[Friday Playlist] Tracking Radiohead's Influences, Album by Album

text by Adam Lehrer

Sometimes it’s hard what to make of Radiohead. I’ve been a fan of them since my 10th birthday in October of 1997 when my parents gifted me with OK Computer (along with records by The Smashing Pumpkins and Wu Tang Clan, I was a hip little kid!). At the time, they were the most far out band I had ever heard. Kid A blew my mind equally. But later on, when I started getting acquainted with Free Jazz, Krautrock, electronic music, and 20th Century composers that inspire Radiohead, it was sometimes hard to maintain headspace for the band. For a long time I would think, “What’s the point of listening to Radiohead when I can get the real thing?”

But eventually I had to realize that I was just posturing. What makes Radiohead outstanding is the band’s ability to draw upon the most difficult and experimental forms of music while still maintaining their status as, more or less, a pop group. Radiohead’s new record, A Moon Shaped Pool, reveals itself after a few listens. In contrast with previous records, the songs can feel quick and not fully fleshed out (considering some of these tracks were written 10-years-ago, that’s not a ringing endorsement). But then it all makes sense, and A Moon Shaped Pools has an addictive quality that is essential Radiohead. There is a lot going on in these songs, and sometimes there is very little going on in these songs, but the varied textures echoed by Thom Yorke’s legendary haunting falsetto reveal an album strange and beautiful.

Radiohead’s greatest strength is its channeling of the avant-garde through the form of a pop song, something they do better than any contemporary musical act. They are champions of music, first and foremost. I’d wager that hundreds of thousands of people heard Aphex Twin for the first time due to Thom Yorke singing the producer’s praises around the time of Kid A’s release. I’d wager that less people might have even heard Penderecki on the advice of Johnny Greenwood. The following is an estimated but thoroughly researched overview of the musical influences that have inspired Radiohead throughout their career, album by album.

Pablo Honey

Pablo Honey doesn’t even seem like a Radiohead album at this point. Far from the grandeur of the records that follows, it is the culmination of a bunch of Indie Rock-obsessed Brits working out their obsessions before they could go on to make something new and modern. It’s a rock album disguised as a Brit Pop album. You can hear the band’s early rock influences; Thom Yorke has cited Pink Floyd and Queen as some of his favorites as a youngster. But it primarily acts as a watered down take on numerous ‘80s College and Indie Rock bands: R.E.M., the underrated Connecticut-based Rock band Miracle Legion, goth-y hints of Joy Division and Siouxsie and The Banshees, and the acerbic worldview of Elvis Costello.

The Bends

The Bends is Radiohead’s most powerful guitar-driven album, and also the band’s first example of being an album-centered musical act. To create such a powerful rock album statement, they looked to some of the progenitors of Rock n’ Roll’s mutation into a genre primarily focused on the full-length record, particularly The Beatles. Radiohead’s production also grew more expansive on The Bends with the band building instrumental parts on top of one another much in the way of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” But it was also, like I said, a guitar album. The album does seem to fashion itself after the groundbreaking guitar bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s. From the very beginning with track ‘Planet Telax,’ the swirling guitars recall those orchestrated by Kevin Shields on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and the lovelier parts of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. And like The Pixies, The Bends has some seriously catchy choruses.

OK Computer

OK Computer was Radiohead’s first bonafide masterpiece, and is often cited along with Nevermind, Loveless, and Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted as one of the best records of the ‘90s. While the previous influences mentioned in this article run strong, OK Computer was the first Radiohead record that embraced the avant-garde by mutating the sounds and stretching the parameters of what is possible within a rock n’ roll song. The album’s themes of alienation in the face of rampant consumerism needed a sonic undercurrent of dread to fester in the mind of the listener. Yorke cited ‘Bitches Brew,’ Miles Davis’ 1970 experimental fusion album, as an important influence on Radiohead’s songwriting process for OK Computer. It makes sense in that on Bitches Brew, Miles channeled terrifyingly beautiful sounds to weave a narrative of New York street life in the ‘70s, and OK Computer relies on its sound for its dark thematic content similarly, accentuated by Yorke’s obtuse lyrics. This was also the record when Johnny Greenwood, Radiohead’s lead guitar player and keyboardist who has gone on to compose music for the last three PT Anderson films, would raise his artistic voice to an equal decibel in the songwriting process as Yorke. Greenwood often cites Polish 20th Century composer Krzystof Penderecki as an influence, and no doubt OK Computer has a lush an orchestral flow to its sound. The band also started adding effects to Yorke’s voice, much in the way of Krautrock icons Can. There are samples on OK Computer as well, perhaps influenced by Yorke and his interest in DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing.

Kid A and Amnesiac

Kid A was released in 2000, with its companion piece Amnesiac coming out shortly thereafter. To me, those two records are the most inspired and important of Radiohead’s career inalterably shifting what types of Indie Rock bands would get famous. No more frumpy guys doing lite Nirvana, Radiohead ushered in an era in which the labtop was often just as important as the guitars with Kid A. But really, has there ever been a platinum band that has ever released an album this ambitiously strange? No surprise then that new influences were all over these two records.

These two records are Radiohead’s most open flirtation with electronic music; at the time Yorke was bored of rock music but deeply obsessed by the IDM acts on Warp records such as Aphex Twin and Autechre as well as Bjork’s Homogenic. The electronica on the album is moody and contemplative, but there are some sounds on the record that one could even dance to. But less we forget the screechy horn interludes on tracks like The National Anthem, a result of the band weaving in the free jazz sounds of Charles Mingus, Alice Coltrane, and Miles Davis’ farther out records such as Sketches of Spain and On the Corner. Motorik rhythms drive the more rock-driven tracks, reminiscent of Krautrock acts Neu!, Can, and Faust.  Has there ever been a successful rock band to make an experimental record at the peak of its career? Yes, Talk Talk did with Laughing Stock, another record that seems to have made an impact on Radiohead. You could fill a book with all the music, literary, political, and art influences of Kid A and Amnesiac, but in short, these records absolutely mystified fans and critics alike by utterly doing away with conventional pop song formats. But they are pop songs, all the same. That’s what Radiohead does at its best.

Hail to the Thief

Hail to the Thief has always felt like a bit of a misstep in Radiohead’s discography, but nonetheless carries some interesting tracks. The album feels like a bit of a survey of contemporary music (of the year it was released, 2004) and how Radiohead falls into it. Yorke expressed admiration for the band Liars who had just recorded their swan song, Drum’s Not Dead, in Berlin. Maybe due to this, Hail to the Thief expresses a renewed interest in rock music for Radiohead and an acknowledgement that rock music can be strange and outré. The album didn’t completely rebel against its forebears however, and the electronic influence of Modeslektor proves formative on the album. Yorke has cited the basslines of New Order as an influence, as well.

In Rainbows

In Rainbows was a marketing game changer, with Radiohead allowing fans to pay at their own discretion to hear the record. The buzz around the promotion decision often saw the actual music overlooked. And the music was rather majestic. It’s ultimately more accessible, even when embracing the avant-garde sounds of composers like Olivier Messiaen. But In Rainbows in many ways feels like a distillation of the abstract sounds of Kid and OK Computer into a more palatable, arena-ready sound. In some parts, such as the beautiful Reckoner, there is even a hippy-dippy anthemic sing-along quality. Free of the constraints of the record industry, In Rainbows sounds like Radiohead indulging its every whim.

The King of Limbs

“Rhythm is the king of limbs,” said Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien in an interview on 2011 record The King of Limbs. People seemed to hate this record when it came out, but I appreciated it as soon as I saw Thom doing his Ayahuascua convulsion dance in the music video for ‘Lotus Flower.’ It is certainly Radiohead’s weirdest album, making strong use of samples, loops, and ambient sounds. Some have cited the band’s interest in dubstep acts such as Burial on the witch-y beats that haunt the album. But really, this album is a showcase for drummer Phil Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood’s rhythm section; the members of the band that anchored Radiohead’s entire sound but in many ways lived in the shadow of Yorke and Greenwood. To me, it’s a Dub album, with the band citing influences such as Jamaican dub acts like Scientist, King Tubby, and Augustus Pablo. It is, without question, the best Radiohead album to get stoned and dance in your room along to. And it sounds better live than on record.

A Moon Shaped Pool

Much of a Moon Shaped Pool consists of songs written a decade ago, so just refer to this list for its various infliuences. But in this article the band cited Marvin Gaye as a sound forebear. So that’s in there too.