Feats of Strength: Radiohead

Nearly twenty years after its initial release, Radiohead’s OK Computer has been endlessly praised and analyzed.  Critics and fans alike have not only pored over every note and probed the meaning of every lyric, but they have also made sure that everyone else knows of their discoveries and efforts.  Not only is this kind of behavior ripe for mockery, but it begs for the album itself to be taken down a peg, with ClickHole delivering perhaps the perfect take with their “oral history” of the album’s creation.

Though discussions about the album have become ubiquitous over the years, and as a result it may have lost its spell on some fans, I still feel an intense personal connection with OK Computer.  Not only do I enjoy revisiting all of my favorite parts that have been more-or-less implanted into my brain after hundreds of spins, but with each listen I am still discovering previously unheard details lurking beneath the surface.  Each member of Radiohead makes several memorable contributions to the album, from the group’s three-headed guitar attack, to Phil Selway’s inventive drum fills and steady beat, to Colin Greenwood’s melodic and thumping bass.  Colin’s basslines are often overlooked, but he usually performs parts that are significant for a song’s success.

“Exit Music (For A Film)” was indeed written for a film, and though the fact that it was inspired by the ending of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet may cause some people to roll their eyes,* the movie ended up inspiring two of Radiohead’s best songs (the other being the menacing and magnificent “Talk Show Host”).  It begins with Thom Yorke alone on his acoustic guitar and singing sweetly to his “Juliet”, with a ghostly artificial choir joining in for the “chorus,” which provides not only a haunting effect but also the slightest touch of bombast.  The song returns to a solo Yorke for the next verse, before Selway’s expertly-produced fill kicks the song into the next gear, as the rest of the band, including Colin’s distorted fuzz bass, joins in for the bridge and outro.

Usually, the bass tone is treated as a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing by most bands.  Guitarists will trade out guitars for each song to get a specific and precise tone, but many bands just stick the bassist with one bass, and even then the bassist rarely even does anything as simple as adjusting a knob or two to get a different sound; whatever specific sound the group arrived at for their first practice probably will cover the bassist for the rest of his/her career.  So when a bassist does something like stomping on a fuzz box to add some effects to the bassline, it tends to get noticed by most listeners.  However, because the tone can be so distinctive, it is probably best to use an effect like distortion only sparingly so as to not overdose on the sound.

In “Exit Music”, Colin’s use of a distorted bass fits perfectly.  It serves as an excellent counterpart to Ed O’Brien’s ethereal, high-pitched guitar melody, grounding the song by rumbling around in the muck.  Colin also executes a brilliant transition from a straight-ahead chug in his initial part to a big, swinging triplet counter-melody during the song’s explosive climax.  It is a glorious moment that remains mesmerizing to this day.  Colin has used the fuzz bass to great effect in later songs, like the hypnotic riff in “The National Anthem” as well as the delirious “Myxomatosis”, but in my opinion “Exit Music” is still the best use of that specific tone.

*They have been showing Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby on HBO a lot lately, and even though I expected from the previews to see that Baz truly did not understand the novel, it was amazing to see in the forty-five minutes or so that I watched how a director can make so many incredibly poor decisions.  Just everything from the acting, sets, dialogue, etc.–complete trash.

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