British Pop Aesthetes
Radiohead guitarist Jonny
Greenwood found himself in a chordal dilemma after his band's 1995 album,
The Bends, garnered both critical kudos and stateside hits. Feeling he'd
exhausted his pool of rock guitar progressions, Greenwood made an Internet
plea to Radiohead's international fan base to submit interesting chord
patterns. "It was kind of a joke on the limitations we were working in,"
the lanky guitarist explains. "There are only 12 major and minor chords,
and you put them in different orders, right? Sadly, we'd already used them
It's tough to imagine the prolific band running dry of good ideas. After all, Radiohead's first American hit was a self-loathing anthem called "Creep," a last-minute, one-take studio afterthought thrown in as the opening cut on their debut album, Pablo Honey. With their second album, The Bends, guitarists Greenwood, Ed O'Brien and Thom Yorke layered bright acoustics and chugging electrics over clever songs bristling with personality and a maturity that many of their British pop contemporaries seemed to lack. Their latest Capitol release, OK Computer, cements the group's progressive aesthetic and unwillingness to stay put stylistically.
"We got bored with being just a rock band, and we started considering what else was going on around us," says Yorke. "Rock wasn't speaking to us. There was no intention to be difficult. Every record we make is, to some extent, the band absorbing stuff we've fallen in love with and then attempting to pay homage to it-and failing! " OK Computer suggests a salute to Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, Pink Floyd's Meddle, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and Tago Mago by German art-rock ensemble Can. While Yorke's swooping tenor voice ties Radiohead's material together, the songs on Computer are about as removed from their previous less-than-radical jangly guitar work as possible, veering from the minimalist chimes of "Let Down" to a surprisingly wiry electric jazz reading of "Uptight."
Maybe it was the recording enviromnent-a mobile studio ensconced in the British countryside-that changed Radiohead's tune. "A lot of the sounds on the record are a result of limitations imposed on us by a mobile setup," Yorke concurs. "In a big country house, you don't have that dreadful '80s 'separation'. Some of the best-sounding records from '66 to '74 were made by bands playing live in a room. There wasn't a desire for everything to be completely steady and each instrument recorded separately."
O'Brien says about 80% of the album was tracked live. "I hate doing overdubs, because it just doesn't feel natural. There's something weird about playing in the control room to a backing track. Something special happens when you're playing live; a lot of it is just looking at one another and knowing there are four other people making it happen."
While Yorke keeps his rig lean and mean, Greenwood and O'Brien experiment with tone toys and bi-amp setups. Yorke generally favors both stock and Thiffline model Telecasters, Pro Co Rat distortion boxes, and a Fender Twin Reverb buttressed by a Marshall JMP- I preamp. Greenwood runs his sunburst Telecaster Plus through reissue Vox AC30, Twin Reverb and Peavey 212 Chorus amps, tweaking tones with a DigiTech VVhammy, a Morley Phase 100, a Marshall ShredMaster distortion box, a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face and a vintage Roland Space Echo. O'Brien runs a Rickenbacker 330 through Mesa Dual Rectifier stacks, abetted by a Korg A- I multi-effect, Morley Phase 100, DigiTech Whammy/pitch shifter, CryBaby wah and an E-Bow.
Greenwood admits amnesia when it comes to nailing down exact gear on particular songs. "It's strange how quickly you forget details like what instrument is playing the melody, where you got that sound or where the melody is coming from," he concedes. "We don't ruminate over which combination of amplifier, cabinet or guitar is going to make the best sounds. You lose interest if you worry about sounds or tones so much. We just work blind, in a kind of panic. It's all done in a bit of a fury, really."