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or, track-by-track why Radiohead matter.

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October 3rd, 2007

Knives Out

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Knives Out had the longest gestation period of any of the songs from the Kid A / Amnesiac sessions. To this end, I cannot begin to imagine how much Thom must have been worried about his guitar part because the vocal strikes me as being one of the laziest and most grating in the band's back catalogue.

We know that Thom had abandoned 'conventional' lyric writing for these sessions, instead using spur of the moment notebook scribblings or even sliced up bits from other songs. Knives Out's lyrics though almost seem like placeholders. To my ears, they convey nothing and the complete lack of any interesting melody, coupled with the thoroughly whiney delivery kill this otherwise very pretty, Smiths-esque guitar track. It may seem a little directionless, but perhaps that's the point.

For me, almost every Radiohead song has a distinct memory, a moment where it summed up everything, or it felt utterly perfect for that particularly day. My only memory of Knives Out, however, is moving into a new house and using my MP3 player to try and replace Knives Out with one of the b-sides. I dislike it that much, despite its massive fan following and cannot for the life of me see why it was chosen as single, where it deservedly bombed.

September 30th, 2007

Pyramid Song

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What is that sound you can hear through Pyramid Song? A kind of ethereal chattering, the voices of something just out of reach; hidden, disfiguered, faceless. If Radiohead's music is indeed exit music, then it is Pyramid Song which proves the point. Its jazzy, unconventional time signature gives it a thoroughly trippy feel. Try it after a glass or two of red wine and it can both terrify and transport you. It's a lyrical brother to Nice Dream; 'nothing to fear, nothing to doubt' corresponds brilliantly with the notion of being 'loved like a brother', 'protected' and 'listened to'. It wraps you up in a blanket of strings and pretends that everything will be okay, before the floor collapses and 'Pulk/Pull' grinds you into tiny pieces.

September 11th, 2007

Talk Show Host

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Or "saying goodbye to The Bends".

The Street Spirit singles stand as some of the finest Radiohead have ever released. Although I'll try
and cover Molasses and Bishop's Robes a bit later on, Talk Show Host is the real gem in a markedly
experimental set of B-sides.

Before OK Computer, let alone Kid A, one has to remember that Radiohead were, largely, a pretty straightforward albeit very talented rock band. You can almost sense that around the time of Street Spirit's release that there was a real shift in the band's momentum. Not only does Thom move away from intensely personal lyrics (instead constructing the song around a terrifying mixture of pleas and threats) but the band move into, if anything, Trip Hop territory. I've already mentioned Phil Selway's underrated drumming on Kinetic, but his choppy, tight beats, combined with Colin Greenwood's chunky bassline really give this song the kind of sinister, brooding undercurrent which would later define slow-burning classics like Climbing Up The Walls. It's worth noting that around the time of the singles' release, the airheaded battle of Blur and Oasis was dominating the British scene; with Talk Show Host, Radiohead could not have been further removed.

I should probably also confess that as I started writing this last night, I noticed how good Thom Yorke is at swearing. It's not big or clever, of course, but as Colin once said in an interview, "Thom does a good swear". When you consider that F-word in Radiohead's music it is never used gratuitously (except perhaps in Creep). In this case, it marks a kind of desperation; the character is at the end of his tether. He has resorted to violence and aggression and so it seems to suit the mood completely.

An absolute highlight in the Radiohead back catalogue; when EMI inevitably succumb to a shonky 'Best Of' the inclusion of this is essential.

September 4th, 2007

Backdrifts was one of the tracks the band didn't play live before Hail To The Thief's release, which leads me to suspect it was a Thom Yorke solo effort, or at least, had little contribution from the full band. Listening to the Where I End and You Begin demo or even The Eraser only compounds this view, and you can almost sense that The Eraser was Thom getting this kind of solo stuff out of his system for a clear run at LP7.

Whatever its origin, I've always loved Backdrifts, although I suspect I'm in the minority. The electronica-based songs on HTTT always seem to be overlooked among Radiohead fans and perhaps it's to do with the 'halfway house' tracks like these seem to occupy. On one hand, they're not nearly as experimental or well-produced as a track like Packt, and nor do they 'rock out' like some sections of the album. Yorke's vocals are trebly, but not especially interesting, while the drum machine seems quite MIDI compared to something like Idioteque. I can see how the track can seem pretty meandering.

Although I'm not allowed to focus on the lyrics (in fact, some keen eyed readers have noted I'm not even familiar with the entire Warp back catalogue), "You fell into our arms; We tried but there was nothing we could do" remains one of my favourite Thom phrasings. The ominous noises at the end of the track always send shivers, too.

September 2nd, 2007

Treefingers

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Treefingers, the ambient 'piece' that forms the centre of Kid A is a constant source of amusement to my friends. If I play my friends a Radiohead track, it's always Treefingers. I do it just for the look of utter bemusement on their faces.

I always like to imagine the look on the faces of those who downloaded Kid A from Napster at the turn of the century, expecting more Karma Polices and Airbags, to be met with a three-and-a-half minute... what exactly IS Treefingers?

Of course, on it's own, it's pretentious dross. But somehow, in the context of Kid A, it makes perfect sense. It's a moment's rest in between the emotionally draining How To Disappear.. and the fiercely political Optimistic. The first time Kid A made sense to me, I completely lost myself in Treefingers. One of my most vivid memories was imagining I was inside the womb. Terrifying, but tranquil.

September 1st, 2007

Black Star

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I'm pretty sure that this is the first song I ever listened to while drunk. It's not a particularly proud achievement, but I was in the middle of one of those utterly adolescent, self-absorbed relationships. My partner was in rather a state and this song just completely clicked with that point in my life. It was a summer night and I was out with friends, who've all grown up and moved on since. I have a tendency to sing this aloud as it's just about in my vocal range, though a girl who was present at this particular mauling has since written off my own band entirely based on that evening's warbling. Result, as they say.

This is certainly one of Yorke's more direct lyrics and I've always loved the fade in at the beginning. Also worth a mention are Ed's backing vocals; they really help the chorus to soar.

As with much of The Bends, I rarely listen to this track perhaps for two reasons. The first is that the template for The Bends has been copied so frequently that, instrumentally, no matter how beautiful the compositions may be, it is very difficult to be as bowled over as one once was. Truth be told, however, and it's mainly because The Bends will always be the soundtrack to that long, confusing, teenage summer.

Like the band, I'd like to think I'd progressed a little since these days, but songs like Black Star will always have a very special place in my heart.

No Surprises

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The track that started it all, for me, at least.

Everyone knows the intro to this song, but hardly anyone (Radiohead fans aside, of course) can remember the lyrics, which must be up there with Thom's greatest achievements.

It was only through a Trade Justice bootleg that I discovered the "Let me out of here" part towards the end, which on the studio track, is pure backing vocal. I always think of it as being the song's true message. The protagonist gently, sedately lists the endlessly repetitive tasks he fills his life with (along with his more morbid desires) in an almost deadpan style, as though it all just washes over him. The subconscious, buried and anguished cry of "Let me out of here" is the release he yearns for. He longs to escape the modern human condition.

No Surprises is OK Computer distilled to a beautiful lullaby. You have the best sleep of your life, but only because it's Carbon Monoxide induced.

August 20th, 2007

How Do You?

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Another much-maligned track from the Pablo days, How Do You? may wear its Pixies influences rather proudly on its sleeve, but its exuberant punk energy is a direct precursor to the ramshackle antics of Electioneering and even, if you're feeling generous, 2+2=5.

Pianos go off on a tangent in the background, buzzsaw guitars slice through each other and Thom does his best Vicious impression, but, unlike its closest brother Pop Is Dead, How Do You? sounds like it was put down in one take, a snapshot of a young, vibrant band ready to burst onto the music scene and, as a result, I find it difficult to hate.

Sure, you can imagine the hairdos and the poses, or the self-satisfied look on Thom's face as he pencilled the lyrics, but despite this, it still seems distinctly unpretentious and demonstrates perfectly the sardonic sense of humour that people all too quickly assume Radiohead lack.

August 16th, 2007

Ah, Go To Sleep. I suppose this is one of the infamous "OK Computer 2" tracks that Hail to the thief was supposed to be bursting with.

It all starts out innocently enough, although the vocal recalls the grating Knives Out, but like many of Hail to the Thief's promising tracks, this one seems distinctly unfinished. The rare appearance of a fade out at the end of the track suggests Radiohead weren't quite sure what to do with this song, and the Greenwood jam at the end, though technically impressive, seems oddly soulless.

Some intriguing Yorke lyrics just about save this track from mediocrity, however, seemingly dealing with the issues of apathy and ignorance, although the sassy "you know we don't want the monster taking over" could just as easily be a swipe at the right and a call to arms as it could be a mirror to people's perceptions of the "loony left".

As a single, Go To Sleep falls flat on its face, and it's unbelievable (or perhaps, thoroughly believable when discussing Radiohead) that this was chosen over the clearly tailored-for-radio "Where I End and You Begin".

June 18th, 2007

How To Disappear Completely

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For me, Kid A's greatest moment comes at 2 minutes and 20 seconds into How To Disappear Completely, when the subtle percussion kicks in and starts this ballad's journey to another place entirely.

As with everything I've tried to write about Kid A, I find it so difficult to express in any convincing way how much this track means to me. Perhaps it's the way the track almost collapses on itself in the fifth minute but then picks itself back up before reaching an organic, natural and beautiful conclusion. Perhaps its the bassline that only hits you on the fifth or sixth listen but reveals itself to be a minor Colin Greenwood masterpiece. Perhaps it's the return of Thom's voice to the forefront after 3 tracks in the wilderness. This beating human heart that lies deep within Kid A's chrome casing does exactly what it says on the tin; gives you six minutes of your own that no one can take from you.
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