From Björk to The Smiths: Radiohead’s 6 best covers of all time
“I think the most important thing about music is the sense of escape.” — Thom Yorke, Radiohead
We’ve been rooting through the Far Out vaults to bring you a list of Radiohead’s finest covers. Taking on tracks from some unlikely sources and a number of their favourite artists, the Oxford band prove they are top dogs. It doesn’t matter how often the band take on a cover — very rarely — but how well they do it.
While it is undoubted that originality and creativity run through the beating heart of everything that Radiohead is, here at Far Out we’ve always believed the mark of a truly great artist is interpreting music in all its forms. So with this in mind, we take a look back at some Radiohead’s greatest covers of all time and encourage you to get lost in their style and uniqueness.
Thom Yorke and the band may well be at the top of their game when pushing the musical envelope, but they show their class when handling other artists’ work so carefully. Manipulating the emotion and energising the mood to make something that feels entirely ‘Radiohead’. It’s an incredible talent to have and one that has seen the band continue to be regarded as one of the most singular acts around.
It’s a unique ability to possess, one rarely matched across the music industry, and an ability that Radiohead use at will. Perfectly turning the work of others into their own. They’ve taken on some of the most esteemed artists in the world.
Find the greatest Radiohead covers of all time.
Radiohead’s best covers:
‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ by Larry Weiss
The first on the list always has to grab your attention, and we think you’ll be pretty pleased with this obscure gem. What better way to get those earholes in our greasy mitts then to give you the first country curveball of the season. Yes, this is Radiohead covering Larry Weiss’ 1974 song ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ and yes, it’s damn well brilliant.
A song which never really took off for its writer Larry Weiss, ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ would go on to reach the number one spot on the US charts just a year after it’s original release with Glen Campbell at the mic.
The track would reach a number four spot in the UK charts in 1975 and seemingly have a lasting impression on the members of Radiohead. The band made it a live favourite between 1991-1993 and now it resides as a bootleg copy below. Enjoy and get lost in the imagery of Thom Yorke as a rhinestone cowboy.
‘Nobody Does It Better’ by Carly Simon
After being launched into the cultural mainstream with their 1993 hit ‘Creep’, Thom Yorke and Radiohead suddenly found themselves at the centre of the MTV hysteria which surrounded British artists at the time which was not a place the band are usually comfortable to be. With Blur and Oasis bringing Britpop to the masses, Radiohead was often lumped in the same boat as the feuding bands.
However, Oasis and Blur could never really cover a classic song yet make it completely and utterly feel like their own. Which brings us to Radiohead’s performance in August of 1995 where they took on the 1977 Bond film theme tune ‘Nobody Does It Better’ by Carly Simon.
Performed for the now-cult-classic James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me starring Roger Moore, the song is the first Bond theme tune not to share the film’s title it has since become synonymous with the secret agent’s past, present and future. While Simon’s version may have some big power notes and operatic conditioning, Radiohead manages to deliver a subversive and ultimately beautiful rendition of the song. While Simon’s effort is impressive, Thom Yorke’s vocal is wonderful.
Riffs range from the back as the song swirls to its crescendo ending with the kind of cultured anarchy that would define their early career. It’s a triumph and highlights what makes Radiohead great — complexity, texture and skill.
‘Ceremony’ by Joy Division / New Order
Fairly revolutionary at the time, the band were always a little ahead of the game when it came to technology and proved it with this 2007 webcast. That said, they weren’t always looking forward to their musical inspiration; they sometimes found the golden hues of inspiration in the music from the past.
One of those inspirations for Radiohead, among many others, would be Ian Curtis’ post-punk stalwarts Joy Division. So it seems fitting they cover one of their greatest songs ‘Ceremony’. The track, beginning as a Joy Division song—in fact, it was one of the last songs Ian Curtis worked on before his suicide and was performed at their last ever gig in 1980—became a New Order track following their formation and featured in most of their live sets.
However, the Radiohead cover leans more directly on Ian Curtis’ version and feels both authentic and yet expertly curated to pay homage to the original composition. Instead, it is played with a raw passion, a lack of inhibition, and a deep appreciation. The track remains one of the few entries into the Joy Division cover list that feels authentic.
‘Unravel’ by Björk
Björk’s ‘Unravel’ didn’t just represent a song for the band to work their magic on and become a fan favourite. Still, the track was actually quoted as being one of Thom Yorke’s favourite as he admitted to SPIN magazine back in 2006: “I’m trying to get Radiohead to do a cover because I think it’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.”
The video of the webcast is a little scratchy but the audio is perfect and any extra sonic inflexions over time have actually added to the art as a whole. Sure Thom isn’t note-perfect (has he ever been?) but the sentiment of the song, his love of the music as well as the original artist, shines through like a perfectly dappled afternoon.
Ultimately, the intensely beautiful delivery of ‘Unravel’ makes it one of Radiohead’s best-ever covers and sees Yorke connect with the track unlike on any other song he’s ever sung—even his own.
‘The Headmaster’s Ritual’ by The Smiths
To cover The Smiths is an extremely bold move — bolder than most would make. Not just because Marr’s guitar is so idiosyncratic of the man himself, nor that Morrissey’s vocal is almost impossible to impersonate without offending him (what’s new?) and everybody else. It’s a bold move because The Smiths are so insanely beloved by their diehard fans that covering their work only ever normally ends in a downfall. Not on this occasion.
No, Radiohead, above all else, know how to play their instruments. So, on this occasion, the cover of the hit ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ is a sublime and slick 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.”
As you’d expect, Johnny Marr is right. Thom Yorke’s vocal delivery pays respect to but is not an impersonation of Morrissey’s ironic tone, Jonny Greenwood’s guitar is almost identical in every way to Marr’s pace and rhythm and, all in all, it sees Radiohead have fun as they cover one of their favourite tunes from the years before they were superstars.
‘After The Gold Rush’ by Neil Young
It’s no lie that Thom Yorke and Radiohead are big fans of Neil Young. The group have extensively covered the icon’s work. But this version of ‘After The Gold Rush’ is one of the rarer attempts by Yorke and Co.
Having first encountered the Canadian when a demo of Yorke’s was deemed to sound like Young. Yorke had to investigate: “Immediately I identified with it,” he’s said. “The frailty thing is obviously appealing, and the register of it. He was really going high up and has this soft vibrato that nobody else does.”
This cover is of the title track of the first Neil Young record Yorke owned, aged 15 or 16. The cover was actually performed at the Electric Lady Studios in NYC and delivered close to Hail To The Thief in 2001. Yorke’s affinity with the song is evident when he loses himself in the music, and the band have to start again. It’s pretty, bloody brilliant.
It’s safe to say, with these covers in mind, that Radiohead are truly one of the greatest artists of all time. Such is their handling of others’ work that they offer so much of themselves with every homage.
Thanks Radiohead, we’ll keep you around for a bit longer.