Six of the Best: Radiohead’s most perfect covers of all time
While it is undoubted that originality and creativity runs through the beating heart of Radiohead, the mark of a truly great artist is interpreting music in all it’s forms. So with this in mind, we take a look back at some Radiohead’s greatest covers of all time.
Thom Yorke and co may be at the top of their game when pushing the musical envelope But they show their class when handling the work of other artists so carefully. Manipulating the emotion and energising the mood to make something that feels entirely ‘Radiohead’.
We’re bringing you six of the best Radiohead covers of all time.
‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ by Larry Weiss – 199… something
The first on the list always has to grab your attention. So what better way to get those earholes in our greasy mitts and give you the first country curveball of the season. Yes, this is Radiohead covering Larry Weiss’ 1974 song ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’, and yes, it’s 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 number 4 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.
‘Nobody Does It Better’ by Carly Simon – 1995
After being launched into the cultural mainstream with their 1993 hit ‘Creep’, Thom York and Radiohead suddenly found themselves at the centre of the MTV hysteria which surrounded British artists at the time. With Blur and Oasis bringing Britpop to the masses Radiohead was often lumped in the same boat as the feuding bands.
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 to not 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, with Thom Yorke’s vocal in, particularly fine form. Riffs rage 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.
While many of the covers featured here are small note son the annals of Radiohead history, the next group of classic covers all come from the same sitting and therefore hold a little more clout. The band’s famous step online to stream a ‘webcast’ may seem mundane these days, but in 2007 it left heads permanently turned. Take a listen to these incredible covers from the 2007 webcast below.
‘Ceremony’ by Joy Division / New Order – 2007
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. But they weren’t always looking forward for their musical muster, they sometimes found inspiration in the past.
One of those inspirations for Radiohead, among many others, would be Ian Curtis’s post-punk stalwarts Joy Division, and 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 prior to his suicide and was performed at their last ever gig in 1980 – it became a New Order track following their formation and featured in most of their live sets.
The Radiohead cover, however, leans more directly on Ian Curtis’ version and feels both authentic and yet expertly curated to pay homage to the original composition. It is instead played with a raw passion, a lack of inhibition and with a deep appreciation.
‘Unravel’ by Björk – 2007
Björk’s ‘Unravel’ didn’t just represent a song for the band to work their magic on and become a fan favourite, but 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.
And ultimately, the intensely beautiful delivery of ‘Unravel’ makes it one of Radiohead’s best ever covers.
‘The Headmaster’s Ritual’ by The Smiths – 2007
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 causing offence (though, would that be a bad thing?) – but because The Smiths are so insanely beloved 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 hit ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ is a sublime and slick homage to a band that is 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.”
And, as you’d expect, he’s right. Thom Yorke’s vocal delivery pays respect to but is not an impersonation of Morrissey’s iconic 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 – 2003
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 the release of ‘Hail To The Thief’ in 2003.
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.