Approximately ten seconds (00.43-00.53 of 18.19) of Paul Lansky’s “Mild und Leise” is sampled on “Idioteque.” Lansky, a practicing composer and professor at Princeton University, has a home page that includes information on Radiohead’s usage of “Mild und Leise.” The song, available as an mp3 from Lansky’s site, was written in 1973 on an IBM 360/91 mainframe computer.
NORTHERLY BACKING WESTERLY 4 OR 5, INCREASING 6 FOR A TIME. WINTRY SHOWERS.
NORTHWEST BACKING WEST 5 OR 6, DECREASING 4. SQUALLY SNOW SHOWERS.
(see Messages 1 and 2)
The title song for Kid A borrows its closing lines from The Pied Piper of Hameln. The old German folk tale, which exists in numerous forms, recounts an historical event that may have occurred June 26, 1284. If the lyrics of “Kid A” speak for the performer (for Radiohead), the song reads semi-autobiographically as commentary on the band’s commercial success.
The singer’s voice, however, is dehumanized, a fact which renders an autobiographical reading problematic. Digitalized and unidentifiable, the voice, as the song suggests, emanates from among “heads on sticks.” The performers possess an alienated mask (“We’ve got heads on sticks,” line 3 and 5) while the consumer/listener possesses (has purchased?) ventriloquists (“You’ve got ventriloquists,” line 4 and 6): performers who animate a dead fiction. This fiction, however, is powerful, luring.
Equating the singing voice, or Radiohead, with the Pied Piper produces disturbing results: once lured by the Piper’s music out of town, the children were never seen again. Versions of the story have been recorded by ABBA and Jethro Tull. The story of the Pied Piper also plays a central role in the film The Sweet Hereafter. The screenplay is available online.
The bears, line-drawings also called test specimens, five of which appear in Kid A’s inlay art, resemble Philip Guston’s hooded men, with a difference. Ubiquitous on the band’s website, the bears act as cartoonishly violent corporate sycophants, but they simultaneously constitute a recognizable character-mascot for the establishment of brand identity. While Guston’s figures (often compared to Ku Klux Klansmen) gave a disturbing and sickly organic shape to American civil unrest and racial injustice in the late 1960s and early 70s, the terrifying bears hyperbolically satirize the twenty-first century’s redundantly aggressive consumerism. See Guston’s The Studio and City Limits. Interestingly, John Cage (see Message 14) was a friend of Guston’s.
The cover art for Kid A, done by Stanley Donwood (see Message 11) and Tchock (a pseudonym for Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s lead vocalist), evokes John Martin’s The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-53). Art for OK Computer, also by Donwood and the White Chocolate Farm (a pseudonym for Radiohead), more closely resembles the style of Cy Twombly’s Anabasis and Untitled. In a different vein, the cover and inlay art for Radiohead’s Airbag EP parodies contemporary marketing information gathering and dissemination methods.
Meeting People is Easy, Grant Gee’s 1998 documentary, records the peculiarly postmodern array of identity problems confronting Radiohead following the unexpected critical acclaim of their third album, OK Computer. Less about the band than the intimidating commercial machine that created its success, the video (never released as a film) is a fragmented chronicle built from original and scavenged television broadcasts, color and black and white film, time-lapse photography, security camera video and other still and moving images from various visual media. Gee synthesizes an eclectic range of interviews and concert performances, both alternately compelling and monotonous, with eerie glimpses of post-industrial existence among the first world’s mundane and graying suburbs.
“[…] we find in texts only what we put into them […]”
Merleau-Ponty, M. Phenomenology of Perception. 1962. Trans. Colin Smith. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
Radiohead’s fifth album, due out this coming June, will be entitled Amnesiac. The title may derive from Memoirs of an Amnesiac by French musical composer Erik Satie. This connection is likely given the indirect influence of John Cage’s work on Radiohead. Before Cage, few musicians were aware of Satie’s music.
A two-line refrain in “Idioteque” reads: “Ice age coming / Ice age coming.” Obliquely, these lines likely allude to The Clash’s “London Calling,” where the coming of an ice age is announced in the chorus: “The ice age is coming / The sun is zooming in.”