Idioteque - A Musical Analysis of Radiohead's Great Departure
Radiohead is a critically acclaimed alternative rock band known for their complex soundscape, layered instrumentation, and innovation. With each new album the band releases, their sound evolves. Their first albums, Pablo Honey (1993) and The Bends (1995), concentrated primarily on textured guitars and falsetto vocals. OK Computer (1997) brought with it a vast, unreserved sound and intense motifs of isolation. With their fourth album, Kid A (2000), Radiohead began to incorporate a significant amount of electronic music in their recordings. But even with the prevalence of electronic sounds on this alternative rock album, one song in particular, “Idioteque,” stands out as being a complete departure from the band’s usual style and identity.
“Idioteque” is commonly described as an electronic dance song and takes the idea of electronic music to the limit of no longer being considered rock. It possesses a driving electronic beat, computer created chord progressions, and a plethora of additional sounds and effects – a digression from the traditional guitars, drums, and synthesizers. However, despite the band’s foray into a new genre, they manage to retain their unique identity and characteristic style. “Idioteque” is a coherent fusion of electronic dance music with Radiohead’s distinctive style.
Building on the Past
By embracing inventive compositions preceding “Idioteque,” Radiohead is able to enhance the sensation of experimentation in the song. “Idioteque” is directly built upon a foundation of previously innovative and ground-breaking music.
The core of the song is based around a progression of four pronounced and mysterious chords. These chords were sampled from a piece of computer music by Paul Lansky titled “Mild und Leise.” Composed in 1970, the original song was one of the first to employ new FM synthesis methods, which later became the staple of some commercial synthesizers . “Mild und Leise” also promoted the use of algorithmic computer music to create more sophisticated sounds and textures allowing much of today’s electronic music to be possible.
The chords themselves, however, are based on another innovative structure: the Tristan chord. Named for being the first chord in Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, the chord was identified as being inventive and intrepid. Rather than conforming to traditional tonal harmony, the chord emphasizes the structure of sound .
Lansky used the Tristan chord and its inversions to compose an untried computer piece. Radiohead proceeded to use Lansky’s work to create an original composition of their own. The composited effect of the three songs establishes a distinct sound unlike any previous music. By utilizing this method, Radiohead was able to bring their own evolutionary direction to a genre that is often saturated with repetitive repeats.
No Normal Beat
The chord progressions are not the only aspect of the song where Radiohead breaks the traditional electronic dance mold; their treatments of the drum grooves also present notable digressions from the typical.
Dance music is often identified as having a solid, well-detectable beat and regular divisions. It is important for people to be able to ‘feel’ the music and know their location within the larger structure of the song. Electronic dance music, in particular, is regularly characterized by a single repeating drum groove persistent throughout the duration of the song. When a listener first hears “Idioteque,” he may be inclined to think it possesses a simple repeating beat. However, a number of subtleties and variations in the drum grooves create a much more complex sound.
From the onset, the beat is easily identified by the accented snare sound and the bass drum sound. The quarter note carries the beat throughout the entire song. However, the beats per measure and measure groupings are not so consistent. The introduction could be divided into seven measures, all of four beats. However, the drum groove repeats every six beats. This irregularity causes four beat divisions to awkwardly slice the drum groove into dissimilar segments. Instead, the introduction is divided into four measures of six beats followed by one measure of four beats. The lone, four-beat measure then serves to transition from the six-beat measures of drum instrumentals to the four-beat measures of the “i” instrumentals.
Upon entering, the melodic chord progressions and vocals are both delivered in four-beat measures requiring the drums to follow. To accomplish four-beat measures with an inherently six beat drum pattern, the bass drum plays only the first six beats of every five measure group. The bass drum had been the defining characteristic of the six-beat pattern. With only a two-beat snare and high hat pattern remaining, the predominant chords and vocals define the measure length. The dominance of the vocal divisions is particularly evident in “V2’” when the bass drum retains its six-beat pattern but cannot overpower the sections defined by the vocals.
The introduction and “A” sections are the only modules that embrace the six-beat nature of the drum pattern, but even these modules have inconsistencies. The transition measure in the introduction and the four beat ‘stutter’ at 3:22 both break the regularity. The ‘stutter’ duplicates the following four beats and serves no explicit purpose besides further creating inconsistencies that separate “Idioteque” from a traditional dance song.
Radiohead has been known to experiment with unusual time signatures such as the 10/4 and 5/4 of “Everything In Its Right Place” and “Morning Bell” respectively . For this reason, hearing these variations in “Idioteque” is yet another way Radiohead is enforcing its style in this experimental song.
Human After All
Beyond the mere structural definitions of the song’s timings, functional relationships developed describing how and when the instrumentation and vocals are delivered.
The first part of the song is rather drawn out with exactly one minute before the first vocals are heard. So when the vocals finally enter, they possess a calculated urgency and eagerness to be in the song. This feeling is best heard by noting the rushed lyric “women” at 1:02. A listener feels a sort of jar at this moment due to the unexpected delivery. The second, third, and fourth chord changes already precede the beat by almost an eighth note, but this moment comes even earlier. A similar rush can be heard in the second group of “V1” labeled “b.” However, by the time “a’” occurs, the vocals have settled and overcome their initial eagerness to enter the song.
Another notable departure from perfect timing occurs at 3:54 when the digital drums are slightly displaced by a drummer on high hat. The high hat continues until the outro providing an additional human touch to an overall mechanical song. As the vocals reenter at 4:19, the drummer also breaks out into a brief syncopated rhythm once again emphasizing the human’s freedom over the repetition.
Radiohead seems to be emphasizing the point that they are an alternative rock band, not an electronic group, so they are free to move through and readjusted their song as they are driven.
Not So Different
“Idioteque” also features the rich textures and layering that have brought Radiohead much of their acclaim. Due to the instrumental limitations of an electronic dance song, not much room exists for overlapping guitars or numerous keyboarded instruments. Instead, the song uses a careful compilation of synthetic sounds to complement the overall production of the song. From the sweep pad in the introduction, to the two clicks of different pitch at 0:15, to the strange warping sound in the transition into “A’”, all varieties of sounds artistically weave into the fabric of the song. Because the additional sounds flow organically while significant emphasis is placed on the drums, chords, and vocals, a listener might fail to notice the complexness of the song.
But what the song lacks in traditional layered instrumentation, it makes up in layered vocals. Not only do harmonizing and double tracked vocals thicken the arrangement (such as at 1:11), but counter-melodies and secondary lyrics also intertwine themselves throughout the piece. At 2:17, for example, indiscernible lyrics can be heard behind the main vocal line. Additionally, “C’” has an entire counter-melody repeating “the first and the children,” which later becomes the lyrical content of the conclusion. These lyrical and harmonic devices in the vocals combine at times such as “b’” to create extremely rich and satisfying layering. Even in a new genre, Radiohead refuses to abandon the intricacies and feel of their style.
Doing It Live
While the studio recording of “Idioteque” on Kid A shows an extraordinary attention to detail to create a truly “Radiohead” electronic dance song, the band must also be able to recreate the song live to fully retain the band’s identity. Radiohead is a performance band that is highly regarded for its concerts and live performance ability. Releasing a song that could not be performed live would go against the very nature of the band.
To play the song as recorded would be impossibly complex given the small size of the band, and the performance would be particularly dull due to the predominance of computerized sounds in the original instead of instrumentalists. When Radiohead began touring, they struck a perfect balance between maintaining the original feel while enhancing the song for the stage. As heard on their live album, I Might Be Wrong, the new “Idioteque” solves the problem of complexness and the lack of an exciting performance.
While the original is musically more complex and atypical, the live version of “Idioteque” was a well implemented alternative that solved the problems of performability.
The studio version was long in the front, but the live version lacked the additional drum break “A” so that the vocals could enter ten seconds earlier. The live version of “Idioteque” is also eight beats per minute faster than the studio version, once again lessening the lull that can occur in the repetitive sections. While some synthetic background sounds and textures remain, a repeating piano first heard at 0:20 has become the dominant textural element. This effect is much more easily played live.
But perhaps the greatest difference between the two versions of the songs is in the drums. In the studio recording, the electronic drums do not vary significantly, and the only real drums are the high-hat towards the end. In the live recording, the sequencer generating the electronic drums is constantly being manipulated. Additionally, the real drums intrude at “V2’” with an energetic break and continue through the conclusion of the song. Drummers are one of the most powerful tools for creating excitement in a live performance. Radiohead takes full advantage of this fact in the live version rather than letting a drum machine do all of the work.
Finally, Radiohead better uses the departure in the live version to energize the crowd and prepare for the strong finish. Sweeping synthesizers and the driving drums provide a build in instrumentation and soundscape complexity that carries the song through the conclusion to a full stop.
Radiohead took a great risk when it released “Idioteque.” They had already established themselves as successful musicians and, according to some critics, one of the greatest and most influential bands of the 90s. They were not asked to recreate alternative rock or venture into the realm of electronic dance. However, when they discovered the Tristan chords within Lansky’s old computer composition, they decided for themselves that they wanted to try something new and unique.
“Idioteque” may have diverged significantly from any other song they had or have since produced, but they ensured it embodied their style and character. There is more to Radiohead than textured guitars and expansive sound, and this song proved that fact.
Radiohead is fearless in their innovation and profound in their execution. And in the end, Radiohead created a crowd favorite that has since been played at nearly every concert to great response.
 Paul Lansky, “My Radiohead Adventure,” 2000, Princeton University, 7 Dec. 2008 <http://www.music.princeton.edu/paul/radiohead.ml.html>.
 L. Hofmann-Engl, “The Tristan Chord in Context,” 2008, Chameleongroup/London, 7 Dec. 2008 <http://www.chameleongroup.org.uk/research/The_Tristan_Chord_in_Context.pdf>.
 Adam Blum, “Meters & Time Signatures,” 5 Sep. 2007, Pandora/Music Genome Project, 7 Dec. 2008 <http://blog.pandora.com/archives/show_temp/2007/09/meters_time_sig.html>.