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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Legends of Note: Radiohead

It’s a little daunting to pick one Radiohead album to write about. I have a special place in my heart for each one, as each seems to encapsulate a certain moment in my life. The stretch from “The Bends” up to “Kid A/Amnesiac” surely impacted my conception of not only the album as a format, but of rock music as a whole. I am very grateful for these records, and have very much enjoyed everything Radiohead has released since, but I don’t want to write about any of these.
Radiohead, like many bands I adore, suffer from a unique “problem:” in fashioning records of concept, many great songs are relegated to b-side status, formerly often only available on expensive import CD singles, now easy enough to download en masse. Radiohead’s b-side output is staggeringly solid, and rather than dive into any one record, here are, in my opinion, the 10 best b-sides Radiohead has released. In some ways, these songs outshine the “proper” albums, and help define Radiohead in ways often overlooked.
10) “Fog” (Amnesiac b-side): It’s easy to see why this didn’t fit either “Kid A” or “Amnesiac,” certainly more whimsical and sparse than either record could really allow. Originally a piano ballad named “Alligators in New York Sewers,” “Fog” drops the piano and builds the tune around mild percussion and bass, with some great guitar lifting up the end. I’ve always felt there is something sweet about this song, a brief moment of pop clarity within Radiohead’s most obtuse period. And, like most great Radiohead songs, it sounds like nothing else in their catalog, but couldn’t be written by any other band.
9) “Bishop’s Robes” (The Bends b-side): Now here, I’m not sure what Radiohead was thinking. This song, all slow and aching, is as good as anything on “The Bends” (probably better than “Sulk”). There’s something of the implied violence of later Radiohead songs present in the lyrics, and the textural guitar tones demonstrate just how good Radiohead are at managing the atmosphere of their songs. Also, a good, early example of the talent in restraint of Radiohead’s rhythm section, key to the mood of the song, but easy to overlook. Buying the “Street Spirit” single that included both this and “Talk Show Host” was a real revelation, and no doubt fostered my love of b-side hunting.
8) “Pearly*” (OK Computer b-side): A great reminder of how great a rock band Radiohead can be when they want to. Over a terrific but somewhat standard (by Radiohead standards) rock riff, Thom’s overlapping vocals add a mysterious quality to an otherwise straightforward song. It’s the bridge though, with Thom’s creepy falsetto (singing what has always sounded to me like “Daddy hurts me”), that really makes this song. I’ve heard people argue that Muse based their entire career on re-writing this song. There just may be some truth to that.
7) “How I Made My Millions” (OK Computer b-side): A rare glimpse into Radiohead’s creative process. Just Thom at a piano, with the sound of his wife washing dishes in the background. Most musicians have tons of these home recordings, but rarely do they see the light of day while the artist is still alive. I think the band could’ve made a great song out of this demo, but this quiet, somewhat hard-to-hear take is a rare lapse in production value by a band often difficult to put a human face to. The lo-fi quality of the song only helps to reinforce its fragility, making it one of the most beautiful moments of the Radiohead discography.
6) “4 Minute Warning” (In Rainbows b-side): The best of the “In Rainbows” outtakes, in my opinion. A single guitar line, minimal percussion, and a pretty vocal line. Something about this one feels more akin to “OK Computer” era Radiohead (particularly “A Reminder”), simple in its structure and execution. It’s often these wonderfully understated songs that don’t make the cut, but excel as a lost gem, a thing unto itself. Once again proof that sometimes a Radiohead song is just a song, and the better for it.
5) “Worrywort” (Amnesiac b-side): No guitars or live drums, all bleeps, bloops, and some of Thom’s most hopeful vocals. In retrospect, this song plays like a blueprint for “The Eraser,” Thom’s solo record, but at the time, this was a weird, wonderful little song. Radiohead have long been good at taking electronic music and using it to their own ends, no more so then here perhaps.
4) “Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)” (OK Computer b-side): The 2 part track beautifully illustrated the band at the time of its release: half acoustic, pretty balladeers and half sci-fi harbingers of end-of-century rock. This sounds in many ways like a live recording, although I could be wrong. Regardless, there is a rawness here that perfectly displays the on-the-edge tension and vitality of Radiohead’s live shows of this time. Beautifully bi-polar.
3) “Gagging Order” (Hail to the Thief b-side): The lone b-side of this era to make my little list here, “Gagging Order” is a stunning solo acoustic number that shows just how well Thom can still write classic songs when so inclined. This is a song that could create a legacy, had it been a long lost folk classic ala “Blues Runs the Game.” For Radiohead, however, it’s just another lot classic, more than worth tracking down.
2) “Talk Show Host” (The Bends b-side): You probably know this song. Used extensively in the 90’s re-make of “Romeo and Juliet,” this is probably Radiohead’s highest profile b-side. And really, it’s amazing. With its very simple, very haunting guitar riff, vulgar and clever lyrics, and drummer Phil Selway’s finest moment (until “The King of Limbs,” that is), “Talk Show Host” is among Radiohead’s best work, and in many ways still continues to foreshadow their development as a band: dark, choppy, and utterly in control.
1) “The Amazing Sounds of Orgy” (Amnesiac b-side): It’s actually hard for me to explain my complete love for this song. There is a strange sea-shanty feel to the way the songs move along, and it’s a little hard to figure out what is making what sound here. Pretty typical pseudo-apocalyptic lyric, at least until the end. Yet somehow, by the time Thom starts singing the songs coda, “So glad, so glad you’re mine,” I am completely sold. There is certainly something of the whole being more than the sum of the parts at work here, and somehow it makes perfect sense that the reason I consider this to be my favorite Radiohead song (among album tracks as well) is something ineffable, something more gut than brains.
There you have it! Have something to say about Radiohead? Leave a comment, or two! Next time I’ll take a look at Leonard Cohen. Have anything to say about Cohen? Email it to me at by 3/11/11.


  1. I'm not sure if it qualifies as a b-side, but I think True Love Waits deserves special recognition.

  2. Great post! Radiohead is the best, obviously. Also, pizza is delicious and I enjoy breathing oxygen. But seriously they are the best. KB's holy trinity of music: Beatles. Pixies. Radiohead. WINNING

    Big ups to Dafs on True Love Waits. I love that song.

    I'm still struggling with King of Limbs these days. I spent about an hour yesterday obsessing over the fact that all the songs seem to be in the wrong order and the album feels much weaker than it might if it started off differently. So, yeah, I should probably get out more or something.

  3. They're good but a long way from being the best

    Amnesiac is the only album I find any pleasure out of these days.

  4. Nice list. Was always a big fan of A Reminder. Last Flowers and Go Slowly from the In Rainbows extras were pretty great too.

    Overall, though, I'd agree with you and go with the Amnesiac b-sides as the best batch (Cuttooth!). Which is kind of crazy when you consider they already had two full LPs of material from those sessions.

    Also, I believe we both know you left off one essential b-side/non-album song from your list:

  5. Oh, and also the live version of Like Spinning Plates (on I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings) is almost a different song and a classic.

  6. Nice work. It was good to go back and give these b-sides a second listen.

  7. True Love Waits is great, but I only went songs that had studio versions (thus not including the live version of Spinning Plates either, which is really wonderful). I did leave out a lot of other songs I love: Cuttooth, Go Slowly, even How Can You Be Sure. But these are, after much thought, my favorite of the bunch.

    And for the record, I really love King of Limbs so far. I've listened to it a few times, but am waiting to get the vinyl to really dig in. The cohesion of sound really appeals to me, and "Give Up the Ghost" is achingly beautiful.

  8. "How I Made My Millions" is one of my favorite Radiohead songs. I think it sounds a lot like the tribute song they made for Harry Patch, or at least think it's an influence.