Radiohead: From Rock to the Extremes of the Inventive in Jazz
From the earliest days of jazz, expression has been the core of the music. From the elaborate harmonic progressions of Duke Ellington, to the frantic and virtuosic solo lines of Ornette Coleman, jazz has always been about translating numerous ideas into music. When someone says Radiohead, most think of an “alternative” rock band. The problem with this label is that it excludes every other influence on the band (which makes Radiohead rather difficult to label). The reality is, Radiohead in many ways functions like jazz fusion bands such as the Mahavishnu Orchestra and others, as such their connection to jazz (while not always obvious), is important to explore. In this paper, Radiohead’s vast musical style, and how it ties into jazz (implicitly or explicitly), will be explored by looking at their musical works on the macro level (i.e. over their entire career) as well as the micro level (by focusing specifically on the importance of Radiohead’s albums OK Computer, Kid A,and Amnesiac). Additionally this paper will explore how the jazz world has reacted to Radiohead, namely how the younger generation of jazz musicians have embraced their music.
Radiohead formed in the United Kingdom, specifically at a school in Abingdon, Oxfordshire in 1985. The group has remained the following members from its inception: Colin Greenwood – bass guitar, keyboards;Jonny Greenwood – guitar, keyboards, ondes Martenot, analog synthesizers, miscellaneous instruments;Ed O’Brien – guitar, percussion, backing vocals;Philip Selway – drums, percussion, backing vocals;Thom Yorke – lead vocals, guitar, keyboards, piano. Early sounds of the band, notably found on their debut album Pablo Honey (released in 1993), indicated a strong leaning towards a rock sound (it is indisputable that rock is the foundation of Radiohead. However, as will be shown, this is really the tip of the musical iceberg, as Radiohead will more resemble Miles Davis in his electric period as time progresses instead of a pure rock band). As the band moved onto their second album, My Iron Lung (released 1994), they were already beginning to develop their sound that made nods to ambient, experimental tones (including various jazz artists). When their third album The Bends (released 1995) was released, the ambient nature of their sound was further developed. Nevertheless, the band still had an obvious intention of fitting into the Britpop scene that was sweeping the U.K. at this time (a scene that was led by groups such as Oasis and Blur) (DiMartino). The band, following this release, began looking for a new artistic direction as they simply were not generating a great deal of acclaim (up until this point they had modest success commercially).
In 1997 Radiohead released the album OK Computer, which in many ways became a turning point in their career (this was also when jazz and Radiohead truly began their symbiotic relationship). Jazz critic George Varga states that Radiohead is “the most daring and successful cutting-edge band in modern rock. But few are aware that this Grammy Award-winning English quintet draws much of its creative inspiration from jazz in general, and the epic music of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and John and Alice Coltrane and the Art Ensemble of Chicago (Varga).” The lead singer Thom Yorke once talked in an interview about the songwriting process of OK Computer and its connection to Miles Davis saying, “Bitches’ Brew by Miles Davis was the starting point of how things should sound; it’s got this incredibly dense and terrifying sound to it. That’s what I was trying to get–that sound–that was the sound in my head. The only other place I’d heard it was on a Morricone record. I’d never heard it in pop music. I didn’t hear it there. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t like we were being snobs or anything, it was just like, “This is saying the same stuff we want to say (DiMartino).” With regards to OK Computer, Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood openly admitted jazz’s influence on the album. In an interview in London, Greenwood stated that, contrary to comparisons of critics that OK Computer drew on ambient and progressive rock icons Pink Floyd, it instead drew heavily on Miles Davis’ seminal album Bitches Brew. On this, Greenwood says “We love all the atmosphere and chaos on Bitches Brew—the fat, dirty sound of two electric pianos and the [multiple] drummers. That’s why Bitches Brew is so good, beyond just Miles’ trumpet playing. We love how he got together that sense of chaos (Varga).” With OK Computer, that “sense of chaos” is present throughout, fulfilling Greenwood’s statements regarding Davis’ influence on the record (especially his electric period). It is rare for a song on this album to stay in one theme, as each song has its own personality. The entire album bleeds jazz influence, but avant-garde and jazz fusion, not “traditional” big band or bebop sounds. The influence of Bitches’ Brew on OK Computer is not overt (hence why many critics at the time of its release compared the album to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon) (Varga). As such one has to look at the overall feel of the songs on each record, as well as the techniques applied, to find the connection between OK Computer and Bitches Brew.
The musicians Paul Tanner, Maurice Gerow, and David Megill explained Bitches’ Brew innovations in the following correspondence, “like rock groups, Davis gives the rhythm section a central role in the ensemble’s activities. His use of such a large rhythm section offers the soloists wide but active expanses for their solos. The harmonies used in this recording move very slowly and function modally rather than in a more tonal fashion typical of mainstream jazz…. The static harmonies and rhythm section’s collective embellishment create a very open arena for improvisation. The musical result flows from basic rock patterns to hard bop textures, and at times, even passages that are more characteristic of free jazz (Tanner et. al. 135–136).” Keeping this explanation in mind, OK Computer in many ways emulates these characteristics of Bitches’ Brew. While all songs on OK Computer show the influence of Bitches’ Brew, the song that most completely manifests the “the atmosphere and chaos” described earlier by Johnny Greenwood is the massive hit “Paranoid Android.” Firstly, as with Davis’ album, Radiohead’s rhythm section (especially drummer Phil Selway) on OK Computer plays a massive role in creating the music, rather than simply keeping time. Selway plays with a very relaxed, expressive style, which allows for numerous groove and fill combinations. Take for instance the second track on the record “Paranoid Android.” The piece is essentially reliant on Selway’s syncopated shuffle/bossa nova-esque beats in duple time in the beginning with additional bars in 7/8. The vocals, guitars, keyboards and other instruments beautifully coalesce around the drums and percussion before Selway shifts the feeling monumentally with accented eighth-notes. The first shift is into a hard rock 4/4 section that Phil pushes forward with a heavily accented groove. The second shift is to a slower duple time, with less accents and ambient tones (including eerie background vocals) surrounding Selway’s charge into the experimental. This section does not last long, however, as “Paranoid Android” eventually shifts (with the drums leading the charge) back into the heavily distorted section that is akin to acid rock (with the song finishing in this mood).
Following the success of OK Computer, Radiohead went through a very difficult patch as the lead singer of the group Thom Yorke suffered a creative collapse, resulting in a mental breakdown. Thom Yorke says, in an interview with The Observer on this struggle post-OK Computer, that “I always used to use music as a way of moving on and dealing with things, and I sort of felt like that the thing that helped me deal with things had been sold to the highest bidder and I was simply doing its bidding. And I couldn’t handle that (Smith).” He expands on this in a later interview saying “every time I picked up a guitar I just got the horrors. I would start writing a song, stop after 16 bars, hide it away in a drawer, look at it again, tear it up, destroy it (Smith).” Eventually, in spite of the creative implosion in Yorke’s mind, the band began working on the album Kid A (released in 2000). The album was a strong push away from what OK Computer had done, but nevertheless retained elements of jazz. Amongst the strong push towards electronic sounds influenced by groups such as Aphex Twin and Autechre, Kid A incorporates jazz ideas in numerous tracks, namely from the master jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus (namely from his work The Complete Town Hall Concert) (“Fitter, Happier, More Productive”). The song where Mingus’ influence is most pronounced on Kid A is “The National Anthem,” which Juice Magazine states is “a track …shot through with chaotic, pulsating energy, the band set up eight brass musicians in the same way as they appear on the Mingus album (“Fitter, Happier, More Productive”).” Thom Yorke spoke of the process creating this work, describing the very Mingus-esque energy stating “”On the day I said to them, ‘You know when you’ve been in a traffic jam for four hours and if someone says the wrong thing to you, you’ll just kill ’em, you’ll f***ing snap and probably throttle them? You’re like this with everybody and any tiny spark and you’re going to go off, and you’re in the midst of two or three hundred other people who are in exactly the same thing. I wanted them to play like that, like, this f***ing close to going off, lynching or killing, it’s like a mob just about to spark off. Jonny and I were conducting it, and we ran through it a few times and people started to get ideas, and it was such a great day! I broke my foot, actually, because I was jumping up and down so much…It was great! The bit at the end was my favourite bit, because they said. ‘Well, what are we going to do at the end?’ And I said, ‘I’ll go, 1-2-3-4 and you just hit whatever note’s in your head as loud as you possibly can.’ And that was just the best sound you’ve ever heard! (“Fitter, Happier, More Productive”).
Following Kid A, in 2001 the band released Amnesiac which was in essence an album made up of songs that were created during the Kid A recording sessions. Amnesiac’s jazz influence, as with Kid A, is very much apparent throughout the work. With regards to the jazz connection on Amnesiac, critic George Varga spoke of two pieces that point to an explicit influence. The first of these songs is “Pyramid Song,” which Varga states that “anchored by a near-swing beat, it was directly modeled on “Freedom,” a composition from the posthumously released 1990 Charles Mingus album, Epitaph. According to Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s singer and creative linchpin, the first version of “Pyramid Song” even sampled the handclaps featured on “Freedom.” (Varga).” “Pyramid Song’s” entire feel is jazz, from the chord progressions which are extended and seventh chords (among others) to singer Thom Yorke’s ballad like melodic lines that are reminiscent of many vocal jazz artists. Varga also points to the jazz influence on the album track “Dollars and Cents” and “Life in a Glass House” stating “Equally notable is Amnesiac’s “Dollars & Cents,” which pays homage to Alice Coltrane’s otherworldly harp-playing on her 1970 album, Journey in Satchidananda. “Life in a Glass House” (also from Amnesiac) employs a brassy, New Orleans-styled funeral march that perfectly mirrors Yorke’s brooding lyrics about death and transcendence (Varga).” I do not totally agree with Varga in this respect, namely with regards to his assertion that the New Orleans-style brass band is a funeral march (a prominent instrument that Varga forgets to mention that is a part of “Life in a Glass House” is a clarinet, which negates the autonomous brass band dynamic). Honestly “Life in a Glass House” is hardly a dirge, as the lyrics themselves are related to living, namely a social commentary on the ills of society (Yorke mentions politics among other concepts). The jazz influence on Amnesiac is present on more tracks (really the entire album in all actuality). Such examples include “You and Whose Army?” which employs the vocal styling of the 1940’s group Ink Spots (although not a jazz group, their singing in many ways was much akin to jazz) (Varga). Finally, jazz influence (namely of John Coltrane’s late works that incorporate various Southeast Asian music) is found within the opening song of Amnesiac, “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box (Varga).”
Following Amnesiac, Radiohead continued to release albums that challenged people’s conception of what a rock band was capable of (the albums were Hail to the Thief (2003), In Rainbows (2007), and the most recent release King of Limbs (2011)). Jazz influences were not as pronounced as the albums previously highlighted, but they were nevertheless there. Undoubtably any creative effort in the future will also contain jazz inspiration. As band member, guitarist Johnny Greenwood, once said in an interview, ““We bring in our favorite jazz albums, and say: We want to do this. And we enjoy the sound of our failing! That’s what we do, and that’s what bands have always done, since the late ’50s—a bunch of guys in England listening to American blues records and copying them. In our case, it’s jazz (Varga).” What this proves is that Radiohead is a rock band that functions musically and philosophically like a jazz band. Radiohead’s enormous success and influence on the music industry as a whole is undeniable, as they have been lauded by critics as the continuous voice for progression in rock music. The jazz world has also been influenced a great deal by the band, as will be explored next.
Radiohead’s music has, for many years, had a hold on jazz musicians, especially the younger generation of jazz music performance. For as long as OK Computer has been in existence, jazz musicians have created their own arrangements of Radiohead’s music (notable artists to do this include Brad Mehldau, Jamie Cullum, Chris Potter, Robert Glasper, and the Bad Plus) (Considine). Various jazz musicians and band leaders have explained their own reasons for loving Radiohead so much that they adapt their music into their jazz repertoire. Josh Grossman, the Toronto Jazz Orchestra’s artistic director, states his own personal beliefs on this matter saying, “I think it’s because the music it’s a little more introspective, a little more intense…there’s a lot of thought that goes into it (Considine).” Additionally Don Scott, guitarist for the Canadian jazz quartet Peripheral Vision, states on Radiohead’s jazz appeal “Radiohead appeals to jazz musicians in a big, bad way because the music is more complex than your average rock band” with “more interesting or complex harmony or forms. The phrasing is bizarre…and they also have a sort of brooding darkness to their music that appeals to a lot of jazz musicians (Considine).” Radiohead’s music has not simply had an influence on individual jazz artists, but the academic institutions that train them as well. Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin has established the Radiohead Jazz Project (co-commissioned with Germany’s Frankfurt Radio Bigband) with the intention of actively involving its jazz students with the music of Radiohead in a unique format. As Lawrence University explains it “it was a logical progression to expand jazz solo and small group interpretations of Radiohead tunes to the large jazz ensemble format, and the Radiohead Jazz Project is the first grand scale effort to arrange multiple Radiohead compositions for the jazz big band (“Radiohead Jazz Project”).” The project has had a ripple effect on other academic institutions that teach and perform jazz, as many arrangements from the Radiohead Jazz Project have been played by numerous university and high school jazz bands. Indeed Radiohead’s influence from, and on, the jazz world has come full circle (and will continue for many years into the future).
Critics and fans agree that Radiohead is truly one of the most innovative bands to ever play rock music. However, as has been demonstrated in this paper, Radiohead is a synthesis of a vast array of many music genres, most of all jazz. Radiohead would, simply put, not exist as it does without the incredible works of Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and countless other artists. As has been shown, Radiohead has a symbiotic relationship to jazz, as theynot only use jazz to form their unique sound, but the jazz world (both in performance and academics) have incorporated their music en masse to their repertoire. There will never be another band quite like Radiohead, and it shall be interesting to see how much further the band and jazz will intertwine in the years to come.
Considine, J.D. “In Radiohead, jazz finds a place to rock.” The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail Inc., 9 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2014
DiMartino, Dave. “Give Radiohead Your Computer.” Yahoo! Music. Yahoo! Inc., 5 Feb. 1999. Web. 19 May 2014
Radiohead Jazz Project. Lawrence University, 2011. Web. 21 May 2014.
Smith, Andrew. “Sound and fury.” The Observer. Guardian News and Media Ltd., 30 Sep. 2000. Web. 19 May 2014.
Tanner, Paul O. W.; Maurice Gerow; David W. Megill (1988) . “Crossover — Fusion”. Jazz (6th ed.). Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown, College Division. pp. 135–136.
Varga, George. “Radiohead’s Jazz Frequencies.” JazzTimes. JazzTimes Inc., Nov. 2001. Web. 20 May 2014
Zoric, Lauren. “Fitter, Happier, More Productive.” Juice. Piranha Media GmbH., Oct. 2000. Web. 21 May 2014.