What Radiohead Teaches Us About Musical Innovation

From BigThink.com:

When Radiohead sat down to record the follow-up to their 1995 album, The Bends, lead singer Thom Yorke said he wanted to create a record with, “an atmosphere that’s perhaps a bit shocking when you first hear it.” So the band traded in the guitar-driven sound of The Bends for more diverse instrumentation, “including electric piano, Mellotron, cello and other string, glockenspiel, and electronic effects and rhythm.” In addition, Yorke replaced the introspective and soul-searching lyrics that defined The Bends with a more positive tone. The result was an unconventional sound that, in the eyes of the record company, was unmarketable. Regardless of these initial concerns, OK Computer was released in June 1997 and went on to sell millions of copies, receiving near universal critical acclaim and launching Radiohead into international fame.

What’s remarkable about OK Computer is how different it is from The Bends. By any account, The Bends was a commercial and artistic success. It reached number four in the UK Album Chart and went triple platinum in the UK and Canada as well as platinum in the US and the EU. It also landed on numerous end-of-year lists and was ranked 111 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time. Despite its success Radiohead chose to completely change their sound. Why?

Radiohead has never been fully satisfied with their direction. However, this musical malaise drives them to craft novel songs that challenge the listener. Fans of the band know that this is precisely what makes them great. Each album is an innovation, not an imitation. Whereas ten years of Nickelback singles sound identical, the difference between “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Paranoid Android” is far-reaching.

Radiohead, of course, isn’t the only band compelled to constantly reinvent its sound. Nor is Thom Yorke the only musician who despises the musical status quo; Igor Stravinsky, Bob Dylan, and others also come to mind. What unites these creative geniuses is their yearning to replace the expected with the unexpected. As Yorke would say, they want to shock the audience.

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