unusual or groundbreaking. But, given the typically dour subject matter, the musicians seem to be having an awful lot of fun on this track.

Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was is something else again, a narcotised wisp of a song, with ambient noises running all the way through it, apparently played by O’Brien and Greenwood without listening to the backing track on headphones (this may be overstated since a lot of the noises are specifically tonal, unless Leckie got the scissors out). But it’s Greenwood’s delicate arpeggio part on the chorus that’s most telling. It’s done by playing a fifth and third on the D and B strings and letting the open G string ring out in the middle, so it only works on a few chords, but it’s beautiful. I’ve been playing variations of that riff on my own songs and other peoples’ for a good long while, in fact.

It’s another song where the rhythm section shines, too. An unfortunate by-product of modern (and in the terms I’m talking about, The Bends is modern) mixing and mastering practice is that quiet, sparse songs tend to have more weight in the low end and greater size to the drums than their louder counterparts, and Bullet Proof is a great example of this. The more you turn it up, the more impressive it sounds (The Bends and Just exhibit the reverse behaviour). Colin Greenwood’s bass line, in which he plays single high-register notes with quite a thick, sustaining sound, is particularly effective and foreshadows the pivotal role he’d go on to play in OK Computer and Kid A.

The band may see The Bends as a piece of juvenilia, or a necessary step on the path to where they wanted to go, but it shouldn’t be judged by its influence on bands with scarcely half of Radiohead’s combined imagination (you can probably guess who I’m thinking of). This is a collection of top-notch songs* topped with some of the most inventive guitar playing you’re ever likely to hear.

radiohead2
Radiohead circa The Bends: Yorke kneeling in front; Colin Greenwood, O’Brien, Jonny Greenwood and Selway l-r

*Not Sulk

She Said – Longpigs

In my office, the nineties never ended. The radio’s on almost all of the time. Most of the time it’s tuned to a certain station that plays mainly rock music from the last twenty-five years, with a sprinkling of other, non-rock, things, which always sound very strange by comparison – Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax sounds positively avant-garde in the context of endless Stereophonics and U2 and Kings of Leon.

Most of this rock music is, in the end, polite. Even the fiercer-sounding bands (Nirvana, say) are somewhat neutered in this context; the huge wall of guitars of the majority of nineties rock being less likely to jump out of the speakers as something spindly and angular, the music ends up sounding somewhat samey.

But now and again a song does poke its head up and demand to be heard by virtue of sounding different. Such a song, which I’ve only heard a couple of times on this station since starting in this job four months ago but which has been a delight on each occasion, is She Said by the Longpigs.

The ambition held by Longpigs frontman Crispin Hunt in 1996, it seemed, was to have a band that sounded as much as possible like Radiohead, with whom the Longpigs toured in 1995. In the context of their later work, Radiohead’s The Bends sounds like a conventional mid-nineties rock record, but it’s worth remembering that no one else at the time was ploughing quite the same furrow as them. Yes, you could hear debts to R.E.M., to U2, to Nirvana, to Jeff Buckley, and going back further, to Magazine* and to David Bowie, but it added up to a sound that was the band’s own, which is why it was notable how much the Longpigs’ sound owed to The Bends. Vocals that jumped suddenly up an octave? Yep. Squalling, trebly Fenders? A general sense of over-caffeinated nerviness? Songs that were anthemic, bombastic and over the top, but still managed to sound genuine and personal? Yep, yep and yep.

But despite being somewhat derivative, Longpigs made a couple of great records in their short career, and She Said is the pick of them. What’s so great about it is its lack of restraint. Hunt, sounding more than a little unhinged,  yelps and screams his way through the song while the band clatter along behind him, drummer Dee Boyle’s performance being particularly inspired. I love his playing during the bridge, just before the stop, and in the last chorus and coda – it’s not showy, it’s not spectacular, but he sounds fully inside the song and he sounds like he’s having a lot of fun. With the success of Travis and Coldplay, this kind of messy abandon would disappear from British indie rock within a few years.

The second Longpigs album flopped, and flopped hard. Nothing more was heard of them as a band. But the cultural reach of the band’s members is surprisingly long. Of course, the most famous former Longpig is guitarist Richard Hawley, who went on to a spell in Pulp (replacing Russell Senior), before releasing records under his own name, which are pleasant, if sometimes in need of a dose of whatever Crispin Hunt was taking in 1996. Bass player Simon Stafford has played with Joe Strummer and Jarvis Cocker. But Hunt has perhaps the most intriguing post-Longpigs story: he’s now a behind-the-scenes guy, co-writing with or producing Jake Bugg, Florence + the Machine, Newton Faulkner, Cee-Lo Green, Ellie Goulding, Natalie Imbruglia, Fighting with Wire, Ron Sexsmith, even Mark Owen.

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*Longpigs could, however, claim their own post-punk influences that didn’t come through Radiohead: drummer Dee Boyle was a former member of Cabaret Voltaire