Harry Patch (In Memory Of)

I am the only one that got through
The others died where ever they fell
It was an ambush
They came up from all sides
Give your leaders each a gun and then let them fight it out themselves
I’ve seen devils coming up from the ground
I’ve seen hell upon this earth
The next will be chemical but they will never learn



Released: August 5, 2009
Found on: Download release

Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” is a song by Radiohead. The band wrote and recorded the song as a tribute to the British supercentenarian Harry Patch, the last surviving soldier to have fought in the trenches during World War I. The song was self-released on 5 August 2009 as a downloadable single and sold for £1 from the band’s website, with all proceeds donated to The Royal British Legion.

Recorded in an abbey shortly before Patch’s death, the song consists of Thom Yorke’s singing and a string arrangement composed by Jonny Greenwood, absent of Radiohead’s typical mix of rock and electronic instrumentation. The lyrics are from the perspective of a soldier in the First World War, and include modifications of quotations from Patch. While reception to the song was generally positive, with many critics praising the song’s message, others panned the song as overly somber. The Patch family voiced their approval of the song’s message and the band’s charitable use of the proceeds.

According to a post by Yorke on Radiohead’s blog Dead Air Space, “Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” was inspired by a “very emotional” 2005 interview with Harry Patch on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. Yorke wrote that “The way he talked about war had a profound effect on me.” The song was recorded live in an abbey, only a few weeks before Patch died on 25 July 2009 at the age of 111. Along with follow-up single “These Are My Twisted Words”, “Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” represents the earliest releases from the recording sessions that would result in Radiohead’s next album, The King of Limbs, although neither song is included on that album.

The track has no standard rock instrumentation, and instead comprises an orchestral string arrangement composed by Jonny Greenwood and Yorke’s vocals. The song also does not feature a standard verse-chorus structure. Strings introduce the song with a series of repeated arpeggiated notes, which continue as Yorke’s singing begins. There is a bridge described as a “grim, delicately furious peak” halfway through the song. Pitchfork Media’s Mark Richardson compared the track to Gavin Bryars’ 1971 composition Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and Samuel Barber’s 1936 Adagio for Strings. Critics from Rolling StoneThe Village Voice, and The Daily Telegraph drew comparisons between the song’s string arrangements and the score to the film There Will Be Blood, primarily composed by Greenwood; however, Jim Fusilli of The Wall Street Journal believed that the two works “[bear] no resemblance” to each other. Andrea Rice of American Songwriter simply noted that the song’s style was far removed from “anything emblematic of Radiohead”.

While Radiohead has expressed anti-war sentiments in the past—including a contribution to the 1995 War Child charity compilation The Help Album—”Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” marks the first time that a Radiohead song explicitly refers to war in its lyrics, and is a departure from Yorke’s typically abstract writing. The lyrics are from the perspective of a soldier in the midst of First World War trench warfare. Several of the lines, including “Give your leaders each a gun and then let them fight it out themselves” and “The next will be chemical but they will never learn”, are adapted from quotations by Patch. Both Luke Lewis of NME and Simon Vozick-Levinson of Entertainment Weekly compared the lyrics to Wilfred Owen’s First World War-era poem Dulce et Decorum est. Rice referred to Yorke’s voice in the song as an “innocent and youthful falsetto” and the NME said his singing is “subdued to the point where you really need to read the lyrics”.

“Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” premiered on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on the morning of 5 August 2009, one day before Patch’s burial, and was released later that day on Radiohead’s online store W.A.S.T.E. as a download available for £1 (US$1.68 at the time of release). All proceeds from the song are donated to The Royal British Legion, a charity supporting those who are serving or have served in the British Armed Forces. The track can also be streamed from the Today section of BBC Online, where it was posted along with a description and the lyrics. Based on internet traffic data for Radiohead’s website taken from Alexa Internet, The Guardian‘s Chris Salmon believed that if the single had been released conventionally it would have likely cracked the UK Singles Chart’s top ten.

The song’s unconventional release, carried out “in classic Radiohead fashion” according to Mehan Jayasuriya of PopMatters, was praised by The Guardian‘s John Harris: “Welcome, once again, to the future of popular music: no need for albums, or marketing campaigns, or grand announcements—just a song by Radiohead, recorded mere weeks ago, premiered on yesterday’s Today programme, and now available to download.” Caleb Garning of Wired connected the song’s “abrupt creation” to the sudden announcement of The King of Limbs and Radiohead’s move towards an unpredictable release schedule for new material. In a feature for The Quietus, Wyndham Wallace argues that the track’s release is in line with music industry trends towards “instant gratification” kick-started by the digital release of Radiohead’s previous album, In Rainbows.