“Videotape” ends Radiohead’s 2007 album In Rainbows, and like many of their albums, it tends towards the funereal. (Think of the drunken “Life in a Glasshouse” from Amnesiac or “Motion Picture Soundtrack” from Kid A). And at first, it does sound very simple, four plaintive descending chords and Thom Yorke’s high melody over the top of it.
But in this 10 minute video essay from Vox Pop: Earworm, the song’s structure is peeled back to reveal a secret–that the chord sequence is not on the downbeat, but shifted a half-beat earlier. Hence, it is a heavily syncopated song that removes all clues to its syncopation.
Advanced musicians out there might not be blown away by any of this, but for fans of Radiohead and those just coming to music theory, the video is a good introduction to complex rhythm ideas. The fun comes from the backwards way in which Vox and Warren Lain–who devoted a whole 30 minutes to exploring the song–came across the secret.
It starts with video of Thom Yorke trying to play a live version along to a click track, and then to Phil Selway’s drums. For some reason Yorke can’t do it. And that’s because his brain is wanting to put the chords on the downbeat, the most natural, obvious choice. To play off beat, without further rhythmic information, shows the band “fighting against not just their own musical instincts, but their own brainwaves” as the Vox host explains.
There is much discussion in the YouTube comments over whether these 10 minutes are worth the analysis. It’s not that Radiohead invented anything new here–check out the off-beat opening of something like XTC’s “Wake Up”–but more that the band goes through the whole song (at least in the recorded version) without revealing the real rhythm, like playing in a certain key and never touching the root note.
To sum up: Radiohead push themselves in the studio and take those experiments into the live experience and challenge themselves. Which is way more than the majority of rock bands ever do. And bless ‘em, Yorke and co., for doing so.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.