Eastbound & Down

Unexpected Influences

Over the years, I believe that Radiohead’s Amnesiac has been unfairly overlooked.  Previous albums OK Computer and The Bends were rightly hailed as two of the finest albums of the 90’s, and helped solidify my love of the band.  It was with the band’s release of Kid A when my devotion wavered a bit.  It was an unexpected curveball, even when accounting for the probability that the band would take a creative left turn after the triumph of OK Computer and their even greater commercial success and critical respect.  It took dozens of listens before I began to fully appreciate the album and realize the thought and musicianship behind it.  I wasn’t the only one–at the time of Kid A‘s release, critics gave it moderate praise, as indicated by the Metacritic score of 80.  It wouldn’t reach its status as a consensus top album of the 2000’s until much later in the decade, as artists drew inspiration from the record and audiences fully processed its impact.

Amnesiac, which was recorded during the same sessions as Kid A, was an easier pill to swallow.  For years, I preferred Amnesiac to its compatriot, as it seemed to feel more like a rock record, though a subdued one, with just the right amount of electronic and experimental touches.  Songs like “I Might Be Wrong” and “Knives Out” were great singles that you could immediately jump to, and “Pyramid Song” was a total triumph, a song that decades from now will be recognized as one of Radiohead’s greatest accomplishments (and be sure to watch the beautifully moving music video, with its devastating ending).  Gradually my opinion has been swayed as to which is the better of the two albums, but I still hold Amnesiac in higher esteem than most, if it’s remembered by people at all.

Perhaps the most overlooked song on this overlooked album was this short instrumental near the end of the album, “Hunting Bears”.  It’s presence is particularly jarring on the album, between the jazzy “Dollars and Cents” and the glitchy/disorienting “Like Spinning Plates”; the jagged, trebly guitar pierces through like a knife from the subtle synth background, playing a mysterious melody that slowly gets swallowed up in reverb.  It may not be a particularly significant song in the Radiohead catalog, but it’s a nice change-of-pace on the album, and I can’t help but being caught up in its intrigue when I listen.

The MC5, while a noteworthy band in the history of rock, does not seem like it would be a particular influence on Radiohead, beyond perhaps just a general prompt for some teenagers to pick up some instruments and raise holy hell.  Their sped-up blues-rock and revolutionary rhetoric were a revelation for many, and their music and antics helped inspire the first generation of punk rockers.  Their debut, the live album Kick Out The Jams, is rightly heralded as a landmark album, but that is certainly not their only contribution.  Some have a soft spot for their follow-up, Back in the USA, but I prefer their third and final album, the rollicking High Time.

High Time built on the ramshackle spirit of their debut, and is a better attempt at capturing the live spirit that inhabited the typical MC5 show (or at least that’s the story that I’m told, since I am too young to have witnessed the band perform during its heyday, though periodically some clips pop up on YouTube).  It’s been unfairly overlooked over the years, not only by the public at large, but audiences who would be inclined to listen to the MC5 at all.  Perhaps its most noteworthy appearance came in the first episode of “Eastbound & Down”, when the song “Miss X” was used to announce the introduction of April, Kenny Powers’s muse (due in no small part to the fact that MC5 member Wayne Kramer was responsible for the music on the show).

With the disparate nature between the two bands now settled, let’s get to where the two bands unexpectedly meet.  I embedded the song “Future/Now” from High Time up above, and as you listen to it you may still wonder where the connection is–it’s a groovy blues rock song that sounds like it’s ready to kick off the party and lead a wild protest march.  But the song unexpectedly shifts gears slightly after the 3 minute mark.  At 3:16 we have…a reverby guitar that plays a similarly mysterious melody to what we’ve heard before from this article.

Even though there are a few noticeable differences between the two songs, there is still clearly some similarity between the second half of “Future/Now” (perhaps we could consider it the “Now” part) and “Hunting Bears”, from general style to specific tones.  While I believe it’s unlikely that Radiohead was inspired by a deep cut from an old proto-punk record and can more likely be chalked up to coincidence, it would be great to find out that the band decided to give a subtle nod to one of the favorite bands of their youth.  At the very least, maybe some people searching around for information on Radiohead will be inspired to pick up an old MC5 album, and I would consider that a fine accomplishment on my part.