From Neil Young to R.E.M: 7 of Thom Yorke’s biggest influences
One of the most mercurial minds in modern music, Thom Yorke can often happily position himself as a bit of an enigma. So wrapped up in the intellectual rock of his band Radiohead, it can be difficult to imagine, say, Yorke boogying away in his kitchen to some 1960s pop, or having a headbanging session to some of rock’s heavier acts. He is a figure in music that, largely, refuses to be defined.
But, in truth, Yorke has never shied away from sharing those bands and artists that have influenced him most and, while they’re not quite the boogying types, the artists mentioned below are certainly worthy of some extra attention, if only for the fact that, all put together, they provide a small summation of Yorke’s most intricate qualities.
Knowing some of your hero’s own favourite bands can be an illuminating moment. Sometimes it can turn your hero into a bit of a zero, especially if their own choice of inspiration isn’t quite what you’d hoped it would be. However, more often than not, these kinds of lists provide an insight into the very essence of what makes them a hero to many people in the first place. It’s something that can certainly be said for the influences mentioned below.
Taken from various interviews, we must hasten to add, that an artist like Thom Yorke doesn’t find his inspiration solely in the work of the seven artists mentioned here. To think that Yorke couldn’t be as equally inspired by a changing season or an icy gust of wind is to underestimate the singer. Yorke is a multi-faceted artist and, having worked in music, film and other mediums, is well-versed in finding his inspiration in the world around him.
Musically speaking, however, it’s hard to not recognise these seven artists as pivotal figures in the shaping of Yorke’s career both with and without Radiohead.
Thom Yorke’s biggest musical influences:
Perhaps the most famous of Yorke’s influences is Neil Young. The ‘Harvest Moon’ singer has long been held in high esteem by America’s alt-rock explosion but Yorke too thought of Young as one of the finest songwriters ever, even if he did arrive at the singer a little late in life.
As a 16-year-old he sent some home recordings into the BBC in the hopes of gaining some attention for his tracks. “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.”
Both with and without Radiohead, Yorke has gone on to provide several covers of Young’s songs including one extra special version of ‘After The Gold Rush’ in 2003, which you can see below.
We all have that one album that piqued or interest and, in many ways, changed our lives. For Thom Yorke, that record was R.E.M.’s seminal 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi— an album that confirmed Michale Stipe and the Atlanta band, were certifiable rock icons. It s also Michael Stipe’s favourite R.E.M. record and is an incredible piece of work that shifted over seven million units and holds a reputation that grows as the years pass by.
Having called Michael Stipe a “genius”, adding that “his lyrics are like a car ride along a street full of traffic signs and billboards. A neon-coloured trip, total cinema in your head, and endlessly inspiring,” Yorke shared how influential the band were to his adolescent days.
“Before I discovered R.E.M. in the mid-eighties, I was listening to bands like Japan. Music to kill time with. Then I discovered R.E.M. and it turned my life upside down. Michael Stipe was singing about his flaws and weaknesses, and that it is okay to be weird. I was weird.” Yorke noted to VinylWriters, “And through his songs, Stipe spoke to me, ‘It’s okay, you don’t have to justify yourself to anyone.’ Shortly after that, I signed up for art school and started to take making music seriously.” When you also add to this the fact that the band picked up Radiohead for one of their mammoth US tours in the mid-90s and you have yourself perhaps the most influential artist in Yorke’s life.
The enigmatic Icelandic singer Björk has often been lauded as one of the most pivotal musicians in modern music. Arriving at the mainstream stage in the early nineties, having spent most of her life performing in one guise or another, Björk hit the big time with her incredible LP Debut, and with it, she gained a huge wealth of fans too. One such fan was Thom Yorke.
By the time Björk released her 1997 album Homegenic her position as a pop agitator was confirmed and Yorke was a devoted audience member. The album also happened to include his favourite song of all time, ‘Unravel’, calling it “one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.”
Despite sharing the spotlight at relatively the same time, it’s hard not to see how Björk’s uniqueness and refusal to conform could only bolster Yorke’s own feelings about artistic purity. In 2007, the singer and the Oxfordshire band took to a webcast to pay homage to ‘Unravel’ with a special cover which you can see below.
Another name that we would expect to see littered across the lists of most influential musicians, jazz musician Miles Davis should rightly be revered for his uncompromising attitude and refusal to conform. It’s certainly a style that Yorke has imposed on all of his work. However, Davis’ name is included in our list for his connection to Yorke’s album Amok and Radiohead’s record OK Computer.
While the latter has definitely taken inspiration from Davis’ classic Bitches Brew with the song ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ undoubtedly shaped in a similar manner, the former album, Amok took notes from the jazz hero too, but in a more physical way.
“It’s that thing of creating interaction between people and then editing that whole thing to create dynamics,” co-producer Nigel Godrich told Rolling Stone. “We were thinking about things in very much a jazz way in terms of using edits and big blocks of music to create arrangements.”
It’s very easy to draw comparisons between Pixies and Radiohead. The bands were both the intellectual side of a machismo outpouring and did their best to become the book-smart retort to rock ‘n’ roll’s more rowdy moments. While for the Pixies it was grunge and Radiohead Britpop, each band suffered and succeeded in similar ways.
Francis Black’s band have often bee seen as one of the more influential bands form the alt-rock scene of early ’90s America and Yorke once admitted to the band’s seminal album Doolittle as being a record that “changed my life.”
It’s easy to see how the Pixies expert use of light and dark could have influenced Radiohead’s early sound. There are certainly flecks of Pixies in ‘Creep’ and ‘My Iron Lung’ while later cuts like ‘Bodysnatchers’ also offer a taste of the US band.
At a time when the only way to write rock and roll was by using an electric guitar, Radiohead cut away from the herd and founded a brand new sound, one that effortlessly integrated electronic sounds and wove them together with Yorke’s lyrics to devastating effect. It was quite the leap of faith at the time and it was largely down to Aphex Twin.
The electronic artist, real name Richard D. James, has had an immeasurable impact on modern music and Yorke is a massive fan: “Aphex [Twin] opened up another world that didn’t involve my fucking electric guitar, and I was just so jealous of that whole crew,” Yorke told Dazed and Confused. “They were off on their own planet.”
The producer became one of the main reasons the band began experimenting with electronic sounds on their seminal record OK Computer, despite Apxe Twin once calling the band “really, really cheesy.”
It’s very difficult to not draw a line between David Bowie and much of the British music that followed him. He was such an influential pillar of the music scene, so widely revered, that it would perhaps be more newsworthy if we weren’t to include him in this list. Alas, to do so would be to miss out one of Yorke’s pivotal childhood moments. As part of a conversation for the 2009 Grammys, Yorke recalled the moment he witnessed David Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’.
“Obviously, all music that I listen to inspires me. I remember sitting on a climbing frame in a local play park, and I had just seen the video for ‘Ashes to Ashes’ by David Bowie. It was the craziest thing I’d ever seen and all the other kids were sort of saying how it was too weird and I thought ‘I wanna do that for a living.'”
Yorke also once referred to Bowie and Queen’s triumphant ‘Under Pressure’ as a perfect song. “My definition of pop is tapping into something,” he recalled in 2017 on the promotion trail for Pablo Honey. “My ideal pop song is one that says something people want to hear lyrically and that grabs them by the neck musically—and one that has some sort of depth that moves it beyond a happy tune that you whistle at work.”
Yorke added: “Songs like ‘Under Pressure’, something that makes you want to fall down on your knees. That to me is the perfect pop song.”