In an interview with HUMO magazine, Thom Yorke described the composition of ‘Fitter Happier’, the sequential and thematic centre of OK Computer, in the following terms:
“I had writer’s block for three months. In that period I could only make lists of words. It took me a long way to figure out that the only way I could translate my thoughts was with these lists”
Yet ‘Fitter Happier’ is not eccentric in its lyrical style, particularly for post-2000 Radiohead songs. Indeed, it seems as if Yorke has adapted this style of writing in his later career to slightly different, yet complementary circumstances. Much of his recent work reads as long ‘lists’ of idioms, clichés and generally familiar phrases. Pay particular attention in the quotation above to the two implications of the adverb ‘only’: it means that he realised he should stop thinking about songwriting as an introspective, cohesive manner in favour of a more fragmented approach, but also that the way in which language has been used from the 1990s onwards means that writing in such a manner is inevitable, the true way of marrying form with content in a new age. Yorke wonderfully channels the broadcasts of the modern world, not commenting as a privileged observer but allowing all of the vastness of data to penetrate through the stereo. Yet his use of cliché as a device is often missed or misunderstood (see the Neil McCormick review below). There is scope to examine it from the political angle, and utilise the agitations he has brought to light in interviews, but I am more interested in what it says on a more purely linguistic level, about how language is constructed and disseminated between people. Clearly there is an overlap here, and indeed political themes are unavoidable given the subject matter of Radiohead’s music. Nevertheless, I hope that this encourages a more appreciative look at lyrics which have been unfairly dismissed.
Bold = in Oxford idiom dictionary
Italics = other phrase of note
|Pablo Honey (2)
Pablo Honey + Drill + Itch
|The Bends (3) The Bends + My Iron Lung
||OK Computer (5 + 3, not including Fitter Happier) OK Computer + No Surprises/Running From Demons + Airbag/How Am I Driving?
||Kid A/Amnesiac (6 + 8) 29 songs Kid A + Amnesiac + I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings
||Hail to the Thief (13) Hail to the Thief + COM LAG (2plus2isfive)
|Blow Out – “all wrapped up in cotton wool”
Inside My Head – “hold my peace”
|Planet Telex – “dry as a bone”
The Bends – “blow me sky high”
“High and Dry”
|Paranoid Android – “off with his head” + “first against the wall”
Subterranean Homesick Alien – “folks back home”
Exit Music – “all hell breaks loose”
Electioneering – “I trust I can rely on your vote”
“Climbing Up The Walls”
Lucky – “I’m on a roll”
|In Limbo – “you’re living in a fantasy world” + “I’m lost at sea”
Idioteque – “women and children first” + “take the money and run”
Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box – “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case”
Like Spinning Plates – “feed me to the lions” + “cloud cuckoo land”
Life In A Glasshouse – “chew the fat”
“You and Whose Army?”
Kinetic “you’re being took for a ride”
Trans-Atlantic Drawl – “light at the end of the tunnel”
Cuttooth – “tanks roll into town”
|2+2=5 – “put the world to rights”
The Gloaming – “genie let out of the bottle, it is now the witching hour”
Go to Sleep – “over my dead body”
Backdrifts – “damaged goods”
There There – “accidents waiting to happen”
I Will – “white elephants” + “sitting ducks”
Myxomatosis – “ate me up for breakfast”
A Wolf At The Door – “take it with a pinch of salt”
A Punchup At A Wedding – “bull in a china shop” + “pot will call the kettle black” + “piss on our parade”
I Am a Wicked Child – “straight and narrow”
|The Eraser (6 + 1) The Eraser + Spitting Feathers
||In Rainbows (9 + 4) In Rainbows (2CD version) + ‘These Are My Twisted Words’ + Harry Patch (In Memory Of) + ‘Supercollider/The Butcher’
||The King Of Limbs (10 + 2) The King Of Limbs + songs debuted since then
||Amok (3 + 4) Amok
|Analyse – “self-fulfilling prophecy”
Black Swan – “blind spot” + “dead horse”
Harrowdown Hill – “walk the plank”
Drunkk Machine – “spitting feathers” + “speaking in tongues” + “splitting hairs”
|15 Step – “eyes off the ball” + “cat got your tongue”
All I Need – “waiting in the wings”
Faust Arp – “rise and shine” + “elephant in the room”
“House of Cards”
Jigsaw Falling Into Place – “wound up like a spring”
Videotape – “the pearly gates”
Down is the New Up – “what’s up buttercup” + “you’re so last week” + “chink in your armour”
Last Flowers – “tread on your toes”
Up on the Ladder – “puppet on the strings”
|“Little by little, by hook or by crook”
“Give up the Ghost” + “had my fill”
Good Morning Mr. Magpie
Lotus Flower – “while the cat is away” + “kick the habit”
The Butcher – “spare the gory details”
The Daily Mail – “the lunatics have taken over the asylum” + “pig’s ear”
I Froze Up – “like lambs to the slaughter”
Open the Floodgates
|Default – “will is strong, but the flesh is weak” + “slipped my mind” + “made my bed I’ll lie in it”
Ingenue – “know like the back of your hand” + “fools rushing in”
“Judge, Jury, and Executioner”
Amok – “penny for your thoughts”
I’ve attempted to provide some sort of statistical basis upon which to work from. I went through the corpus of lyrics of Radiohead, Atoms For Peace and his solo releases, finding phrases that were in The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, edited by John Ayto. Graph A demonstrates how idioms and ‘extras’ have formed the backbone of Yorke’s lyrics since Kid A/Amnesiac, with slight dips for The Eraser and Amok because there is simply less material. Graph B shows a more accurate breakdown as an average is calculated based upon the number of idioms and ‘extras’ added together and divided by the total number of songs from that particular chapter of the band’s career. My definition of ‘extras’ is of course subjective, but I’ve tried to include all the phrases which strike me as being employed because of their familiarity, rather than their originality. As the table shows, very frequently Yorke employs a metaphor not because it is a new, powerful way of perceiving a particular thing, but because it is a metaphor that now lacks imaginative penetration. It should also be noted that I tried to only count idioms that were employed verbatim, so as an example I didn’t include the line ‘Your ears should be burning’ from ‘House of Cards’ because I felt that there was enough originality in the twist of phrasing. The statistical trend to be observed is a steady growth until OK Computer, where by his own admission Yorke’s lyrics became less introspective and more cryptically worldly, taking up the perspective of “taking Polaroids of things moving around [him] too fast”, with another growth up to Hail to the Thief, and then re-emerging even more prominently in his more recent work.
One of many such scenes in Meeting People is Easy. Credit: Parlophone
Yorke’s words underscore his divergence from some of his songwriting predecessors; namely Bono, Morrissey and Michael Stipe. Even when Bono (Zooropa) and Stipe (Up) updated their style to fit similar themes explored by Yorke from OK Computer onwards, they are still using the technique of putting their own unique stamp on the language – as a very brief exercise, compare lines like ‘My night is coloured headache grey’ (R.E.M – Daysleeper) or ‘Your wheels are turning but you’re upside down‘ (U2 – Stay (Faraway, So Close!)) in how they depict modern life and overwork compared with Radiohead’s ‘Kinetic’, which puts forward snatches of second-hand language like ‘you’re being took for a ride’ and ‘don’t fall asleep at the wheel’. Stipe and Bono remain as Jeremiahs in the wilderness, while Yorke is more willing to embody the persona of the disoriented participant. There is a subtextual point to develop here too, as using such a device is not only artistic but also allows Yorke to sidestep the pressures of being valorised as a generational voice, with an audience of impressionable minds hanging off an artist’s every word, particularly given the repetitious overexposure through interviews et al demonstrated in Meeting People is Easy. Yorke is much more multifaceted in his approach, as his words are delivered in a disoriented manner, with no real indication of where they emerge from and how much the singer is a mere vessel; invisible speech marks float around, resisting a distinctly first-person interpretation. Yorke feels he cannot emancipate his subjectivity and is therefore constantly trying to navigate out of his complicity while persistently being trapped by language. A helpful visual corollary is the video to ‘There There’: the golden boots that promise escape contrive to leave him trapped. Broken branches trip him as he speaks.
The winged shoes become rooted. Credit: Parlophone.
The gradual shift from introspective and personal lyrics to more abstract and generalised compositions was embodied in the method he used in the Kid A/Amnesiac period; the ‘cut-up’ style, whereby Yorke would compose lyrics by selecting random phrases from a hat. It is interesting that while such a method was perhaps most famously employed by the Dada artists in the early 20th century in order to strike out against bourgeois rationality (which led the Western world to World War One), Yorke’s use of the device is more of a belated integration into a system which favours the soundbite (which helps palliate war, particularly Iraq). Language, particularly in the world of political ‘spin’, no longer follows a referential function. Instead, language is manipulated, usually to dampen any emotional responses to an event. Yorke commented on the lyrical style of Hail to the Thief in a Rolling Stone interview:
“When I started writing these new songs, I was listening to a lot of political programs on BBC Radio 4. I found myself writing down little nonsense phrases, those Orwellian euphemisms that our government and yours [America’s] are so fond of. They became the background of the record. The emotional context of those words had been taken away. What I was doing was stealing it back”
When the literal meanings of idioms are lost, they become ripe for appropriation. Yorke’s personal burglary is not entirely successful, however – it’s rare he makes a clean getaway. The brilliant line ‘we are accidents waiting to happen’ in ‘There There’ could be a celebration of spontaneity or inevitability, depending on whether ‘accident’ or ‘happen’ is stressed. The fact that ‘waiting’ is repeated twice in the song inclines me to the latter. Likewise, the cry of ‘over my dead body’ in ‘Go to Sleep’ is alternately defiant and prostrate.
Great example of a Dada poster, by Theo Van Doesburg, advertising ‘Kleine Dada Soiree’ in 1922.
From one of Radiohead’s old sites, a page called ‘FroZZen’ – contains lyrics from Kid A, Knives Out, and others. You can almost hear the fury of letters being typed on the keyboard, drowning out the possibility of sending a coherent message. Credit: Radiohead.
Nevertheless, the continuity of this device in his lyrics has a marked social connotation as well, one which has become increasingly relevant following the rise of social media, and helps explain why the device re-emerges following the Orwellian paranoia of the Bush/Blair years. The coalescence of technology with social networks has cultivated new forms of communication which compel semantic near-misses, decontextualisation, and constraint. Character limits facilitate an appeal to common wisdom, often in the form of idiomatic phrases, as the most persuasive form of argument. There is a corollary here with what John Fuller described as the rush to wit in the English sonnet: the presence of a rhyming couplet which closes the poem encourages a summarising epigram within a 14 line space that stands on its own as an example of insight and decorum. The fact that a sonnet consists of 14 lines, and that Twitter’s character limit is 140, has always struck me as an eerie parallel. As such, the inherent limit of the medium requires using language with a summarising function, as well as a referential one. Idioms are thus extremely propitious, because they appear to grant instant authority, utilising a familiarity embedded within the language which effectively draws upon more than just the characters of the immediate tweet. The tonal ambiguity of online messaging similarly facilitates idioms, as stock phrases are used like a safety mechanism, to ensure that meaning can be transmitted without the paralanguage of face-to-face conversation.
Twitter search for ‘made my bed, I’ll lie in it’ – line in ‘Default’, by Atoms For Peace
Twitter search for ‘lunatics taken asylum’, from ‘The Daily Mail’ by Radiohead.
The pictures I’ve attached to this piece demonstrate this – look at the way in which the same phrase of ‘made my bed, I’ll lie in it’ is applied to a number of different circumstances, like a funnel through which thoughts are directed to the same common end point. The fact that ‘The Daily Mail’ is one of the biggest culprits is strong evidence that Yorke’s lexicon is evolving with the times, rather than ossifying with age as Neil McCormick suggested in the Telegraph when he reviewed Amok:
“Yorke seems to have become increasingly conflicted about the very idea of communication, his fondness for cliché indicating a tendency towards self-sabotage.”
The use of cliché in ‘The Daily Mail’ is a riffing exchange with the acute mixture of colloquialism and Daily Hate espoused by the newspaper, drawing up panic and condemnation in equal measure by using language that is malleable because it has been shorn of context while appearing conversational. Hence, Yorke’s lyric ‘The lunatics have taken over the asylum’ on one level describes the newspaper and culture of the British press in general; that newspapers are now vehicles to transmit impulsive, emotive messages of political contingency that are best equated with lunacy. And yet the only language Yorke is capable of using is that which could be taken from a headline of the newspaper, which makes the pun on ‘asylum’ so telling, given the paper’s denigration of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. Headlines and slogans are, of course, another aspect of language which have become more prevalent with the diffusion of mass media; ostensibly neutral but in many cases coded to suit a particular agenda.
You don’t tend to see it as much now, but this was not an uncommon sight in the Blair years. I remember wooden signs declaring ‘NO ASYLUM SEEKERS’, as there was a mooted proposal to build an asylum seeker accommodation centre on an old RAF site not far from where I live.
The overall fairy tale feel of Hail to the Thief, with recurrent images of folk creatures (wolves, vampires, rabbits) and story-telling frames like lullabies and bedtime stories, represents another dimension to the Yorkean cliché: language as inheritance. That is, soundbites that are experienced at an early and susceptible age, to the extent that they become part of a linguistic backdrop without ever really being examined; the curious phenomenon where as a child you pick up such constructions from the people around you and use them without being fully aware of their meaning. The interweaving themes of children’s stories act as a vehicle for trying to explore alternative spaces to this inevitable inheritance, emphasising the mental capacity of the listener, rather than becoming passive to the manipulation of language. Children’s stories represent the unique imagination of the child and ability to free the imagination from the constraints of worldly thought and language that idioms represent; a long-exhausted metaphor. In researching this, I read an article by M. Chiara Levorato about an experiment in the childhood acquisition of idioms. In one experiment they tested children 10 years of age (younger children generated different results), with an exercise where they had a choice of 3 answers in order to fulfil the global coherence of a text; one answer was idiomatic (e.g. break the…ice), another was literal (break the…crayon), while a final answer was figurative, but not related to the idiom (break the…fear, when translated from Italian, the language the study was conducted in). The results showed that most of the children actually plumped for the last option, demonstrating that acquiescence into idioms involves a suspension of some original insight into language as it becomes ‘conventionalised’.
Think about how often conversations halt at the apparent insight of an idiom which is never critically examined, where the semantic sense of the idiom has become irrelevant. I’m guilty of this all the time – a particular favourite is using ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ as justification for anything (usually helping myself to a lot of finger food), ending a debate about the merits of performing a particular action with a well-timed idiom. There are some situations in which employing such an idiom is the best option for the conversation, but is often like a termination of internal logic, as these disembodied ghosts of language don’t really connote anything, and yet they appear to represent some great inherited wisdom from the past. This gives a more insidious angle to the albums produced in the wake of all of the band’s members having children; not just a sense of emerging into a politically corrupt world, but also one in which stock phrases dictate a particular world view. The imagery of storytelling and imaginative escape form a tense opposition to this throughout, which is what makes Hail to the Thief an excellent and underrated album within their oeuvre. The band at once tries to build a cocoon from the world narratives being constructed around them with the emergent War on Terror, trying to retain some sense of imaginative autonomy, while being forced to gaze at the newspaper walls within.
Since ‘Fitter Happier’, Thom Yorke’s lyrics have been peppered with idiomatic phrases and cliché. Yorke’s persona is of an individual whose attempts to carve their own niche in language are mollified by the presence of language as a series of recurrent images and ideas which communicate no particular meaning other than their vacuous second-handedness. This semantic gap strikes a chord with the body of their work as a whole, as Radiohead have, for the last two decades, been at the vanguard of music in trying to identify where the individual ends and the system begins. Thom Yorke presents a speaker who has enough know-how to question the system he is a part of, while being unable to vocalise it in anything other than re-hashed terms.