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Introduction

Radiohead: Musical Hearts and Critical Minds
Guillaume Clément

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  • 1 James Oldham, “The Rise and Rise of the Rom Empire”, New Musical Express, June 14, 199 (...)
  • 2 Q, issue 182, October 2001; Q, issue 235, February 2006.

1Radiohead are one of the most respected acts in the history of British rock music, having garnered commercial success and numerous critical accolades over the span of a thirty-year career. Almost all of their albums have been met with acclaim from the music press, as evidenced by a number of overwhelmingly flattering reviews of their third album, OK Computer, especially in the authoritative New Musical Express, which granted it a perfect 10/10 score,1 and in Q, a respected music monthly which placed the album at the top of their list of the “best albums ever” in 2001 and in 2006.2 Furthermore, the band’s sustained presence in the Official Albums Charts in the United Kingdom and in many other music markets in the rest of the world (indicative of impressive sales figures) proves that Radiohead’s records have been enjoyed by legions of fans who have made their music an important part of their daily lives. The following grid indicates the peak chart position achieved by each Radiohead studio album in the United Kingdom, the United States and France.

Album

Peak UK chart position3

Peak US chart position4

Peak French chart position5

Pablo Honey (1993)

22

32

108

The Bends (1995)

4

88

35

OK Computer (1997)

1

21

3

Kid A (2000)

1

1

1

Amnesiac (2001)

1

2

2

Hail To The Thief (2003)

1

3

1

In Rainbows (2007)

1

1

1

The King Of Limbs (2011)

7

3

8

A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

1

3

5

2Such commercial prowess needs to be studied in the context of the deep evolutions that the music industry has been going through since the late 1990s, with the rise of illegal file-sharing on the internet and the dematerialisation of music commodities leading to an overall shrinking of the traditional, “physical” music market. In such troubled times, Radiohead were one of the first bands to challenge the long-established mechanisms of the music industry and to anticipate, adapt to – and perhaps influence – its new modes of operation.

  • 6 Ben Beaumont-Thomas, “Radiohead release hours of hacked MiniDiscs to benefit Extinctio (...)

3But Radiohead’s relevance goes beyond the marketability of their records and their appreciation by the music press. Through the incorporation of subversive, political imagery in their lyrics – compellingly mirrored in the evolution of their music from guitar-based rock music to more challenging, experimental electronica – Radiohead have come to be known as shrewd commentators of contemporary Britain and Western societies at large at the turn of the century. Several of the band’s members, including frontman Thom Yorke, have gone on to become activists of sorts, taking position in favour of ecology alongside NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, or even, more recently, Extinction Rebellion.6

  • 7 Dai Griffiths, OK Computer (33 ⅓ series), London: Bloomsbury, 2004.
  • 8 Brad Osborn, Everything In Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead, Oxford: Oxford University P (...)
  • 9 Brandon Forbes & George Reisch (ed.), Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter Happier More De (...)
  • 10 Joseph Tate (ed.), The Music and Art of Radiohead, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.

4Radiohead thus appear as one of the most prominent, seminal rock bands – and cultural phenomena – of our time. Their relevance on musical, cultural and political levels fully supports and deserves an academic analysis using a variety of related approaches in the fields of musicology, cultural studies, sociology and political science. Dai Griffiths was arguably one of the first musicologists to turn Radiohead into an academic object of study with his track-by-track analysis of OK Computer, published in 2004.7 More recently, Brad Osborn’s work on the musicology of Radiohead offered a groundbreaking analysis of their output in light of the concept of “salience”, which he kindly agreed to dwell upon a little further in the foreword to this issue.8 Other collective efforts have also been noted in recent years for trying to offer a cross-disciplinary approach to analysing Radiohead, drawing from philosophy9 and visual arts10 among others.

  • 11 The album was certified platinum five times, which indicates sales in excess of 1.5 mi (...)

5This issue of Revue LISA/LISA e-journal focuses on Radiohead’s best-known, best-selling (and often best-loved) album, OK Computer, a little over twenty years after its release.11 This album has captivated many music fans worldwide and contributed to establish the band’s “sacred-cow” status within the British rock scene. It also represents a true turning point in Radiohead’s career, both musically and in terms of legacy. A complex, at times experimental, album, OK Computer provides a sharp contrast with the dominating trends in mid-to-late 1990s British rock, especially Britpop. A careful look at many of its arcane lyrics highlights Radiohead’s then-emerging taste for social commentary and outlines the band’s political thought. While very different in tone and arrangement, songs like “Electioneering”, “No Surprises” and “Fitter Happier” contribute to building a coherent vision of British society whose members are described as apathetic, manipulated and driven by consumerism. This pessimistic view appears strikingly at odds with the Cool Britannia phenomenon, a bandwagon on which Tony Blair’s New Labour party had gladly jumped in order to win the general election – only a few days before the album’s release.

6The point of this collection of articles is to submit OK Computer, as a cultural commodity and a work of art, to the expertise and appraisal of scholars coming from various fields in English studies, cultural studies and musicology. This issue of Revue LISA/LISA e-journal is therefore divided into two sections, beginning with a first part that examines OK Computer and its artistic, philosophical, and political dimensions. This section opens with a general overview of Radiohead’s career, in which I present their evolution towards a more subversive content – heavily influenced by the political context of the time – in parallel with the progressive complexification of their music. While OK Computer appears completely at odds with the celebratory, light-hearted tone of the Cool Britannia era, Jeremy Tranmer’s article argues that Radiohead’s stance in 1997 was actually representative of a growing sense of dissatisfaction within the British public at the time, paving the way for alternative forms of political participation in later years. François Hugonnier’s analysis of the album, which he rightly dubs a “turning point” in the band’s career, dwells upon the paradox at the heart of OK Computer: the five musicians criticised the mechanisation and dehumanisation of society by writing a record which heavily relied on electronic loops and computer-made sounds. Nevertheless, in Kwasu Tembo’s view, this unique blend of analogue and digital elements is precisely what has made OK Computer’s sound mirror so aptly the fin-de-siècle atmosphere which pervades the record’s gloomy lyrics.

7The second part of this issue gathers the works of specialists in music studies who chose to focus on the question of “influences” – not only the classical and popular musicians who visibly shaped the album’s sound, but also the imprint left by OK Computer on other bands, which may well stretch as far as Norwegian progressive metal, according to the arguments presented here by Guillaume Deveney. In the same section, Benjamin Lassauzet takes stock of the myriad influences acknowledged by Radiohead over time, from krautrock to jazz, electronica and musique concrète, all of which helped shape OK Computer’s syncretic soundscapes. With such an eclectic mix of genres and influences, filing OK Computer into a single category might prove an impossible task, as Michel Delville argues in the closing article which presents Radiohead’s persistent label as a “progressive rock” band as a misunderstanding.

  • 12 Quoted in Alex Ross, “The Searchers: Radiohead’s Unquiet Revolution”, The New Yorker, (...)

8In an interview in The New Yorker in 2001, drummer Phil Selway seemingly warned his audience against the over-intellectualisation of his band’s music: “Really, we don’t want people twiddling their goatees over our stuff. What we do is pure escapism.”12 The hope of the authors of this collection has precisely been to try and dispel any “misunderstandings” about Radiohead and, without too much “goatee-twiddling”, to offer up a fair assessment of OK Computer’s musical, cultural, and political legacies more than twenty years after its release.

  • 13 Dr Nathan Wiseman-Trowse was Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor in Popular Music at t (...)

9This issue of LISA e-journal is dedicated to the memory of Nathan Wiseman-Trowse. 13

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Notes

1 James Oldham, “The Rise and Rise of the Rom Empire”, New Musical Express, June 14, 1997.

2 Q, issue 182, October 2001; Q, issue 235, February 2006.

3 “Radiohead – full official chart history”, Official UK Charts: <https://www.officialcharts.com/artist/28161/radiohead>, accessed on October 21, 2019.

4 “Radiohead chart history – Billboard”, Billboard: <https://www.billboard.com/music/radiohead/chart-history/billboard-200>, accessed on October 21, 2019.

5 “Discographie Radiohead – Les Charts”, LesCharts.com, <https://lescharts.com/showinterpret.asp?interpret=Radiohead>, accessed on October 21, 2019.

6 Ben Beaumont-Thomas, “Radiohead release hours of hacked MiniDiscs to benefit Extinction Rebellion”, The Guardian, 11 June 2019. <https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/jun/11/radiohead-release-hours-of-hacked-songs-to-benefit-extinction-rebellion>, accessed on October 21, 2019.

7 Dai Griffiths, OK Computer (33 ⅓ series), London: Bloomsbury, 2004.

8 Brad Osborn, Everything In Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

9 Brandon Forbes & George Reisch (ed.), Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter Happier More Deductive, Chicago: Open Court, 2009.

10 Joseph Tate (ed.), The Music and Art of Radiohead, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.

11 The album was certified platinum five times, which indicates sales in excess of 1.5 million in the UK alone. “Brit certified – BPI”, British Phonographic Institute: <https://www.bpi.co.uk/brit-certified/>, accessed on October 21, 2019.

12 Quoted in Alex Ross, “The Searchers: Radiohead’s Unquiet Revolution”, The New Yorker, 20 August 2011.

13 Dr Nathan Wiseman-Trowse was Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor in Popular Music at the University of Northampton where he taught on the BA Popular Music and MA Modern English Studies degrees. Nathan published two monographs, Nick Drake: Dreaming England (2013) and Performing Class in British Popular Music (2008). He also published work on the music of Nick Cave, the artistic practices of Bill Drummond and the writing of Alan Moore. He was working on developing U:Pop, the first international undergraduate Popular Music Studies research network, when he prematurely passed away in 2018. We had the pleasure to meet him at the conference we organised on Radiohead, back in May 2017.

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Référence électronique

Guillaume Clément, « Introduction », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XVII-n°1 | 2019, mis en ligne le 12 novembre 2019, consulté le 14 décembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/10403

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Auteur

Guillaume Clément

Guillaume Clément est maître de conférences en civilisation britannique à l’Université Rennes 1 (France). Il a soutenu une thèse de doctorat sur les significations politiques de la musique rock britannique à l’époque « Cool Britannia ». Ses travaux de recherche récents au sein de l’équipe ACE (EA 1796) de l’Université Rennes 2 se concentrent sur les interactions entre politique et culture populaire au Royaume-Uni depuis les années 1960. Ses publications récentes ont été l’occasion d’évaluer l’inspiration et l’impact socio-politique de grands groupes de rock britanniques comme les Beatles, Queen, les Sex Pistols, Blur ou encore Radiohead.

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Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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