The Makings of a Rock Star

Thom Yorke, the lead singer of Radiohead, is 45 today! Celebrate with this excerpt about a precocious young Thom from Exit Music, by Mac Randall.

For his eighth birthday, Thom’s mother and father had given him a cheap Spanish guitar as a present. He’d discovered rock music not long before, and his parents, encouraging the enthusiasm, no doubt hoped that learning to play an instrument could help boost his overall confidence. (Four years earlier, Yorke had had a steel-string guitar, but his initial music experimentations were short-lived; the strings hurt his fingers, and so he impatiently threw the guitar against the wall, breaking it to bits.)

Tellingly, it wasn’t the raw three-chord punk sweeping the English scene at the time, but the far more ornate, theatrical and conspicuously accomplished stylings of Queen, that first ignited Thom’s passion. In particular, he idolized the perfect mix of melody, bombast and campy humour in the playing of their guitarist Brian May, which he first heard on a friend’s copy of the band’s 1975 album A Night At The Opera. “I wanted to be Brian May,” he alter recalled. “I went into a guitar lesson when I was eight and said, ‘I want to be Brian May.’ I’d never wanted to be anything else. Before that, it was Lego.” Though certainly diluted by exposure to other music over the years, that early influence of Queen can still be heard in Radiohead’s work, particularly more ambitious sons like ‘The Bends’ and ‘Paranoid Android’.

Legend has it that Thom was convinced early on that he would be a rock star, perhaps not exactly like Brian May but close enough, and that he advised his parents to this effect. His father duly passed the information on to his friends, who no doubt got a chuckle or two out of it. At this point, the only song the youngster could play on the guitar was ‘Kumbaya’.

Wasting little time, Yorke formed his first band at age ten. (Actually, it wasn’t a band but what might be more aptly described as an experimental duo, consisting of Thom on guitar and another Standlake student whose primary duty apparently consisted of miswiring TV sets so that they’d explode.) By age eleven, he’d written his first song, a cheery little number about the atomic bomb called ‘Mushroom Cloud’. The composer has since explained that the song was “more about how [the mushroom cloud] looked than how terrible it was.” Still, it stands as evidence that the morbid world view so commonly found in the songs of Radiohead was already well in place at a tender age.

 

In this new, updated, and revised edition of Exit Music, author Mac Randall follows the band from its beginnings in suburban Oxford, UK, through the success of Creep and OK Computer to the traumatic recording sessions that spawned Kid AAmnesiacHail to the Thief, on to the award-winning In Rainbows and beyond. This new edition also includes coverage of the band’s most current release and eighth studio album, The King of Limbs.

Mac Randall, an interview

 Onstage and Backstage podcast from Hal Leonard is available on iTunes and Libsyn. Each episode authors and their guests have a chat about the topics of their books. Today, Mac Randall, author of Exit Music: The Radiohead Story, chats with Jimmy Failla on Off the Meter radio.

>>>LISTEN HERE<<<

In this new, updated, and revised edition of Exit Music, author Mac Randall follows the band from its beginnings in suburban Oxford, UK, through the success of Creep and OK Computer to the traumatic recording sessions that spawned Kid AAmnesiacHail to the Thief, on to the award-winning In Rainbows and beyond. This new edition also includes coverage of the band’s most current release and eighth studio album, The King of Limbs.

Q & A with Mac Randall

Mac Randall is the author of Exit Music: The Radiohead Story.

Artist Direct interviews Mac Randall. Visit their website for the whole interview.

Radiohead are notoriously difficult to capture. What was your favorite part of writing and updating the book? The most difficult?

For the early research phase of the book, I went to England, made a lot of phone calls, knocked on doors, and searched through public records. It was the most logistically involved part of the writing, but it was also the most rewarding. There were a lot of difficult parts, but I suppose the most recent tough one was figuring out a way to express the fact that I didn’t completely love the band’s last album, The King of Limbs, while still getting across that it was well worth hearing.

If you were not writing, you would be…

Playing guitar and recording my own music.

Any weird talents or hobbies?

Weirdness is really in the eye of the beholder. I play sitar, which is certainly unusual. It’s kind of a meditative thing for me.

Continue reading on Artist Direct.

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Exit Music: The Radiohead Story

In this new, updated, and revised edition, author Mac Randall follows the band from its beginnings in suburban Oxford, UK, through the success of Creep and OK Computer to the traumatic recording sessions that spawned Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, on to the award-winning In Rainbows and beyond. This new edition also includes coverage of the band’s most current release and eighth studio album, The King of Limbs. Exit Music is available at backbeatbooks.com, Amazon, B&N, and indie bookstores.

The Evolution of a Radiohead Song: Part 3

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Guest Blogger: Mac Randall, author of Exit Music: The Radiohead Story (Backbeat Books)

In my previous blog posts, I chose two Radiohead songs—“Nude” and “Videotape”—and showed how they’d evolved over time by comparing live performances from both before and after the songs were officially captured in the recording studio. My final candidate for this treatment is “Morning Mr. Magpie,” one of the highlights of the band’s 2011 album The King of Limbs. Fans first heard this song when Thom Yorke played it by himself on acoustic guitar during a radiohead.com webcast in late 2002. That same performance, which you can see below, appeared two years later on the sporadically available The Most Gigantic Lying Mouth of All Time DVD.

Obviously, this is only a simple, unfinished sketch. Still, the discrepancies between it and the album version are worthy of note. Most of the final lyrics are in place, if not in quite the correct order, and some semblance of the song’s core riff is already there. But Yorke doesn’t sing over the riff until fairly late in the game—the part that feels closest to being a chorus. In the earlier verse section, his words float over a completely different chord progression that’s rather jaunty and folkish. In essence, it sounds like we’re hearing two separate songs that have randomly collided with each other.

By contrast, here’s the full band, complete with new second percussionist Clive Deamer, playing the song in their 2011 From the Basement performance. (Please excuse everyone’s surprising lefthandedness—for some reason, the only YouTube videos currently available of this performance are all a mirror image of the actual broadcast.)

No awkward transitions here; the music stays firmly rooted in one central chord throughout. And the riff that Yorke’s solo version only hinted at is now fully developed: brash, frenetic, a thing of twisted beauty that draws a gloriously savage performance out of all six players.

Mac Randall is author of Exit Music: The Radiohead Story, which will be published in a newly revised and expanded edition by Backbeat Books on March 6, 2012.

In this new, updated, and revised edition, author Mac Randall follows the band from its beginnings in suburban Oxford, UK, through the success of Creep and OK Computer to the traumatic recording sessions that spawned Kid AAmnesiacHail to the Thief, on to the award-winning In Rainbows and beyond. This new edition also includes coverage of the band’s most current release and eighth studio album, The King of Limbs.

Available from Amazon, B&N, independent bookstores, and BackbeatBooks.com.

The Evolution of a Radiohead Song: Part 2

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Guest Blogger: Mac Randall, author of Exit Music: The Radiohead Story (Backbeat Books)

In my previous post, I looked at the Radiohead song “Nude” and noted the changes that the band made to its structure and arrangement over a 10-year period. This time, my subject is “Videotape.” Compared to “Nude,” the gestation period of “Videotape” was short; the public first heard it on Radiohead’s 2006 tour, and it was released as In Rainbows’ final track in the fall of 2007. And yet the differences between the live and studio versions of the song were major. Most of them had to do with the arrangement, but the biggest one was a shift of rhythmic emphasis.

The performance below is from the 2006 Bonnaroo Festival. Its key moment comes at about 2:49, when Phil Selway makes an alteration to his drumming pattern and a new dimension opens up in the music. Has the rhythm changed? Not exactly. Instead, the song’s true rhythm has been revealed for the first time: For the entirety of the performance, Thom Yorke has been singing and playing piano on off beats, not on beats. His constant tug against the clock gives the music a sense of momentum that builds to an heroic peak.

Apparently, the peak was a little too heroic for some concerned parties, because “Videotape” got drastically stripped down in the recording studio. The rhythmic hijinks were ditched, and the song took on a more subdued feel. But judging by what’s happened since, that change was also unsatisfactory. Here’s a performance from the 2008 Main Square Festival in Arras, France.

Some elements of the 2006 arrangement have been reintroduced, but the dynamic hills and valleys aren’t so large, and the overall mood is one of quiet intensity. It’s a far more winning rendition than the one found on In Rainbows, and yet in one respect it’s just like the studio version: The rhythm remains resolutely foursquare throughout, and the energetic accents of two years before have been banished for good—a sign that Radiohead means to aim closer to the cerebellum than the hips.

Mac Randall is author of Exit Music: The Radiohead Story, which will be published in a newly revised and expanded edition by Backbeat Books on March 6, 2012.

In this new, updated, and revised edition, author Mac Randall follows the band from its beginnings in suburban Oxford, UK, through the success of Creep and OK Computer to the traumatic recording sessions that spawned Kid AAmnesiacHail to the Thief, on to the award-winning In Rainbows and beyond. This new edition also includes coverage of the band’s most current release and eighth studio album, The King of Limbs.

Available from Amazon, B&N, independent bookstores, and BackbeatBooks.com.

Excerpt from Exit Music

The following is an excerpt of the book Exit Music: The Radiohead Story by Mac Randall, published by Backbeat books. Check out the whole excerpt on Bookgasm.

The day was Monday, June 9, 1997, and a concert was about to begin near New York City’s Union Square. Over the weekend that had just ended, thousands of music fans had made pilgrimages much further uptown, to Downing Stadium on Randalls Island in the East River between Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens, to witness the second annual two-day Tibetan Freedom Concert. An all-star event organized by New York’s own hip-hop kings the Beastie Boys to focus world attention on Tibet’s plight under harsh Chinese rule and to raise money for the cause of Tibetan independence, the concert had featured such rock luminaries as U2, Patti Smith, Michael Stipe and Mike Mills from R.E.M., Alanis Morissette, and the Beastie Boys themselves.

Another band in that distinguished line-up was set to play again on this evening, in the far cozier confines of Irving Plaza (capacity approximately 1000 people). Their Tibetan Freedom performance had been one of the festival’s highlights. Their name was being mentioned more and more in the same breath as those of rock’s most lauded superstars. And whereas over the weekend they had played a short set, sharing the stage with several other artists, tonight would be theirs alone, without even an opening act. They were a quintet from Oxford, England, and they were called Radiohead.

Earlier in the year, the band – made up of singer and guitarist Thom Yorke, guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood, guitarist Ed O’Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood, and drummer Phil Selway – had put the finishing touches on its third album, OK Computer. The album wouldn’t be released in the United States until July, almost a month after the Irving Plaza show, but many of the music-industry types in the audience had heard advance copies; some were already using words like ‘masterpiece’ to describe it. And nearly everyone in attendance had either heard the album’s leadoff single, a six-and-a-half-minute, three-part epic called ‘Paranoid Android’, or seen the quirky animated video accompanying it on MTV. That June night, Radiohead planned to air several songs from the new album. They may not have been fully conscious of it, but they were also preparing to join the ranks of the rock aristocracy.

The VIP section of Irving Plaza, on the right side of the balcony above the stage and roped off to prevent anyone without a special pass from entering, was overflowing with some of the most respected and successful people in popular music. Michael Stipe and Mike Mills hobnobbed with Bono, the Edge and Adam Clayton from U2. Oasis’ Noel Gallagher quietly sipped his beer while his brother Liam pranced goonishly through the crowd. Blur’s Damon Albarn sat sulkily by the bar, at a distance from his bandmate Alex James.

Most of these artists, like Radiohead, had performed at the Tibetan Freedom Concert and had stayed over into the following week. But many other celebrities who hadn’t played during the weekend had caught wind of this particular evening’s mega-event and had got their names on the guest list too. Madonna showed up; so did Courtney Love. Lenny Kravitz made it, along with Marilyn Manson. Sheryl Crow was supposed to have been on the VIP list, but wasn’t for some reason or other, and when she got to the club she was nearly turned away at the door before somebody recognized her and let her pass. Ben Folds, all four members of Teenage Fanclub . . . it seemed everyone who was anyone wanted in on this party. Of the less distinguished crowd standing on the floor downstairs, quite a few spent more time during the show ogling the celebs in the balcony than watching the band onstage. As Ed O’Brien later cracked, “If a bomb had been let off in that building, we’d have seen the resurrection of Jim Kerr from Simple Minds.”

Of course, the five members of Radiohead had known in advance about all the special people who’d be watching them that night. And the most special of them all was Ed O’Brien’s mother. “It was the first time she’d seen us in four years,” Ed says. “Before the doors opened, I went round looking at the VIP section, as it were. Madonna had the best table in the house and my mum’s table was way in the back. I thought, ‘I’m not having this,’ so I swapped my mum’s and Madonna’s tables around. So,” he continues with a giggle, “Madonna was at the back, and my mum had the best table in the house, sandwiched in between U2 and R.E.M. And that’s exactly how it should be – I’m sure Madonna would have done exactly the same. You know, it’s great that all those people are there, but if your mum is there, your mum is the most important thing.”

To continue reading please visit bookgasm.

Exit Music: The Radiohead Story by Mac Randall

In this new, updated, and revised edition, author Mac Randall follows the band from its beginnings in suburban Oxford, UK, through the success of Creep and OK Computer to the traumatic recording sessions that spawned Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, on to the award-winning In Rainbows and beyond. This new edition also includes coverage of the band’s most current release and eighth studio album, The King of Limbs.

The Evolution of a Radiohead Song: Part 1

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Guest Blogger: Mac Randall, author of Exit Music: The Radiohead Story (Backbeat Books)

 

Over the two decades since the release of their debut EP, the members of Radiohead have constantly pushed themselves to keep their music evolving. One of the great pleasures of being a Radiohead fan is to follow the path of that evolution. Sometimes you can hear the change within a single song over time. In this and two subsequent blog posts, we’ll look at three outstanding examples; in each case, you’ll hear the way a song sounded both before and after the band brought it into the recording studio.

First is “Nude,” which ranks high on the all-time favorites list of true Radiohead obsessives, not only because of its beauty but also due to its complex performance history. The band first played it live toward the end of the OK Computer tour; the version below is from an April 1998 concert in San Francisco. At this point, it had three verses, the second of which makes it clear—perhaps too clear—that the song is about sexual obsession. Thom Yorke accompanies himself on a Fender Rhodes electric piano, while the dazzlingly versatile Jonny Greenwood tackles a Hammond XB-2 organ with one hand and a glockenspiel with the other. Pay close attention to the melodic line Jonny’s playing in the chorus.

Although fans loved “Nude,” the band wasn’t happy with its arrangement. It didn’t appear on any of the three subsequent Radiohead albums, and it was rarely aired again live until 2006, when it was revived in preparation for the album that became In Rainbows. You can hear just how much they retooled the song in the magnificent 2008 From the Basement performance below. The second verse is gone (no great tragedy). So are the keyboards. This opens up acres of space and brings Colin Greenwood’s bass line—now much more chordal—to the fore. For a few seconds off camera, brother Jonny plays his treasured ondes martenot; his part is then brilliantly echoed by Ed O’Brien’s E-Bowed guitar. Yorke sings the song almost entirely in falsetto, including the final wordless melody, which should sound familiar if you followed my advice in the previous paragraph.

The repetitive-pop fan in me wishes that Yorke would still sing the “Now that you’ve found it” chorus twice, as he did in ’98. But that would lengthen the song and delay its big payoff. Although both takes on “Nude” are more than worthwhile, the sparser nature of the latter-day version gives it an air of spookiness that makes it all the more affecting, at least to these ears.

Mac Randall is author of Exit Music: The Radiohead Story, which will be published in a newly revised and expanded edition by Backbeat Books on March 6, 2012.

In this new, updated, and revised edition, author Mac Randall follows the band from its beginnings in suburban Oxford, UK, through the success of Creep and OK Computer to the traumatic recording sessions that spawned Kid AAmnesiacHail to the Thief, on to the award-winning In Rainbows and beyond. This new edition also includes coverage of the band’s most current release and eighth studio album, The King of Limbs.

Available at Amazon, B&N, independent bookstores, and BackbeatBooks.com.