A Shift in Favorites

It’s not like me to have a favorite anything — there’s just too much goodness to go around. However, for six years I could say that I had a favorite live performance of a single song, and that performance was by The Who, playing Mose Allison’s Young Man Blues at the Isle of Wight in 1970. For five and a half minutes, it teeters on the edge of chaos, but never falls in. By the halfway point, Roger convinces you that he has a severe case of the young man blues and, in case you still don’t understand what he’s singing about, that’s okay; Pete is about to show you.

It works because, for all their aggression, it’s the subtlety that makes it great. The entire band is communicating with each other (and agreeing, which is rare for The Who).

But that’s actually not why I’m writing all this. I’m writing because, for the first time in six years, I have a new favorite performance of a single song.

Radiohead play Paranoid Android twelve years after its release, and it feels just as fresh as if they had recorded it a day earlier. The band has a knack for creating tension in such a way that you are not consciously aware of it, but you still feel it. So how do they do it?

The arrangement starts out rather simply: Acoustic guitar, semi-ambient electric guitar, and some light drums, assisted by light auxiliary percussion. Gradually the extra percussion drops out in favor of tonal instrumentation. Colin and Ed sneak in behind Thom’s vocals as appropriate, and the harmonic texture of the verse is fleshed out the second time through. Pretty standard and effective songwriting to this point.

But suddenly, when you expect a chorus (at 1:59), there isn’t one. Instead, a new theme is introduced, one that offers more tension than what came before. A new texture is temporarily introduced in the electric piano, complimenting a temporary shift in perspective of the lyrics; Suddenly Thom is not the inebriated person who inspired the song, but an observer of that person. Now it’s Ed’s turn to build the tension, quietly playing the riff that introduced the section underneath Thom’s acoustic. Ominously too.

2:42: An abrupt outburst of distortion again serves to compliment the lyrics, which indicate a violent and unwarranted reaction to something quite inconsequential. Jonny has returned to his guitar and takes the motif that Ed was playing to the same absurd level that everything else has just attained. Everything else that is except for Ed, who spends the next few seconds holding back. Not until after Thom declares, “OFF WITH HIS HEAD, MAN,” does Ed play along with no sense of restriction. Again, it’s all about the little things that keep the song moving forward.

Jonny’s stand-by abuse accurately reflects the chaotic state of mind that our anonymous over-reactor must posess. Meanwhile, Colin and Phil hold down the uncommon meter immaculately. Thom strums away. Ed strums away. Wait — no, he doesn’t.

As it turns out, he is voicing the chords with great precision. I’ve tried playing what he is playing at this moment, and it is deceptively hard. If Ed were to simply bang out the chords with Thom, there would be much less to appreciate about this moment. Jonny’s manic guitar screaming eventually settles into a manic melody as there are no vocals for the time being, and the band comes to that great pause.

3:30: Another new section is introduced, again featuring new textures. This 16-bar phrase is decorated by light vocalizing from Thom and an unobtrusive synth that defines the bass line. The acoustic guitar remains, as do the drums in limited capacity. Each time the phrase is repeated, some new voicings are added. Again, pretty standard stuff. 5:03 features a rare Sondheim moment as Ed picks up the vocals where Thom left off, while the latter sings an entirely new part. The dominant chord is held as Thom sings the line “God loves his children.” He does so in such a way that you believe he is either completely brainwashed into believing that sentiment, or he has never been more sarcastic in his life. Either interpretation works but, knowing Thom, I’d go with the latter.

5:36 is a wondrous return to the aggression that first appeared at 2:42. Ed and Jonny continue to compliment each other’s guitar work tremendously, and the only thing that has really changed is the aggression with which the band is playing. Somehow it is more intense than it was previously. The rhythm section briefly drops out at 5:54, only to have Colin return three seconds later with a surprisingly bluesy lick to fill the gap where the guitars once were. The space is utilized perfectly.

6:05 – the end: Much like The Who with Young Man Blues, Radiohead are now on the brink of chaos. They are playing in an odd meter at breakneck speed, and Thom’s falsetto vocal soars above the roar of the band, assisted by Jonny’s guitar work. All this crashes into the abrupt ending, which is as rhythmically tight as you could ever dream for it to be. Before you realize it, the song is over.

And if by this point your face has not been sufficiently melted, I don’t know how else I can help you.

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