Radiohead Uses a String Section to Go ‘Climbing Up the Walls’
On a couple of OK Computer’s tracks, Radiohead were trying to emulate songs on the White Album, drawing inspiration from the Beatles. But on "Climbing Up the Walls,” the band wanted to fly in the opposite direction of the Fab Four.
Specifically, Radiohead were trying to avoid the baroque trappings of the Beatles’ orchestral dalliances, with florid string accompaniments that set a trend in orchestral/rock crossovers. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood was eager to try something different.
“I got very excited at the prospect of doing string parts that didn’t sound like ‘Eleanor Rigby’,” Greenwood told The Guardian, “which is what all string parts have sounded like for the past 30 years.”
Instead, Greenwood would take his cues from Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki – specifically, his 1960 piece, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Radiohead’s sonic wizard emulated Penderecki’s ominous discord by having the 16 members of a string section play a quarter-note apart from each other. The resulting sound is unsettling, giving the impression that a force of evil is lurking in the darkness. While the Polish musician was attempting to convey the horrors of atomic warfare, Greenwood wanted to match the scary thoughts of singer Thom Yorke.
With lyrics like “Do not cry out or hit the alarm” and “Fifteen blows to the back of your head,” it might seem that “Climbing Up the Walls” is taking cues from slasher movies, of the “killer is inside the house!” variety. But on OK Computer’s ninth track, murderous evil hasn’t just found its way into your home, it's living comfortably in your brain. Hence the lyric, “Open up your skull / I’ll be there / Climbing up the walls.”
Hear Radiohead's 'Climbing Up the Walls'
Rather than draw from fantastical visions of horror in movies or people’s imaginations, Yorke opted for the real variety. The words of “Climbing Up the Walls” come from the singer’s experiences, impressions and research regarding the criminally insane.
“Some people don’t dare to sleep with the window open, because they’re afraid that the monsters that they see in their imagination will come inside. This song is about the monster in the closet,” he told Humo in 1997. “I found the sentence, ‘the crack of the waning smile / fifteen blows to the skull’ after I had read in the New York Times that eight out of 10 mass murderers in American history committed their crimes after 1980 and that they were all males between 30 and 40, who had just lost their job or had just been through a divorce.”
Yorke was interested in exploring the upsetting possibility that seemingly “normal” human beings could be just one unfortunate incident from turning to raging, child-killing evil. Near the end of the song, which plods forward on the hollowness of Phil Selway’s metallic beat, Yorke references the impetus for violence in a ghostly cry: “I’ve got the smell of a local man / Who’s got the loneliest feeling.”
Like many of the OK Computer tracks, “Climbing Up the Walls” was recorded at St. Catherine’s Court, a rural mansion in Bath, England, owned by Jane Seymour. Guitarist Ed O’Brien said they captured the song in the library – giving the tune a “gothic” mood. Some of the sound effects, like the insect noises that indicate a foreboding frontier of the soul, were added later.