In the late 1980s, Radiohead emerged from the intensely mundane environment of Abingdon School, Oxfordshire, to bring something truly unique to the music industry. Throughout the 1990s, they bridged the gap between America’s blossoming grunge scene and the UK’s Britpop craze in releases like Pablo Honey and The Bends. However, 1997’s OK Computer marked the moment Radiohead were broadly regarded as a cut above a cloud of contemporaneous mediocrity.
From the post-rock idiosyncrasy of OK Computer, Radiohead took another, more brazen step into the beyond with their turn-of-the-century masterpiece Kid A. Along with its 2001 follow-up, Amnesiac, the album saw Radiohead waltzing bravely along the cutting edge of rock innovation, welcoming jazz and electronic influences aplenty. For this pivotal moment in Radiohead’s evolution, frontman Thom Yorke thanks electro-pioneers of the 1990s, including Aphex Twin, Autechre and Squarepusher.
“Aphex Twin opened up another world that didn’t involve my fucking electric guitar. Aphex was totally beautiful, and he’s kind of my age too. He’s a massive influence,” Yorke once told Rolling Stone.
In his 2019 appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Yorke gave his fans a deep dive into his eclectic pool of influence. Regarding his distinctive vocals, Yorke discussed his longtime infatuation with Scott Walker, picking out ‘It’s Raining Today’ as a particular favourite.
“Speaking of golden voices… [laughs] Scott Walker, one of my heroes,” Yorke said. “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.”
As a 16-year-old, Yorke sent some home recordings to the BBC in hopes of gaining some attention for his songwriting. “They said, ‘This guy sounds like Neil Young,’” Yorke told the BBC in a 2008 interview. “I was like, ‘Who is Neil Young?’”
The singer soon found himself at a nearby record shop trying to right his wrongs and bought Young’s 1970 LP After The Gold Rush. “I immediately fell in love with his music,” Yorke said, picking out the title track for one of his Desert Island Discs selections. “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.”
“It was like a bomb going off in my head; I’d literally never heard anything like it,” said later of his love for Talking Heads’ 1980 masterpiece, 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.” Pressured to pick out one track from the album, Yorke landed on the album’s opener, ‘Born Under Punches’. “I’ll just have to imagine the rest of the record, won’t I?” he added.
The American rock group REM were another critical influence on Yorke and his bandmates. Initially, the frontman Michael Stipe was a musical influence, but later, a dear friend too. “When I was a kid, they were the link for me between the art student part of me and the musician part of me,” Yorke said. “Michael Stipe, the singer of REM, was my hero, and now I’m friends with him, you know? It’s an odd thing! 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.’”
In a recent interview with Far Out, Radiohead’s drummer Philip Selway discussed some of his drumming influences, namechecking some of his biggest heroes. “I guess the first one would have been Stewart Copeland of The Police,” he began. “I’m still dazzled by what he’s done over the years. He just had that kind of complexity in there and this drive, a real energy to what he was doing. I got into music around that new-wave era, so just after punk. So it was very much drummers from that period, people like Dave Ruffy from The Ruts, Stephen Morris from Joy Division and New Order. That’s really what influenced me at the time.”
Later, the drummer was asked if any specific songs influenced his early passion for percussion. “Killing Joke, a song of theirs called ‘Follow the Leaders’ and the drumming on that,” Selway said assertively. “Shamefully, I don’t know the name of the drummer in Killing Joke [Paul Ferguson] – but that was a big inspiration too; that song made me want to play the drums, actually.”
Yorke, Selway, Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood have all embarked on impressive solo ventures over the past two decades. Greenwood has been particularly prolific in the realm of film scores, with those for There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice, The Phantom Thread, Licorice Pizza and The Power of the Dog under his belt.
When asked to name his favourite piece of music in an interview with The Times, Greenwood pondered, “So many — how about the Adagio from Shostakovich’s Tenth String Quartet? It’s a perfectly anguished piece of music.”
However, when asked to name a song that “saved him,” he picked out “Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ — the song and the album — is something I’ve retreated into regularly since I was about 11: it was my elder sister’s record. The drumming, the bass playing, and how they were recorded — glorious. And still, a record I find solace in.”
The playlist below collates the tracks that Radiohead have cited as major influences over the years. Some have been honoured by the Oxford band with covers, while others are songs from artists and albums the band has namechecked. We hope you enjoy the eclectic spread.
The ultimate Radiohead inspiration playlist:
The Beatles – ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’
Killing Joke – ‘Follow The Leaders’
Squarepusher & AFX – ‘Freeman Hard and Willis Acid’
Autechre – ‘Clipper’
Talking Heads – ‘Radio Head’
Talking Heads – ‘Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)’
The Smiths – ‘The Headmaster Ritual’
Joy Division/New Order – ‘Ceremony’
The Police – ‘Walking On The Moon’
Neil Young – ‘After The Gold Rush’
Neil Young – ‘On The Beach’
REM – ‘E-Bow The Letter’
REM – ‘Electrolite’
REM – ‘Talk About Passion’
Björk – ‘Unravel’
Bob Dylan – ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’
Miles Davis – ‘Bitches Brew’
Pixies – ‘Hey’
Pixies – ‘Here Comes Your Man’
Pixies – ‘Debaser’
Pixies – ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’
Queen and David Bowie – ‘Under Pressure’
David Bowie – ‘Ashes to Ashes’
Maurice Ravel – ‘Le jardin féerique’
Scott Walker – ‘It’s Raining Today’
Sidney Bechet and His New Orleans Feetwarmers – ‘Blue Horizon’
Nina Simone – ‘Lilac Wine’
Portishead – ‘The Rip’
Dmitri Shostakovich – String Quartet No. 10 in A-flat Major (‘Adagio’)
Queen – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’
Iggy Pop – ‘Lust For Life’