Radiohead has been performing since 1985, but they are greatly known for their impact on the 1990s and the new millennium. This is partly due to the fact that their first single, “Creep,” was not released until 1992. However, once it was released it drove the band to almost instant stardom.
The band has been inspired by numerous classic rock groups such as Queen and Pink Floyd, but they’ve also drawn extensively from punk bands like Joy Division and alternative rock groups like the Smiths, the Pixies, R.E.M., and Sonic Youth. They utilize musical hooks to draw listeners into their songs before enhancing the complexity of the music and lyrics to create songs that are moving both lyrically and melodically. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood, bassist Colin Greenwood, and drummer Phil Selway develop compelling background music to supplement the lyrical melodies of lead singer Thom Yorke and backup vocalist Ed O’Brien. These songs will sometimes range in emotion, moving seamlessly from nearly discordant melodies that create a sense of anxiety to more harmonic melodies that inspire a sense of beauty.
Given their ability to inspire multiple moods over the course of a single song, it is not surprising that they often vary their style somewhat from one record to another. OK Computer is often hailed by critics as Radiohead’s greatest album, but they followed it with the somewhat more experimental Kid A. Radiohead’s earlier albums were never inspired by just one genre at a time, yet Thom Yorke has always maintained that the band never had a deliberate goal to create experimental sounds. They simply created the types of sounds they wanted to hear, and they were lucky in that these sounds often resonated with fans.
For instance, around the time they released OK Computer, Radiohead was becoming interested in hip hop. They started to use certain recording methods associated with hip hop music, particularly that of sampling. They also developed methods of imitating the “wall of sound” technique devised by Phil Spector during the 1960s. When they released Kid A, they had started to grow more infatuated with the use of electronic sounds and computers, resulting in the use of recording methods associated with techno. At the same time, they had become interested in jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and Alice Coltrane. By the time they released their free album In Rainbows in 2007, all of these influences had come together to form one coherent style.
Due to their occasional reliance on electronic sound, Radiohead would not be complete without record producer and audio engineer Nigel Godrich. In fact, he has sometimes been referred to as the band’s sixth member. The band has maintained a close relationship with Godrich, as well as with Stanley Donwood, the graphic artist responsible for the cover of every one of their albums since The Bends (which, interestingly enough, is the same album on which they first worked with Godrich). They have also worked with the same technician on live performances (Peter “Plank” Clements) since The Bends, the same commissioner of music video directors (Dilly Gent) since OK Computer, and the same lighting director (Andi Watson) since they were first formed in 1985.
Between the band’s unique sound, their close collaboration and friendship with the crew that has helped forge their success, and their focus on musicianship rather than showmanship, Radiohead has established themselves as a rare presence in the music industry. They have the knowhow required to create hits that reach a broad spectrum of listeners, but they perform simply to please their own musical tastes. This system appears to have worked for them, as fans of their music are generally patient in waiting the years that often pass between album releases. To those who truly appreciate their music, each album is well worth the wait.
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