"Like Spinning Plates" might be one of the most experimental tracks Radiohead has produced. It appears near the end of their fifth studio album, Amnesiac. The tracks from Amnesiac were produced during the Kid A sessions. But rather than release a 20-track LP, the band decided to release the other songs a year later as a separate album. Brad Osborn, assistant professor at the Kansas University School of Music and author of Everything In Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead will take us on a musicological exploration of "Like Spinning Plates." We'll discuss its bizarre origin story, how it follows the theme of memory on the album, and most of all, its distinct timbre.
[00:00:00] Savannah Wright: [00:00:00] This is Fake Plastic Podcast, a podcast that unlcoks the alchemy of Radiohead — one song music video, or live performance at a time. My name is Savannah Wright. "Like Spinning Plates may be one of the most experimental tracksRadiohead has produced. It appears near the end of their fifth studio album, Amnesiac. The tracks from Amnesiac were produced during the Kid A sessions, but rather than release a 20 track LP, the band decided to release the other [00:00:30] songs a year later as a separate album.
[00:00:32] Brad Osborn: [00:00:32] I don't really distinguish them as two different records, just because it's like saying, um, you know, The White Album and Hey Jude are different, but they were recorded in the same sessions as well.
[00:00:42] Savannah Wright: [00:00:42] This is Brad Osborn, assistant professor at the Kansas University School of Music. He's also the author of a book that analyzes Radiohead's music.
[00:00:52] Brad Osborn: [00:00:52] So I wrote this book called Everything In Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead. But what most people don't know is that the original title for [00:01:00] the book was Everything In Its Right Place, obligatory colon, The Goldilocks Principle and Radiohead, and actually reviewers made me take it out. But essentially what I was looking at: the ways in which Radiohead just like, uh, the child Goldilocks, their music isn't too conventional, but it's also not too experimental. It's just right. And this is sort of why they've sold, sold 29 million records while also having such a critical appeal.
[00:01:28] Savannah Wright: [00:01:28] You know how sometimes a friend will ask you [00:01:30] why you like Radiohead, but you can't quite articulate it? Brad has the answer down to a science. Everything In Its Right Place identifies the precise music principles found in Radiohead's work that makes it so appealing.
[00:01:41] Brad Osborn: [00:01:41] So in the book, I look at four different domains. I look at song form, rhythm harmony, and then I look at timbre.
[00:01:49] Savannah Wright: [00:01:49] Like I said, down to a science. In this episode, Brad will take us on a musicological exploration of "Like Spinning Plates.". We'll discuss its bizarre origin story, how it [00:02:00] follows the theme of memory in the album, and most of all, its distinct timbre.
[00:02:04] Brad Osborn: [00:02:04] Well, I think that, I mean, so we're going to talk about timbre in the song, but I guess we should start with like what timbre is. Cause that's kind of a funny word for some people.
[00:02:12] So you could just say instrumentation, if you liked, but I was cautioned against this because so many instruments have so many different sounds like, think of the electric guitar, which of course Radiohead uses it's one instrument, but like let's name all the different sounds and electric guitar can make and all of a sudden it doesn't really make sense to talk about the [00:02:30] sound of one instrument.
[00:02:31] Uh, so timbre really refers more to the specific sound that you're hearing. And as we get into late Radiohead, especially, you know, you can't really say even the synthesizer has a sound. So timbre is just like, um, the sound itself. It's technically technically the difference between two sounds that do not differ in frequency or amplitude.
[00:02:53] So if I have a trombone playing like a D above middle C and their trumpet playing a D above middle C, and they're playing the [00:03:00] same volume. You know, most people can still tell, which is the trumpet, which is the trombone. Despite the fact they're playing the same pitch at the same volume. That's timbre. That's the difference there.
[00:03:10] Savannah Wright: [00:03:10] So now that we're familiar with some basic definitions, let's learn about the strange origin of "Like Spinning Plates.".
[00:03:15] Brad Osborn: [00:03:15] So in the Kid A sessions, the band was still trying to work out this song called "I Will," which of course we all know would appear in 2003 on Hail to the Thief.
[00:03:24] But, um, you know, they're demoing it. And to the best of my knowledge, nobody has heard this demo, [00:03:30] but Ed O'Brien was keeping a pretty good recording diary during the Kid A sessions. And he was explaining that they were working it out on a novation base station, which is a synthesizer they used all the time. And that it had like some string and organ pads.
[00:03:44] But Thom Yorke, who was also keeping a pretty good recording diary, reportedly called it, quote, dodgy kraftwerk. And he was really upset with it. So. I dunno, it didn't really go very far, but at some point someone messed it out with it and they just hit reverse on the [00:04:00] tape.
[00:04:00] And everybody in the band liked the reverse version of this dodgy kraftwerk demo so much that they, uh, they agreed to make a song out of that, the reversed tape and that reverse tape, my friends, became "Like Spinning Plates."
[00:04:17] Savannah Wright: [00:04:17] Although the original demo tape was never released. We can get a sense of what it was like by reversing Like Spinning Plates." Brad did this and then copied out the notes that he heard and played those himself.
[00:04:27] Brad Osborn: [00:04:27] So what I'm about to play you then is [00:04:30] now a reverse of the reverse. This should have been what Ed O'Brien's, uh, dodgy kraftwerk demo sounded like, and what's really cool about this. I invite you to sing "I Will" over [00:05:00] this.
[00:05:00] ("I Will" demo plays)
[00:05:00] So then if you reverse what I just played for you that, uh, dodgy kraftwerk loop, and you play that backwards. You should then hear something like what we hear in "Like Spinning Plates". So here's the proof in the pudding. If you think this sounds like "Like Spinning Plates" and you believe me, that's what the base station loop probably sounded like.
[00:05:36] (reversed "I Will" demo plays)
[00:05:36] [00:05:30] Okay. So because the track was using so much old material, uh, Thom Yorke decided also that he would recycle some old lyrics for the song. The line "cloud cuckoo land," uh, that appears in "Like Spinning Plates" is from a post to the website that Yorke made in 1998. And that line reads "amateur poetry for you, cloud fucking cuckoo land."
[00:05:59] And [00:06:00] for those of you who are into collecting the old Radiohead CDs, If you pop out the jewel tray from Kid A you'll find that also written behind where the CD was laying in the jewel tray, which is pretty cool.
[00:06:13] Savannah Wright: [00:06:13] Granted, it's difficult to distinguish the lyrics in the song. That's because Tom is using a special vocal technique that compliments the reversal of the music.
[00:06:22] Brad Osborn: [00:06:22] And around this time, Colin Greenwood, uh, was listening to a BBC 4 broadcast and he was listening to an interview with this [00:06:30] composer. He doesn't remember the composer's name, but she was talking about experimenting with backward singing. And I've looked into it. The composer was almost certainly Jocelyn Pook, who at that time was indeed working with backward singing.
[00:06:43] She's a composer and she was interviewed on BBC 4 in the year 2000. Yeah. Well inspired by what they've learned about backward singing. And of course inspired by the fact that they've reversed this demo tape, it came to pass that Thom Yorke would actually sing the lyrics to the song backwards. And this is by [00:07:00] far one of the weirdest timbres in the entire song.
[00:07:03] So what Yorke did, he recorded his line in the studio, and then he had Nigel flip the tape backwards, and then he drove around Oxford in his car, sort of learning phonetically his own backwards singing. Then he went back into the studio and recorded that backward singing. And then when they reversed that you sort of end up with a simulacrum of forward speech through doubly reversed speech.
[00:07:28] Savannah Wright: [00:07:28] This wasn't the first time the technique had been [00:07:30] used in pop culture. In the third episode of Twin Peaks, special agent Dale Cooper has a surreal dream featuring a dwarf who speaks this way.
[00:07:39] Twin Peaks clip: [00:07:39] I've got good news. That gum you like is going to come back in style.
[00:07:52] Savannah Wright: [00:07:52] Can I just say that as a fan of Twin Peaks, I was pretty excited about this connection. Anyway, let's get back to the strange similarities [00:08:00] between "I Will" and "Like Spinning Plates". As Brad mentioned, before "I Will" was recorded in 2003, as part of Hail to the Thief.
[00:08:33] (clip of "I Will" final version)
[00:08:33] [00:08:30] Brad Osborn: [00:08:33] So obviously the timbres are totally different from "Like Spinning Plates", but it's kind of amazing how little the chords have changed. The chords for "I Will" are uh C sharp minor for one bar, and then we have A major seven for one bar and then a G sharp major chord for two bars.
[00:08:57] (chord progression on the piano)
[00:08:57] So then it's, I guess, unsurprising that the chords to [00:09:00] "Like Spinning Plates" are exactly that progression backwards. You have the G sharp major for two bars. Then you have A major for one bar and C sharp minor for one bar.
[00:09:10] Now we're not actually probably paying a lot attention to the chords in the studio version of "Like Spinning Plates" but it's important to remember that sometimes, uh, Thom Yorke plays this live at the piano. There's a version that, um, he filmed for TV Montreal, uh, in the show called Music Plus in 2003, and it's just Thom Yorke [00:09:30] playing the entire time. So he sits down and he plays "I Will," the version we all know, the slow version with the guitar, but then he also runs over to the piano and he plays the piano version of "Like Spinning Plates".
[00:09:42] And I'm going to play a clip from that 2003 piano version of "Like Spinning Plates" and what I'd like you to listen for. The highly arpeggiated rhythm in his piano part it's really actually quite similar to the dodgy kraftwerk loop. I played for you earlier. Let's listen to that.
[00:10:27] (2003 version of "Like Spinning Plates")
[00:10:27] [00:10:00] Savannah Wright: [00:10:27] Here's Brad's demo recreation again, as [00:10:30] a comparison.
[00:10:47] ("I Will" demo version)
[00:10:47] Brad Osborn: [00:10:47] So let's come back now, um, full circle to, uh, timbre and "Like Spinning Plates". There's just one timbre we haven't talked about. Everything in that song is this sort of backwards, recycled version of some demo that [00:11:00] already worked out. Except for one. And the band has actually never talked about this sound. Um, but I'm going to have you listen to the clip from "Like Spinning Plates" again. And tell me if you can hear something that sounds kind of like this
[00:11:38] (plays mystery instrument)
[00:11:38] (clip from "Like Spinning Plates")
[00:11:38] [00:11:30] All right. So that thing that I was spinning around, it's called a corrugaphone. I paid uh, 3.99 for it at a toy store and like the name, it's just a piece of corrugated plastic. And, um, yeah, as far as I know, it's the only thing in that recording that was actually played intentionally in a studio, like a musician was playing [00:12:00] this, instead of, they just reverse the sample.
[00:12:03] What's remarkable about it is how it works perfectly for this song, and here we have to have just a little bit of a physics lesson. So, uh, I'm holding this thing in my hand. That seems to be about 36 inches long. And because it's 36 inches, it has a fundamental frequency of,
[00:12:22] (plays corrugaphone)
[00:12:22] you can hear there. So if I spin it faster because of something in nature called the overtone series, I can get a [00:12:30] D sharp. If I spin it faster still I can get a fourth higher, a G sharp. If I really put my back into it, I can get a B sharp. So we have to now think about why this works so well in the song.
[00:12:44] So G sharp as the fundamental for this, uh, corrugaphone is perfect because it works in all three of the chords. Uh, here's a G sharp and it works in the C sharp, minor chord. It works in the A major [00:13:00] seven chord. And it, of course works in the G sharp chord.
[00:13:07] Those other notes, the D sharp and the B sharp are interesting because they only work on the G sharp major chord, but they only work there also because of a really rare chord progression.
[00:13:17] So most rock songs that use that C sharp minor chord and the major seven chord uh, wouldn't actually use the G sharp major. They would use G sharp, minor, and therefore the natural overtone series of the [00:13:30] instrument wouldn't work. It would introduce a tone that wasn't in the chord.
[00:13:35] I keep coming back to this. It blows my mind, you know, there's this 3.99 toy. And there's like six years of like fussing with demos and lost songs. So what are the odds that Radiohead's like reversed demo for another song would contain a statistically rare chord. And that also that chord would contain the pitches in the most common length of corrugaphone that you could pick up at a toy [00:14:00] store? And that all of that would happen to be based on the overtone series of a really common chord. It still really blows my mind to this day,
[00:14:08] Savannah Wright: [00:14:08] It's tempting for Radiohead fans to believe that they planned this rare combination of sounds all along. That that's just the genius of Radiohead at work. But Brad says the chronology of this origin story works against that theory.
[00:14:20] Brad Osborn: [00:14:20] Chronologically there's no way when they were making the dodgy kraftwerk demo, so when they first thought about the song "I Will", there's no way that they were [00:14:30] probably thinking, Oh, we should do. We're going to use a corrugaphone in this eventually four years down the road. So we should make sure to include a G sharp major chord, because that is, you know, the chord over which a corrugaphone is going to work. It's just simply coincidence.
[00:14:45] Um, and also they do so much weird synthesizer stuff in the studio. You know, you could get a whirly sound like that out of any number of synthesized instruments or just like an organ.
[00:14:57] Savannah Wright: [00:14:57] But why create such bizarre timbres? [00:15:00] Why go through all the trouble of memorizing reverse lyrics and finding an obscure instrument that compliments each chord perfectly? How did these sounds enhance the meaning of the song?
[00:15:10] Brad Osborn: [00:15:10] Yeah, that's a really great question. Searching for timbre I think really does excite our senses. And we, once we start that search down a road of like, Oh, what's making that sound, we also start wondering like, why is it making that sound? From which direction is it making that sound? And does that sound represent [00:15:30] something? These are all like, sort of things you can prove in psychologic psychology experiments.
[00:15:34] Um, so yeah. Where, what does the listener do to search for meaning? Well, most of us, what we'll do is, um, go to the lyrics. And think about how that sound we're hearing could possibly relate to some of the lyrics. And "Like Spinning Plates", you know, has a really obvious connection between the, uh, the heard sounds and the lyrics, because the word spinning, you know, appears in the lyrics.
[00:15:58] And how do you playcorrugaphone, like [00:16:00] you spin it. And I'm sure that has something to do with why they came up with that.
[00:16:05] Savannah Wright: [00:16:05] That's definitely something that I thought about as well. Also in the preface of your, of your book, you argue that Radiohead's commercial success stems from an ability to write music that balances expectation and surprise. So I was wondering how do you see this dynamic at work in "Like Spinning Plates"? What are some of the expectations established and then reversed or, or are there?
[00:16:25] Brad Osborn: [00:16:25] Yeah, I mean, so one of the reasons I love this song so much, is it teeters on the [00:16:30] edge of comprehensibility. Like, in terms of expectations, like there are not many in this song. Once it starts, I think that you just kind of like grab onto something and you're on, you're on for the ride.
[00:16:41] In other words, this is not something Radiohead could have done their first record. No one would've bothered listening to it. I mean, that's what makes Kid A and Amnesiac so great is they built up a fan base who was now willing to sort of listen to their radically experimental stuff.
[00:16:56] The only thing is I think that the song offers uh, in [00:17:00] terms of expectation, it does sort of start out with a verse like thing, and then it moves to a chorus like thing. And the chorus is where we actually hear Thom stop singing backwards. He's sings forwards for the "like spinning plates" line. So what, what do we expect after we hear a verse and a chorus?
[00:17:16] Um, well, rock songs have taught us to then expect another verse and another chorus, but Radiohead doesn't give that to us in the song. So they set up an expectation and then they sort of surprise you by the song just kind of ending.
[00:17:29] Savannah Wright: [00:17:29] Yeah, [00:17:30] no, it's true. And I did want to talk a little bit more about the ending of the song because, um, you talked about how several Radiohead songs have that terminally climactic form or a through composed form, but this song is peculiar because it seems to just fade out.
[00:17:43] And I don't really notice that in other Radiohead songs. So what is your interpretation of the song's ending or lack thereof?
[00:17:49] Brad Osborn: [00:17:49] Well Radiohead's album enders, cause remember that "Like Spinning Plates" is of course the last song on the album. Radiohead's album enders has all, have always been a bit out there with regards to the rest of [00:18:00] the album.
[00:18:00] So think about Kid A for example, "Motion Picture Soundtrack" um, is like this like sappy, organ love song that doesn't seem to sit on the album. And it also ends a weird way. It ends on, if I were playing music theory here, I would say, you know, it ends on a weird C-sharp half diminished, seven chord, but it also like has a minute of silence or something. And then it goes into some weird stuff that I think if you've only heard it on Apple music or Spotify, you miss that. But on the record, it's like one [00:18:30] of those hidden track things. You have a minute of silence and then what comes in if that minute of silence
[00:18:38] (ending of "Motion Picture Soundtrack")
[00:18:38] Yeah, it's like an orchestral swell or something. So "Like Spinning Plates" is also a weird ending. And I would describe these both as like terminally anticlimactic. If you think about uh Hail to the Thief, um, you know, that one ends with "Wolf at the Door", which is like Thom Yorke rapping. They, they always end records with really weird [00:19:00] songs. "Videotape" isn't really like anything else that happens on In Rainbows either.
[00:19:04] Savannah Wright: [00:19:04] Yeah. I was kind of thinking about how, um, because it sort of just fades out, it also kind of adds to that sense of infinity in the circle, the loops that that was used to create the song and the spinning of the corrugaphone. So
[00:19:16] Brad Osborn: [00:19:16] That's really good. Really good. I like that. Are you. Are you going to write a book on Radiohead? I would love to read that.
[00:19:22] Savannah Wright: [00:19:22] Um, no, this is kind of my version of doing a book on Radiohead is doing a podcast because I think it's much more approachable than [00:19:30] writing a book.
[00:19:33] I was also interested in how you described Amnesiac as an album- long process of Radiohead remembering ideas from the era leading up to Kid A. So how does that theme play out in the timbre of like spinning plates?
[00:19:45] Brad Osborn: [00:19:45] Yeah. You know, the record's called Amnesiac and I think I've, I've hopefully explained throughout the earlier part of this podcast, how, how the song "Like Spinning Plates" is basically remembering old demos and digging up old quotes that Thom [00:20:00] posted on the website.
[00:20:01] Well, there's this weird thing about amnesiacs and memory, because on the one hand, you might want to say that amnesiacs have no memory, but in fact, the more we learn about the way memory works in the brain, it turns out that actuallyamnesiacs have the most perfectly preserved memories of anyone.
[00:20:17] So people who are not amnesiacs, every time we remember something, we unintentionally distort it. So the more you recall a memory, the more you sort of like color it with your current ideas about that [00:20:30] memory. Um, but in fact, an amnesiac, by not being able to access their memories has been perfectly preserved just the way it happened.
[00:20:38] So I sort of thinking "Like Spinning Plates", you know, we, we don't recall the original, uh, dodgy kraftwerk demo. It's in fact, it's only through this sort of musicological sleuthing, that I've been able to find something that sounds like it. We only hear sort of shadows of its former self. We're not recalling those old ideas correctly. Thom Yorke's quotes on the [00:21:00] website don't exactly pop up in these lyrics they did before.
[00:21:03] Yeah, I think there's, there is something about memory and forgetting that we can hear in this track.
[00:21:09] Savannah Wright: [00:21:09] So there was one thing that you mentioned that I was kind of surprised by that you said Radiohead is on par with the Beatles as probably the single most influential rock band of their generation. Um, why do you think Radiohead deserves that title or what is it about Radiohead that distinguishes them as the most influential of their time?
[00:21:25] Brad Osborn: [00:21:25] Yeah. So I never seem to live that statement down, um, but I think as [00:21:30] many people agree with me about it like, the same number of people like disagree. So let me clarify what I mean when I say the Beatles, I really mean the late Beatles.
[00:21:39] So here I'm thinking about Sgt. Pepper's and The White Album, uh, and those two records were remarkable because, um, again, it was sort of late in their career. They had people who had listened to whatever they did. But they, they balanced sort of like experimentation with the conventions of rock music and in doing so, you know, we're still scratching our heads [00:22:00] about The White Album, but it's sold like I'm not even going to guess how many million records it's sold.
[00:22:04] And the same thing with Radiohead. They, no other band since the Beatles, um, has been able to sell 29 million records while also remaining really relevant to critics like Alex Ross, to people who write about really brainy stuff.
[00:22:18] Um, you can certainly pinpoint artists on one side or the other of that equation. So, um, I I've called it previously the Spears-Stockhausen continuum. So Britney Spears, really [00:22:30] conventional music, sells millions and billions of records. Um, but we're not writing books about the music of Britney Spears and similarly, uh, the German experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen is doing way more radical stuff than Radiohead is doing. Um, but he's maybe sold like 2,900 records, you know?
[00:22:48] So it really is this, this Goldilocks zone that not a lot of people have approached. I always get asked, um, who is like close and I would, I would venture, um, Bjork, [00:23:00] yeah, has sold a lot of records and is pretty experimental. Bon Iver's recent stuff, um, where he's messing about with vocoders a lot, I think comes close. He's selling a lot of records doing that, too.
[00:23:11] Savannah Wright: [00:23:11] Yeah, no, I would agree. If I could do another podcast after this, I would do Bjork.
[00:23:17] (musical transition)
[00:23:17] Apart from "Tree Fingers" or "Feral," "Like Spinning Plates" may be the strangest song in Radiohead's catalog. Its song form is almost non-existent. Its timbres are opaque. Its lyrics, for the most part, are [00:23:30] unintelligible. It could be the go-to song for critics who dismiss Radiohead as "too cerebral" or in accessible.
[00:23:38] But that very strangeness gives the song an undeniable richness. As Brad shows us, its story is best understood thread by sonic thread, by digging into lost demos and forgotten blog posts, and maybe even your neighborhood 99 cent store. So once you understand it, it's not too weird or [00:24:00] too obvious.
[00:24:01] It's just right.
[00:24:08] (musical interlude)
[00:24:08] You've been listening to Fake Plastic Podcast. Fake Plastic Podcast is an Alternate Thursdays production with new episodes every other Wednesday. 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 your thoughts on Instagram or Twitter @fakeplasticpod.
[00:24:29] I'm [00:24:30] Savannah Wright. Thanks for listening.