Jonny Greenwood Is Great, But Radiohead Fans Should Really Thank Classical Music

Jonny Greenwood gently shakes his head until locks of hair obscure his face, shifts his lanky frame and looks down at a guitar. The riff that encourages Thom Yorke to sing about a man who buzzes like a fridge (in “Karma Police”) starts to play. It is the kind of sound that, long after it first appeared, now inspires a rash of YouTube videos with titles like “Sound Like Radiohead Without Busting The Bank”, “The Secret Rhythm Behind Radiohead’s Videotape” and “How Reverb Potent Pedal Pairings Can Help You On Guitar.”

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Jonny Greenwood in Amsterdam: Creative Commons

I spent years obsessively listening to Radiohead before being gently nudged into paying more attention to the guitarist than the lead singer. Greenwood has never helped, after all, choosing to hide behind his hair, staying in the shadows, happy to let Thom Yorke dance awkwardly under the spotlight while he tinkers in the wings. And yet, the more I began listening to Greenwood’s solo work — much of which scores some of the most interesting movies of our time — the more I began to acknowledge him as the beating heart of a stadium-conquering machine.

I began asking myself what made this shy Englishman so potent on stage. Why did something as intangible as his music have the effect it does on so many? Why, when Radiohead performs, do thousands of people collectively lose their minds and inundate the rest of us with video clips on Instagram? What made Jonny Greenwood such a compelling composer?

The answer lay in the notes. From There Will Be Blood to Phantom Thread, the influence of Radiohead runs deep in Greenwood’s work, but it is the ghostly presence of classical composers that give it so much gravitas. There are clues to support this theory scattered throughout the band’s 30-year body of work, starting with the song that made them famous. According to musicologists, “Creep” was one of the first by the band to use pivot tones — i.e. when one note of a chord is held until a new chord is formed around it. Introducing minor chords soon after a major one creates the distinctive Radiohead sound. It’s also the kind of shift that occurs often in Greenwood’s solo work, from documentaries like Bodysong (2003) to scores for blockbuster films like There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012) and his latest Academy Award-nominated Phantom Thread (2017).

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Greenwood’s solo work for Bodysong

Greenwood stands on the shoulders of giants, which is why so many iconic Radiohead songs owe so much to 20th classical music; why “Pyramid Song” echoes Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, The Firebird; why Stravinsky also looms large in the percussive opening of “Burn The Witch”; why “Glass Eyes” could have been composed by Debussy a century ago, or why French composer Olivier Messiaen would fit in perfectly as a sixth member of the band given the long shadow cast by his music. Without Messiaen, Radiohead would also have no access to that otherworldly warbling of the electronic musical instrument known as an ondes Martenot.

Greenwood has been vocal about the debt he owes to the history of 20th century classical music and jazz. The textures and dissonance that have become hallmarks of the Radiohead sound — as much as Yorke’s seemingly disjointed lyrics — all stem from questions that have been asked by composers since the turn of the last century, when established societal structures were dismantled and war turned everything we thought we knew about humanity upside down. It’s the same sort of dread and dissatisfaction that propels so much of Radiohead’s narrative, enabling them to create mini dystopias we all somehow identify with. This may explain why albums like OK Computer and Kid A ended up being such huge sellers, as their beats and squawks resonated with millions who started to identify with the idea of ghosts in the machine.

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The Oscar-nominated score for Phantom Thread

On the one hand, it’s impossible to separate Greenwood from Radiohead. It is now a beast powered by five composers, each holding up an integral component. On the other hand, it’s also possible to draw a line connecting albums like A Moon Shaped Pool to Greenwood’s older solo concert works like Doghouse For String Trio and Orchestra (2010), 48 Responses to Polymorphia for 48 Solo Strings (2011) and Water for Two Flutes, Upright Piano, Chamber Organ, Two Tanpura and String Orchestra (2014).

The key to appreciating Greenwood lies in listening to his teachers. It is then possible to see the role played by Bach in “House of Woodcock”, or recognize the presence of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki not just on solo tracks like “Wide Open Spaces” but on stadium anthems like “Climbing Up The Walls”. Greenwood is an accomplished composer, but it is music composed over hundreds of years that gives him the tools he uses today.

— First published in GQ India, February 2019

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