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Beyond The Hits

Radiohead: Probing Beyond The Hits
The Quietus , March 21st, 2011 08:27

With the dust surrounding the release of The King Of Limbs beginning to settle, Wyndham Wallace, Ben Hewitt, John Freeman, Dale Berning, Will Parkhouse and Thomas A. Ward discuss some of their favourite non-single Radiohead tracks

Now we've all had time to digest The King Of Limbs, we at The Quietus thought it would be an appropriate time to journey into the hidden reaches of Radiohead's back catalogue and unearth our favourite B-sides, album tracks and bonus offerings. All Hail To The Chiefs...

'Coke Babies' B-side from 'Anyone Can Play Guitar' (1993)

It might have been hidden on the flipside to the cranky 'Anyone Can Play Guitar', its lyrics might not have made much attempt at significant meaning, and it might have owed a banker's debt to the numbed shoegazing of Ride's Nowhere album, but 'Coke Babies' was the first sign that Radiohead might amount to more than 'Creep'. Hinting at the tenderness that would lie at the heart of much of The Bends, but exploding into bursts of crystalline yet fuzzy noise, its only real failure was in its brevity. Stopping short even of the three minute mark, it demonstrates a frustrating catholic restraint, as if they felt somewhat guilty for borrowing tricks off the Thames Valley brigade. Still, they'd already done just that on Pablo Honey's closing track 'Blowout', and this just further underlines that, while they might still have been trying to define themselves, they could already beat the rest, even at other people's games. Wyndham Wallace

'Bodysnatchers' from In Rainbows (2007)

The second track from In Rainbows, 'Bodysnatchers' is arguably one of Radiohead's finest guitar-driven songs to date. The mechanical yet fluid guitar hook bounces around with a hypnotic, bellicose rhythm that runs throughout the track. Yorke later explained to the NME, "Just before I get sick I'll have this 120 hour hyperactive mania and that song was recorded during one of those. I felt genuinely out of it when we did that."

The song captivates the listener's consciousness further with a thumping rhythm section and additional lead guitars that build to a climaxing break. Recorded in one live take, it shows Radiohead as a driving musical unity, taking on the spiritual and otherworldly mind, body and soul of the occasion: "I have no idea what I am talking about/I am trapped in this body, I can't get out." Aurally, it will nail your ears and balls to the wall - take heed. Thomas A. Ward

'You and Whose Army?' from Amnesiac (2001)

There's an interesting contrast between the left-field nature of Radiohead's music and their fondness for a spot of the vernacular, and 'You and Whose Army' plays with this apparent clash gleefully. Our money wouldn't ever be on Thom Yorke in a fight (unless he got his 'Knives Out', arf), but here he croons: "Come on / Come on / If you think you can take us on". A mention of the "Holy Roman Empire" suggests that perhaps this isn't your average Saturday night city centre scrap, though, and "you and your cronies" recalls the beginnings of the backlash against Tony Blair and his government (perhaps the answer to the song's question would turn out to be "George Bush's, actually"). The song begins by meandering away mournfully, Yorke sounding like a bloated king with a cleft palate, slurring from his throne, but when a piano crashes in, it seems to strive for the epic. But the refrain's air-punching feel is modified by Yorke's behind-the-beat vocal and a big slab of reverb, like the king has started lashing out clumsily with his fists; the effect is a kind of thwarted majesty. Will Parkhouse

'How To Disappear Completely' from Kid A (2000)

Anyone who has endured Grant Gee's toe-curlingly awkward documentary Meeting People Is Easy will be aware of the toll that OK Computer's success took on Thom Yorke. With Radiohead in the midst of a mammoth tour and on the brink of an unprecedented level of stardom, he transforms into a hybrid made up of part tortured artiste, part petulant manchild. In between the tantrums, strops and moody shrugs, though, is a lingering shot of a tell-tale message scrawled on the window of an identikit hotel suite: "I am not here, and this is not really happening".

The mantra was originally given to Yorke by REM singer Michael Stipe as a way of coping with the day-to-day grind of being in one of the world's biggest bands, but would go on to form the key lyric of 'How To Disappear' completely. As beguiling as the acoustic strum and Jonny Greenwood's string arrangements are, it's Yorke who is the focal point: his soaring vocal frees itself from the groundswell of noise below as he wishes himself away from his horrors and insists "I walk through walls/ I float down the Liffey", but by the song's end he sounds like a man in battle with himself, singing the chorus repeatedly and trying to cling onto his imaginary retreat. Yorke has since admitted that his writer's block became so crippling during the making of Kid A that he resorted to pulling snippets of lyrics out of a hat to compose songs; as such, 'How To Disappear Completely' stands out as something fully formed rather than fragmented, and as both the most basic and most affecting track on the album. Ben Hewitt

'Lucky' from OK Computer (1997)

In the rubber-stamping of popular culture that are those 'Greatest Albums Of The Anthropocene Age' polls, OK Computer regularly comes out on top. But, for all the album's magnificence, it is a sodding miserable listen. 'Lucky' was originally recorded for 1995's The Help Album for the War Child charity and survived unchanged for inclusion on OK Computer. And thank fuck for that. As the album's penultimate track, 'Lucky' stands out like a huge, shining, 'look-at-me' beacon of hope. Banished are the paranoid androids and the handshakes of carbon monoxide. By the time Thom Yorke sings "It's gonna be / A glorious day" in the second verse the clouds have parted and a prog-rock angel has dished out the happy pills, as if the previous 40 minutes' nightmarish vision of the present had evaporated like a bad dream. And OK, so what if Jonny Greenwood's searing guitar solo sounds dangerously like his fan-boy homage to Pink Floyd? John Freeman

'I Might Be Wrong' from Amnesiac (2001)

While 'I Might Be Wrong' might have become a live favourite with a harder edge and a racing heart, the album version retains a grace that doesn't seem to translate to the stage. The scene opens with a slow-motion, booming arpeggio, up and back down, each successive note held to form a deep vibrating chord underpinning first the guitar, then the beat and finally Thom's voice as he wails the opening, titular line, his "wrong" sustained in resonant organum harmony, before the chord fades out. The whole thing is built on a looping modular structure, with Jonny's jagged blues riff and Phil's beat pulled taut and dry, together drawing the steady straight line the track unwaveringly adheres to. Layers are constantly added. Additional percussive loops shake, slide and pull at the edges of the central beat, threatening to unravel or smother it. Various keyboard motifs thicken the whole, mirroring the rhythmic pattern of the guitar riff while multiplying the harmonics. The bass line doubles its notes, long extended droning notes soar low, the tension mounts until at 3:48 it all just dissipates, leaving Jonny to tease out a tune so soulful, so unexpected - like John Frusciante in the agony of Niandra Lades - before the beat and the buzzing gristle return and Thom swoons, high and lonesome. It is a moment of suspension you never wish to end. Dale Berning

'Morning Bell' from Kid A (2000)

When did critics get so sensitive? Stick an impressive enough curveball at the start of an album and you can persuade them that the rest of the record doesn't even exist. Was Kid A really so much of a departure? In his Wild Mercury Sound blog, John Mulvey recently conceded, after spending a week with King Of Limbs, that "a decade or whatever ago I dismissed (Kid A) rather sniffily as a bunch of old Warp and post-rock ideas repackaged for a bigger audience", and he wasn't alone. But of its ten songs, only four were so indebted to the Autechre albums Yorke & co. loved, and 'Morning Bell' is not one of them. Later revised in a considerably more funereal style for Amnesiac, the Kid A version is a premonition of the kind of Radiohead we'd later find on In Rainbows: a stuttering drumbeat at its centre, a violin scraping the edges of the third verse, an enigmatic lyric that seems to hint at familial splits - "Release me", "You can keep the furniture", "Cut the kids in half" - and tension building as Yorke breaks off into one of those subdued yet epileptic vocals he does so well. There's also a cathartic bloom towards the song's end that again proves that Radiohead might be a stadium band, but that they rarely stoop to stadium mannerisms. Wyndham Wallace

'Gagging Order' B-side from 'Go To Sleep' (2003)

Originally released as a b-side to their single 'Go to Sleep' on 2003's Hail To The Thief, 'Gagging Order' would later feature on their extended EP COM LAG (2plus2isfive) released in Australia and Japan in 2004. It cuts a similar cloth to the single from which it featured as the flip side, yet is stripped back to just Thom Yorke and a beautiful acoustic thrum akin to 'Lozenge of Love' (from 1994's My Iron Lung EP). Hail To The Thief was seen as a vitriolic rebuke to the current political events of the time, and the track's lyric somewhat unveils our "keep quiet and carry on" attitude to it all: "A couple more for breakfast/ A little more for tea/ Just to take the edge off/ Move along, there's nothing left to see/ Just a body, pouring down the street."Thomas A. Ward

'Myxomatosis (Judge, Jury And Executioner)' from Hail To The Thief (2003)

Named after a virus identified in Uruguay in the 19th century which was later introduced to Australia and, in 1950, to the UK to help control the rabbit population, this track from the band's patchy sixth album is one of their most menacing. Perhaps its impact is increased for me personally by a childhood memory of watching an infected animal bludgeoned to death with the back side of an axe. But the combined effect of Phil Selway's rhythms, pummelled with surgical accuracy, a fat, distorted keyboard line that slithers maliciously almost without let-up, synths that drift in and out of tune in the background, and Yorke's sneering vocal, make this one seriously nasty tune. Yorke's lyrics are also unusually transparent, with images of a mongrel cat "holding half a head", an ugly admission that Yorke himself is "twitch[ing] and salivat[ing] like with myxomatosis", and - given how few of his words seem genuinely personal since 'Creep', and the fact that many of HTTT's words were assembled using a cut and paste method - the possibly surprisingly honest declaration that "No one likes a smart ass but we all like stars / But that wasn't my intention, I did it for a reason" as a defence for his "tongue tied" demeanour. Nasty; almost spiteful; but brilliant. Wyndham Wallace

'Weird Fishes/Arpeggi' from In Rainbows (2007)

Only Thom Yorke could liken happiness to sinking to the bottom of the sea and being devoured by ocean-dwelling worms, but 'Weird Fishes' is that most traditional of beasts - a love song - trapped inside all the abstract puzzles and obfuscated riddles that we've come to accept as standard fare with Radiohead. The chiming, rolling guitar arpeggios build momentum throughout as Yorke searches for salvation ("In the deepest ocean/ The bottom of the sea/ Your eyes/ They turn me") and blindly pursues the object of his desires ("I follow to the edge of the earth/ And fall off"). But submitting to the watery depths isn't the end, it's just the beginning: "I hit the bottom and escape", he croons, proving that swimming with the fishes doesn't always have to lead to an untimely end. Ben Hewitt

'Down Is The New Up' from In Rainbows (Bonus Disc)(2007)

For all the kerfuffle surrounding the 'pay-what-you-want for In Rainbows' trick, Radiohead kindly offered a way of parting with £40 of your hard-earned cash in return for a tastefully over-priced box-set. Buyers immediately gained top-fan points, and if most of its contents were merely worth a quick gander before permitting the thing to start gathering dust, the real nugget was the eight-song bonus disc and its stand-out track 'Down Is The New Up'. Over a lush piano and a swooping string arrangement, Uncle Thom sounds positively chipper at the thought of accepting his fate. "Pour yourself a hot bath / Pour yourself a drink / Down is the new up," he sings - seemingly comfortable in his own fiefdom of regret. In making his misery sound warm and open, the track confirmed In Rainbows as Radiohead's cuddliest album to date. John Freeman

'Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box' from Amnesiac (2001)

An anxious clanging kicks this track off, propelling it forward as if in mid-stride. The sample - a metallic drumming, with the tonal ring and off-kilter pattern of metal wires involuntarily thrust against hollow masts in a weather-beaten harbour - is overlaid with a crisp drum machine beat, all snare and mid-range. A two-tone keyboard melody appears, hanging from a middle D played over and over as the bassline follows a downward progression. Thom starts singing from the same middle note, his lyrics building a sense of time counted yet unfathomable. "After years of waiting, nothing came". The keyboard and vocal parts weave in and out of each other as a soured, grizzly guitar curls in with extended harmonium-style notes, creating an almost medieval polyphony that is poked and flicked at by clicks and cuts, static rhythms and electronic interference. Playful breaks, created with EQ changes, flashes of reverb and staggered delay, open it all out, as sampled voices sneak into the undergrowth. One growls and purrs, stuttering, the panning shifting back and forth. Another intones "please don't stop" repeatedly, like Kubrick's HAL on the verge of hyperventilation. Thom chants "get off my case" again and again. The melody returns. And then it's done. A second of quiet before the falling depths of the 'Pyramid Song'. 'Packt Like Sardines' sets the tone for an album uneasy from start to finish, holding its breath with watery eyes and Thom's own spasmodic shaking of hand. Dale Berning

'Palo Alto' from Airbag/How Am I Driving? (1998)

Palo Alto is about 40 miles south of San Francisco, California, and is home to the Xerox PARC research centre (a hub of nerds being socially awkward lemmings and bouncing around ideas like Mac OS and Windows) in Silicon Valley. The city's welcome sign reads "Welcome to Palo Alto, A city of the future" and acts as the inspiration for the opening line of the track that featured on the Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP.

Yorke lyrically places us in this "city of the future" where "it is difficult to concentrate" with his apathetic vocal set against digital loops and distorted guitars. Stylistically it bridges the gap between their harder-edged punk background and their future-progressive scores. It reads like a Shakespearian black comedy where "Everybody's happy/ Everybody is made for life" before his final lament: "When the sky's Califonia blue/ With a beautiful bombshell." A bleak and beautiful reminder of our future-present state of being. Thomas A. Ward

'Everything In Its Right Place' from Kid A (2000)

Look ma, no guitar. The track that heralded the arrival of New Radiohead set out Kid A's stall with a beautifully synthetic, creamy keyboard riff and a glitchy, skipping sample of Yorke's voice before his proper return, back in angsty chorister mode. But things done changed: on OK Computer, they'd articulated a sense of modern day alienation, while the four repeated and mashed-up lines here signalled a move away from the idea that Radiohead might become some kind of 'message' band, unless you could wring something out of cryptic crossword clues like: "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon" (um, a eulogy to the delights of auto-asphyxiation?). All that fuss about the big reinvention seems a bit silly now - this was exactly the kind of music we should have hoped we'd be listening in the year 2000, from the futuristic stereos of our flying cars. I once tried to use 'Everything...' to summon some degenerate on a comedown back to reality, whispering "open your eyes" repeatedly in his ears in homage to the film Vanilla Sky. Unsurprisingly, my generous musical gesture had the opposite effect and he rolled around on the floor making fearful noises. Pablo Honey fan, presumably. Will Parkhouse

'Little By Little' from The King Of Limbs (2011)

A few weeks after the release of The King Of Limbs and the critical dust is beginning to settle. The initial real-time reaction seemed slightly inhibited, perhaps there was a sense that the lack of immediacy of the album would point to it being - like Kid A - a grower. Or, just maybe, some of The King Of Limbs is downright odd. In this context, 'Little By Little' sounds like fluffy teen-pop by comparison - containing a hook and a chorus even, that can be gorged upon the first listen. You won't have to convince yourself to keep going with it just 'because it is Radiohead'. Indeed, 'Little By Little' is a beauty; gentle mariachi guitars are jostled by what sounds like someone shaking a cutlery tray, with Yorke professing to be "such a tease." However, the couplet "Routines and schedules / Drug and kill you" is possibly more insightful. Even on one of the most accessible tracks on The King Of Limbs, Radiohead are kicking against convention. John Freeman

'Like Spinning Plates' from Amnesiac (2001)

Any Thom, Dick or Harry can come up with a load of warped sounds and bung them messily together; not many could intertwine them like Yorke and co. do on 'Like Spinning Plates'. A jumble of disparate noises - jarring, scratching loops which sound like tape trying to eat itself; dizzy, off-kilter keyboards; oddly unsettling chimes fighting for space amongst the din - are somehow woven together into one big, bad and brooding whole. And in the middle of it all is Yorke's vocal, chopped up by the noise but still capable of nailing an unworldly falsetto on the title phrase itself. There are political pot-shots here, too, but - unlike the woollier fare that would bog down Amnesiac's follow-up, Hail To The Thief - there's something satisfying about Yorke's contempt for those who make "pretty little speeches" and leave him "floating down the muddy river". "I'm being cut to shreds," he moans at one point - and meaning it in every sense possible. Ben Hewitt

'Bangers & Mash' from In Rainbows (Bonus Disc) (2007)

A live favourite, partially due to Thom Yorke's predilection for doubling up as a drummer for its performance, 'Bangers & Mash' is a distant cousin of Hail To The Thief's 'Myxomatosis': a taut, scrawny, grotesque number in which Jonny Greenwood's guitar sounds like it was badly mangled as it fell off Gang Of Four's lorry while his brother's bass line grates its knuckles on a cheap brick wall. Selway's drums are especially claustrophobic, pausing only briefly for Yorke's voice to disintegrate like he's run out of energy after an especially ugly burst of psychotic fuckery. Mixing sexual imagery with a bilious attack on political power structures - "Whatever turns you on, whatever gets you off/Chief of police, the vice-chancellor, Lord and Lady Blah Blah" - it's hardly a pleasant listen, especially not for those favouring the swooning beauty of a song like 'Weird Fishes/Arpeggi'. But it's a sharp reminder that Radiohead, and Yorke in particular, are not afraid of getting their hands dirty in the public arena without preaching in a holier-than-thou, Bono-esque fashion. And if that's a reference to The Prodigy in "I've got the poison", then it's notable that Radiohead, unlike the Braintree boys, don't offer the remedy. "If you are on the top, then it is a long drop…"Wyndham Wallace