Mark Sullivan

October 17, 2007

Radiohead’s “In Rainbows:” Where have all the songs gone?

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 7:38 pm

Listening to “In Rainbows” I’m reminded of how difficult it is to write a song. By a song I mean something that can stand alone. Carole King wrote songs. Cole Porter wrote songs. A song has its own inner logic—to get a little bit technical—harmonic development and resolution for one. That’s why 12-bar blues always works. There aren’t that many good songs in rock. Think of how many songs you would want to hear no matter who was playing it. 

Rock is all about performance. The artist goes into the studio and does their thing and it gets recorded. That one moment, screech, slur, or whatever is preserved forever. If you’re a cover band, you can’t cover a performance the way you would a song. You would just be trying to imitate a performance. That’s why cover bands play the same old stuff.

Take the “great” Robert Johnson and the non-stop praise he gets from the likes of Eric Clapton and Keith Richards because you can’t imitate him. You can play the songs easy enough, but you can’t imitate Johnson’s performances. Just like if I went into the studio and recorded “Crossroads Blues” nobody would be able to imitate me. I wouldn’t even be able to imitate me a second time.

I think Radiohead understands the difference between song and performance. To be a great you have to write songs. They want to be great. But songs are dangerous because they exist out on their own. To submit to a 32-bar song form or a 12-bar blues is to risk becoming predictable. To submit to the form and still make something original is really, really hard. It’s much easier to create some musical landscape/wallpaper in the studio and use your taste to make sure nothing “cheesy,” predictable, used by someone else not cool doesn’t slip in. 

I wanted to hear In Rainbows because I think Radiohead is the last rock band. I think that they know that. I like hearing them squirm to stay cool in a genre that has so desperately painted itself in a corner it’s suffocating.

Tune in tomorrow for part 2.


  1. I think the problem runs deeper than just the constraints of the genre. Rock and roll was always a sociological phenomena first, a performance style second, and a musical form third (the Beatles not withstanding)

    The real problem is the culture which gave birth to rock and roll no longer exists. The clash of traditional and modern cultural forms in America gave birth to rock and roll, and is now defunct. Can anyone imagine the following story being written 50 years from now about someone living today?

    Rock and roll only succeeds within the context of shared cultural forms that can be rebelled against. Now that there are no shared cultural forms, can rock and roll still exist? Isn’t the ipod fundamentally destructive of the rock ethos?

    Comment by Conan — October 19, 2007 @ 11:01 am

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