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Music

The classic Radiohead song shaped by the poetry of William Blake

Oxford group Radiohead were a group of self-declared social outcasts who met at Abingdon School; a school that allegedly had a strict Dickensian atmosphere. The group found a common interest in music and spent much of their spare time at school sheltering from the strict and oppressive teachers in the sanctum of the music room.

In 1985, the core group formed under the name ‘On a Friday’, which referred to the day they would meet for their main rehearsal each week. As a particularly bright bunch, they were seemingly on the fence as to whether they should pursue further education at university or follow their passion for music in a gamble for sustainable success. 

Finally, taking the safer route, the group dispersed from Oxford to attend university; however, they made a concerted effort to ensure they met up to practice back in Oxford as frequently as possible. It was during his time at the University of Exeter that Yorke would meet meet one of his key creative influences and visual art collaborative, Stanley Donwood. The moment the two met seemed rather intense and momentous; as Yorke remembered: “I met him [on the] first day at art college … I figured I’d either end up really not liking this person at all or working with him for the rest of my life”. While Donwood recalled that the young Yorke was “mouthy. Pissed off. Someone I could work with.”

Watch Radiohead perform a scintillating version of ‘Paranoid Android’ on ‘Later with Jools Holland’

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As a group of geeky outcasts, the music the band would go on to produce throughout the early 1990s seemed to reflect that exact image. Take their breakthrough single, for instance, the lyrics in ‘Creep’ seem to reflect the boys during their anxiety-ridden days at school: “I’m a freak, I’m a weirdo, what the hell am I doing here”. The lyrics appear so transparent, a window into Thom Yorke’s psyche. 

As Radiohead developed their songwriting talents and chemistry as a band toward the mid-1990s, they began to release their familiarly melancholy music, but Yorke’s lyrics started to become increasingly elusive and poetic with increased use of metaphorical imagery.

By 1997, Radiohead seemed to have hit the roof creatively with the release of their seminal album OK Computer. The album is absolutely teeming with influences from different ideas that the group had thrown in during its creation. The themes addressed in the record were based around anti-capitalism, political corruption, technological advancement, alienation and isolation – pretty gloomy stuff aye? The album is sometimes described as a concept album, however, the narrative, in my opinion, is too disjointed to have been intended as an all-encompassing concept. 

OK Computer appears to have a number of connections to popular culture; most obviously, the album references Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the compartmentalised masterpiece ‘Paranoid Android’, based on Marvin the paranoid android from the series. The reference also appears in ‘Fitter Happier’ that hears the paranoid android speaking in a poetic interlude track. This anxiety and paranoia serves as a constant throughout the album and seems to web the songs together in a dystopian vision of fear and helplessness. 

In 2016, a copy of a William Blake poem collection book was handed into an Oxfam charity shop by Yorke. A member of staff priced it at 50p and put it out on display. Fortunately, another member of staff later picked up the book and noticed that the Radiohead frontman had made a number of annotations and notes around some of the poems and in one of the blank pages, he had even written out an early incarnation of ‘Airbag’, the first song on OK Computer. It’s safe to say that 50p wouldn’t be a reasonable return for this donation and so the book was put up for auction, yielding a whopping £12,000 for the charity. 

So it appears that William Blake had been one of the many influences on Thom Yorke’s songwriting during the creation of OK Computer. The links with Blake’s style are very noticeable in ‘Airbag’, and indeed the rest of the album, where Yorke uses a free-verse poetic structure and imaginative use of personal experience to outline overarching issues in the world, namely, countering oppression and unwelcome social adaption.

Recapture some of the beautiful anxiety that only OK Computer can offer in ‘Airbag’ below.