Complemented by a brass section and percussionist, Radiohead reinterprets its then-newly released “The King of Limbs” album in an intense, revealing performance filmed in 2011 for Nigel Godrich’s “From the Basement” series.
Let’s face it: For many bands the standard for concert performance is to essentially replicate the album they’ve just made. Not so for Radiohead. Indeed, not only has the quintet tasked itself lately with reinventing its studio creations for the stage, it has frequently made a compelling case to reassess the original work. Albums that were initially deemed “insular,” “claustrophobic,” “chilly” or “brittle” at first listen took on new colors in concert.
That create-then-reinvent approach took hold after “OK Computer” in 1997. The album affirmed the quintet’s status as the “Future of British Rock” (no pressure, guys!), and opened the door to riding the wave as far as it could take them. Instead, the band started a pattern of detours, one that has endured to this day.
It all started with “Kid A,” in which the band put the guitars on the back burner and fired up the Pro Tools software and Jonny Greenwood’s newly acquired ondes Martenot. The band’s creative shift ended up producing one of the most forward-thinking and influential albums of the new century, but at the time it represented a huge risk.
“I woke up sucking on a lemon,” singer Thom Yorke announced on the album’s opening track, “Everything in its Right Place,” as if anticipating a sour response from the “OK Computer” diehards. Indeed, plenty of the faithful were confused, or worse. To their ears, one of the biggest rock bands in the world had just made a record that suggested they’d just about had it with rock.
Yorke said as much when I interviewed him a few months after the release of “Kid A”: “We were influenced so much by [pioneering German electronic bands] Can and Kraftwerk and Faust, and [avant-garde classical composers Olivier] Messiaen and [Krzysztof] Penderecki…and all this electronic malarkey, it is difficult to still justify just being a rock band.”
The group sounded very much like a rock band again, albeit one with more avant-garde trimmings.
Yet the band wasn’t done experimenting. For the subsequent 2001 tour, its setlist heavily reliant on the new songs from “Kid A” and the similarly inclined follow-up, “Amnesiac,” Radiohead rewired the songs for live performance. The group sounded very much like a rock band again, albeit one with more avant-garde trimmings. Fears that the tour would turn into a gathering of precious art students donning white lab coats to twiddle knobs and push buttons on stage were instantly squashed beneath Colin Greenwood’s booming fuzz-tone bass lines on “The National Anthem.”
That pattern has continued ever since, with the band often working outside the traditional guitar-bass-drums context in the studio to make its albums and then reshaping the songs for the stage, usually to thrilling effect. That’s certainly the case with Radiohead’s interpretation of its freshly recorded “The King of Limbs” album in its 2011 performance on the “From the Basement” series. The album was coolly received when it came out, a bit too esoteric for critics and many fans. But the band treats it like a work in progress during its “Basement” performance, a series of songs ready to be shaken and stirred to suit the moment.
As Yorke himself said of the album around the time of its release, it’s “an expression of wildness and mutation,” as if to advise listeners to buckle up. The band seizes its “From the Basement” set as an opportunity to open up a different vantage point for assessing, and appreciating, “The King of Limbs.”
Radiohead flexes its agility, playing together with the focus and intensity of an ensemble with something to prove. In the background, a reel-to-reel tape recorder rolls to provide some additional layers to the arrangements. But for the most part, it’s the core quintet attacking the songs with a brass section (bring on the flugelhorns) and percussionist Clive Deamer.
“Bloom” sets the tone by foregrounding double-drum rhythms from Phil Selway and Jonny Greenwood. With Colin Greenwood’s bass and Yorke’s thrashing guitar adding to the momentum, the combo evokes a subway train hurtling past a cityscape’s flashing lights. Guitars weave through the intersecting rhythmic streams on “Morning Mr. Magpie.” Even the eerie shadowplay of “Feral” percolates. As Yorke sings on “Lotus Flower”: “I will slip into the groove,” which might as well be the album’s mission statement.
Three ballads pop through the avant-dance exotica, echoes of ‘90s Radiohead at its low-key best, but with a twist. Horns float across the somber “Codex” with a tenderness that matches Yorke’s hushed voice. On “Give Up the Ghost,” a vocal loop turns the singer’s wan voice into a choir of longing. And there’s the stunning “The Daily Mail,” which surges from a murmured disturbance to a tsunami of outrage. Had it been included on “The King of Limbs” alongside these vibrant reinterpretations of its original songs, the album might now be regarded as one of Radiohead’s finest.
Radiohead “From the Basement” Setlist
The Daily Mail
Little by Little
Morning Mr. Magpie
Give Up the Ghost
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.”