Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
The Darkness’s long-awaited album Hot Cakes came out this week, and for all the reputation they’ve got as neo-glam-rock songwriters, one of the niftiest things on the record is a cover: their version of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” which they’ve reinterpreted as post-Van Halen metal. It turns out to be an entirely apt song for that treatment — Thom Yorke’s weightless high notes get swapped out for Justin Hawkins’ hammer-of-the-gods jockstrap-tighteners with no ill effects, as long as you’re not expecting the two “Street Spirits” to work the same way.
It’s not the first remarkable Radiohead cover by a long shot, and it raises the question of why, exactly, it is that there are so many. Radiohead are way ahead of a lot of their contemporaries in the “excellent cover” stakes — there aren’t nearly as many first-rate versions of U2 or Green Day by other artists, for instance. My guess is that there are a handful of reasons in play. One is that Radiohead’s songs are mutable: If you strip out most of their signature sounds, there’s still enough to them that you can build them up in some other way.
That’s true of what might be the first major Radiohead cover — the Pretenders’ tender version of “Creep,” which they were playing as early as 1995, the year The Bends came out. (There aren’t a lot of bands formed in the ’70s who would have played a song by a newish band in the ’90s, but Chrissie Hynde’s got very good taste.)
By the time Carrie Manolakos sang her viral-hit cabaret version of “Creep” this April, there was another way to treat it: as the standard it’s gradually become over the past twenty years, a song that’s open to a performer’s interpretation because everyone knows it already.
Another possible reason that Radiohead’s been covered as much as they have is that their songs often have a lot of subtext to them, not just lyrically but musically: There seems to be some other kind of song percolating below their surface. See, for instance, the Easy Star All-Stars’ 2006 album Radiodread, a disconcertingly convincing reggae interpretation of OK Computer in its entirety. In the Easy Stars’ hands, “Airbag” sounds like it was a reggae song to begin with (Colin Greenwood’s original bass part, it turns out, works just as well as a dub bass line). Radiodread’s highlight, though, is a version of “Let Down” with vocals by old-school reggae stars Toots & the Maytals. It’s in the tradition of late-’60s reggae covers of pop hits, complete with a slightly-off-key horn section taking over one of the song’s instrumental hooks.
Full disclosure: John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats recorded this boombox cover of “No Surprises” for my old WFMU radio show in 2000. It’s an amazing piece of work — a great song completely converted from one very distinctive performer’s idiom to another’s.
Occasionally, a Radiohead cover gets over on unexpected similarities between the song’s originators and its performer. When Gnarls Barkley took on “Reckoner” on stage in 2008, they kept Radiohead’s arrangement almost completely intact. The key to their “Reckoner,” though, is that a certain range of Cee-Lo Green’s voice sometimes sounds like a souped-up version of Thom Yorke’s — a resemblance that would probably never have been evident without this cover.
Weezer’s 2011 live-in-studio “Paranoid Android” does exactly the opposite: it’s instrumentally a near-soundalike for Radiohead’s (and the band is obviously having a blast replicating the original version), but Rivers Cuomo couldn’t sing anything like anybody but himself if you threatened to take his glasses away. (Check out the way he sings “What’s thaaaaaat…” with broad American vowels!)
Another angle on interpreting Radiohead songs is that it can be interesting to remove some signature element of them. They can be a grandly dramatic band, and “Just” is one of their most pose-striking songs, with its finger-pointing refrain and climbing-up-the-octave guitar riff. (Here’s its amazing, over-the-top video.)
When producer Mark Ronson took “Just” on in 2008, he stripped the seriousness out of it: the arrangement he worked out with Phantom Planet is understated, clipped and gently funky, with that howling ascending riff handed over to the Dap-Kings’ pork-pie-hat horn section. The video for it is also a dead-on parody of Radiohead’s.
One final reason to cover Radiohead songs is as a challenge–because basically everything in their catalogue has been reinterpreted already, and some of their songs are just about entirely gestural. If there’s an uncoverable recording by them, it might be the spoken-word piece “Fitter Happier” from OK Computer. Which, of course, has now been covered many times over, including this creepy recent version by Anika and Obi Blanche.