(Credits: Far Out / Radiohead Public Library)
There has always been something different about Thom Yorke. He and his band Radiohead regularly rejected any form of categorisation or restrictions on their creativity, often shunning the mainstream and the commercial cash it offers in the process. Yorke has rightly been seen as one of the pivotal figures of that choice, continuously championing his artistry over fame, fortune or any other facet of success.
The acclaimed frontman hasn’t just been confined to the front of the stage and has made his name across various musical spectrums. Yorke’s refusal to conform quickly saw him become the voice of a disenfranchised youth as Radiohead made their name in the nineties against a backdrop of Britpop brutishness.
In 1997, the rock-centric era of Radiohead reached its zenith. While many bands choose the well-trodden path, Yorke’s group consistently seized opportunities to infuse innovation into their music. It’s a trick he learned from some of his favourite songwriters.
Through these audacious experiments, both Thom Yorke and the band evolved into the creative icons we recognize today. The pivotal divergence occurred in 2000 with Kid A, an entirely distinctive album that reflected Yorke’s fascination with electronic music.
Radiohead have released five additional albums post-millennium, demonstrating an unyielding appetite for creative exploration. Throughout this period, each of the band’s five members has pursued individual solo projects and collaborations, highlighted by Yorke’s acclaimed solo career.
Through it all, the art of songwriting has been paramount to Yorke’s approach. While each artist stands alone in their own right, it is easy to see how Yorke has taken threads of each of his favourite songwriters (some of which we have listed below) to create his own impressive tapestry.
Thom Yorke’s five favourite songwriters:
Thom Yorke’s work with Radiohead and beyond has garnered him an almost unrivalled reputation as a serial creator in the modern music world. But if there was one musician to rival him, it might well be Björk, the Icelandic singer-songwriter who has defied all expectations since she arrived on the music scene with her band The Sugarcubes.
Yorke’s appreciation for Björk can be felt in his collaboration with the singer on the 2000 song ‘I’ve Seen It All’. However, it is in his appreciation for her song ‘Unravel’ that it is perhaps most obviously displayed, having previously labelled it as his favourite song of all time and making his band, Radiohead, cover it in their inspirational webcast.
It’s not just her songwriting, either. Yorke was undoubtedly a fan of Bjork’s vocal style. In a television interview, he once described Björk as being “born with a voice that is very sexual, but also very childlike. Very vicious and powerful, but there’s no sense that she’d do any harm.”
Listen to Radiohead’s cover of Björk’s song ‘Unravel’ below.
This selection was perhaps the easiest of all. Yorke has never been quiet about his admiration for Neil Young. The Canadian songwriter has rarely been without his admirers, and as the alt-rock world of the 1990s looked to the past for their champion of creativity, few looked beyond the shining example of Young.
Yorke first came into contact with the work of Young when he was in his teens, having sent in a tape of home demos to the BBC. Speaking with the broadcaster in 2008, he shared: “They said, ‘This guy sounds like Neil Young,’” Yorke remembered. “I was like, ‘Who is Neil Young?’”
“I immediately fell in love with his music,” Yorke continued. “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.”
Yorke has now had the pleasure of sharing the stage with Young and covering some of the songwriter’s finest work. Below, watch his enigmatic cover of Neil Young anthem ‘After The Gold Rush’ at The Bridge School Benefit in 2002.
During his conversation with BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Yorke was effusive about some of the tracks that gilded his life in music and those who created them. One such songwriter Yorke paid tribute to was Scott Walker.
A key inspiration for acts such as David Bowie and Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, Walker’s work transcends style and categorisation to reside in a special place of baroque pop that few can reach.
Picking out his song ‘It’s Raining Today,’ as part of the show, Yorke said: “Speaking of golden voices… [laughs] Scott Walker, one of my heroes. This song is 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.”
While the line between Yorke and Walker isn’t a straight one creatively, there is a darkness that can be heard in both men’s work.
It might be slightly unfair to pick out only Michael Stipe from R.E.M. as the sole songwriting representative of the band. His (self-confessed) nonsense lyrics have often been the centre of cruel jokes from musos across the world. But they hold a dear spot in the heart of Yorke.
Having selected their song as part of his Desert Island Discs episode, he noted the sincere impact the band had on his life: “When I was a kid, they were the link for me between the art student part of me and the musician part of me,” he told the host.
Yorke continued: “Michael Stipe, the singer of R.E.M., was my hero, and now I’m friends with him, you know? It’s an odd thing!” Stipe also helped him cope with the pressures of fame: “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’.”
It’s fair to say that Stipe single-handedly changed the way Yorke approached songwriting.
Like Yorke, David Bowie is a unique figure in music. While he found success during the salad days of his career with ‘Space Odyssey’ in 1969, he would never really hit the pop heights until the 1980s. During the interim period, as he switched personas and ideals, he would craft songs and albums that would dazzle artistically driven musicians and critics but rarely gather the commercial success they perhaps deserved.
But, as the 1980s hit, Bowie suddenly became the pop star the world wanted – even if he didn’t. Tracks like ‘Let’s Dance’ would catapult him to the top of the charts, but it was another song that Yorke once called the “perfect pop song”, his collaboration with Queen, ‘Under Pressure’.
Yorke has also noted Bowie’s albums and songs as inspiration for his own work, including when he picked ‘Ashes to Ashes’ as one of the most inspiring songs of his life for the 2009 Grammys. It’s easy to see how the British icon can be regarded as one of Yorke’s most treasured songwriters.