How did Thomas Pynchon inspire Radiohead?

Thomas Pynchon is one of the most revered writers in American history. Known for his dense and complex novels, Pynchon explored the theme of American paranoia caused by an oversaturation of culture and a pervading history of war. Pynchon’s works have influenced a swathe of other artists, most notably the English rock band Radiohead.

Thom Yorke had begun reading Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow back in 2012, and we know for certain that he had at least attempted to read V, the author’s 1963 debut novel. Yorke once told Rolling Stone: “I just started Gravity’s Rainbow. I tried reading it once before, but this time around, it’s much more fun. It’s a really early one, isn’t it? This one seems easier to get into than V.” Indeed, much of Pynchon’s work can be challenging to get your teeth into until you’re properly into the narrative and his unique style.

In fact, the literary archive website Shipwreck Library claimed that they had received a number of letters in their early days from fans who pointed out how Pynchon influenced Radiohead. One, in particular, came from Thom Yorke’s childhood friend John Butcher, who professed that Yorke admired Pynchon’s 1984 essay ‘Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?’.

As if that weren’t enough, let’s consider Radiohead’s merchandise/artistic archive W.A.S.T.E. Where did this peculiar acronym come from? Well, it would be difficult to argue that the band didn’t have Pynchon in the back of their minds while thinking about it, given that W.A.S.T.E. is also used in Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49.

The main character of The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas, keeps noticing the acronym popping up across California, as Pynchon writes: “But at last in the shadows she did come on a can with a swinging trapezoidal top, the kind you throw trash in: old and green, nearly four feet high. On the swinging part were hand-painted the initials W.A.S.T.E. She had to look closely to see the periods between the letters.”

As for what W.A.S.T.E. means within Pynchon’s novel, we later discover that it stands for ‘We Await Silent Trystero’s Empire’. Trystero turns out to be a secret underground organisation working through a strange mail system to take control of American society’s cultural impetus.

Perhaps the most direct link between Radiohead and Pynchon is that Jonny Greenwood provided the score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice. Greenwood has provided several scores for Anderson’s films, but the one for Inherent Vice is the most nuanced of them all. He, like Yorke, is in clear admiration of the mysterious writer.

Radiohead, particularly on Kid A, OK Computer and Amnesiac, are a band that explored the damning nature of technology and the sociopolitical foundation resting under the freedom of the individual and the ensuing paranoia that arises as a result. In this light, Pynchon’s influence is undeniable. He, too, was primarily interested – at least in the middle part of his career – in exploring the effects of progress and war on the minds of American society. Two sides of the same coin, perhaps.

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