Radiohead vs. The Beatles
"If you were forced to eliminate one of these musicians from your life forever, whom would you KEEP and WHY? Radiohead vs. The Beatles."
This is the message that greeted me as I logged into Facebook one innocent morning. It was not a complete surprise since my friend David had been conducting a sort of survey/game which might be best described as a NCAA Basketball Tournament meets “If you were stuck on a desert island with only one album” game (except he doesn’t limit it to just one album). David posts the match up, his friends vote by commenting on his status, and the Artist/Band with the most votes moves onto the next round. When I saw that David’s game had pitted The Beatles against Radiohead I soon discovered that I could not fit my response into a tiny Facebook comment field. This battle bubbled to the surface a comparison I had heard before: that Radiohead is “The Beatles of Modern Times.” So Instead, I indulged myself in the type of analytic yet casual writing I imagine one might expect from a freelance writer for some hip music magazine — and so it goes:
I would have to keep The Beatles and I think our friend Kelly Wells nailed the MAIN reason why:
“The fab four touched on nearly every emotion and subject matter in ways both beautiful and creative. To top it all off, they did it in something like 4 years and 12 (ish) albums. They invented the video … They pioneered musical feats that enabled Radiohead”
Now Radiohead can’t help the fact that The Beatles invented half the techniques and styles used to today, but this doesn’t explain how The Beatles (compared to Radiohead) were just more versatile and touched on a wider range of moods and subjects. To make this point self evident: Where is the happy Radiohead song about the sun or just about love? One could argue that Radiohead purposefully avoids “cliche” or “happy” themes in an attempt to do something new (which they certainly have). But exploring new musical territory shouldn’t exclude one from expressing an entire side of the human existence or finding a new way to twist an old cliche (see Björk). Granted, versatile doesn’t automatically mean better, but if you pull it off like The Beatles did, then engaging your audience in a full range of experiences certainly seems like a selling point.
So how were the Beatles able to create such versatile music? I believe this stems from the dynamic of having three “Songwriters” in the band (sorry Ringo, we still love though) . The reason I put “Songwriters” in “quotes” is because I think the term has really lost it’s meaning over the years and clarifying its definition greatly pertains to the question at hand. Specifically, this definition of “Songwriting” relates to my assertion that, since “The Bends” and “O.K. Computer,” Radiohead has not written much in the way of “Songs” (which is fine) — more on that later. From listening to Radiohead’s recent music and by drawing on my personal experiences with creating music, I am led to believe that their workflow is this:
1) The band comes up with some compelling idea in rehearsal.
2) Thom experiments with different vocal melodies over the top
3) Subject to cognitive preferences for the familiar, the band agrees to stick with the first melody Thom is able to remember enough to repeat.
4) Everyone feels like an equal collaborator and all is harmonious in Radioheadlandia.
As I said before, this is a perfectly legitimate work-flow, and makes for some incredible music (point in case, all of “Kid A” or perhaps George Harrison’s “Love You To”). But when it’s the only work-flow in your composing toolbox, it will limit your versatility. It seems to me, then, that the vocal melodies of recent Radiohead “Songs” are quite literally Thom’s visceral reaction to hearing the music, NOT a carefully crafted melody. So in my view (and arguably by definition), Radiohead’s recent music isn’t “Songwriting”; It’s certainly “Composition,” but perhaps not “Songwriting” it’s not particularly melodic.
Yet has Radiohead deliberately chosen a visceral style? Yes and no. I believe that after “O.K. Computer” Radiohead looked to move in a different direction. But perhaps Thom’s songwriting inspiration had also started drying up or the band wanted to write more collaboratively so that they could share more of the publishing profits. Either way, it’s clear that, as a “Songwriter,” none of the other members of Radiohead have contributed as fruitfully as Thom. And if you look at a band as a microcosm of society, it doesn’t take a genius to see how this implied conflict between whether to showcase or obscure Thom’s role as the primary writer merely outputs music that reflects this implicit conflict.
The opposite configuration, therefore, is what I believe made The Beatles so miraculous: their music reflects their equaled songwriting capabilities and friendship. As history shows, they also had their differences, which is possibly why their unique arrangement only lasted so long. But while it lasted, The Beatles’ collaboration was pure, it was beautiful and it sonically maps life’s possibility for harmonious existence. In fact, aside from their individual talents, I am quite certain that what caused The Beatles to be such a unique success, was EXACTLY their ability to allow all members to reach their full potential, without letting any one member feel diminished as a result. So much so, that I dare you to think of any other band that had a similar arrangement of EQUALLY skilled songwriters. There are a lot of great songwriters alive today, but are they truly up for the life challenge of a REAL collaboration? The Beatles were, and that I believe, is what made all the difference.