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Nigel the Nihilist

3 Min Read

It’s only fitting that Nigel Godrich began his career as a soon-to-be recording-studio luminary in the company of one: John Leckie, an architect of cutting-edge British rock from the late ‘70s through the mid-‘90s. 

Leckie had started as a tape operator at London’s Abbey Road Studios on sessions by the solo Beatles and Pink Floyd in the early ‘70s, and went on to produce key recordings by XTC, Magazine, Public Image Ltd and the Stone Roses. Godrich worked as Leckie’s tape operator and later engineer on 1990s sessions for bands such as shoegaze pioneers Ride and glam-rockers Felt, but none was more pivotal than Radiohead. The band was trying to shake off the one-hit wonder tag pinned on it because of the unexpected success of “Creep” in 1993. On the EP “My Iron Lung” (1994) and “The Bends” (1995), Godrich began a relationship with the band that would continue for 25 years and counting. 

Unlike Leckie, who was about two decades older than the members of Radiohead, the then-23-year-old Godrich was a generational peer and had an anything-goes attitude to studio recording that aligned with the band’s break-the-mold ambitions. His penchant for erasing anything that smacked of convention earned him the nickname “Nihilist.”

For the “OK Computer” sessions, Radiohead brought Nigel the Nihilist on board as coproducer. The band set up shop in a country house in southwestern England and tinkered with sound on a nearly round-the-clock basis. A sleep-deprived but ready and willing Godrich enabled all of it, taking cues from one of his heroes — George Martin, who produced the Beatles albums when they set a new standard for studio experimentation in the late ‘60s. Just as Martin became known as the “fifth Beatle,” Godrich eventually would be dubbed Radiohead’s sixth member, though on “OK Computer” he was officially credited in the liner notes with “committing to tape, audio level balancing.”

If “OK Computer” cracked open the door to a new era of Radiohead studio albums, “Kid A” knocked it down, as it shoved guitars aside in favor of electronic treatments. After the band recorded the album, it then figured out how to play these new studio creations live, in essence reinventing the album they had just completed — a process that has continued for most subsequent albums.

If that ratcheted up the anxiety within the band, the price proved to be worth it. Every few years, whenever I’d interview the band members, one or more of them would mention that they were “on the verge of breaking up” or “tensions were high” when things would run aground in the studio. But ultimately, they’d unlock something that they didn’t know they had in the middle of this uncharted terrain.

The band has learned to “use studio technology in a way that is productive but maybe not that endearing,” at least initially, Godrich says. Yet an album like “Kid A” “would not exist were it not for the way it was recorded. It was written in the studio with that technology. The band had to go in and learn how to play it (live). ...Why didn’t they do it like that in the first place? Because you can’t have this without that.”

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

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