Radiohead circa 1995
So this semester, I’m taking a DeCal (student-run class at Berkeley) on “The Music, Lyrics, and Art of Radiohead.” As some of you know, I’ve been trying to get into this class since freshman year, but registration/scheduling conflicts have always gotten in the way.
I’m glad that I’m finally in – it’s a fun and engaging class! We spend two hours a week watching various Radiohead clips on YouTube (music videos, notable live performances, and rarities) and just share our thoughts or interesting stories on the songs. We’re going through all the albums this semester, so it’ll be really cool watching the band evolve through the years.
We also get short weekly writing assignments on topics we discussed in class, and I plan to share them on my blog this semester. So whether you’re a longtime Radiohead fan or just a curious bystander, I hope you enjoy my posts!
Quick side note: if you’re interested in giving Radiohead a try, I’d recommend starting with The Bends, which is considered their most accessible album that still maintains the essence of the band. You can listen to the entire album here. Essay prompt and my response below.
We would like you listen to The Bends in its entirety and note any evolution or similarities you see with the band’s earlier work (Pablo Honey/On A Friday). What exactly you look at is up to you; you’re free to focus on the band’s collective music, the song lyrics, or any other aspect of the albums you find to be strikingly similar or strikingly different than what we listened to yesterday.
Wall of sound – There is a marked difference in the band’s sound from Pablo Honey to The Bends. In Pablo Honey, I noticed a much more distinct “wall of sound” created by guitar distortion and feedback, very similar to the sound of some of the biggest alternative/grunge bands popular at the time (think Nirvana or My Bloody Valentine). In The Bends, while the guitar distortion is still there, the overall sound has changed – they make an effort to include more instruments and a more varied sound, with quite a noticeable number of slower songs compared to songs in Pablo Honey.
Lyrical themes – Whereas Pablo Honey was more about everyday experiences and people, mostly taken from Thom Yorke’s semi-autobiographical perspective, The Bends had a major theme – that of disease and sickness – tying back all the songs into a coherent whole. Many songs in The Bends are more abstract compared to songs in Pablo Honey, which seem to be grounded more in concrete observations and events.
Jonny’s guitar playing – One of the most notable differences between Pablo Honey and The Bends is Jonny’s guitar playing. In Pablo Honey, his style is much more restrained, conventional, and appropriate for the overall sound. In The Bends, however, I caught the beginnings of what came to define Jonny’s trademark guitar style. His playing is very pronounced and more experimental. The best example comes from his solos in “The Bends” and “Just” which provide a good preview of his guitar work to come in OK Computer.
Thom’s voice – At this point in Radiohead’s musical career, Thom’s voice hasn’t undergone the drastic changes heard in later works such as Kid A or even The King of Limbs. Basically, his voice hasn’t become very whiny or electronically-altered – yet. I would say that both Pablo Honey and The Bends see very standard alternative rock-style singing, with a bit more voice experimentation in The Bends (higher notes, bigger range overall). These two albums are most likely the ones referred to by people who say that Matt Bellamy of Muse sounds a lot like Thom.
Core instruments used – Both Pablo Honey and The Bends see an assortment of instruments from the standard rock band offering, from electric guitars to drumsets. However, there is a little more experimentation going on in The Bends with the addition of strings, piano, keyboard, and spacey sound effects. This makes sense because Radiohead hasn’t undergone their evolution in sound seen from OK Computer on, and most of the songs show that the band falls squarely under the alternative rock label.
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