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From R.E.M. to Talking Heads: 8 songs Radiohead's Thom Yorke couldn't live without


There are few words in the English language capable of harnessing the supreme esteem of Desert Island Discs. The BBC Radio 4 show has welcomed so many prestigious guests over the years — world leaders and famed celebrities alike — that it’s hard to imagine a more widely-adored British institution. However, if there’s one man in modern times who may be able to give the programme a run for its money, it is the lead singer of Radiohead and a host of other projects, Thom Yorke.

The acclaimed frontman hasn’t just been confined to the front of the stage and has made his name across various musical spectrums. Yorke’s refusal to conform quickly saw him become the voice of a disenfranchised youth as Radiohead made their name in the nineties against a backdrop of Britpop brutishness. It’s made him one of the most mercurial minds in music, and so we relished the chance to delve a little deeper into what makes the man tick when he appeared on Desert Island Discs.

Desert Island Discs has been a cultural touchpoint since its inception in 1942 when Roy Plomley created it. From then on, it has welcomed guests with one simple premise; if they were trapped on a desert island which eight songs would they choose for company. It’s an idea that has captured the minds of the nation and has become a reliable treasure. As well as their eight discs, a complimentary collection of Shakespeare’s complete works and a Bible, the star in question also gets to choose one luxury item and one book. It offers a crisp insight into our most notable figures’ life and times through some, often personal, choices. Thom Yorke’s 2019 appearance opposite Lauren Laverne was similarly charged with intrigue.

The interview revealed plenty of interesting moments in the singer’s life, including that he once made himself a guitar that “sort of worked.” The singer said of the rudimentary instrument, “It was literally rough cut out with a saw, you know – it was terrible. And then shortly after that, my dad felt sorry for me and eventually bought me one.”

Another more curious moment from the conversation came when Yorke admitted that the song which finally confirmed for him that he was to be a musician was Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Yorke said fo the eureka moment: “I was obsessed with Queen when ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ came out. I lay down in front of these big speakers in my friend’s house and we just listened to Bohemian Rhapsody and at that point, I decided, ‘Yep this is what I’m doing’.” Considering Yorke was only “seven or eight” at the time, this is some clear vision of the future.

But should we be surprised? After all, with Radiohead, Yorke created one of the most unpredictable but wholly credible rises to the top of the rock pile we’ve ever seen. So it’s clear that he’s someone who knows what he wants and, largely, refuses to bend to the will of others. While Radiohead’s sound is a continuously evolving and mutating organism, it’s easy to see the inspiration behind some of their best moments when looking at the eight songs Yorke would take with him to a desert island, with four names, in particular, shining a light on Radiohead’s journey to the top.

One man that was always likely to be included in Yorke’s list was Scott Walker. The songsmith has always been a quiet inspiration for songwriters, and now Yorke shares his love for Walker on a national scale. Picking out his song ‘It’s Raining Today,’ Yorke said: “Speaking of golden voices… [laughs] Scott Walker, one of my heroes. This song because it’s a desert island, right? And it’s gonna rain, tropical style. I was thinking, I will put it on while it rains, and I will listen to this lovely love story and remind myself what it feels like to be on a train, see someone in the distance — that whole romance thing, like something from a film. It’s such a beautifully whimsical piece, but weirdly, so profound musically. When he sings it, it leaves me gobsmacked every time.”

Another artist who had a big impact on Yorke was David Byrne and Talking Heads. Radiohead actually took their name from one of Talking Heads’ songs, and Yorke’s connection even saw him plead to take the entire album to the desert island. “It was like a bomb going off in my head; I’d literally never heard anything like it,” he said of the 1980 album Remain in Light. “Talking Heads did something with a studio that had never been done before. And even at a young age, I could see that.” Eventually, Yorke settles on the album’s opening track, ‘Born Under Punches’, concluding, “I’ll just have to imagine the rest of the record, won’t I?” he says.

The singer also noted how Neil Young had a huge impact on his career. Previously, Yorke had shared how Young had been an inspiration to him before he ever really knew who Young was. As a 16-year-old, he sent some home recordings into the BBC in the hopes of gaining some attention for his songs. “They said, ‘This guy sounds like Neil Young,’” Yorke told the BBC in 2008. “I was like, ‘Who is Neil Young?’”

The singer soon found himself a nearby record shop trying to right his wrongs and picked up Young’s 1970 LP After The Gold Rush. “I immediately fell in love with his music,” said Yorke. “He has that soft vibrato that nobody else has. More than that, it was his attitude toward the way he laid songs down. It’s always about laying down whatever is in your head at the time and staying completely true to that, no matter what it is.” During the conversation, Yorke shares how he and Young shared a few beers before the Radiohead singer’s performance at Bridge School Benefit that is certainly worth revisiting. He notes how Young allowed him to sing ‘After The Gold Rush’ on the piano it was originally recorded on, ensuring the song will always be a part of any desert island excursion.

Yorke also made sure to include a number from R.E.M. as he picked ‘Talk About Passion’ from the band’s debut album Murmur. Michael Stipe, the Atlanta band’s lead singer, was a hero of Yorke’s before eventually becoming a friend: “When I was a kid, they were the link for me between the art student part of me and the musician part of me,” he says. Radiohead went on to support REM, much to Yorke’s delight: “Michael Stipe, the singer of REM, was my hero, and now I’m friends with him, you know? It’s an odd thing!” Stipe helped him cope with the pressures of fame: “He helped me through the end of that period when things just went crazy, and people started talking to me like I was Jesus in the street. I would call him and say, ‘I just can’t handle it’.”

As well as those four names, there is also a nod to the eclecticism that permeates Yorke’s work. Not only does he select Squarepusher and AFX and their glitching number ‘Freeman Hard and Willis Acid’, but there’s also room for composer Maurice Ravel, Sidney Bechet and the illustrious vocals of Nina Simone with her classic song ‘Lilac Wine.’ It’s a list of favourite songs that few could match for exquisite taste levels.

Below, we’ve collated them into a handy playlist as well as bringing you the original Desert Island Discs programme from 2019 below that.

Thom Yorke’s favourite songs of all time:

  • Maurice Ravel – ‘Le jardin féerique’
  • Scott Walker – It’s Raining Today’
  • Talking Heads – ‘Born Under Punches’
  • Squarepusher & AFX – ‘Freeman Hard and Willis Acid’
  • Neil Young – ‘After The Gold Rush’
  • R.E.M. – ‘Talk About Passion’
  • Sidney Bechet and His New Orleans Feetwarmers – ‘Blue Horizon’
  • Nina Simone – ‘Lilac Wine’