20. How To Disappear Completely (Kid A)
Yorke wrote this as a reaction to touring OK Computer to death. The lyrics are certainly tinged with a heavy sense of fatigue and weariness that’s offset somewhat by the eerie, heaving beauty of those orchestral strings.
- I Might Be Wrong (Amnesiac)
This one packs a cracking, raw, bluesy guitar riff blaring out over some tight drums. Overall, the production is dark and sparse in keeping with the overall tone of Amnesiac while the lyrics range from doubt – ‘I might be wrong’ – to careless hedonism – ‘Let’s go down the waterfall / Have ourselves a good time / It’s nothing at all.’ Overall, the tone is restless and apathetic. Vintage Radiohead then!
- Give Up The Ghost(King Of Limbs)
A haunting and beautiful song at the same time – the way that weary, background vocal – ‘don’t hurt me’ – contrasts with the more uplifting refrain, ‘In your arms.’ One interpretation suggests it’s about reflecting on past mistakes as a means of moving forward, ‘Gather all the pitiful / In your arms.’
- Just (The Bends)
All about Jonny Greenwood’s guitar solo here – pure fire! Yorke said the lyrics were written for a narcissistic friend apparently. Definitely one of their catchiest hits.
16. Street Spirit (The Bends)
Tom Yorke on Street Spirit, ‘It is the dark tunnel without the light at the end. It represents all tragic emotion that is so hurtful that the sound of that melody is its only definition.’ Enough said!
- Karma Police (OK Computer)
One of Radiohead’s most unmistakable openings, that morose piano establishing the tone from the off. Yorke’s lyrics sound irritable with that eerie synthesiser in the background mimicking a ghostly choir. A bit of light is allowed to seep in momentarily by dent of the beautiful piano melody at the refrain.
This is really a song of two halves. During the first, Yorke adopts an intolerant tone, satirising the way people or society – the ‘Karma Police’ – can be overly critical of others. I love the subtle, ‘whoosh’ sound effect that signals the arrival of the second half where the speaker snaps out of their fault-finding mindset as if awoken from a sudden daze, ‘For a minute there, I lost myself.’ The ending is marvellous, Yorke’s pronounced s’s bouncing around due to being manipulated with an echo effect, highlighting the speaker’s disoriented state of mind before the song bows out on a piercing, overloaded guitar.
- Sail To The Moon (Hail To The Thief)
A spacey piano number written by Yorke for his son – it does sound like a lullaby soothing you to sleep. It’s a song that seems to warn against pride (‘I sail to the moon / I spoke too soon’) and emphasises morality (‘Maybe you’ll / Be president / But know right from wrong’ – an apparent swipe at the Bush administration).
- Myxomatosis (Hail To The Thief)
An incredible, visceral, oppressive tour de force – you can almost feel that growling guitar pressing down on you. Poor Father Kevin wouldn’t have lasted long in that episode of ‘Father Ted’ if he had heard this on the bus instead of ‘Exit Music (For A Film)!’
It seems likely Yorke is bemoaning the superficiality and pressure of being a celebrity. Maybe it has affected him so much, it’s to the point that it’s stifling his creativity or self-expression, ‘I don’t know why I / Feel so tongue-tied.’
- Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong (My Iron Lung EP)
A personal favourite here. I think it’s one of their more underrated ones – but I suppose you could nearly argue that for the majority of their output! That opening minute before the singing starts always does it for me – very hazy and sinister with those moody guitar twangs.
The pace seems to creep along until the refrain roars to life, the lyrics evidently warning of the danger posed by femmes fatales, ‘A beautiful girl can turn your world into dust.’
- Climbing Up The Walls (OK Computer)
There’s a very uneasy, almost evil tone on here drawn from those eerie drones, the evil, burbling synth that seems to want to pull you under with it and that solitary, stilted drum beat. Yorke sounds fatigued, embodying the speaker’s weariness from an internal conflict,
‘And either way you turn
I’ll be there
Open up your skull
I’ll be there
Climbing up the walls.’
There’s a glorious string section approaching three minutes before wailing guitars blare around them, ushering the song out in a daze of chaotic confusion.
- There There (Hail To The Thief)
There’s a deliciously distinct, mysterious atmosphere created on There There, opening with a broody drum break soon accompanied by an oscillating guitar that warbles before it finding its full voice to crack out a meandering riff.
Yorke’s lyrics seem to list a series of obstacles, ‘Broken branches trip me,’ ‘There’s always a siren singing you to shipwreck’ and ‘Steer away from these rocks.’ The refrain ‘just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there’ is perhaps warning us not to put too much faith into things we want desperately to happen. It’s always a trip hearing that second guitar riff coming in halfway through the track and later bursting to life, riding the track out on a wave of glorious, paranoid distortion.
- Separator (King Of Limbs)
One of their more uplifting and hopeful numbers, ‘Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying.’ The guitar that accompanies Yorke is subtly euphoric and those gorgeous strings towards the end seem like they’re ushering in a new dawn.
An interpretation of ‘Separator’ that I like takes the view it’s about reincarnation or at least some kind of spiritual renewal,
‘It’s like I’m fallen out of bed
From a long, weary dream
The sweetest flowers and fruits are hanging from trees
Falling off the giant bird that’s been carrying me.’
- Pyramid Song (Amnesiac)
Widely regarded, by the band and critics, as one of their best and it’s easy to hear why. A very intimate and minimal song – just Yorke’s plaintive voice and a slow piano at the beginning before those profound strings and the haunting effects of an ondes Martenot heighten the emotive effect.
Yorke’s delivery remains detached throughout as he sings about a journey to the afterlife, ‘And we all went to heaven in a little rowboat / There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.’ Overall, it’s a brave, affirmative view of death and what comes thereafter.
- Idioteque (Kid A)
When Radiohead did banging techno! Channelling their inner Aphex with that thumping bassline; eerie, piercing synths; and a hissing drum, the band created a unique, obscure soundscape with quite a jarring atmosphere. The one Radiohead tune that has to be played at full volume!
It’s clear ‘Idioteque’ is warning against environmental disaster, ‘Ice age coming’ and ‘We’re not scaremongering / This is really happening.’ This concern ties neatly in with the vivid, post-apocalyptic artwork that accompanies the album.
- Lotus Flower (King Of Limbs)
Yorke’s strikes melodic gold with the captivating refrain on this,
‘Slowly we unfurl
As lotus flowers
‘Cause all I want is the moon upon a stick
Just to see what if
Just to see what is
I can’t kick your habit
Just to fill your fast ballooning head
Listen to your heart.’
The song starts out on a lurching whirr before some dub-inspired, aquatic sounding effects splash in while an undulating bassline booms in to create some ripples, providing the track with a driving rhythm. The lyrics are fairly ambiguous, (what’s a ‘moon upon a stick?!’) leaving it open to interpretation. I’ve read a few that range from it being about an addictive relationship (‘I can’t kick your habit’) to a desire to transcend society’s sterile, consumerist impulses – the lotus flower being a symbol for detachment as it grows up from the muddy riverbed to rest on the water’s surface.
- Reckoner (In Rainbows)
What a beautiful tune! From the pitter-patter of the opening percussion to that soft, forlorn yet inviting riff to Yorke’s airy delivery, it’s guaranteed to slip you into a glassy-eyed trance.
There’s something very intangible about the lyrics – who is the ‘reckoner?’ God? The universal mind? Overly analytical, spiritually dead humankind? And the ‘bittersweet distractor(s)?’ It might be the devil, the ultimately empty distractions we fill our lives with or possibly the things in our lives that distract us from the truth. Who knows!
- Codex (King Of Limbs)
The mood created by the pensive, heaving piano, that strange sliding sound effect and the mournful is something else. The overall effect is very dreamy and ethereal; you almost get the sense of time slowing down as Yorke croons about a possible suicide attempt, ‘Jump off the end / The water’s clear / And innocent.’ However, a more common reading seems to be viewing the water as a symbol for rebirth – the speaker is undergoing a baptism or a spiritual cleansing of sorts, casting off their previous faults and mistakes. A much more hopeful interpretation, this one!
3. Videotape (In Rainbows)
Such a simple tune but that’s a big reason why it’s so great – just that stark piano and Yorke’s plaintive, slurred delivery. The song is told from the viewpoint of a dying man recording his last wishes. There’s a real affecting metaphor used to express his affection for the person he intends to receive the tape, ‘You are my centre when I spin away.’ This image links to the reel on a videotape, the speaker’s loved one acting like the constant centre perhaps during times when the speaker is spinning or emotionally unstable.
Clearly, the man is aware of his oncoming demise, ‘When I’m at the pearly gates.’ It’s poignant that’s it’s only now, with his sense of own mortality at its sharpest, that he can finally fully appreciate the beauty of life, ‘Because I know today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen.’ There’s also an interesting drum rhythm that becomes more agitated and skittery as the song progresses, perhaps representing time closing in on the speaker as his life seconds peter out.
- Fake Plastic Trees (The Bends)
One of Yorke’s most yearning numbers. I love the way his voice lilts here – his inflection when he belts out ‘My fake plastic love’ and other lines in this vein are spine-tingling. A bit of a tearjerker too; it’s about a relationship where one person is acting fake to please the other but in the end it just ‘wears me out.’ The lines ‘And If I could be who you wanted / If I could be who you wanted all the time’ are almost painful.
This song has got a great building structure: just the strummed guitar at the start before some strings edge gradually in with that mournful organ on the refrain, then for the second verse the drums slam in before a wailing electric is switched on for the climactic third section.
- All I Need (In Rainbows)
That opening is sublime. The haunting cello, slow drums and then the buzzing synthesizer create a tense tone before some relief is provided by the chimes of a glockenspiel and later a coasting piano that sweeps in, teeing up a cymbal bashing crescendo for the song’s final release.
‘All I Need’ is unequivocally about unrequited love, Yorke using a range of metaphors to express this, ‘I am a moth / Who just wants to share your light. / I’m just an insect / Trying to get out of the night.’ During the electrifying ending, he wails, ‘It’s all wrong / It’s all right.’ The speaker is in a dilemma – they know nothing will probably become of their yearning but yet they feel like this person is the one for them.