In this episode we'll learn about the layers of musical history embedded in Radiohead's work from the Kid A sessions. Bob Fink, chair of the Music Industry Minor at UCLA's Herb Alpert School of Music, will discuss the musical influences that formed "Idioteque" and suggest how Kid A as a whole precursors contemporary music.
Then we'll hear from another musicologist from the UCLA School of Music: Jessica Schwartz. She'll examine "Pyramid Song," which was also developed during the Kid A sessions. Although recorded during the same period as "Idioteque," it was not released until the following year on the band's follow-up record, Amnesiac. And in contrast to the electronica of "Idiotque," "Pyramid Song" bears a greater resemblance to the music of jazz greats like Charles Mingus.
[00:00:00] Savannah Wright: [00:00:00] This is Fake Plastic Podcast, a podcast that unlocks the alchemy of Radiohead — one song, music video, or live performance at a time. My name is Savannah Wright.
[00:00:13] After the wild success of OK Computer, Radiohead was under immense pressure to provide a worthy followup. Several fans hoped for an OK Computer part two, with the same intricate guitar based melodies, but the band was burnt out.
[00:00:28] After years of touring [00:00:30] and promoting their third record, Thom became ill. And Phil Selway said the band was worried that their success had turned them into a one trick band. Plus, according to Colin Greenwood, the band felt like they needed to completely reinvent themselves after other groups began adopting the OK Computer sound.
[00:00:49] Disillusioned with rock music and feeling the genre had run its course, Yorke turned to electronica artists like Aphex Twin. Their emphasis on sounds and textures over melody [00:01:00] and lyrics intrigued Yorke. So he put down his guitar, sat down at the piano, and began experimenting.
[00:01:08] The first song he wrote was "Everything In Its Right Place", which would become the opening track on Kid A. That album revolutionized Radiohead's sound and was later heralded as the best album of its decade by both Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.
[00:01:25] Bob Fink: [00:01:25] As I was listening to it again, trying to think about it. It occurred to me. You could sort of [00:01:30] argue that Kid A is sort of Radiohead's psychedelic album. You know, and th that, and they're sort of doing music history back backwards.
[00:01:38] So that, OK Computer is a, is a kind of construct that you can easily find in seventies progressive rock. You know, it's got all these themes of alienation and technology, kind of a science fiction. You feel it's very dark and paranoid, but the songs are big, long expansive. Sometimes multi-sectional songs that are kind of [00:02:00] ambitious. Um, and then if you listen to Kid A it's so relentlessly non-linear, the songs are much more fragmented.
[00:02:09] Savannah Wright: [00:02:09] Meet Bob Fink. Bob is the Chair of the music industry minor at the UCLA Herb alpert School of Music.
[00:02:16] Bob Fink: [00:02:16] There's actually a lot of stuff that reminded me, I didn't expect this, of Sgt. Pepper's or the Beatles circa 1967. So you'll have these obsessive drum beats just going as if the drummer's in the, all alone in the [00:02:30] isolation booth, just playing. And then on top of that, in principle, any sound, you can imagine. And that really reminds me of, you know, "Strawberry Fields Forever."
[00:02:41] So listening to it in that sense. Yeah. You realize that they. Their response to the big success of OK Computer was, I guess to say, well, how far can we push the experimentation? I'm not claiming that Thom Yorke was like on drugs when he did it. He might've been, but yeah, but the sonic [00:03:00] experimentation of, of the psychedelic moment is really there.
[00:03:03] Savannah Wright: [00:03:03] Bob has been an admirer of Radiohead since the OK Computer era.
[00:03:07] Bob Fink: [00:03:07] I really admired the ambition of that album. And also Thom Yorke's voice is just amazing. I have to say, as someone who, you know, uh, grew up in a world of classical music, listening to a certain amount of opera and singing. Just his melodic sense and the way his voice soars up. Uh, was it's [00:03:30] it stood out.
[00:03:32] Savannah Wright: [00:03:32] In this episode, Bob will discuss the rich musical history of Kid A found in the song "Idioteque" and suggest how this album became a sign of what would follow in contemporary music.
[00:03:43] Then we'll hear from another musicologist from the UCLA School of Music, Jessica Schwartz. She'll examine "Pyramid Song," which was also developed during the Kid A sessions.
[00:03:53] Although recorded during the same period as "Idioteque," it was not released until the following year on the band's followup record, Amnesiac. [00:04:00] And in contrast to the electronica of "Idioteque," "Pyramid Song" bears a greater resemblance to the music of jazz greats like Charles Mingus.
[00:04:10] But first some context, although Kid A is beloved now, listeners did not initially feel that way. When the record was released, critics complained about its fragmented style and obscured vocals. Where were the triumphant guitar solos from "Paranoid Android," the climactic choruses from "Karma Police"?
[00:04:29] Bob Fink: [00:04:29] No, and I [00:04:30] remember the critical reception, how sort of shocked people were. And you can definitely tell a story about different genres at that moment, right around the turn of the millennium. You know, what it meant to have been sort of almost accidentally crowned as like the last great sort of rock band. You know, a lot of people. Yeah. You know, in a sense are. Some of them are trying to get that role, but others get trapped into it. And then maybe the con the consensus was, I guess, that they [00:05:00] had done something to just ruthlessly frustrate that.
[00:05:04] But then when you listen to it, 18 years later, you're not sort of in those politics, you know? Um, and so what you begin to hear is just how, how much it sounds like guys fooling around in the studio and. Then you remember that they're British guys and you think of their age and you think, yeah. You know, in the very back of their mind is a kind of template that you get from, you know, songs like "Tomorrow Never [00:05:30] Knows," or, you know, the kind of experimentation that is, uh, a pretty British thing.
[00:05:35] Savannah Wright: [00:05:35] Yeah. I'm glad you're contextualizing it like in music history as a whole. You also mentioned in your email, the analog synth revival. Was that also going on at the time?
[00:05:44] Bob Fink: [00:05:44] Just just a little bit of research, you know, because it's, it's been a long time and it does appear that outside of the world of ambient electronica, you know, which I can talk about if you want to hear, um. Guys like Jonny Greenwood and, and hom Yorke were really [00:06:00] some of the first people to be caught up in this, what we now realize is a big Renaissance of analog synthesizer technology that. That some of the songs on, a significant number of the songs on uh Kid A are using, you know, physical analog synthesizers, which in a way was, was against the trend of the moment.
[00:06:22] Also in, in electronic dance music where right around 2000, a lot of people were very excited about just [00:06:30] that Moore's law, you know, the sort of increase of power and decrease of expensive computers, meaning that people could trade in their old analog stuff for much more powerful computer-driven software. And only a very few sort of hardcore people stuck with the old, uh, boxes.
[00:06:50] By now those thingsare hip as can be. And, but, but at the time, yeah, those sounds, I think would be, would have been weirdly hard to place in [00:07:00] 2000 and 2001. You know that, uh, now that thing sounds like the most prescient album you can imagine.
[00:07:07] Savannah Wright: [00:07:07] Yeah, no, that's very true. And I'm going to come back to that, um, about the impressions of it, but, um, are you familiar with the story behind "Idioteque"? Do you think you can share it with us?
[00:07:16] Bob Fink: [00:07:16] Well, I know a little bit about what the sources are.
[00:07:19] Savannah Wright: [00:07:19] Yeah, that's perfect.
[00:07:20] Bob Fink: [00:07:20] Yeah. So that, um, you know, "Idioteque" if you listen to it, it's got a, um, a sort of groove, a funky groove, which was completely realized [00:07:30] on modular synths. So all of the, you know, sort of bass drum in air quotes and the snare in air quotes are all various noises. And then there's a lot of electronic stuff going on.
[00:07:43] Then there's also a sort of slow moving chord progression, uh, which is a sample of, uh, an extremely rarefied electronic music piece written by a composer who has, has for a long time, had a gig at Princeton. So it's, uh, it's [00:08:00] got a German name it's called "Mild und Leise," um, which means, I guess, 'softly and sweetly' would be a way of saying it.
[00:08:08] So that's already kind of weirdly ironic. Um, but that's a quote from a 19th century opera from Tristan und Isolde. So the composer that was being sampled, Paul Lansky, was pulling a moment from one of the most famous 19th century romantic operas, Tristan und Isolde.
[00:08:30] [00:08:29] The moment where the lead character, one of the lead characters, Isolde, the soprano, starts what is known as her love death. So it's a very, it's just like. Any music historian would be like, Ooh, that is a heavy moment. And she starts singing an aria that will ultimately end like five minutes later with her, you know, kind of singing herself to death. It's it is to some extent, one of those moments that people think of, she's not actually wearing the hat with the horns on her head, [00:09:00] but it's the same composer.
[00:09:01] So it's one of these famous moments, uh, of opera where the soprano just sings and sings and goes higher and higher kind of like Thom Yorke, you know, soaring up and then ultimately. And I won't get into the plot of the five-hour opera but ultimately just sort of willing herself into nothingness. So it's a really transcendental metaphysical moment.
[00:09:24] So Paul Lansky, because he was a kind of computer algorithm type [00:09:30] composer, wrote a piece, an electronic piece for, uh, I guess all there were were analog synths when he did it. But programmed by, you know, very primitive computers, um, that take some of the, the chords under that and uses them to create a kind of abstract piece.
[00:09:51] So his use of Wagner is to like structurally abstract a kind of way of moving the notes around and then make a modern piece. [00:10:00] Then the guys in Radiohead just grabbed a snippet of that and looped it and it fits right in with what they're doing because it's two people using analog synthesizers coming from completely different directions.
[00:10:14] Savannah Wright: [00:10:14] Yeah.
[00:10:15] Bob Fink: [00:10:15] So it's an interesting, you know, I was listening to it, uh, trying to see. It does give you an interesting context. Um, you know there are other songs in the album, like "How to Disappear Completely", that you could literally map onto that moment. That's sort of what the end of Tristan und [00:10:30] Isolde is. It's 'how to disappear completely.' How to kind of be so. I dunno, transcendental. So caught up in emotion that you just, if you can't have your lover, you just die. Right.
[00:10:43] And, and so "Idioteque", you know, has a lot of very mysterious lyrics, right? It has 'ice age coming' it's, you know, there's, there's a kind of slightly apocalyptic tone to it.
[00:10:53] And so if you know that, I mean, you never know. Uh, there's a lot of. I wouldn't call it a controversy, but let's just say [00:11:00] there's vigorous discussion in the world of talking about pop music. When you grab a sample, do you grab everything that comes with it? No. Do we assume that if some hip hop artist samples, Oh, I don't know. Uh, what would be the tackiest thing they could sample? A Barry Manilow song. Does that mean they really, you have to think about Barry Manilow when you're listening to the song? Uh.
[00:11:23] Savannah Wright: [00:11:23] Huh.
[00:11:24] Bob Fink: [00:11:24] Sometimes when you go back and ask producers, they're like, 'no, man, I just liked that. I like that snare drum hit.' [00:11:30] So I wouldn't necessarily assume that you could import into Kid A the entire Wagnerian apparatus.
[00:11:40] Uh, but I do think, uh, the guys in Radiohead would, would've liked you to know that they were hip enough and intellectual enough to know about Paul Lansky, the pioneering electronic computer musician, because there's a lot of other super arty gestures in on the album. You know, moments where [00:12:00] you hear these atonal string things or stuff that's pretty clearly saying 'hey, we're like real musicians.'
[00:12:09] Savannah Wright: [00:12:09] Yeah, no, I think that those are all really great points. I'm glad you went back into the history of it because I was reading a little bit about the Tristan opera. And, um, a lot of people mentioned that that was a very atonal chord, that 'Tristan chord' that is being sampled and that it put people on edge and that it wasn't resolved until the very end of the opera. Is that true?
[00:12:27] Bob Fink: [00:12:27] That's true. And in fact, "Mild und Leise" is the [00:12:30] first words of the big aria, at the end of which it will resolve. So that's the moment where if you're analyzing the opera, you can say starting here, there's a piece of music which will have as its final structural gesture, the resolution of the tensions of the whole opera.
[00:12:48] Yeah. That's excellent. Um, you passed the music history class. And, and so, yeah, I think that's probably for somebody in the, in the world of art music, in sort of the [00:13:00] European tradition, that's one of the absolute kind of pivotal points of music history. Like what Wagner does in that opera and at the end of that opera.
[00:13:11] So yeah, I, I, you don't want me to go into, uh, and I don't know that I'm actually completely able to, what Lansky does with the chord, but he does, you know, effectively treat some of the chords in Wagner's opera as almost like axioms in a mathematical equation. He starts from them and he begins to [00:13:30] generalize out. Like, okay, Wagner took these three notes and he moved to these other three notes and that's kind of a transformation. And what if I did that over and over again? And didn't worry about what key I was in, what would I get?
[00:13:44] Well, you get something that's, I don't wanna overstate the case, but there are places in uh Kid A where, you know, the stuff that's happening on the synthesizers has a little bit of that kind of MC Escher feeling. These chord progressions that sort of do something and do it again [00:14:00] and do it again. And then you actually, um, you end up sort of back where you started, but you don't know how you got there.
[00:14:07] Yeah. So I actually, that's one of the things on relistening I really like about the album is the. Uh, the chord loops and they stay away from like very traditional kind of blues progressions, or, you know, a lot of the chord cycles that people make fun of when they do those 'here's all the songs that use those same four chords'.
[00:14:27] A lot of the chord progressions that, uh, [00:14:30] you hear over the beats or the ambient sounds on Kid A are, are sort of. They have a twist in them. So like I said, I keep thinking of those MC Escher staircases where you think you're still, you're going up and up and up, but you. Through an, or an illusion, you end back where you were. Or like a Mobius strip where you sort of have something that is, something gets folded in a particular way. So its typology is odd.
[00:14:57] Savannah Wright: [00:14:57] I listened through Kid A to find examples of those chord progressions [00:15:00] Bob mentioned. And I think the best example is the introduction to the song Kid A. At first it seems to be changing and progressing through the addition of percussion and keyboard. But the return to that original synth riff adds a circularity to this progression.
[00:15:16] (clip from "Kid A")
[00:15:16] What's interesting about Radiohead's use of electronic sounds is that [00:15:30] it doesn't imitate the shimmering synths and feel good melodies of popular and electronic music. Instead, several of the soundscapes on Kid A feel desolate and apocalyptic, and Bob likens these to the isolated setting of Tristan und Isolde.
[00:15:44] Bob Fink: [00:15:44] If, if I listened to the songs from Kid A and I think about, well, where am I? Um, I don't think I'm in front of my computer typing away, like checking my email. I'm far away from any human connection.
[00:15:58] Now you could definitely make an, [00:16:00] that would make the album incredibly prescient. That it was sort of as early as the turn of the century, when everybody was pretty excited about the Internet, sort of prefiguring how alienating and isolating it would be.
[00:16:13] Savannah Wright: [00:16:13] Yeah.
[00:16:15] Bob Fink: [00:16:15] Yeah. That is, I think fair. There are a few places on Kid A where you get sort of traditional rock anger, like "The National Anthem", you know, stick, you know, where you can see that. Their kind of raised fist. But a lot of it just seems incredibly despairing [00:16:30] and takes for granted that nothing's going to connect one person to another.
[00:16:34] Cause yeah. Cause that opera, you know, uh, is effectively about misconnection. You know, even if you have like the ultimate love, which is the love potion love, you can't make it work. Not in this world.
[00:16:49] Savannah Wright: [00:16:49] As we've mentioned before, it's possible that Jonny Greenwood didn't know all of the Wagnerian weight that this one chord carried, but as Bob demonstrates, understanding that history can enrich our [00:17:00] appreciation of the song.
[00:17:01] Bob Fink: [00:17:01] So, yeah, I don't, I don't think that this is conscious, although I have to say having listened to the album a few times, just trying to get ready. It is actually strikingly arty. You know, I think that, I think it is sort of saying to you, you need to think about these songs, right? I'm not going to just give it to you right on the surface.
[00:17:21] Savannah Wright: [00:17:21] Yeah. Well, what's interesting about the lyrics too, is that at least according to like various articles about Kid A, is that Thom Yorke didn't. [00:17:30] He had writer's block with a lot of the, with a lot of the record. And so he would just draw things out of a hat. So you would get like really violent images next to really like random mundane images.
[00:17:39] So I, I know that the, the, the lyrics weren't printed in the liner notes so that you wouldn't just take them in isolation, but I do think it's interesting to make that comparison with the lyrics and the, the music.
[00:17:50] Bob Fink: [00:17:50] That's . Yeah. That's interesting to know. It, it doesn't surprise me. Um, and he's not the only one to do this and it doesn't always have to be because you have writer's [00:18:00] block.
[00:18:00] Although I guess it, now that I think of the other stories, I know, I guess maybe it is what. You know, because David Byrne did this, uh, on an album, like Speaking in Tongues.
[00:18:08] Savannah Wright: [00:18:08] Yeah, he was inspired by David Byrne. That's why he did it.
[00:18:10] Bob Fink: [00:18:10] Yeah. In fact, that would be the classic example. And it's a technique that goes back to an equally arty set of forebears um, you know, in French surrealism and William S Burroughs. You know, the idea of cut ups.
[00:18:23] Savannah Wright: [00:18:23] Yeah.
[00:18:23] Bob Fink: [00:18:23] And John Cage. And so you can draw a line from that practice, that the lyrics are going to [00:18:30] be in a sense sampled from pre-existing language, to people like John Cage and other experimental artists who also were really interested in synthesizers and electronic music.
[00:18:41] So yeah, yeah. It, the combination of cut-up speech or randomized speech and electronic analog sounds is yeah, that's, uh, that's been a good, a goodie. An oldie, but a goodie, uh, probably since the beginning of taped music at the. [00:19:00] After World War II.
[00:19:01] Savannah Wright: [00:19:01] That's a cool connection. Um, so we talked a lot about how this album is, is prescient sometimes with its lyrics, but also how has the sound of "Idioteque," or Kid A as a whole, predictive of future music trends?
[00:19:13] Bob Fink: [00:19:13] Uh, Okay, let me, let me just try to work this systematically. What's interesting about Kid A and we may, this may be anticipating another possible question and we can, we can veer away from it or come back. Is it, although I think a lot of people read Kid A when it came out as somehow a reaction [00:19:30] to electronic music, you know, as a generic kind of, 'I don't want to be over here. I want to be over here where the cool kids are'?
[00:19:36] It actually doesn't sound that much like, it wasn't called EDM in that way back then, but what electronica, which is what we called it over here, sounded like. The irony is that a lot of electronica coming out, you know, people that guys in Radiohead would have known cause they were other big British pop stars of the late nineties.
[00:19:56] Uh, a lot of the electronic dance music actually was [00:20:00] very rocky at that point. In terms of a lot of people using guitar samples or using uh distorted sounds from synthesizers, buzzy detuned synthesizers, that function kind of like guitar riffs. So effectively everybody was looking to get a synthesizer to do that thing from "Creep."
[00:20:21] [imitates noise] You know, and it's easy to do. You just de-tune some oscillators and you, you know, you can make a kind of thing that sounds like a guitar [00:20:30] riff, or you can just sample guitar riffs. The guys, you know, Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers were having huge success with these big pounding dance beats. And on top of it, you would have like an ACDC style guitar riff. And that's what a lot of people in the US probably in 1999, thought dance music was.
[00:20:50] So this, this definitely sounded completely different than that. And certainly there are [00:21:00] precedents for what they were doing and they probably were listening to stuff like Aphex Twin. Right. You know, other kind of ambient electronica, but yeah. That was a very fringy kind of style.
[00:21:11] Savannah Wright: [00:21:11] Yeah.
[00:21:11] Bob Fink: [00:21:11] So I think looking back at 2018, it is of its time to some extent. You can point to other things. There was a revival right around the turn of the century of, I guess the best I could say is it's sort of an alternate history. I tend to think of it like an alternate history of electronic music, where, and this [00:21:30] is, this is going to be a, like I said, a left turn for the conversation. But where nobody really took ecstasy, you know?
[00:21:35] So there's, there's a kind of music. The name I often associate with it is electroclash, where right around 2000, the other thing, which was happening a lot was people going back to the sound of say late seventies, early eighties, kind of krautrock and dark Berlin style, kind of 'yah we dance now.' [00:22:00] You know, this sort of Dieter, you know, that stuff that, that gets satirized and, you know, uh, Mike Myers does his Dieter character. 'Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance.'
[00:22:08] You know, so that sound, which had been poorly wiped out of music history by the big rave explosion of, of the late eighties and nineties. People started to get interested in that again. What if we could go back to that moment when everybody was listening to Gary Newman and Front 242 and sort of industrial. This sort of dark [00:22:30] industrial sound. And, and bring that back.
[00:22:33] And it was a kind of pretty direct rejection of the loved up kind of everybody's so happy, you know, kind of house music that people had been listening to. And that music, if it was trying to get that seventies early eighties feel, would often go back to analog synths. As a signifier for 'let's remember what it was like before all of that gravy stuff happened.'
[00:23:00] [00:23:00] And it does seem like Kid A is doing some of the same thing. Yeah. So again, I'm not, uh, I haven't completely argued why it prefigures things in the future, but I think it does, it does catch some of the. In some ways it's very different than the kind of electronica that had come right before it. Um, but in a way, it's right at the edge of an alternate history of electronic music and electronic dance music, which has turned out to be much more [00:23:30] influential, right?
[00:23:31] So that, uh, you know, Fatboy Slim is still great at, uh, at a party or a bar mitzvah, you know, to like rock the floor. But that style of very heavy, beat driven, you know, kind of big, fun samples of rock music it's. People aren't really doing it. And you're much more likely to hear in the song.
[00:23:50] I mean, I would say if you think about what hip hop sounds like now, you hear a lot of the kind of slightly distorted, chorus modulated, [00:24:00] electric piano sound like at the very beginning of the album. That sounds like you would hear that in any number of sort of slightly experimental or arty R&B tracks, you know. The Weeknd or somebody.
[00:24:12] So there's a way that they. Their album is not funky. Really. It's not slinky. It's very white, which is nothing I mean you know, why not? But the way they put these slightly off kilter, late seventies, early eighties, sounding keyboard [00:24:30] loops up against pretty much anything they wanted. Yeah, I think it was very influential or if it wasn't influential, it was anticipating a similar discovery that a lot of people who we would classify as R&B now. Sort of Afro-diasporic kind of pop music are doing now, like in the last say five years.
[00:24:50] Savannah Wright: [00:24:50] Yeah. Can you think of an example?
[00:24:52] Bob Fink: [00:24:52] I think, like I said, I would, I mean, yeah. There's something of that in somebody like Childish Gambino, you know, or, um, like I said, The [00:25:00] Weeknd. Where you get a set of textures, you know, a very high pitched voice like that falsetto voice that Thom Yorke does. And cool, almost cold synthesizer sounds, which for all the world could you think might've come out of a 1970s, like yacht rock record or something. You know, the last. You know, late seventies analog thing. Or Steve, like a Stevie Wonder song.
[00:25:23] You know, somebody who is in the seventies, working at a keyboard with analog synths. Those, those [00:25:30] combinations. Add a little rapping and, um, more of a sexy feel. And you've got a huge range of contemporary entertainment music. So I think something that came into the, to the mainstream as a sort of very arty gesture has become kind of mainstream.
[00:25:47] Savannah Wright: [00:25:47] Yeah. I just have two more questions for you. Uh, what do you make of the song's title? Like how do you interpret it?
[00:25:53] Bob Fink: [00:25:53] "Idioteque". Oh yeah. Um, That's very interesting. "Idioteque" rhymes with discotheque right? [00:26:00] And so sure you could argue it's a idiot discotheque, but it also sounds like 'idiolect'. In other words, like which. Like 'idio' is, is, is idiot, but it also is the root of words, like idiom and idiomatic. In other words, it means unique to one person.
[00:26:19] Savannah Wright: [00:26:19] Sure.
[00:26:19] Bob Fink: [00:26:19] So in, in linguistics, you talk about, you have dialects, right? You and I are speaking in a dialect. There's two of us, but one could say, well, the way that [00:26:30] Bob Fink talks is an idiolect, you know, it's his own speech, right. And tech could also just be technology, right?
[00:26:37] So it's a, it's a very clever, you know, portmanteau word that could be pushed one way to sort of be an ironic statement about dance music. Yeah. You know what I'm saying? That, you know, idiots' discotheque and it, you know, dancing on the edge of the volcano, et cetera. Um, I think it's a nice ambiguous word and, and probably like everything else in the album, uh, [00:27:00] susceptible of multiple contradictory readings.
[00:27:05] Savannah Wright: [00:27:05] Although you can interpret the titleion a variety of ways, a few quotes from interviews with Thom seemed to support the 'dancing on the edge of the volcano' image. In an interview for Wired in 2001, Thom said the song's pulsating rhythm was an attempt to capture that exploding beat sound "where you're at the club and the PA's so loud, you know, it's doing damage."
[00:27:26] In another interview for BBC Radio One in [00:27:30] 2000, Thom revealed that the lyrics for "Idioteque" are not as random as other Kid A tracks. Thom didn't draw phrases out of a hat, but he said that quote, each line in the song are the lines that kept me awake at night for about a month close quote. So it's no wonder "Idioteque" sounds urgent and nightmarish. Not only does it reference an impending ice age, people hiding in bunkers and scaremongering politicians. But it also mimics a feeling of fear through its relentless, [00:28:00] heart-pounding beat.
[00:28:14] (clip from "Idioteque")
[00:28:14] As I said earlier,Radiohead recorded a score of songs during the Kid A sessions. But rather than release them all as a double album, they released half of them on [00:28:30] Amnesiac, eight months later. Thom said the band split the work into two albums because "they cancel each other out as overall finished things. They come from two different places I think. In some weird way I think Amnesiac gives another take on Kid A, a form of explanation.
[00:28:48] Jessica Schwartz: [00:28:48] Kid A, has a bit more of a distance. In Amnesiac you're more in the fold, you're more, I guess they said 'in the woods'. Um, and again, [00:29:00] the visual representation of the song, um, in that being submerged underwater, you do. You feel like you're being moved through this world, almost engulfed by this initial jumping into the river.
[00:29:17] Savannah Wright: [00:29:17] This is Jessica Schwartz, assistant professor of musicology at UCLA's School of Music. She's talking about the music video of "Pyramid Song", which is the other track we'll discuss in this episode.
[00:29:28] Jessica first heard [00:29:30] Radiohead through, you guessed it, "Creep." It wasn't until Radiohead started experimenting with different sonic textures that she revisited their music.
[00:29:39] Jessica Schwartz: [00:29:39] So that progression of Radiohead from a more standard, I would say rock band to, um, much more experimental group, uh, that eschewed a number of rock instruments. Or continued to play them, but also switch it up for a different instrumentation and different sounds, [00:30:00] um, metrical ambiguity and complexity. So on and so forth.
[00:30:05] I became interested through a lot of uh, conversations around around the Kid A and Amnesiac time, I think. Which is one of the reasons, uh, that I was interested in discussing the song.
[00:30:17] Savannah Wright: [00:30:17] Like "Idioteque," "Pyramid Song" has a rich history, both sonically and culturally. Thom began writing "Pyramid Song" after visiting an art exhibit about the ancient Egyptian underworld in Copenhagen. [00:30:30] He performed a version of the song for the first time at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1999. He introduced it as "Egyptian Song." In this version it's missing one of its most salient components, the string section, which was performed by the orchestra of St John's in Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire.
[00:30:49] The jazz swing of the strings demonstrates another source of inspiration for the song: Charles Mingus's "Freedom." Mingus is one of the most renowned jazz musicians and a leading [00:31:00] advocate of collective improvisation. In an interview for Mojo,Thtom said "Pyramid Song" is 'me being totally obsessed by a Charlie Mingus song called "Freedom," and I was just trying to duplicate that really. Our first version of "Pyramid" even had all the claps that you hear on "Freedom." Unfortunately, our claps sounded really naff, so I quickly erased them."
[00:31:18] Jessica Schwartz: [00:31:18] What I hear. I mean, I can hear the swung jazz feel in terms of that. I can also hear obviously when the drums or the percussion comes in.
[00:31:28] Savannah Wright: [00:31:28] Right.
[00:31:28] Jessica Schwartz: [00:31:28] The acoustic bass comes [00:31:30] in and we have that more jazz feeling that, that, that picks up and gives that grounding in a way to the song. It almost makes you reflect on the previous part of it. So in a way, the jazz performance elements almost ground the ungrounded sections, um, rhythmically. And you do, you have that clear percussive aspect.
[00:31:54] There's also, I think within Charles Mingus is a [00:32:00] jazz approach in terms of free jazz and I think that a kind of, again, notion of freedom. Freedom of creative play and interpretation is part of jazz. It's also part of this song. So they're actual musical elements, but I think a larger feel of the song, um, can be considered in terms of jazz performance as well.
[00:32:25] Savannah Wright: [00:32:25] This freedom of interpretation Jessica mentioned can be found in two specific aspects of the song. [00:32:30] In its rhythm, which is notoriously difficult to notate. And in its lyrics, which are brimming with allusions to history, religion, and literature.
[00:32:38] In the lyrics, Thom talks about jumping into a river and swimming with black-eyed angels. A moon full of stars and Astro cars floats above them. All his past and futures surround him. And they're all going to heaven in a little rowboat.
[00:32:54] Jessica Schwartz: [00:32:54] There are not many lyrics in this song, right?
[00:32:56] Savannah Wright: [00:32:56] Yeah.
[00:32:57] Jessica Schwartz: [00:32:57] So the sparseness of the lyrics means that they [00:33:00] can be really loaded. And I think that's. The tension of, of the past and the future also speaks to that, the liminal space, whereas that maybe our life here is part of a liminality, um, part of a larger temporality.
[00:33:21] Um, and I would kind of wonder, and maybe I can riff on this. Like what did you think about the black [00:33:30] angels? Because really what's coming to my mind is this figure that I saw on Genius lyric, and it's this picture of a drawing. So it's almost a transcription and it's difficult for me to move past what people were saying in terms of what they represented.
[00:33:48] Savannah Wright: [00:33:48] Sure. Yeah. So I was kind of going back to thinking, okay, well, he wrote this after seeing an exhibit about Egyptian mythology and like Egyptian burial rights. And so I thought they might be [00:34:00] spirits. Like spirits that you would see in the afterlife. Um, I also thought a little bit of.
[00:34:04] Jessica Schwartz: [00:34:04] Yeah, but I mean a lot of people pointed to Dante's Inferno and the references. And as I was just saying that kind of liminality and how that this rung that we're in, you know, might be part of that. Um, where we only have such a capacity of freedom. You know, the whole idea of, of, of the angel of death. Um, [00:34:30] we just had Passover, and so I was thinking of the band of evil angels, you know, thinking of Moses and the Israelites.
[00:34:36] Savannah Wright: [00:34:36] Yeah.
[00:34:37] Jessica Schwartz: [00:34:37] Um, and Egypt and everything, and, and escapes from, from bondage. So those were the things that I was thinking about, but that was also meshed with a certain cultural perspective. That again was. I don't want to say it was intentioned with, but was divergent from what I had been reading in, um, in these different posts.
[00:34:56] Savannah Wright: [00:34:56] Jessica demonstrates that these allusions could refer to a multitude of [00:35:00] sources. If we've learned anything about Radiohead so far, it's that they take pride in ambiguity. So naturally these ambiguous images of the life cycle or an in-between place between life and death are reinforced with the song's enigmatic rhythm.
[00:35:15] If you look on the Internet, you'll find several interpretations of how to notate this rhythm. Our past guest David Bennett made an entire video about this.
[00:35:24] David Bennett: [00:35:24] The rhythm is actually symmetrical. It's a bit like a pyramid made of two dotted crotchets, a minim, and then [00:35:30] another set of two dotted crotchets. Or you could think about it in quavers as three, three, four, three, three.
[00:35:36] So you can see that the symmetry. This repeating two-bar rhythm actually acts quite a lot like a clave, which is an idea I've talked about in previous videos. Clave is a Latin American technique when a short one or two bar rhtyhm is repeated throughout the entire piece to underpin it, to glue it all together.
[00:35:52] So "Pyramid Song" has this repeating two-bar rhythm that acts like a clave throughout the whole song. And interestingly enough, this clave is actually just [00:36:00] a slowed down bossa nova rhythm.
[00:36:02] Savannah Wright: [00:36:02] I highly recommend watching the entire video if you want to understand it fully. But basically David is saying that the song is comprised of two symmetrical bars of music: two dotted quarter notes, each equivalent to three eighth notes. Two quarter notes that are tied, equivalent to four eighth notes total. And two more dotted quarter notes. Three, three, four, three, three.
[00:36:25] A fan noticed that these beats, when translated into shapes, comprise a pyramid. [00:36:30] With three lines making a triangle and four lines making a square. Triangle triangle square triangle triangle.
[00:36:39] It's easier to understand if you see this written out, so I'll post a diagram on our Instagram page for reference. David goes on to say that although the rhythm can be notated as consistently three, three, four, three, three, the chord changes seem to undercut this consistency.
[00:36:53] David Bennett: [00:36:53] So you might be thinking at this point, how can "Pyramid Song" have a repeating two-bar rhythm and yet it still sounds so [00:37:00] disorientating and, un-repeating? Well that's because this two-bar rhythm is getting complicated by something else. It's getting complicated by where the chords change.
[00:37:08] So this is the two-bar rhythm that we've been talking about and I've written it out twice. So we've got four bars of it in total. See where the chords change in the bar has a big impact on where we perceive the strong beats to be, where the accented beats should be. A beat where a chord changes on has more rhythmic impact than a beat where the chord stays the same.
[00:37:27] And the thing is throughout "Pyramid Song," the beat on [00:37:30] which the chord changes keeps getting moved around. It's inconsistent. So even though the rhythm is the same, every two bars different beats keep getting accented, which keeps making it sound different.
[00:37:55] (clip from "Pyramid Song"q)
[00:37:55] Savannah Wright: [00:37:55] As a result, listeners accustomed to a standard four, four beat feel [00:38:00] destabilized, unsure of where the measures begin or end. They lose their sense of time.
[00:38:08] Jessica Schwartz: [00:38:08] It's about time and our perspectives of time and our orientation through time. Our movement in the world through time. Right? Yeah. It's almost baptismal. Kind of first, you know, jumping into the river and like realizing and seeing all these things anew. And so in a way, the [00:38:30] destabilization of the music might lend to the destabilization that we're supposed to feel of that initial immersion into the watery underground, which is part of that video aspect.
[00:38:44] Savannah Wright: [00:38:44] This image of rebirth that Jessica describes is bolstered by the circular arrangement of the lyrics. The song consists of two verses repeated twice, once with just piano and the second time with drums, bass and strings.
[00:38:59] My last [00:39:00] question justfrom what you said though, is you're talking about the textures. And I was wondering because when Thom first presented the song, it was at the Tibetan Freedom Concert that you mentioned, and he played it just solo piano. What do you think the addition of the strings does to your experience of the song?
[00:39:16] Jessica Schwartz: [00:39:16] I think in a very general way, it adds that other worldly, shimmery, wavery feel, and it really [00:39:30] layers the celestial feelings of that. Right? And the mention of heaven. And I think that textural component is really important for the recording, especially in ways that allow the listener to become engulfed, immersed in that expansive feel.
[00:39:49] Savannah Wright: [00:39:49] Yeah, as you were saying that, I was reflecting on how. I mean the lyrics, he repeats the same thing twice, but the first time it has a different impact than the second time.
[00:39:57] And I feel like it's because the second time they have that crescendo, but [00:40:00] they also add the strings. So there is a sense of like moving forward to somewhere else. That's cool.
[00:40:06] When Jessica entered the booth for our interview, she had a thick stack of notes for reference. She said that it was just a sample of the conversation about "Pyramid Song," from academic essays to fan theories, and that it demonstrates the investment fans have in Radiohead songs.
[00:40:23] Even 18 years later, she also said that this tendency to revisit "Pyramid Song" echoes [00:40:30] the circularity of the song itself.
[00:40:32] Jessica Schwartz: [00:40:32] Again, as that rebirth of its own self, uh, through its repetition. Right? So it's almost people are allowing it to perform what it's doing within itself. So you have the interesting circularity. And the journey that goes and goes and goes, which is fascinating.
[00:40:52] Savannah Wright: [00:40:52] No, that, that is it interesting to think about it from like that meta perspective where it's like. We are continually coming back to the song and like for different meanings or [00:41:00] different interpretations, but it's like, even as we move forward in time, we're like drawn back.
[00:41:06] In our next episode, we will address this circularity as it relates to A Moon Shaped Pool and the music video for "Daydreaming." Because both the album and video suggest a similar desire to revisit the past, if only to understand and find closure in the present.
[00:41:27] You've been listening to Fake Plastic Podcast. [00:41:30] Fake Plastic Podcast is an Alternate Thursdays production with new episodes every other Wednesday. Share your thoughts with us on Instagram or Twitter @fakeplasticpod. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. And if you really liked this episode, please leave a review and share with your friends, Radiohead fans or otherwise. It helps more people discover the show.
[00:41:54] I'm Savannah Wright. Thanks for listening.