Whatever makes you happy
Whatever you want
You're so f**king special
I wish I was Special
But I'm a Creep
I'm a Weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don't belong here
- Lyrics from 'Creep'
With the song, 'Creep', Radiohead were propelled to fame. Lead singer Thom Yorke seemed to speak for the misfits of the world and thousands found solace in the way he could vocalise the despair felt by mostly young people who felt unable conform to a way of life, or a mode of thinking, that corresponded to what others perceived as 'normal' behaviour. Since then, Radiohead have continued to produce some of the most powerful and meaningful music of the nineties and are continuing to do so in this, the new millennium. Since their debut album, Pablo Honey, the Oxford-based quintet - Thom Yorke, Jon Greenwood, Ed O'Brien, Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway - seem to have gone from strength to strength with each album only surpassing the last, from The Bends to OK Computer to Kid A to Amnesiac (at the time of writing, the latest Radiohead album). Radiohead continuously produce brilliant, thought-provoking and most importantly, original music.
The highlight of Radiohead's first album was the positively anthemic 'Creep'. The bass powered verses give way to the infamous guitar crunches of the bridge - allegedly inserted by guitarist Jon Greenwood in an attempt to sabotage a song he initially hated - and the powerful guitars of the chorus accompanied by Thom's beautiful lyrics of self disgust. Other highlights on the album include the wistful lyrics and guitar-driven harmonies of 'Thinking About You'. All in all, this was a good solid debut album with a good promise of greater things to come.
Here Radiohead demonstrated a consistent talent for producing excellent rock anthems. Virtually every song on this album was a potential hit. The excellent singles 'Just, High and Dry, Street Spirit' and 'My Iron Lung', are a sample of the breadth of the album, from the melancholy beauty of 'High and Dry' to the powerful guitar riffing of 'Just'. Lyrical genius seems to seep from every pore of this album and the emotion of Thom's unique voice is at its most powerful on songs like 'The Bends' where we hear Thom scream 'I wanna live, breathe, I wanna be part of the human race' with such a passion that it's hard to not feel that ache within everyone to fit in. Other great songs on the album (resisting the urge to simply copy out the track listing) include 'Fake Plastic Trees', a heart-wrenching tortured ballad about the false nature of beauty in the modern world based around a simple bit of guitar strumming with a gentle organ underscore, and 'Black Star' a great guitar-driven track that marked Radiohead's first collaboration with Nigel Godrich, who remained their producer for the more recent albums. The Bends received much critical acclaim and several awards. But The Bends was only a prelude to what many consider the pinnacle of Radiohead's career - OK Computer.
Radiohead seemed to reach an apotheosis with this amazing album - an almost operatic tale of life and alienation in the modern world. The whole spectrum of human emotion seems to be portrayed here, especially when it comes to fear, alienation and suffering. The Hitchhiker-inspired 'Paranoid Android' itself reaches through into the depths of human paranoia to produce a dazzlingly brilliant rendition of a tortured soul. The pain of a family running to escape from child abuse is revealed in the beautiful 'Exit Music (For a Film)'; a lightly melancholic guitar strumming intro gives way to a choral harmony and then an immense tide of bass as the song climaxes in a dramatic plea from the abused 'Now we are one in everlasting peace/We hope, that you choke, that you choke' as the song gently gives way to the next. The successive song is a change of pace, with a slightly more positive sound in 'Let Down' where Thom professes how he's been 'crushed like a bug in the ground' before appealing to not get sentimental because 'It always ends up drivel'. Another brilliant song in the earlier stages of the album is 'Subterranean Homesick Alien' which offers a birds eye view of a world where all of us can be seen to 'drill holes in ourselves and live for their secrets'. Thom notes how the alien can sum up the whole of human existence in one phrase 'They're all up-tight'.
The second verse features an impassioned appeal for the aliens to come and take Thom, and 'Show me the world as I'd love to see it'. The simplistic beauty and seeming naivety of 'No Surprises' masks a plea to change the world from a man trapped in the office block in his own tortured world; perhaps these lyrics best sum up the emotional power of the album as Thom mourns 'A heart that's full up like a landfill, a job that slowly kills you, bruises that won't heal' and carries on killing himself in the corporate rat race.
Q Magazine readers in the UK voted OK Computer the Best Album of all Time. It really is that good. If you haven't already got a copy and claim to be a music fan, buy it immediately.
After a massive world tour to promote the immensely successful OK Computer, Radiohead disappeared for about 18 months or so. Touring had taken it out of the band, and success seemed to have disturbed the seemingly already troubled soul of Thom Yorke. This isn't to say that the band weren't producing, in fact, they developed enough material for the Kid A and (at the time of writing) the latest album, Amnesiac.
Kid A was thought by many to signal a massive change of direction for the band - obtuse, even - as they decided to move into a more electronica-influenced mood. Others saw the album as a natural, seamless progression, not obtuse in the slightest.
Perhaps the lyrics don't convey the emotionally-charged brilliance of earlier albums; lyrics such as 'Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon', one could argue are more obscure. However, Kid A seems to break barriers into completely unexplored musical territory, a breakaway that many older fans seemed to resent at the time. Certainly for them, the album was harder to digest. The bouncy rhythms and unintelligible lyrics of 'Kid A' seem to only fully form in the last moments of the song, when a bass line links up the toy music box melodies that make up the bulk of what preceded it. The song is followed by 'The National Anthem', which could perhaps be the anthem of choice for a post-industrial nightmare state. The song is driven by a powerful bass, a steady march of drums, until it builds up to an immense, beautifully orchestrated cacophony of trumpets, saxaphones and what seems like every instrument under the sun. For some, the highlight of the album is 'How to Disappear Completely' where Thom's heartfelt vocals are highlighted by the minimalist guitars. There is so much of that tortured passion in his voice as he cries 'I'm not here, this isn't happening' with the conviction of a man terrified by the world around him. Towards the end of the song comes a subtle highlight, as the guitars and the keyboard harmonies seem to fall apart for just a few bars, before being reunited together in a beautiful moment of brilliance overlayed with Thom's mournful crying.
Another track of subtle genius is the minimalist 'Treefingers', which merely provides a musical womb of noise, transferring from note to note, slowly weaving a simple, transparent veil of sound. The album seems to sound like more traditional Radiohead stuff with 'Optimistic', a riff driven monster overridden by Thom's cry of 'If you try the best you can, you try the best you can, the best you can is good enough', the track segues beautifully into 'In Limbo' a slightly jazzy sounding song with more mournful and somewhat unintelligible lyrics from Thom. The album ends with the subtle organ intro and the gentle singing of Thom which mark the start of 'Motion Picture Soundtrack', a heartfelt song mourning for the loss of who knows what, that gives way to the exquisite harp and beauty of the end. The lyrics of the final song sum up the feelings felt by anyone mourning the loss of one close to them; 'A little wine, and sleeping pills, help me get back to your arms, a cheap suit, and sad film, help me get where I belong. I think I'm crazy, maybe'.
All in all the album is a brilliantly experimental journey through themes and emotions familiar to Radiohead, but now treated in a new way. Amazingly, the album, for its occasional trademark 'despondency' manages to convey a sense of optimism, of care, and repeated listenings (especially on sunny mornings) reveal its deep sense of humanity.
Amnesiac sacrifices none of the ingenuity of Kid A, and adds a few more guitar driven tracks, and some superb piano work from Thom Yorke himself. One could argue that it fails to be quite as innovative and beautifully realised as Kid A, but it's an excellent album nonetheless, one that really gets under your skin. Opening with 'Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box' the album gets going brilliantly, with an inexorable drum rhythm pushing forward through the sounds of Thom's unique moan. This is followed by the piano-fuelled single 'Pyramid Song' a totally beautiful requiem seeming to chart the passage of a dead man to his eventual Valhalla. 'Push/Pull revolving doors' is perhaps one of the weaker tracks, with a mostly rhythmic accompaniment producing what can be called little more than vaguely interesting noise. A return to guitar-based brilliance, however, is marked by the stunning 'I Might be Wrong', a bass driven song that really gets going to be something special. 'Morning Bell' makes a welcome return from Kid A, now sounding more mournful and also in a 4/4 rhythm, as opposed to the unusual 5/4 of the original. The final track, 'Life in a Glass House' is a typically brilliant ending to the album, with a gentle piano chord progression accompanied by a meandering wind accompaniment weaving its way through the melody in a beautifully discordant way. Humphrey Lytleton plays a brilliant jazz trumpet along with his band that provides a fitting end to Radiohead's latest album. What more is there to say, any band that can release five consecutive albums of this quality deserve no less than the almost peerless recognition that they already receive. On this album Thom sings, 'I might be wrong'. Many, many people around the world would argue that he's been right all along.