Tag Archives: Thom Yorke

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.

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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.

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*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.

Almost Here – Unbelievable Truth

Remember when Thom Yorke’s brother had a band?

Andy’s fate – to be the Jimmie Vaughan of angsty UK rock music – didn’t appear to be fun for him (he packed it in after two albums with the Unbelievable Truth), but there are, no doubt, worse fates. There are always worse.*

My relationship with this band and their music is a conflicted one. As a big Radiohead fan, I heard about the Unbelievable Truth earlyish (when Higher than Reason came out – I missed the group’s first release for Shifty Disco and their first single on EMI, Stone) and got all the singles they put out in the run-up to the release of their first album, Almost Here. As an acoustic-guitar-playing wannabe songwriter, I heard in their music a sound that I found inspiring and which I wanted to emulate. I liked the mix of acoustic guitars, organs, vocal harmonies and a rock rhythm section. Nigel Powell, the drummer, played with sticks and obviously came from a background in rock. He wasn’t a brushes-wielding jazzer or a rimshot merchant, and I liked that. Rock drumming was the only kind of drumming I understood. Obviously there are other artists whose music combines these instrumental textures (there’s nothing that UT did on Almost Here that, say The Beatles didn’t do 35 years before on I’ll Be Back), but these guys were the first ones I heard, and I was an early adopter.

So I retain a fondness for them, but for years I didn’t listen to them. At some point, I became aware of the juvenility of Yorke’s lyrics (there are clunkers in nearly every song) and after that I couldn’t listen to the band any more. All I could hear was the bad stuff. That this was unfair goes without saying. Rock music has thrown up many worse lyricists, and anyway, I’m not one of those listeners who respond primarily to lyrics – tunes, chords, rhythms, sonics, lyrics, in that order – and bad lyrics have never seemed a good reason for dismissing a band or song.

But something about Yorke’s overwrought mopiness was hard to forgive. Namely that, as a serious-minded, inward-looking 16-year-old, I hadn’t seen it, had accepted it unquestioningly.

Recent missteps, as has been said by many an intelligent commentator, embarrass us far more than ones made years ago. Now, 17 years (!) after it came out, I can hear Almost Here as a collection of more or less pretty songs, with a standout moment in basically every track. I still like Settle Down and Angel in their entirety; the “You can’t send it along” climax of Solved is suitably rousing; Same Mistakes’ middle eight (“Leave it on the table”, where the harmony vocals are all phased) is a great little passage; Forget About Me sounded much better than I remembered; the middle eight of Stone, where Yorke sings “None of this is harder than knowing about you” again, but the chords change to a minor key, is very cleverly written; and Higher than Reason is still a cracking riff let down by an awful lyric.

What I enjoyed most, though – indeed boggled at – were the mixing and mastering jobs (I am capable, if that’s the headspace I’m in, of listening to and appreciating music purely on that level). Almost Here‘s production was the work of the band’s drummer Nigel Powell, producer and mix engineer Jeremy Wheatley (now a big-name guy) and various second engineers. They did a stellar job.

All records that include as their dominant components acoustic guitars and drummers create an unreality. Don’t get what I mean? Then I invite you to come over to my place with your acoustic guitar, I’ll set up my drum kit, and we’ll play a few tunes together. Except, we won’t, as I won’t be able to hear you. And you won’t be able to hear you either. One ping on the ride cymbal will be all it takes for me to drown you out for a bar or two.

As music listeners we are, consciously or unconsciously, aware of the fictions that are created in the name of art. Engineers use microphones, equalisers, compressors and pan pots to create events that didn’t happen, that couldn’t happen. One of the subtle, but most pervasive, is the placing in fixed and unchanging audibility of an acoustic guitar when the mix is full of other, naturally louder, things, like drums. That delicately picked acoustic guitar intro? Well, if I get my compressor out and do some automated fader moves, it’s just as loud against the vocal (or bass guitar, or snare drum or whatever) as the powerfully strummed acoustic guitar in the chorus!

Actually, the total, fixed and unchanging audibility of every element within a mix is a recentish development in rock mixing. Even in the 1990s, mix topologies reflected reality a little more than that, and Almost Here is a great example. The acoustic guitar picking that leads off Stone and Forget About Me, not to mention the quietly strummed acoustic at the start of Building*, are by today’s standards ludicrously quiet. No major label would let a mix engineer turn in work that the mastering engineer couldn’t easily smash. Wheatley’s mixes were unsmashable, and therefore stayed unsmashed. You couldn’t compress, say, Stone, so that opening guitar was around -12 or -13dBFS without turning the louder sections of the song into something that sounded like Iggy’s remix of Raw Power.

Listened to from the vantage point of 2015, it’s glorious. Unbelievable or otherwise, that’s the truth.

AY
Andy Yorke – Takamine EN10s were everywhere in the late 1990s. I still play one!

*Powell, for instance, ended up playing with the reactionary goon Frank Turner.

**The first chord of Building peaks (peaks!) at -32.8dBFS, and that’s in the left channel, where it’s a good 10dB louder than it is on the right. The loud section at the end averages -11.5dBFS. As I say, no one has turned in a mix this dynamic to EMI since.

Midlake @ the Shepherd’s Bush Empire – review

Yesterday I took a break from playing music to go with Mel and watch some music: Midlake at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, supported by Horse Thief and Charlie Bowdery.

Bowdery was on first and, while impressive for a performer and writer of his age (he’s 15), he did not strike me as being ready for national exposure of the kind he must be getting, and one wonders whether his needs (as an artist or a young man) are really being best served by his being asked to play in front of large, uninterested, basically empty rooms. Would he not be better advised to work as hard as he can on his writing for the next two or three years while playing in smaller, intimate venue, and come back to the big stage when he’s learned his craft a little bit? If he were ready as a writer, maybe it’d be fine to throw him in there. But as it is, best of luck to him.

Oklahoma’s Horse Thief were the main support act. A psychedelic folk band (my goodness, there’s a lot of those around now) formed in Midlake’s home town of Denton, Texas, but currently based in Oklahoma City, Horse Thief are, like Midlake, signed to Bella Union. Again, the surprise…

They clearly had a few fans in the crowd last night, but Mel and I were not among them. They have a sound worked out, for sure, but song after song passed without a single snippet of melody you could take away with you afterwards. While they would no doubt offer as a counter to this that their music is about feel, offering them platforms on which they can get on with the business of just being Horse Thief, none of them are interesting enough players to justify distending the songs and jamming on them. The singer’s voice too, is an acquired taste. Close your eyes and you could be listening to Billy Corgan. Full marks to the guitarist for his Wilko Johnson-style head movements, though (forward and back, as opposed to the Thom Yorke/Kristin Hersh side to side). Very cool and I was rather jealous.

The contrast with Midlake was stark. Midlake formed at university as a jazz band, and more than in the past those roots are evident, both on their new album, Antiphon, and particularly on stage. When I saw them a few years ago in Oxford, they were stunningly good, but there was a reined-in quality to their performance, which judging from last night may have been the influence of now-departed singer-songwriter Tim Smith, who didn’t crack a smile at all that night and seemed a rather joyless presence, for all that he was key to their sound then.

Antiphon is the most honest representation of the band as a whole, as opposed to one person’s vision that we were trying to facilitate” – Eric Pulido

In interviews since his departure, co-guitarist and former harmony singer Eric Pulido (who’s taken over from Smith as frontman) has suggested that Midlake weren’t a hugely happy crew during that tour. That’s only one guy’s side of the story – and as I said, they played wonderfully regardless – but last night they were clearly off the leash. Drummer McKenzie Smith was in fine form, his enthusiastic fills betraying his jazz roots – there were hints of Harvey Mason in his fills (now much more frequent), and the tom-heavy beats of the Antiphon tracks suggest a possible influence from Can’s Jaki Liebezeit.

The old songs naturally enough drew most of the loudest appreciation of the evening, and Van Occupanther was revisited more frequently than The Courage of Others (Small Mountain and Children of the Grounds getting an airing and nothing else, unless I missed it). Which makes sense – in retrospect, Courage sounds like one road they could have gone down after Van Occupanther, and Antiphon another. But the crowd seemed to enjoy the newer songs too, which the band attacked far harder than in the past.

Pulido sung well, but his voice was unfortunately buried in a very murky mix, which foregrounded the low end of the bass guitar and drums at the expense of the vocals and snare, which lacked punch and, surprisingly, volume – McKenzie Smith is a light-hitting, unmatched-grip player, and brute volume of the backbeat isn’t a hallmark of his playing, but neither is a thunderous kick drum, and he certainly had that yesterday, so the drum balance that we heard was not coming from his playing. Perhaps it was a democratic decision by the band to sound this way live – ‘We’re a band now, not a singer-songwriter with backing musicians, so the vocals are just part of the sound.’ But the voices were notably lower in the mix than on the new record, and there didn’t seem much need for it to be that way.* The mix did gain a little in clarity and focus as the songs rolled by, but it did somewhat mar my enjoyment of the gig (yeah, I’m one of those people now apparently).

Still, they remain a great live band and I was happy to see them. And happy for them that the biggest cheers of the night came after a stomping performance of The Old and the Young, rather than from an older song like Roscoe or Head Home. It got the crowd moving and singing along way more than any other song last night, which is nice for Midlake 2.0. When you think about it, some of the biggest bands in the world (Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac) have survived the departures of key singing/aongwriting members. There seems no reason why Midlake can’t carry on in this line-up for as long as they choose.

 

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*I’ve done enough live sound to know it’s a thankless task, and a difficult one, so I don’t want to pile in on the crew last night. I get it. All kinds of things can be going on that are totally not your fault – but everyone and their brother will have an opinion on what you’re doing wrong and hold you responsible.

Favourite anecdote/worst scenario from my CV: very busy one-day festival in Southend a few years back. 5-minute changeovers between sets. No house drum kit. A lot of acoustic instruments to mike up. The kind of day that runs you to exhaustion and makes you hate everyone. One of the bands’ lead guitarist (playing a DI’d acoustic for a certain song) is saying over the mike that his guitar’s not working, leading everyone to look in my direction and start muttering. Once I made it through the crowd to the stage, I found that the clumsy clod had stood on his cable and pulled it out of the DI box. Yeah, it’s the things you can’t control that’ll kill you.

No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos, part 2

It occurs to me that from the title of these posts, people might think I don’t like Hendrix or Steve Vai. Far from it. I like Hendrix plenty, and I don’t dislike Steve Vai although I wouldn’t want to listen to the majority of his music. I have less than no time for Clappo though)

2) The Tourist – Radiohead (solo by Jonny Greenwood)
If you played guitar in the late nineties, you worshipped at the altar of Jonny Greenwood. Radiohead were one of those bands that transcended tribal boundaries. Metal kids liked them. Grunge kids liked them. Punkers liked them well enough too. It seemed like everyone who was into rock music, and certainly everyone who played it, liked them.

For guitar players, the interplay between the group’s three guitarists (Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Thom Yorke) was one of the chief reasons. The other was Greenwood’s furious lead guitar, which was in the tradition of such post-punker players as Keith Levene, John McGeoch, Johnny Marr, J Mascis and Robin Guthrie, and eschewed fast scalar runs and blues licks for textures, noise, dissonance, modal melodies and sheer squonkiness. True, he made use of oblique bends and octave chords – which in lead guitar terms were popularised by Hendrix and Wes Montgomery respectively – so he wasn’t inventing a new grammar of lead guitar out of whole cloth. But he was adventurous, dissonant, unconventional, angular and popular. There are hundreds of thousands of people my age who learned the Complete Works of Greenwood as 16-year-olds. Levene and McGeoch were great players, but in comparison, they are unknowns.

My favourite piece of Greenwood guitar comes at the end of The Tourist, the closing track on OK Computer, when his 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. You couldn’t sing along to the solo on The Tourist. It’s not without melody, but the importance it places on tunefulness is way below that which it places on noise, on jaggedness, on impurity of form (remember that The Tourist mixes up bars of 12/8 and 9/8, so the song’s very form resists the deployment of easy riffs and phrases). It’s like some sort of unstoppable eruption.

For a generation of guitar-playing kids, the solo on The Tourist was just the final piece of awe-inspiring guitar playing on an album full of them. And not that Radiohead haven’t made good music since, but the disappearance of Jonny Greenwood the guitar hero is a continuing source of regret to many of us.

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Hurray for Jonny!