About The Pennds

The Pennds is: Jared Rosenberg, Steve Waye, Andrew Bielen & Charlie Isaacs.

Mission Statement: The Pennds explores Radiohead from an academic perspective. We go beyond notions of active listening in favor of involved perception, in order to better understand the band's work. We do not assign superlatives; in fact we challenge those that exist. Using the framework of discourse, we aim not to pin down the essence of Radiohead, but rather to set free that concept, to give it pliable spirit.

Special Thanks to Al Filreis for making this (and so much more) possible.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Existentialism in Radiohead

Existentialism is a unique school of thought. While other types of philosophy seek to resolve questions of right and wrong, good and bad, meaning, purpose, and truth in terms of logical arguments and definite answers, existentialism is an attitude. Existentialism is about the mood in which we perceive and react to these questions. There is a consideration that there might not be answers to the questions we have, which means we must try to learn to live despite the life we are given.

It is this precise mood that in my opinion explains very well the approach of Radiohead to music and culture.

Though existentialism takes a number of forms, there are several themes that are usually held in common. There is an awareness of the finitude of life, of knowledge, and of human capacity; there is a toleration of an impending death. There is also anxiety, questions concerning a disappearing God, problems with detecting the whereabouts of the individual who stands faceless in the masses, and finally the concern for living an authentic life. Starting with OK Computer and especially picking up with Kid A and Amnesiac, and perhaps culminating with Hail to the Thief and even In Rainbows, Radiohead expresses the same sentiments of such philosophers as Camus, Sartre, Heidegger, and Nietzsche.

Here is how it goes: In OK Computer, we stare into an impending and growing nihilistic despondency. In Kid A and Amnesiac, we are submerged in it. In Hail to the Thief, we are lamenting over it and losing faith. In In Rainbows, we accept it and trudge forward nonetheless. This is the story of a band that grew up and got comfortable, as much as they could, living in a world in which they felt they did not belong.

Take, for example, “Airbag” from OK Computer. With Thom Yorke exclaiming “I am born again” (entering in the idea of Nietzsche’s eternal return), we have a layering effect in the sound: a lurking bass, a steady but shifting pace of percussion, and a far away chime. The layering makes for a decomposition of music, identifying each piece of the noise as an element in itself. The general approach is an existential one, for there is a thoughtful shift from strong meaningful enveloping meaning to a reduction to basic truths. For existentialists, the truths include mortality and imposition of meaninglessness. For Radiohead, the sound truths are each instrument and studying the range of experimentation of each instrument in each layer. And for the lyrics, there is the study of being born again, life lived over and over. Eternal return, to Nietzsche, indicates that we cannot live for the afterlife but must hopefully exert our true natural selves. For Camus, the return signifies the absurdity of staring at a situation far beyond our control, an imposed existence, and then taking joy rather than despair in the resultant uselessness of the work that is life. The “airbag saved my life” – Yorke exerts his sensitive relationship with mortality, drawing it out and amplifying it for the listening.

These themes carry forward, with the vivid analysis presented in “Paranoid Android,” a song that displaces the protagonist from the moral ineptitude of all surroundings. We have a storyboard, a shifting style of sounds, a humming of Yorke’s vocals. “Ambition makes you pretty ugly” – in other words, the world we live in might have made a mistake, for we seem to be working for the wrong reasons. Sarcastically, Yorke cries out that “God loves his children, yeah” as if to taunt the restitution we feel in the knowledge that suffering in life will pay off. The song has a mood swing in sound, and we seem to be vacillating between the revolt and the gloom of our conditions. Kierkegaard wrote of the problem of anxiety, that moment where we all stand at the edge of a cliff and we feel the impulse to jump, and yet we do not. This is anxiety. As Radiohead’s protagonist is lifted out of the world in the music video of “Paranoid Android” by an angel, we have that question of whether or not we will take that leap. We see the choice, and we see the temptation and monstrous spontaneity of the moment of death, and yet when the politician falls off the bridge and sinks to the bottom of the water, he loses his arms and legs and is then brought back to earth as an infant. He is born again.

Then, with “Fitter Happier,” there is a slow descent of the ordinary way of living. From the agreeable terms of being “more productive” to the unfortunate sense of being a “pig in a cage on antibiotics,” we see humanity deteriorate in its out illusionary approach to life. The protagonist is in “bad faith,” according to Sartre: trying to be what we are not, homeless, and out of touch with incarnate existence. The layering sound connotes the growing dissonance of life, with radio frequencies and white noise and whispers behind the computer voice of the lead vocals, and then eerie chimes that build and then spiral out of control at the end of the song. The introduction of electronic influences marks the effort of Radiohead to portray, phonetically, the despondent world that is unnatural. One of Heidegger’s chief tenets was against the building of technologies, technologies that serve to distract from nature and make life ordinary and structured. Technologies fade into the background, beyond our notice, so that we do not even realize we are homeless and detached from our actual mortal lives. As such, the sounds, too, are detached. Convention, on the other hand is broken: percussion, strings, and lead vocals are traded in for electronic chatter. Radiohead cannot express the sentiment of the nihilistic world in normal organized song. Hence, we move to Kid A.

Just as songs like “Paranoid Android” and “Fitter Happier” appear to develop and evolve and alter toward the existential realizations, songs in Kid A inhabit that philosophical locale. Opening with “Everything in Its Right Place,” electronic manipulation is used to layer Yorke’s voice upon Yorke’s voice, with his lyrics coming in snippets that are repeatedly fuzzed out by blatant musical machinery: “Kid A, Kid A, Kid A… Everything, Everything, Everything…” Repetition (“tried to say, tried to say” and “yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon”) and reversing of sounds disarms the listener. We are locked into only a few lyrics. Finitude of the message is the larger message. There are no more struggles for a “good” or a “meaning” – not in Radiohead’s lyrics, not in their sound, and not in their world.

But there is still an art form, for here Radiohead is immersed in the existential dilemma of the sense of meaninglessness. In the song “Kid A,” the vocal lead is lost in the clatter of distortions and chimes and whistles. In “Treefingers,” a deep note keeps canceling out the buildup and rising of higher notes and chords, yet in the drifting pitch there is a salient note lost in the back. Radiohead sounds like they are wiping back and starting anew, searching for that note, that proper place to erect melody and tune. With “In Limbo,” the riffs are buried under more riffs, and the voice of Yorke disappears and reappears. “I’ve lost my way,” says Yorke mournfully. In the end, a wash of variations to Yorke’s voice engulf his dying lyrical sound, and then they engulf the entire musical attempt until we feel flushed out. Then comes “Idioteque,” which marks a sudden change in pace. “Women and children first,” cries Thom, suggesting an evacuation of the world. “Ice age coming” is a line that reflects impending death. “Take the money and run” signifies the loss of order in the apocalyptic world of Kid A. We find this anxiety of the question of whether inhabiting the world of meaninglessness and non-form is worth the suffering. The percussion disappears, and then returns, as if hinting at the finality of the musical form. Behind the resolute percussion, more cries and chatter fill the back like bells and metal shards marking the coming of a tornado.

When you listen to Kid A, you find each individual song to be difficult to consume on its own. But as an album, the music thrives as an orchestration of sound, and the sound transports us. The lyrics fall away from view (some songs were given lyrics by picking from a pile of lines arbitrarily), and we learn to communicate in a new form. Existentialism is in the forlorn sense that the hopeful calls and warnings of OK Computer are over. We are without endless possibility. Life is imposed upon us. God is gone from view. We cannot live for the afterlife, for we have no sense of right and wrong. Amorality thrives, for morality is a construction, just as conventional music forms and verse-stanza setups are a construction. Here, music can take new strides and still be called music. Yet all the while, we are within the finitude of sound. We are confined in the experimental tones of phonetics. The members of Radiohead push themselves in this album to explore the nature of their capacity as artists by abandoning traditional instruments and testing out the devices of incarnate life – in this case, the electronic. But it is important to note that Radiohead does not become an electro-group. This is alternative, experimental rock.

To finish off Kid A, Radiohead plays enchanting high glass-like notes with an undertone that is deep, enduring and unwavering. “Stop sending letter, letters always get burned,” calls out Thom, resigned from the illusions of anything other than the nihilism of existence, which, in the Nietzschean sense, repeats: “I will see you in the next life.”

Amnesiac carries the experiment forward to a conclusion. Strings return, for instance. We are starting to carve out room for the familiar. We are now sensing a recession of feelings of homelessness. But the experimental approach is still very apparent in songs like “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box,” where multiple percussion techniques combine and intertwine, a soft snare drum mixing with what sounds like the beating of water drops on hard and changing surfaces. These percussion techniques slow and then return as Yorke’s voice resonates around changing styles of beats. Nevertheless, his vocals are still set in the back and still treated as a mere “sound” rather than a front vocal centerpiece.

“You and Whose Army?” iterates an attempt to take power. “Come on, come on, you think you drive me crazy?... you and whose army?” – here we have an established force. Radiohead, though still struggling behind a strained, weak Yorke voice, is searching to assert itself. Eventually, Yorke overcomes the difficult nature of his music, blossoming with “You forget so easily…” And then the percussion sets in, the tough thick moving piano sound takes over, and we have a song. “We ride tonight,” says Yorke.

These are the signs of an attempt to exert willpower. Nietzsche’s noble forces of life-asserting and power and strength-embracement are heard here taking shape against the backdrop of existential uncertainty, meaninglessness, and ambiguity of God. There is still despondency, as in “Like Spinning Plates” where Yorke and Radiohead complain that while “you make pretty speeches, I’m being cut to shreds.” Nietzsche states that in a world of amorality, incarnate existence directs us to be our natural selves. We must exercise our states of being. There is no divide between potential to do and doing. The hope, therefore, for Radiohead is that in their realization of the finite, imperfect, purpose-lacking world, they hopefully fit the shape of the master, not the slave. They seek to affirm life when all others engage in their own suffering with a hope of redemption.

And in that hysteric worry over its own nature, Radiohead seeks out the strong master morality of setting good to powerful, strong, and noble. In “Like a Glass House,” York sings in front of trumpets and saxophone sounds, like a soulful funeral march in New Orleans. Yorke tells his “royal highness” to not throw stones and talk politics. He sings that he would love to “sit around and chat…stay and chew the fat” but “someone’s listening in.” Radiohead will elevate and not be subdued.

And then, Radiohead rises, until they return in Hail to the Thief with a view of hindsight. “It’s the devil’s way now,” says Thom, “There is no way out, you can scream and you can shout, it is too late now.” These lyrics in “2+2=5” mark the opening of a new musical sound. We are in a place where now, the darkness of the world is accepted. In “Backdrifts,” Yorke exclaims that we are “rotten fruit” and “damaged goods” but “what the hell we’ve got nothing more to lose” because “one burst and we’ll probably crumble.” Life is finite, existence is fragile, and humans are imperfect. Like Pascal stresses in his form of existentialism, human knowledge is limited, and that limitation encloses us. There is an unpredictability in the songs of Hail as Radiohead ostensibly throws every technique at the music – special recording, layered sound, electronic distortions, percussion, string, convention, nonconvention, vocals, non-vocals, and so forth. “We are accidents waiting, waiting to happen,” declares Yorke in “There There,” a prominent call of the confinement of life and the lack of choice and agency in the entrance into existence. A system of strings tears away into the emergent melody, which harvests through a beginning of natural noise and yet stimulant drum sessions and overarching tones. “Jus cos you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there” means that much of what we believe is constructed in our mind. What is real, and what is “there,” as Heidegger would say, is the sense of being, the natural, the possibilities of the incarnate. Yet these possibilities are only knowable as we relate to our own deaths. Finitude is our access to our potential, our “Da-sein,” our “being there.”

In “A Wolf at The Door,” the simple four-note melody repeats without end, and Yorke wraps himself around it. Yorke vocalizes the cruelty of the world in the Nietzschean: “Drag him out your window, dragging out your dead” and “smacks you in the head, knifes you in the neck, kicks you in the teeth.” This brutality is inevitable, a reflection of our animalistic core, which Nietzsche values highly and believes is the instinctual truth of our natural selves. Society, according to Nietzsche, domesticates and tames, but in this song Yorke struggles against the lack of help from a doctor, a taxman, investments, dealers, Stepford wives, and cops. Society is pushed aside, for society cannot keep Yorke safe from the wolf at the door who keeps calling him and telling him “all the ways that he’s gonna mess me up.” Yet this existence, finite and incarnate, is where Nietzsche believes we must be. The powerful must return to the wilderness and prowl and exert their will. The weak and wretched will suffer, and the strong and masterful will rule.

Finally, we arrive at In Rainbows. After a few songs, the melody slows, and for the first time in five albums, Yorke steps forward with a soaring vocal lead: “Don’t get any big ideas,” he says. “They’re not gonna happen.” There is a humming and a whistling, a psalm-like reflection on all that has passed. In “Reckoner,” with clanging clashing symbols, Radiohead rises up to speak on behalf of everyone, dedicating the music “to all human being.” “You can’t take it with you, dancing for your pleasure” – in other words, life is finite, and we can amuse ourselves and celebrate life now with the knowledge that all is fleeting and beyond control.

Radiohead grows and develops into an instructor on living in an existentialist reality. Life is not eternal, and there might not be an afterlife, and God is far away from humanity. Whoever told us what good and bad means got it wrong. Our existence is all we have, and we were thrust into it. The world suffers from a sense of meaninglessness. And here is Radiohead, moving from the initial worry of the impending death to the confident ring of “Reckoner, take me with you.” We are learning how to live life and how to wade through the conditions that appear to be set against our favor. We learn to affirm life. We embrace absurdity, we accept anxiety, we quit bad faith, and we identify the importance of the will to live authentically. For nothing is more closely connected to “good” than authenticity. To that degree, the journey and elevation over expectation and willingness to experiment in the career of Radiohead make this music group an example to follow. Whether or not they are truly a noble masterful living being over the masses of weak and powerless is uncertain. But, Radiohead identifies and pursues and takes residence in the conditions of life and the dilemmas of existence. They are an existential band.

Strung Out: The Use of Symphonic Orchestration in Radiohead's Music

Western classical music has for centuries been the standard for what constitutes high musical art. The most famous classical composers bear names that have become as widely studied and mythologized as the Greco-Roman gods. They are canonized and sainted, and their works are considered artifacts of genius; they are approached with almost Biblical reverence. Pop stars gain notoriety more as objects of celebrity; they are worshiped less as artists than as spectacles. We idolize rock stars because we can relate to their success. We can envision ourselves as a Johnny Ramone or a Johnny Rotten, pounding out three chord melodies that rely more on virility than virtuosity. Such is the general perception of the popular musician, a child in a grown-up's body making noise to simply to garner attention, in juxtaposition to the classical image of the eccentric, brilliant recluse pounding out sonatas alone in the dark.

So what then of the musician who aspires both to artistic authenticity and commercial success. Perhaps he listens to classical music and even adores it but know that no one listens to it if it's not a John Williams tune in a blockbuster film. Perhaps too he doesn't want to be bound by the strictures of classical form, and wants to be free to channel the vitality and accessibility of the popular song. What is he to do?

For many pop artists of this description, the answer was to borrow from the instrumentation of classical music. Strings and horns have been a part of the fabric of pop music since its inception; "Rock Around the Clock," widely considered the first rock song, makes more prominent use of horns than it does guitar. From Motown to R&B to Bubblegum pop to Hip-hop to Modern Top 40 rock, these genres have used glossy string arrangements to augment the rhythm and melody of the song. We have been conditioned to think of symphonic instruments as markers of high art and guitars as indicators of something more brash and uncouth.

But across the board, symphonic instruments have been used in pop in the tradition of composers like Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Copeland, and other composers who write with a strong sense of melody and sonic order, and who are beloved and widely appreciated for these reasons. More experimental composers like Phillip Glass, John Cage, and Krystof Penderecki whose more open-ended compositions focus more on creating a mood than dictating a melody, the result often being something much more bizarre and frightening than is dealt with in popular music or traditional classical composition.

Radiohead and other contemporary Britpop groups in the 90's both used heavy orchestration in their music, but when we examine their influences we can see how Radiohead's start to diverge from syrupy Beatlesesque arrangements and delve more deeply into the darker atmospherics of a composer like Penderecki. While they never completely abandon the use of soaring, melodic string and horn arrangements, they also utilize techniques of modernist classical composition that simply do not appear anywhere else in mainstream music.

If you listen to songs from the Beatles like "Penny Lane" or "Eleanor Rigby," we see that the string and horn parts serve to elaborate on and accentuate the melody. Songs from Radiohead contemporaries Oasis and the Verve use the same techniques. The soaring violin melody in "Bittersweet Symphony" and the cyclical four note cello part in "Wonderwall" is forever embedded in the consciousness of kids who grew up in the 90's.

Radiohead's earlier work showcases similar techniques. "Nice Dream" uses strings to outline the melody and heighten the emotional impact of the ballad. In OK Computer, however, the group starts to experiment with different techniques. "Climbing Up the Walls," is something we've all fingered as a turning point for the band. After a lengthy string solo, the strings assume a discordant tone that lurks behind the melody instead of augmenting it and works to unsettle the listener. This paves the way for their prominent use of symphonic arrangements in their Kid A/Amnesiac period to create the ominous and chaotic soundscapes that won them such critical and popular acclaim, from the skronking horns on "The National Anthem" to the punch drunk New Orleans Jazz on "Living in a Glasshouse," strings are used to create dissonance and to set a mood, rather than to set a catchy hook.

Jonny Greenwood, the man behind the string arrangement in Radiohead's music, wears his influences on his sleeve. We can see in his soundtrack for "There Will be Blood," full of jarring cacophonous squeals and screeches, that he pays close attention to the importance of using string arrangements to set a mood rather than to simply outline a hummable melody. His prominently use of the Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument that produces sounds similar to a string ensemble, is integral to what Radiohead attempts to do with their compositions. "How to Disappear Completely" is a perfect example of how an stacking a series of notes that don't belong in the key on top of a simple two-chord turn can transform a song from a simple ballad to something much more haunting, subtle, and profound.

This being said, Radiohead never abandoned its use of Britpop symphonic arrangements. As we can see with "Faust Arp" and "Harry Patch (In Memory Of)" Radiohead still relies heavily on melodic string parts that are melodically insistent, but continue to mix in a variety of influences and techniques. It is this use of diverse instrumentation that has won Radiohead a label as an "art rock" band. But they have taken their musical exploration well beyond that of any of their peers and created a unique sound, and it is this, not the leaning on classical tropes, that earns them the distinction of "artist."

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Sexuality of Radiohead

Ian Dury once said “Sex and drugs and rock and roll.” Though underrated at the time, this quote has become synonymous with the rock and roll industry. Artists from Elvis to The Rolling Stones and even The Beatles espoused sexuality at different times of their careers. Rick James described his persona as “wild and crazy, sex, drugs and rock and roll.” Though not all artists embraced this medium as much as others, sexuality certainly pervaded rock and roll music from the sixties till today.

One of the most important bands to reject this image and medium today is Radiohead. However, rather than conforming to the conceptions that people have about rock and roll artists, Radiohead has separated itself from rock and roll stereotypes. Through their disregard for one of mankind’s basest needs, they present themselves as artists, visionaries, and often as weak and vulnerable in ways that Keith Richards never could. This has allowed them to depict societal pressures, the sterilization of human existence, to embrace electronic elements, as well as involving orchestral influences in their music, keeping the band on the cutting edge for most of its career.

To better understand this concept one should look at a particular quote by Jonny Greenwood: “Our guitars are more clitoris substitutes than phallic ones, we stroke them in a nicer, gentler way.” Though this quote on the surface can be merely taken as an example of Mr. Greenwood’s inherent weirdness and repressed sexuality, this quote can be taken a step further and be used as a metaphor for what the band is attempting to do with music. Put succinctly, Radiohead does not thrust itself upon the listener. They show none of the swaggering bravado of Steven Tyler or Sid Vicious. Instead, this band remains aloof, encouraging the listener to come to them, to be patient and careful. They wish to be regarded as artists, not merely as a rock and roll band, and in so doing the members have decided to avoid attempting to create a forceful band image that might stick out for its edginess. Instead, they quietly release albums, update their website Deadairspace.com, and search for new musical innovations that will only further emphasize their talent.

This lack of sexuality can be seen throughout the bands catalogue of music. Even starting with Pablo Honey, which is their most blatantly poppy and sappy album, there is little talk of sex, or traditional masculine characteristics. Once OK Computer is released, the bands sexuality really begins to take form. From songs such as “Karma Police” to those such as “Exit Music for a Film,” there is little discussion of sex. Thus, as base desires are put in the backseat, the band can highlight more complex desires and needs as most clearly illustrated on “Fitter Happier.” Described as the most depressing thing that Thom Yorke ever wrote, this song deals with the sterilization of society. The absence of humanity in human life. How society has given us a list of thoughts that we must think. In this world there is little room for sexuality.

As other bands pay attention to the basest of all human desires, Radiohead looks beyond. It is this fervent attention to the deeper motivations of human beings and their interaction with society that has so solidly cemented Radiohead’s place as one of the greatest rock and roll bands to ever play.

Monday, May 3, 2010


Since Radiohead turned their focus outwards with OK Computer, the use of space and dimension has become an integral part of their music.  Through a variety of methods, the band has created an atmosphere unique to each album they have released since then.  Whether confined and suffocating, or hauntingly empty and echoey, the instrumentation and aural effects of each album create a place as well as they create a mood.

The construction of soundscape truly began on OKC.  Informed by the knowledge of where and how the album was recorded (in an English countryside mansion), it is easy to point out that that is exactly the place OKC aims to take its listeners. Pianos pushed up against marble staircases to create icy echoes (Karma Police), orchestration that fills up the recording until it climaxes in a wall of strings (Climbing Up the Walls), a radio or TV left on in the background chattering on for no particular audience (Fitter Happier)... all of these methods make the listener feel alone in a haunted house.

On Kid A the "location" of the soundscape is not so easily pinpointed.  There is less form to the picture being painted, as should be expected from an album as chaotic as this one.  After all, in so many words, the band members (Thom in particular) have described the album as a "distant view of the apocalypse".  Buzzy synths, chopped and distorted vocals, and uncomfortably quirky time signatures create a jagged landscape.  Roiling in the distance is the fire, which climaxes with a static burst on "Ideoteque".  That song in particular serves as the prime example of "soundscaping" on Kid A.  It's earthquake rhythm, deep bass pulses and nebulous mechanical sounds give the image of some great complex erupting in a shower of sparks and electric explosions.  "Ideoteque" dies out with the rusty oscillations of twisted metal and radiation, leading into "Morning Bell" - a song whose mood could be interpreted as emergence from the bunkers of "Ideoteque".  Then the closing track, "Motion Picture Soundtrack", whisks us all away with angelic harps... an escape from the ruined landscape left in the wake of "Ideoteque".

Whereas Kid A is the apocalyptic expanse, Amnesiac is the quaking core, the heart of the fire.  With far less echo and reverb than its "twin" Kid A, Amnesiac is confined.  Tight rhythmic structures guide this album through the immediacy of the situation it describes.  Where Kid A was vast, Amnesiac is compact.  The first half of "You and Whose Army?" with its muffled vocals and airy guitar sounds like it was recorded in a puddle.  Soundscape, though, might not be an applicable term for Amnesiac.  Most of the music, despite its quirkiness, sounds like studio music, probably because it uses far more typical studio instrumentation than Kid A.

Unfortunately, Hail to the Thief is so scattered that one would have a hard time delineating a consistent mood for the album, and thus it is difficult, as well, to pin down the layout of Hail's soundscape.  Moving right along then to In Rainbows, one might picture a calm ocean.  IR's watery guitar and wavy, loose vocals will make a listener feel submerged, but not desperately so.  Not to mention the lyrics' frequent metaphors to that effect - in "Weird Fishes" Thom discusses sinking to the bottom, and being "eaten by the worms and weird fishes"... but this is not cause for alarm, rather it's "escape".  There are few jolting moments on IR, and even those are minor.

As listeners, we should appreciate the dimensions of space that music can conjure in our experience.  It is hard to find such a detailed crafting of distance and texture in music as Radiohead creates, especially music grounded (though distantly) in pop and rock.