Radiohead play dark music. We’re agreed on that.
But one thing for which I don’t think Radiohead get enough credit is just how sinister their music can be.
In the best way possible, their music can be thrillingly creepy, fabulously unnerving, and chillingly atmospheric like a midnight tour of a haunted waxwork museum with Peter Cushing as your guide.
But Peter Cushing died 27 years ago!!!
So this is my tribute to Gothic Radiohead. Let’s not waste any time in discussing just what I mean by “gothic”. But in terms of sound, feel, or subject matter, these are the Radiohead songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on your Halloween playlist alongside The Cramps, Alice Cooper, Rob Zombie, and the others.
Little By Little
The King of Limbs album is named after a very old tree. Few things are more GOTH than very old trees, especially when they have names that summon grasping ancient forest spirits.
Of all the tracks on The King of Limbs, Feral is the most adept at evoking that “don’t go in the woods alone” feel. But Little By Little gets my pick for the most GOTH song on the album. It’s that main riff, coupled with the junkyard drums. It makes me think of a hairy old ghoul wearing a top hat, arms raised above its head, ready for a fright, a fight, and a strangling.
Oh, speaking of an ill-advised walk in the woods!
Brooding swampy guitar. Wailed lyrics about “something on your shoulder” and pitch-dark walks through landscapes littered with broken branches. Relentless tom-toms that could herald an unspeakable ritual in the forbidden grove. And yep, that video.
There There is so GOTH that it could work as the first-dance at The Pumpkin King’s wedding to his rag doll paramour. Every time Radiohead play this live, they do so under blood-red lights.
It’s all about the chorus: Thom sounds like he’s singing it while hunched over his piano, phantom-style, wearing a billowing cape with a high vampiric collar. Meanwhile, in the background we hear a wordless operatic lament from what could be the ghost of a drowned maiden, or a banshee.
This one’s always made me think of a burnt-out husk of a church in the middle of a snowy field, with a trail of blood leading to its desecrated doors.
One more jazz nightmare!
I’ve often heard Radiohead’s music described as “miserable” or “depressing”. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe it as “upsetting”.
Knives Out is a very upsetting song. It’s the sound of something having gone very, very wrong, with icy guitars like a stabbing migraine that won’t go away, and lyrics that seem to allude to death and cannibalism.
And that video! It’s played for laughs, because it’s Michel Gondry. But if you looked under your covers and found that your feet had been replaced with roast chickens, and that a group of happy diners were gleefully picking at you with forks? Maybe you’d see the funny side of things eventually.
It appears to be about mind control, and that menacing main riff sounds like the first cry of murderous robotic rage Gary Numan would unleash post assimilation.
Myxomatosis is a cursed song. At Glastonbury 2017, Thom introduced the song with peals of evil laughter. What possessed him? Something wicked, no doubt.
And dig that video above! Someone’s set this song to scenes from The Shining. They knew what they were doing.
These Are My Twisted Words
If Myxomatosis is the disease, These Are My Twisted Words is The Cure.
It’s a joke! Because this is the most Cure-like song in Radiohead’s repertoire. It has a LONG intro (half the song’s already gone before the vocals come in!), oblique lyrics, punchy bass, and it’s intricate like a cobweb spun by that hungry candy-stripe-legged Spider Man.
I’d like to hear The Cure cover Radiohead and Radiohead cover The Cure. Because, even though I’m getting very, very old, I’m still a moody teenager. Apparently.
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
Maybe it’s just me. But this one’s always reminded me of the calm before the storm, of the scenes you get in films set at Halloween where the Sun hasn’t quite set, and all is aglow with autumnal warmth. Yet in the background, The Shape. He’s hiding behind a bush. Watching.
The song seems to be about a night that goes south, so a director would do well to use it as a scene-setter/tension-builder in their next low-key indie horror film. It would work in place of The Killing Moon in the intro to Donnie Darko. Or in place of Under The Milky Way during the party scene. It’s that kind of song.
It is now the witching hour.
Jigsaw Into Place is the late afternoon/early evening before things get weird. This is the point at which the shadows get as long as they’re going to get before the Sun disappears completely, and you start to wonder who’ll live to see it rise again.
The album version’s good. But you do need to hear this one live. Colin and Phil bring the dark funk to the chorus, and Ed and Jonny end the song with a garbled miasma of distorted voices. It’s like they’ve tapped into the spirit realm, only to find that the spirits are out of their minds.
Climbing Up The Walls
So you chained up your malformed flesh-eating twin in the basement and locked the door extra tight. You’ll chuck down a bucket of fish heads now and then, but beyond that you’re happy to be rid of the poor bugger. Out of sight, out of mind.
But he got out.
And this is what he’d sing as he slinks upstairs to your children’s bedroom, hammer in hand.
We Suck Young Blood
Are you sweet?
Are you fresh?
Are you strung up by the wrists?
It’s about Hollywood, and how they take in young people, drain them of all their energy, and leave them as gasping empty shells – if they’re lucky.
So it’s about vampires. Real-life vampires, who are of course much more terrible than fictional vampires.
Then there’s the clapping. It’s on the beat, but the song’s so slow that it’s a bit of a challenge to clap along. It’s not so much a funeral march as a zombie lurch, and it sounds like a twig snapped underfoot – or a bone crunched in the mouth of the beast.
But it’s not all doom and gloom! Briefly – very briefly – we get an upbeat jazzy breakdown. Because it’s important to remember that, despite all the decay, the dead really do know how to party.
I really dig that fan video, above. Excellent work, Matthew. Whoever you are, you know what you’re doing.