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Activism and Environmentalism in British Rock Music: the Case of Radiohead.

Radiohead : militantisme, écologie et rock britannique
Guillaume Clément


Radiohead est un groupe de rock britannique contemporain à succès, salué par la critique pour son goût de l'expérimentation. Les sujets abordés par les textes du parolier et chanteur Thom Yorke révèlent un contenu politique dès le milieu des années 1990. L'album OK Computer (1997) propose une vision des plus mornes de la société britannique, aux antipodes du concept de Cool Britannia pourtant en vogue à l'époque, alors que les albums suivants dénoncent, parfois à demi-mot, certains aspects de la politique du gouvernement travailliste. En parallèle, Thom Yorke utilise fréquemment le site internet de Radiohead pour afficher son mécontentement vis-à-vis de la politique environnementale britannique, et va jusqu'à soutenir ouvertement l'association Friends of the Earth, puis le parti écologique britannique. L'analyse des paroles des chansons de Radiohead permet d'esquisser les contours d'une idéologie politique, qui est concrétisée dans l'action et le soutien politiques à l'œuvre chez certains membres du groupe. Radiohead est ici défini comme un groupe militant, à la fois en attirant l'attention de son public sur des questions socio-politiques par le biais de sa musique, et en s'engageant en politique à titre personnel.

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1Radiohead are one of the most revered contemporary rock bands in Britain, having achieved considerable commercial success while also forging their own path beyond the traditional borders of guitar-based rock music. The band were formed in the late 1980s by a group of five childhood friends who had met at a private school in Abingdon (Oxfordshire): singer/guitarist Thom Yorke, guitarist Ed O'Brien, drummer Phil Selway, bassist Colin Greenwood, and his brother Jonny, a multi-instrumentalist. As of May 2016, six of Radiohead's nine albums (OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail To The Thief, In Rainbows, and A Moon Shaped Pool) have reached the top spot in the official UK charts1 and received multiple platinum certifications by the British Phonographic Industry,2 indicating sales ranging between 600,000 and 3 million units for each album in the UK alone. Radiohead have been praised by their large international fan base and by the music press for their cultural relevance, their taste for musical experimentation, and, more recently, for some of the band members' political activism.

2Indeed, the band's frontman, Thom Yorke, has come to be known as an advocate for environmental protection and climate change awareness, going so far as to play fundraising concerts for the Green Party and attend international environmental summits. While this could simply be perceived as yet another celebrity using his resources and influence to push for political change, Yorke's activism can hardly be dissociated from his band's music, more particularly their lyrics, which often reflect political concerns. However, in their interviews, Radiohead members have occasionally dismissed any notion that their music should be interpreted as overly political. For instance, the band's sixth album bears the title Hail To The Thief and was therefore interpreted by many as an open criticism of George W. Bush's controversial election in 2000 by using a popular slogan used to mock the President-elect at the time. Yet Thom Yorke attempted to deny the political interpretation of the album's title in several interviews:

  • 3 Quoted in Joseph Tate (ed.), The Music and Art of Radiohead (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2005), p.180.

With Hail To The Thief, the whole thing about it being political is a bit far-fetched. I keep reading stuff now about how this album is all about politics and anti-America… just because of the title and one or two quotes I gave. People overreact, read things into stuff, look for an angle. This record, to me, these new songs, they're not so much songs about politics as me desperately struggling to keep politics out. The past year… If I could have written about anything else, I would have. But how can any sensible person ignore what's been going on altogether? I really couldn't. I would love to write lyrics free of politics!3

3Yet in reading this quote the attempt at denying the political intent of the album and its title appears as quite feeble, and even Yorke himself later acknowledged that keeping politics out of his music was impossible in such a context.

4As a commercially successful band, Radiohead potentially retain the ability to use their music as a means to convey political messages, and in spite of their denial, their music may be considered as a potential gateway for the audience into the band's politics, which assumes its full potential in Yorke's personal activism. This paper will explore the roots of Radiohead's political thought throughout their career, especially by taking their songs and lyrics as a starting point, and highlight how a taste for experimentation and cryptic – yet political – songs blossomed into personal activism. A sense of continuity between the music, the lyrics and personal political participation will be underlined throughout the study of Radiohead's most popular albums.

Popular music and political meaning: the role of the historical context

  • 4 Simon Frith, "Écrire l'histoire de la musique populaire" in Hugh Dauncey and Philippe Le Guern (eds (...)

5The works of Simon Frith, author of The Sociology of Rock, stress the relevance of historical context when analysing popular music: "From a sociological point of view the history of music must be understood as an aspect of social history; musical changes reflect changes in society."4 Such a statement can readily be applied to Radiohead, whose work needs to be considered alongside their historical context. The band formed in the middle of the Thatcher years and rose to fame during John Major's premiership but most of their political output and activism spans the latter years of their long career, as most of the politically charged songs which will be studied below were released from 1997 onwards, that is to say under Tony Blair's (and then Gordon Brown's) Labour governments. Since then, Radiohead have continued to be seen as a politically active band, at odds with a number of Conservative policies.

  • 5 Joseph Tate, op.cit., p.195.
  • 6 Ibid.

6Consequently, each album's specific historical context helps shape -- more or less directly -- the songs' lyrical content.Joseph Tate quotes a 2003 interview with the New Musical Express (or NME, Britain's leading popular music magazine), in which Thom Yorke reveals a surprising approach to songwriting for the Hail To The Thief album, which involves taking into account elements from current events and politics and then rearranging them so as to take them out of their original context: "I was cutting these things out, and deliberately taking them out of context, so they're like wallpaper. Then, when I needed words for songs I'd be taking them out of this wallpaper, and they were out of any political context at all."5 In the same paper, Tate quotes another interview given by Yorke to Rolling Stone in the United States around the same time, in which he acknowledged the influence of political radio programmes on his songwriting process: "When I started writing these new songs, I was listening to a lot of political programmes on BBC Radio 4. I found myself... writing down little nonsense phrases, those Orwellian euphemisms that our government and yours are so fond of. They became the background of the record."6 So Yorke concedes that, in Radiohead's case, removing the political context from the songs is indeed impossible, but by the same token, the songwriter is using it in his own personal way to build the lyrics. Knowledge of a song's historical background may then prove necessary for the audience to make sense of it and to grasp the fullness of its political commentary.

OK Computer, or "Cruel Britannia"

  • 7 Martin Clarke, Radiohead: Hysterical and Useless (London, Plexus, 1999), p.110.
  • 8 Will Hutton, The State We're In (London, Jonathan Cape, 1995).
  • 9 Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufactuing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New (...)

7From OK Computer onwards, a visible political streak has permeated Radiohead's work. According to biographer Martin Clarke7, the band found inspiration in Will Hutton's The State We're In,8 in which the author lambasted the impact of Thatcherite policies on contemporary Britain. At the same time, Thom Yorke delved into some of Noam Chomsky's work, including Manufacturing Consent,9 which depicted American mass media as ideological machines essentially carrying out a function of propaganda. Such highly political influences can be felt throughout OK Computer's lyrics, which generally paint quite a grim picture of British society. One of its most striking tracks is "No Surprises", which was released as a single in 1998 and reached the top five of the singles' charts. The song starts off as a lullaby-like melody played on glockenspiel and acoustic guitar, whose gentleness clashes with the depressingly bleak imagery of the lyrics which encourage people either to "bring down the government" or to live a miserable, meaningless life:

  • 10 Radiohead, "No Surprises", OK Computer (Parlophone, 1997).

A heart that's full-up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won't heal
You look so tired, unhappy
Bring down the government
They don't speak for us
I'll take a quiet life, a handshake, some carbon monoxide
With no alarms and no surprises.

8One of the most outstanding tracks on the album remains "Fitter Happier", a piece which is less than two minutes long and features very little music per se, but rather electronic soundbites and sparse chords played on piano and strings, while the lyric is delivered by a computer-generated voice. The text itself consists in a cynical collage of slogans which seem to have been taken straight out of infomercials and public service announcements promoting a healthy lifestyle, while more depressing slogans are progressively inserted into the text:

  • 11 Radiohead, "Fitter Happier", OK Computer (Parlophone, 1997).

Fitter, happier, more productive, comfortable, not drinking too much
Regular exercise at the gym (three days a week)
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries
At ease, eating well (no more microwave dinners and saturated fats)
A patient better driver, a safer car (baby smiling in back seat) [...]
Will frequently check credit at (moral) bank (hole in wall)
Favours for favours, fond but not in love
Charity standing orders, on Sundays ring road supermarket [...]
Now self-employed, concerned (but powerless)
An empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism) [...]
Still cries at a good film, still kisses with saliva
No longer empty and frantic like a cat tied to a stick
That's driven into frozen winter shit (the ability to laugh at weakness)
Calm, fitter, healthier and more productive
A pig in a cage on antibiotics.

9In the world depicted by Radiohead, citizens are given the impression that they have a political role to play, yet this power is all but empty. The text's unique syntactic structure, featuring very few conjugated verbs but more noun groups and participles, suggests that in such a society, individuals make no decisions for themselves, and that they are best defined as consumers rather than citizens – a fact which is mirrored in the use of commercial-type slogans and platitudes delivered by a synthetic voice.

10What is even more striking with OK Computer is the timing of its release and the contrast it presents with the Cool Britannia phenomenon and Labour's landslide victory in May 1997, all the more so as the eighth track on the album, "Electioneering", seems to take issue with the type of empty pledges and ploys which candidates resort to in order to gain votes:

  • 12 Radiohead, "Electioneering", OK Computer (Parlophone, 1997).

I will stop, I will stop at nothing
Say the right things when electioneering
I trust I can rely on your vote
When I go forwards, you go backwards
Somewhere we will meet
Riot shields, voodoo economics
Cattle prods and the IMF
I trust I can rely on your vote.

  • 13 Blair's attempts at securing several celebrity endorsements are well-documented in his former Direc (...)

11Set to the sound of an aggressive, twitchy guitar riff, "Electioneering"'s lyrics eerily sound like extracts from a conversation that a candidate might have been having – off the record of course – with potential voters in the build-up to the 1997 General Election. Tony Blair, for instance, had gone to great lengths to "rely on the votes" of many a celebrity supporter, including members of fellow British rock bands Oasis, Blur and Pulp, or even Manchester United's coach, Sir Alex Ferguson, to name but a few.13 Towards the end of the text, references become more openly political, by referring to the International Monetary Fund, or by poking fun at Ronald Reagan's conservative economic policy (through the allusion to "voodoo economics"). But these references are neither precise nor developed; they are merely pasted alongside other images of protest or violence to further highlight the band's resentment. While "Electioneering"'s lyrics undoubtedly succeed in highlighting the hypocrisy of political leaders on the campaign trail, the relatively cryptic nature of the political references and the laconic style of the lyric (inherent to the "cut-paste" technique admittedly used by Yorke when writing his texts) in "No Surprises" and "Fitter happier" further relegate to the background the construction of a more thorough political ideology which might be expected of a fully-fledged protest song.

  • 14 This expression was, it seems, coined by an American journalist (Stryker McGuire) in a piece he wro (...)
  • 15 The phrase is borrowed from the title of a book published two years after OK Computer. In Cruel Bri (...)

12In spite of a perceived lack of political depth or clarity, OK Computer nonetheless remains a strikingly coherent album in that several of its songs paint a bleak picture of British society – at odds with the notion of Cool Britannia14 which, at the time, pervaded the nation's successful cultural industries. While British musicians, designers or artists (like Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin) were being celebrated the world over, Radiohead chose to focus on a more realistic picture of their homeland, closer perhaps to the notion of Cruel Britannia,15 in which people are defined more as consumers than citizens and where political manipulation is rife. Despite the unsettling images conjured up by such political references, the album was hailed as a masterpiece and proved a commercial success: upon release, it reached the number one spot in the UK album charts and remained in the charts for two years, indicating sales in excess of 2.5 million in the UK alone (with 3 million extra units being sold in the United States). Radiohead also received several accolades for this third effort, including a Grammy Award in the United States, and to this day OK Computer has been consistently ranked in lists of "best albums ever" in the music press. The album's success indicates that subversive music and commercial success are not necessarily incompatible, and that the audience Radiohead reached out to either agreed with the band's message, or, at the very least, that they were not deterred by it.

Kid A and Amnesiac: "Did you lie to us, Tony?"

  • 16 Martin Clarke, op.cit., p.228.
  • 17 Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (New York, Picador, 1999).

13Radiohead's post-OK Computer recording sessions yielded two albums, Kid A and Amnesiac (released only a few months apart in 2000 and 2001), and gave way to a dramatic change in their songwriting approach by largely eschewing guitars and veering towards more experimental, electronic music. As was the case with OK Computer, the historical context of the recording sessions prompted the band to incorporate references to political concepts into their music. According to Martin Clarke,16 Thom Yorke was, at the time, reading Naomi Klein's No Logo17 (a book that calls for the opposition to capitalist brands and globalisation) which directly influenced the peculiar commercial strategy that surrounded Kid A's release. The album was indeed shrouded in mystery until its release date while the band refused to polish any of the album's songs into a single that their record company might deem marketable. Radio stations were therefore free to choose any of the album's tracks to add to their playlists and several listeners were taken aback by the relative absence of guitars or of the more traditional rock sounds with which some had come to associate Radiohead's earlier work.

14Lyrically speaking, the atmosphere created on both albums still relies on cryptic phrases, or "euphemisms" as Yorke would call them, thus making it more difficult for the listener to make sense of the lyrics, on a political level at least, than with OK Computer's. Yet, one specific track on Amnesiac, "You And Whose Army?", is often highlighted by fans and critics as a potential attack on Tony Blair himself, even though its release date pre-dates the events it may take issue with:

  • 18 Radiohead, "You and Whose Army?", Amnesiac (Parlophone, 2001).

Come on, come on
You and whose army?
You and your cronies
Come on, come on
Holy Roman Empire
Come on if you think
You can take us all on.

  • 19 Quoted in Nick Kent, "Happy Now?", Mojo, June 2001, p.62.
  • 20 This is a quote from John Lydon (the singer of punk rock band The Sex Pistols) which has very often (...)

15A listener might be tempted (and many have indeed been) to interpret these words as a criticism of the United States' so-called imperialist policy (which could be a reference concealed in the allusion to the Holy Roman Empire), and the invasion of Iraq, which required the support of their British "cronies". Yet, this song was released in June 2001, that is to say almost two years before Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched. In an interview with British rock magazine Mojo in June 2001, Thom Yorke simply confessed that "the song's ultimately about someone who is elected into power and who then blatantly betrays them – just like Blair did".19 While the betrayal in question may not have specifically arisen from Britain's foreign policy at the time, a feeling of disappointment nonetheless pervaded part of the British public at the time, especially in relation to New Labour's pre-1997 promises. Tony Blair's government – the first Labour cabinet in nearly twenty years – was criticised for not delivering on some of its electoral promises and Radiohead, like many Britons, were quite aware of a number of domestic policy issues. On March 14th, 1998, the New Musical Express chose to run a picture of Tony Blair on its front page, with the following headline, "Ever Get The Feeling You've Been Cheated?"20 and a list of grievances as follows: "welfare to work, student tuition fees, no debate on drugs, curfews". The welfare-to-work scheme (also known as New Deal) was aimed at helping the unemployed find work through training opportunities, but also threatened to cut the benefits of certain jobseekers. The Labour government was also criticised for introducing university tuition fees, first implemented in September 1998. In many respects, this particular issue of the NME voiced the concerns of part of the youth and the music industry concerning policies which were deemed too conservative for a Labour government.

  • 21 Other British rock bands were featured in this particular issue. For instance, Jarvis Cocker, the P (...)
  • 22 While this particular show took place two years after Amnesiac's release, multiple hints in the ban (...)

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1 Official UK Charts company, Radiohead – full official charts history, consulted 8 June 2016.

2 British Phonographic Industry, Certified Awards, consulted 8 June 2016.

3 Quoted in Joseph Tate (ed.), The Music and Art of Radiohead (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2005), p.180.

4 Simon Frith, "Écrire l'histoire de la musique populaire" in Hugh Dauncey and Philippe Le Guern (eds.), Stéréo: Sociologie comparée des musiques populaires - France / GB (Puceul, Mélanie Séteun, 2008), p.50.

5 Joseph Tate, op.cit., p.195.

6 Ibid.

7 Martin Clarke, Radiohead: Hysterical and Useless (London, Plexus, 1999), p.110.

8 Will Hutton, The State We're In (London, Jonathan Cape, 1995).

9 Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufactuing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York, Pantheon books, 1988). This book is referred to in Martin Clarke, op.cit., p.112.

10 Radiohead, "No Surprises", OK Computer (Parlophone, 1997).

11 Radiohead, "Fitter Happier", OK Computer (Parlophone, 1997).

12 Radiohead, "Electioneering", OK Computer (Parlophone, 1997).

13 Blair's attempts at securing several celebrity endorsements are well-documented in his former Director of Communications and Strategy's memoir: Alastair Campbell, The Blair Years (London, Hutchinson, 2007).

14 This expression was, it seems, coined by an American journalist (Stryker McGuire) in a piece he wrote for Newsweek in November 1996, entitles "London Reigns".

15 The phrase is borrowed from the title of a book published two years after OK Computer. In Cruel Britannia: Reports on the Sinister and the Preposterous (London, Verso, 1999), journalist Nick Cohen described the dark side of New Labour's rise to power.

16 Martin Clarke, op.cit., p.228.

17 Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (New York, Picador, 1999).

18 Radiohead, "You and Whose Army?", Amnesiac (Parlophone, 2001).

19 Quoted in Nick Kent, "Happy Now?", Mojo, June 2001, p.62.

20 This is a quote from John Lydon (the singer of punk rock band The Sex Pistols) which has very often been interpreted as part of punk rock's message of opposition to authority and mainstream politics. However, since Lydon uttered those famous words at the end of The Sex Pistols' last concert before disbanding in 1978 following a period of strife between band members and disagreement regarding the band's subversive stance the singer may then have meant to warn the public that his band's perception as an anti-establishment act had been blown out of proportion. Whatever interpretation should prevail, the choice of the NME to run this headline in 1998 both referenced punk rock's mistrust of the government and drew the public's attention to a potential misrepresentation of traditional left-wing ideals by the Labour government.

21 Other British rock bands were featured in this particular issue. For instance, Jarvis Cocker, the Pulp frontman, described the situation as "worse than if the Tories had got in, because with the Tories you would expect the same old shit to happen" (New Musical Express, 14 March 1998).

22 While this particular show took place two years after Amnesiac's release, multiple hints in the band's biographies and official website indicate that "Follow Me Around" originated in the Amnesiac recording sessions. A well-documented website curated by a group of fans relates the song's genesis, with early performances and references appearing on Radiohead's website as early as 1999 (Citizen Insane, Follow Me Around, consulted 8 June 2016).

23 Radiohead, "2+2=5", Hail to the Thief (Parlophone, 2003).

24 George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin Modern Classics) (London, Penguin, 2004). Other Orwellian references pervade Radiohead's work, for instance one of OK Computer's track, entitled "Karma Police" is an allusion to the "thought police" which is seen at work in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

25 Thom Yorke, "Harrowdown Hill", The Eraser (XL Recordings, 2006).

26 Michel Prat, in Céline Ceccheto and Michel Prat (eds.), La Chanson Politique en Europe (Pessac, Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2008), p.9.

27 Ibid., p.10.

28 These forms of political action are taken from Geraint Parry, George Moyser and Neil Day's study carried out in Political Participation and Democracy in Britain (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p.44), in which the authors propose a scale of political participation based on the percentage of the British population that took part in them. For instance, the most widespread form of political participation in Britain remains voting in a General Election (82.5%) whereas only 5.2% took part in a protest march.

29 Martin Clarke, op.cit., pp.189, 206.

30 Several examples of fundraising rock festivals come to mind, such as Live Aid in 1985 and its follow-up Live 8 twenty years later. Both events gathered household names in British rock like Queen, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Coldplay and Muse.

31 Quoted in Nick Kent, "Radiohead ou électro Thom", Rock & Folk, September 2006, p.70.

32 Radiohead – Dead Air Space, Good Evening, 28 September 2005, consulted 30 May 2016. Prior to the release of A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead deleted all existing content from their official website, which, as of June 2016, solely consists of material related to their latest album. Consequently, many of Thom Yorke's blog posts referenced here are unlikely to be available online anymore. A copy of these messages can nonetheless be found in the appendix to my PhD dissertation 'Musique Rock et politique au Royaume-Uni (1993-2007): de Cool Britannia à Broken Britain' (Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2014, pp.443-446).

33 Friends of the Earth, Big Names Back The Big Ask, 7 January 2008, consulted 30 April 2016.

34 Radiohead – Dead Air Space, Nuclear Power No Thanks, 9 November 2009, consulted 30 April 2016.

35 In 2010, as part of my doctoral research, I sent an online questionnaire to a small sample of Radiohead fans in order to assess their response to Thom Yorke's involvement alongside Friends of the Earth. The entire study and its conclusions are available in my PhD dissertation (pp. 325-345). A majority of the 40 respondents indicated that they were extremely unlikely to change political allegiances simply on account of their favourite band's leanings. Yet, a handful of respondents hinted that Yorke's political messages could influence them slightly, even by simply drawing their attention to political issues that they might, in turn, research personally.

36 Radiohead – Dead Air Space, A Rant And Some Other Stuff, 19 November 2009, consulted 30 April 2016.

37 Radiohead – Dead Air Space, Not Finished, 18 December 2009, consulted 30 April 2016.

38 – Dead Air Space, Tony Juniper / Cambridge Corn Exchange, 10 February 2010, consulted 30 April 2016.

39 Twitter @thomyorke, Thom Yorke, 8 May 2015, consulted 9 May 2015.

40 Some of The Clash's best-known song titles reflect their taste for radical politics, for instance "White Riot", "English Civil War", "Revolution Rock", "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe", "The Guns of Brixton", and "Know Your Rights". The political nature of their songs did not prevent The Clash from scoring three Top 10 albums (Give ‘Em Enough Rope, London Calling, and Combat Rock).

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Guillaume Clément, « Activism and Environmentalism in British Rock Music: the Case of Radiohead. », Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique [En ligne], XXII-3 | 2017, mis en ligne le 06 juillet 2017, consulté le 15 décembre 2017. URL :

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Guillaume Clément

Université Rennes I, équipe ACE

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