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Visions of Radiohead

Google the search term “Radiohead In Rainbows” and what returns is 4 million hits, which is a lot of verbiage for a mere 10 songs released less than a year ago. Taken further, if you conservatively estimate that each of these items contains at least 100 words about the album/band/movement, that’s 400 million words — not to mention the torrents of MP3s moving hither and yon across the Internet, and the images and video streams, IMs and Twitters discussing the band. Or the comments section of YouTube, where the band’s official videos garner millions of views, and as many raving fans acknowledging understood facts such as, “Creep is a great song, it definitely is.” That’s a lot of bandwidth, and the band’s mere existence has made an impressive digital footprint.

In other words, what could I possibly say about Radiohead, which performs two sold-out shows at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, August 24, and Monday, August 25, that hasn’t been said in one of those 4 million thoughts? It’s tempting to prognosticate about the band and its “model,” and examine how much, nearly a year after In Rainbows was unleashed on the world, the industry has shifted. I could discuss how the band gave away the album for free, and the consequences of those actions, but there are tons of good essays available online that cover this from one angle or another.

While trying to conjure something unwritten about Radiohead — I failed, OK? — YouTube beckoned, and, lo, my search revealed an untapped chorus that eloquently explained the Why of Radiohead. Thousands of musicians have been touched by the band’s melodies, are eager to interact with their songs, to chime in on an ongoing conversation about music. In Radioheadland, string quartets compete for attention with jazz pianists, who occupy just as much screen space as a teenage girl bringing acoustic beauty to “Nice Dream” or a country-blues chanteuse addressing “Black Star.”

What follows are YouTube highlights — interesting/intriguing/transcendent versions of Radiohead songs, some delivered by professionals, others defiantly not, that attempt to illustrate the unspoken something that has made Radiohead the most considered rock band of the 21st century.

Note: For links to all of the following clips, go to www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=CE0AE58489916AB9.

ortoPilot, “Creep”

There are, as of last week, 6,800 YouTube clips that come up when you search for “Radiohead covers.” They range from the most popular, nü-metal band Korn’s version of the iconic (and most covered) Radiohead song, “Creep” (something about “What the hell am I doing here?” hits home for a lot of people), and Panic at the Disco’s take on “Karma Police” to Radiohead themselves covering Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” until you arrive at a man named ortoPilot, whose interpretation of “Creep” (one of at least 1,250 different ones) has earned nearly 220,000 hits. Somehow, among all the unsigned young men whining softly about their alienation, amid the Joan Baez look-alikes getting all sad and pretty on it, ortoPilot’s straight-ahead take on “Creep” has touched something deep. His is an archetype of the genre: a young person sitting on the side of a bed, pillows in the background, sharing a secret. The door’s shut — it always is — and who knows what’s happening on the other side of it? No matter. He has the confidence of a million nights alone playing this song, singing “I wish I was special,” first into the mirror and then into its inverse, the video camera. That confidence, that ownership, breeds fandom and is a magnet in the solitary online world where people prefer avatars to reality, and tentative stabs at the bands’ melodies can easily fail. It doesn’t hurt that ortoPilot can hit the falsetto and is handsome, and knows his instrument. But you don’t need me to tell you that. Listen to commenter RoKkA4LyFe, who likes something else about it: “Sweet cover dude, almost perfect. I love the resonance u get out of ur guitar, wat brand is it?”

ideadead, “Bulletproof (I Wish I Was)”

In ideadead’s take on “Bulletproof (I Wish I Was),” from The Bends, the singer is wearing a Korean mask and holds a guitar. There’s a story here, but what exactly remains unknown. Does s/he live in a place where Radiohead is forbidden? Or are they ashamed? Could it be that the singer is in a Norwegian black metal band and would be flayed for his secret love of Radiohead but is so driven to get this song out into the open that it’s worth the risk of, at worst, death, at best the humiliation of his friends? Or is that an Elephant Man with a platinum voice underneath there? The song begins and the singer is male, with an Asian accent. “Limb by limb, tooth by tooth/tearing up inside of me,” he sings, his mask occasionally bumping the mike as his lips spell out the song in gentle falsetto, “Every day every hour/I wish that I was bulletproof.” You are.

 

Chris Thile, “Morning Bell”

Chris Thile of Nickel Creek has sold millions of records, won Grammys, earned the respect of his bluegrass-inspired peers, and has come as close to hipster acceptance as any mandolin player can. But nothing tells the world “I’m down with the team” like doing a Radiohead cover. The Creek did “Nice Dream” from The Bends at the 2006 Lollapalooza, but this version of Amnesiac’s “Morning Bell,” recorded for The Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour show in Lexington, Kentucky, is nearly perfect, and reveals the inherent elasticity of Radiohead’s songs — which makes them ripe for covering. Most of the band’s tracks, save the deeper echo excursions of their midperiod music — have a main melody that’s capturable on piano or guitar. Each also has secondary and tertiary melodies concocted and delivered by guitarists Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, and Colin Greenwood’s gift for crafting structured but meandering bass lines translates well in jazz and Texas swing disciplines. To say nothing of Thom Yorke’s vocal melodies. All those dancing notes hit a lot of different frequency ranges, perfect as the taking-off point for extended improvisation, or as a platform for a more formal string quartet expression. Thile’s version here sounds like Bob Wills on acid, and it doesn’t hurt that the video’s filter effect has that washed-out Polaroid vibrancy of old Hee Haw reruns from the 1970s.

Makko456, “Kid A”

Makko456 is from somewhere in Japan, and he and a partner performed duets of at least seven Radiohead songs on xylophone in 2005, recorded for posterity. Judging by the motionless crowd, this seems to be some sort of recital, and it feels like makko456 is making a grand declaration to his audience: “‘Ava Maria’ is for suckers,” he seems to say. “Check this shit out.” The highlight of the batch, which includes pretty takes on “A Wolf at the Door,” “Paranoid Android” and “No Surprises,” is a soft, lush, Carl Orff–esque version of “Kid A,” from the band’s album of the same name. Doing tracks from Kid A and Amnesiac is less common online because the band was experimenting with synthetic sounds and rhythms on the records, and they’re not as easy to replicate on guitar or piano. The melodies are still there, but it takes some expertise to harness them for guitar. But makko456 and partner are perfectly equipped with xylophones and can dot out the song’s meandering melody, and spin a humming tube in place of Radiohead’s digital whispers. “This is fucking awesome,” exclaims commenter raskolfilms: “You should do Aphex Twin. Only drawback for me, is that I can tell you are a couple of dorks. You stare directly at the sheet music the whole time. Try committing it to memory and you might find yourself subtley reharmonising by the seat of yer pants and soul.”

KoANdre, “Everything in Its Right Place”

The brashness of KoANdre’s version of “Everything in Its Right Place” is manifested in the video’s opening seconds. Specifically, I love it when he takes a big, nervous breath before starting the song, as though he’s standing side-stage at Disney Hall a split second prior to his concert debut. The original of “Everything in Its Right Place” is a wisp of keyboard melody that sounds like it was recorded in a baby-blue room a million miles away from the here and now. But KoANdre is here now, and has grabbed the song as though it were a rattlesnake and he’s trying to squeeze out its venom. He’s sitting in front of a doorway outside somewhere, but we have no idea whether he’s in Bangladesh or Baltimore. He’s just sitting there singing his lungs out. Pretty colors, too.

SukkerJaY, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”

“As you can see, the name is John L. Olesen, 24 years old and currently livin in Sweden-Ljusdal. Originally from the nabor country Denmark, from a small town called Haderslev.” These words introduce us to SukkerJaY, a self-taught musician whose YouTube presence conjures not the Nordic North but the American South. Before clicking through his information, I imagined SukkerJaY to be of the Southern persuasion, a backwoods aesthete in a Virginia cabin, who’d thrown aside banjo and the theme from Deliverance for something a little more of the time. Here was a man not unlike Dock Boggs or John Fahey, collecting a song of unknown origin and molding it into something else. SukkerJaY’s version of “Street Spirit” feels so lost and lonely — and touching — that you want to reach through the Tube to comfort him. It conjures not the country blues, though, but the soft harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel (and it seems as though SukkerJaY recorded this beforehand, then edited it into the video). Regardless, with the echo and the purity, and the way the singer stares not at the camera but across what I imagine to be a field or stream, the version is gorgeous.

 

 
James Houston, “Nude” remix

Unlike the more antagonistic musical superstars at the top of the rock heap, who sick their lawyers on copyright infringers — U2, the Rolling Stones and Prince, for example — Radiohead encourages interactivity (though it draws a pretty clear line between use for creativity and use for profit), and they’ve been paid back with a devoted audience who is willing not only to speak up but to become an inherent part of the band’s conversation. It’s like a whole sideshow has emerged alongside the circus that is the band, a movement that Radiohead has nurtured and fed with data to be used for interaction. Where the Grateful Dead and Phish allowed fans to record shows and trade tapes, Radiohead imported this concept onto its hard drive. In addition to the interactive “Pay what you can” model of In Rainbows, in 2008 the band offered remix and video contests, delivered (for sale via iTunes) unmixed “stems” of their song “Nude” for their fans to remix and post on a special Web site. James Houston delivered glory in the form of anachronism and sonic detritus. He explains his method on his YouTube page: “Based on the lyric [and alternate title] ‘Big Ideas: Don’t get any,’ I grouped together a collection of old redundant hardware and placed them in a situation where they’re trying their best to do something that they’re not exactly designed to do, and not quite getting there.” Specifically, he created the sounds with old scanners and dot-matrix printers.

 

TheBrooke, “Fake Plastic Trees”

“Radiohead. the black hole of cover songs,” confirms popular Radiohead interpreter TheBrooke, who has garnered many raves and hits for her ethereal, Mazzy Star–esque takes on her favorite band’s songs. “Try as I might to do other ones, I keep gravitating back to theirs.” In addition to covers of Cat Power, the Decemberists, the Flaming Lips and Neil Young (a breathy version of “Long May You Run”), TheBrooke, of Helena, Montana, has obvious good taste, and while she could use a little energy boost, her “Karma Police,” with nearly 130,000 hits, makes her one of the bigger Radiohead cover queens. “I have been covering this song on guitar since practically right after it was written and I really appreciated your unique interpretation of both the chords and vocal styling,” compliments commenter xsntt. “I think you choose a perfect effect for your voice and the slight variations of the chords you used brought out your own special contribution to the song.”

 

ysabellabrave, “No Surprises”

The beauty of making music in the 21st century is that, given the lyrics, chords and a camera, you can participate in a worldwide conversation. Whereas a decade ago I’d have no idea who the expert Scandinavian Radiohead interpreter was, in 2008 I can compare notes, research the many singers touched by the band. I can, literally, play along, which is one reason the video games Guitar Hero and Rock Band have exploded: making music is a goddamn hoot, and sharing musical enthusiasms is a way of connecting with kindreds, as in: “That’s how you do ‘No Surprises’ (a perennial online fave), but check out how I do it.” There’s an obvious allure when you’ve just conquered an awesome Radiohead track but your brother in the next room couldn’t care less, your husband thinks the band is ridiculously pretentious, your dad would pitch a fit if he caught you playing that blasphemous garbage. You feel famous, feel like it’s not completely unfathomable that you could maybe be up on that Hollywood Bowl stage and at least you wouldn’t embarrass yourself. You can look as famous as ysabellabrave, whose version of “No Surprises” is more karaoke than most of the others. Her voice wobbles as her eyes lock onto yours and her pouty lips push out the words “bring down the government, they don’t speak for us” as she brushes her hair out of her eyes and rests it on her cheek. I can’t not watch her.

 

Brad Mehldau, "Exit Music (For a Film)"

The premiere interpreter of Radiohead’s music, and the artist who was among the first to advance the cause of the band as creators of new standards, was pianist Brad Mehldau, whose takes on not only “Exit Music (For a Film)” but “Paranoid Android” were grand statements of intent, and successfully expanded his audience beyond the insular jazz community and into the rock world. (Mehldau also does great takes on Nick Drake’s “River Man” and the Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son.”) You can hear the yelps of delighted recognition in the audience when an established artist such as Mehldau or Gillian Welch draws from Radiohead’s catalog. In this clip, a handful of Viennese audience members recognize the song quickly, but then, a few more notes in, it clicks in a single woman’s overjoyed head. I love that moment, because its concrete evidence of connection. Any notion of musical non sequitur vanishes as Mehldau moves around the keyboard, jabbing at that melodic narrative from cubist angles, hitting just enough of the phrase to keep it real but swirling around it playfully. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings did “Black Star” at the Bonnaroo Festival in 2006 and transformed the ballad into a lonesome American wail that seemed to draw from the Carter Family and Dolly Parton. The crowd barely recognized the song until the chorus, and then they all cheered. It’s this pliability that the people adore, and one that Radiohead is advancing beyond the mere sonics and into its image. Where in sound, each note is a pixel that makes up the picture, the band is opening up its visuals: Radiohead’s stunning new video for “House of Cards,” shot not with cameras but with a 360-degree 3-D scanner, arrived with open-source data information that the band encouraged its fans to interpret at will — and post the results. They’ve held animation contests and celebrated the results, have delivered streams and live shows on a whim, and let those images loose for all to use. In the end, the band’s legacy might not necessarily be the limited, low-bitrate advance release of In Rainbows last year but the adventurous ways in which they’ve harnessed technology to feed, expand and challenge their fan base.


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