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Exploring Radiohead's connection to William Blake

Radiohead take inspiration from all means of creativity. Be it krautrock, jazz or even the art of the Egyptian underworld, it is Radiohead’s all-encompassing position as consumers of art which imbues their own vision with a multi-faceted feel, a density that means you can listen time and time again and not get bored.

Reflecting this sentiment, one figure they were also inspired by was legendary English poet and painter William Blake. A tatty paperback collection of Blake’s work was found in an Oxford charity shop in 2016, and it contained handwritten lyrics by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. Lyrics for the band’s classic ‘Airbag’ from OK Computer were found inside the copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, and it transpired that it was Yorke himself who donated the book. 

Workers at the Oxfam store only realised it was Yorke’s writing after they read it and recognised the lyrics. It was promptly valued by rare book specialist Andrew Chapman, who explained that he felt the book would fetch thousands at auction. Ever the altruist, Yorke also gave his permission for the book to be sold on. 

Chapman told The Metro: “It’s amazing to think this song on OK Computer was inspired by the poetry of William Blake – this could well be the first draft of ‘Airbag’.” Chapman also revealed how Yorke gave his blessing: “I wrote to Thom Yorke, to let him know the book could be sold at auction and he contacted head office to say that would be fine for us to sell it as we saw fit.”

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The edition of Songs of Innocence and Experience came into the store’s possession about eight months prior to the discovery, when Yorke donated a selection of books to the shop. Initially, it was first put up for sale at 50p, but the shop quickly realised their mistake, as a volunteer at the shop, who happened to be a huge fan of the band, spotted the lyrics. It was swiftly put up for auction in London. 

James Carruthers, the manager of the store, told the BBC: “It is always nice to see the original musings of someone who is quite a big character, that is what is interesting about it, you can see how he took the work of William Blake and tied them to his own ideas.”

During the interview with The Metro, Chapman extrapolated that it wasn’t a “wild idea” that the book may fetch £10,000 for charity, and he wasn’t wrong. In fact, it was sold for £12,000 in the end, with all proceeds going to Oxfam. 

It’s a huge revelation that Thom Yorke was inspired by William Blake, and one that makes a lot of sense. Social commentary and bleak imagery is their forte, and Yorke joins a long list of musicians influenced by the genius behind poems such as ‘London’ and ‘The Tyger’.

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