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How The Smiths influenced Radiohead's 'Karma Police'

Even acts drenched in originality like Radiohead have taken influence from a spectrum of names across their career. For some, it can be the germ of an idea for a song or perhaps even the naming of the band — Thom Yorke and co. got the name Radiohead from a Talking Heads track — but one band had a far bigger impact on the entire group. The Smiths have played a crucial role in their collective lives and mainly influenced OK Computer’s ‘Karma Police’.

Released in 1997, OK Computer arrived amid the backdrop of the fledgling Britpop scene and the rise of the mawkish late ’90s dance scene. Radiohead never fitted into either of those categories, and they became the band for the people who never felt comfortable within the confines of the undesirable mainstream options. OK Computer made Radiohead a logical alternative at a time when everything else was in a befuddled state of flux.

It became one of the defining albums of the decade and raised Radiohead to cultural pallbearers. Their two previous records incrementally built up to this moment, and ‘Karma Police’ was a stand-out track from OK Computer, which cemented their rise to the throne.

Thom Yorke later said that the song was about stress and “having people looking at you in that certain [malicious] way”. While the song’s title refers to ‘Karma Police’, an inside joke where the group will threaten to call the “karma police” on each other, the track’s themes are a little more menacing. He said: “It’s for someone who has to work for a large company. This is a song against bosses. Fuck the middle management!”

However, on the 20th anniversary of the album, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood revealed to Rolling Stone that the track was “kind of a nod to The Smiths”. Naturally, this isn’t the only time the Oxfordshire group has let their love for the Mancunians run wild.

Their track, ‘Knives Out’, which appeared on 2001’s Amnesiac, is another ode to The Smiths. “Ed played it to Johnny Marr,” Yorke told NME at the time, “and he went, ‘Yeah!’ It’s a humble interpretation, everyone’s influenced by everyone else, just depends who’s on the radio”.

Meanwhile, Jonny Greenwood said to the Dallas Observer, “You’ve got some quite straight-ahead songs like ‘Knives Out,’ where we just enjoyed the fact that you’ve got five minutes of music that doesn’t really change, and it’s very…In a way it’s trying to be The Smiths or something. So, you know, we’ll try anything; we’re shameless like that.”

Additionally, their cover of the Meat Is Murder album track ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ is a sublime homage to a band held dear to Radiohead’s heart. Johnny Marr saw it and told Uncut: “I have shown Ed [O’Brien] the chords, but maybe he was looking out of the window! But they do a better job than anyone else I’ve heard.”

The influence of The Smiths within Radiohead’s work should make every other band take note of how to suitably display inspiration. They never lean into mimicking or impersonating their heroes but manage to slickly recreate similarly divine energy and keep that pioneering spirit alive.

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