Tuesday, June 14, 2011

This Is Really Happening: Vol. 5- AMNESIAC

For those in the nosebleed seats, Radiohead announced they are performing The King of Limbs live on the BBC July 1. This will be the first time we have seen any of the songs from their eighth album performed by the entire band (Thom played several solo while on his Atoms for Peace tour last year). As Limbs itself is quite the abstract album- this is exciting news to see how Radiohead will breathe life into these eight tracks. One of the most enjoyable things about the band can be the way in which their live shows transcend a studio recording which usually is already transcendent on it’s own. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the driving bass line for the live version of Hail to the Thief’s “The Gloaming”- they actually had the audacity to open several shows with this in 2003. For myself, the song instantly went from being an experimental bridge piece to an album favorite.

In honor of the live unveiling of The King of Limbs, I will be running a weekly (hopefully) column breaking down the seven previous LP’s and the quintessential live band performance of each song followed by a brief explanatory write-up. The rules I have given myself are pretty lenient- every album can only have 2 songs from the same live show (if this weren’t the case- the Astoria concert would dominate Pablo Honey and a large portion of The Bends). Bear in mind- when I say “quintessential”, I am shooting for the best rendition, but a meaningful performance sometimes will reign paramount. If it comes to pass that some rarer songs cannot be found, a favorable B-side live version will take it's place. This is obviously opinionated and comments are readily encouraged. So are you ready? Here we go.

TIRH: Vol. 4- KID A

Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box- 2001, BBC Studios

“After years of waiting… nothing came…”

For Radiohead fans hoping that Kid A was a brief artistic dabble in electronic expressionism en route to an OK Computer II-esque stadium rock LP, “Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box” quickly breaks the news that it’s time to tumble even further down the synthetic rabbit hole known as Amnesiac. The live performance of "Sardines" differs from the studio version significantly. The album’s metallic hiccups and bleeps morph into Ed’s swirly feedback along with Phil’s jazzy percussive loop amidst a driving, bluesy Jonny Greenwood guitar riff- a recurring theme on Amnesiac.

Pyramid Song- 2001, Paris

“I jumped in the river… what did I see?”

Boasting one of the most mind-bogglingly enigmatic time signatures ever, “Pyramid Song” is as beautiful as it is abstract. If “Sardines” beckoned the listener deeper into the rabbit hole, here we plummet to its depths only to be submerged in a mysterious world of clarity. The 2001 Paris performance of “Pyramid Song”, similar to the “In Limbo” recording from the same show, is notable particularly for how airtight the band seems in their presentation. Radiohead is truly clicking on all cylinders here.

Radiohead- Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors

“There are barn doors, there are revolving doors…”

“Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” is an odd, jarring, altogether infectious percussive powerhouse of distorted vocals. Like several songs on Amnesiac, “Pulk” has always gotten ignored on the live circuit. That’s a real shame because, while the song is a touch overlong, it can really get under your skin in the best possible way.

You and Whose Army- 2006, Bonnaroo

“Come on… come on…”

The Rock AM Ring Festival from 2001 has a pretty solid cut of the gentle riot-inciter known as “You and Whose Army”- but the crowd had to be practically convinced by Thom to participate, so I instead opted for the underrated Bonnaroo performance. The live version of “Army” is a usually galvanizing experience as the song capitalizes on its “call to arms” motif through the use of intimately close cameras and various other histrionics. Here, the fragmented screens perfectly capture Radiohead’s Orwellian surrealism as the crowd realizes they are a part of something special.

I Might Be Wrong- 2003, MTV $2 Bill Concert

“I might be wrong… I might be wrong…”

Amnesiac moves into its midsection with “I Might Be Wrong”- as straightforward as the album will get in terms of a traditional rock song. Prominently featuring a grimey and repetitive Jonny Greenwood riff that sounds vaguely similar to the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” on speed, “Wrong” also boasts some of Thom’s more elusive and speculative lyrics. The tone runs the gamut from bitter to sympathetic to painful honesty. It’s easy to persuade yourself, at least subconsciously, that this song is primarily electronic due to the nature of its repetitive loops. One of the main perks of seeing it live though is how it remains wholly organic despite this synthetic nature.

Knives Out- 2001, Augustus

“I want you to know…”

Even on Radiohead’s terms, “Knives Out” is one of their most uneasily enjoyable songs. A mesmerizing acoustic piece with a stripped-down “Paranoid Android”-esque chord progression, “Knives Out” embodies the futile resentment we feel as individuals toward a faceless authority. Or maybe it doesn’t mean that at all. Either way, “Knives Out” is purely and deliciously Amnesiac- dark, foreboding, but most of all, brave.

Morning Bell/Amnesiac

“Morning bell… release me…”

The Amnesiac version of “Morning Bell” is a slow, mournful affair that ultimately gives way to a quasi-hopeful lilt without altering its stodgy pace. It is the perfect soundtrack for a surreal funeral procession where the casket is being lowered into the aforementioned synthetic rabbit hole.

Dollars and Cents- 2001, Atlanta

“There are better things to talk about.

Lost between the polarizing “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” and the instrumental “Hunting Bears”, “Dollars and Cents” is undoubtedly one of Radiohead’s most underrated songs. Continuing Amnesiac’s theme of vicious resistance, the song fades in and out over the course of it’s running time utilizing Phil Selway’s cymbal rush as its guiding light. Inevitably, the tune gives way to a climactic, instrumental cataclysm of finger-pointing. In the Atlanta performance, Thom underlines this climax by repeatedly yelling, “MURDERERS!”- a moment that earns this version a place on the list. For a more traditional- yet still excellent- recording, check out the BBC version.

Hunting Bears- 2008, Daydream Bcn

“Hunting Bears” is a brief interlude comprised entirely of suggestive Jonny Greenwood guitar strumming. The song constantly feels as if it is almost going somewhere only to get lost again within itself. They finally played it live during the 2008 In Rainbows tour- where it had the same effect.

Like Spinning Plates- 2003, Camden

“While you make pretty speeches…”

One of the more sinister, disorienting tracks from Amnesiac, “Like Spinning Plates” becomes an almost delicate piano ballad when removed from the studio. Choosing to replace the song’s intoxicating, otherworldy noises (famously revealed to be a recording of Hail to the Thief’s “I Will” played backwards) was a ballsy move by the band that paid off. It illustrated that even Radiohead’s most abstract pieces have a melody behind the madness.

Life in a Glasshouse- 2001, BBC Studios

“Once again… I’m in trouble with my only friend…”

One of the only times it has ever been performed live, the BBC version of “Life in a Glasshouse” features jazz musicians Jimmy Hastings, John Barnes, and the late Humphrey Lyttleton (who can also be heard on the album) who lend their trumpets and trombones to this morose album closer. Continuing Amnesiac’s themes of paranoia via seething resentment, “Life in a Glasshouse” is a dynamic, conceptual gem and is well remembered for standing in stark contrast against the rest of Amnesiac- yet somehow fitting in perfectly.


Fog- 2003, Le Reservoir

“There’s a little child… running around this room…”

“Fog” is a soft piano ballad with a grand heartbreaking swell. It’s tender lyrics first embrace the innocence of childhood before mourning the moment this innocence is forever lost. It’s a rare bittersweet moment from the brilliant melancholy of the Amnesiac recordings.

And there you have it. Up next- Hail to the Thief.


  1. Re: Pyramid Song; I've read that the signature is actually pretty simple, but the way that the notes are "swung" gives it the awkward feel. You were right in calling it "enigmatic".

    Re: I might be wrong: I've always felt that speeding it up live had made the song immensely betting.

    Re: Fog: Although Thom likes the piano version better, I am big fan of the electro-b-side version. Worrywort would have been might pick for the B-side, though I don't think it's ever been played live.

  2. I much prefer Fog's B-side as well. Re-evaluating Amnesiac has driven me to the conclusion that even though it was recorded during the same session as Kid A, I can't think of a single song on either album that could make the switch. Ten years later, this album is wholly its own entity. Kid A offers random bouts of comfort- there is no nurture on Amnesiac.