Climbing ‘The Wall’: Are Radiohead This Generation’s Pink Floyd?
Popular culture is obsessed with anointing the “new” version of the “old” thing that proved extraordinarily popular. Harry Potter was the new Wizard of Oz. Lin-Manuel Miranda is the new William Shakespeare. Halt and Catch Fire was the new Mad Men. Chris Pratt is this generation’s Harrison Ford, who was that generation’s John Wayne.
The music world is particularly guilty of this. Since the ’60s, countless young singer-songwriters have been celebrated as “the new Dylan” while others were looking for “the next Beatles.” Only the most foolhardy of musicians accepted these mantles, because they came at the cost of impossible expectations, limited growth and nostalgia run amok. Which artists want to play connect-the-dots between their output and the enshrined work of their heroes?
But music fans, rock critics and, seemingly, the entire music industry refuse to relent – especially when the parallels are ripe for exploration. Which is why you can find comparisons between Pink Floyd and Radiohead being discussed in books and newspapers, argued on blogs and message boards and debated at any record store still in existence.
Many of these essays, disputes and conversations simply come down to opinion – how much a person enjoys the music of Pink Floyd, Radiohead or both groups. And so, Radiohead might be the second coming of Pink Floyd, or they’re egotistic brats undeserving of being fed to Pink Floyd’s dogs, or they’re far more authentic than the prog-rock dinosaurs who became known for laser light shows.
Stripping away any notions of worthiness, it’s easy to see why listeners are apt to draw a line between the two bands – each British, who became an international success after releasing a celebrated concept album, and sought to examine the machinations of the world by often pushing their music into the outer reaches of what was considered acceptable by the mainstream. Decades apart, Pink Floyd and Radiohead achieved both widespread popularity and rapturous critical respect for their heady records and performances. Each managed to become the preeminent thinking man’s art-rock band of their particular eras, who could also fill entire stadiums with fans.
Before superstardom and multi-platinum sales, the members of Pink Floyd and Radiohead – like many bands – met at school. Floyd members Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright were all architecture students in ’60s London. Waters and the band’s first frontman Syd Barrett were childhood pals, while Barrett and his future replacement David Gilmour were classmates at Cambridge Tech. The five guys in Radiohead (Thom Yorke, Ed O’Brien, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway) became a band called On a Friday in the ’80s, when they were students at a high school in Oxford.
Both groups named themselves after a musical reference. Barrett chose the name Pink Floyd from the names on records in his collection: those of bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Because the moniker On a Friday caused confusion on gig fliers (because sometimes the band might want to play on a Saturday), the quintet became Radiohead, inspired by the song “Radio Head” by Talking Heads.
There are other similarities to be found in the initial careers of Pink Floyd and Radiohead. Each band signed a record contract with London-based major label EMI and scored a big radio hit with an early release (“See Emily Play” in the case of the Floyd, “Creep” with Radiohead). In their infancy, the groups’ albums bore little resemblance to the music that would establish them as the top acts of their day. In the late ’60s, Pink Floyd were a psychedelic outfit with a predilection for jamming and a leader who would soon leave the group, altering their creative trajectory. In the early ’90s, Radiohead were a somewhat generic alt-rock band content to ape Pixies or fade into the Britpop miasma.
Watch Pink Floyd's 'See Emily Play' Video
Watch Radiohead's 'Creep' Video
As the bands matured, both Pink Floyd and Radiohead began to gain reputations as stellar live acts. Floyd found their footing with Gilmour taking over on guitar and Waters driving the conceptual approach. Live at Pompeii, from 1972, displayed their experimental nature, musical talent and out-of-the-box creativity. As performers, Radiohead came into their own while touring in support of 1995’s The Bends, striking a balance between bombastic rock melodies, guitar-fueled wizardry and socially conscious questioning. The music and band were earning powerfully intelligent profiles.
But the big bang, for each group, came with the releases of concept records: 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon and 1997’s OK Computer. Pink Floyd’s bang was bigger – Dark Side turned into one of the best-selling albums in pop music history, moving the band from underground heroes to A-list rock stars and becoming a legitimate cultural touchstone with its songs, iconic album cover and urban-legend connection to The Wizard of Oz. That’s not to say OK Computer hasn’t loomed large. It has sold multiple millions of copies around the world, introduced the band to many who wouldn’t have otherwise paid attention and almost instantly joined the likes of Dark Side on lists of the greatest albums ever recorded.
But it’s not just the blockbuster success of these records that has coupled them in the minds of fans and rock writers. Both Dark Side and OK Computer are albums that were created with the idea of being one, large listening experience, in which the individual tracks are elevated by the sound and themes of their surroundings. More significantly, the material shares a critical perspective on modern life and the alienation therein. As lyricist, Waters was taking a “Newtonian view” of the elements that prevent humanity from progressing (money, time, war, etc.). Twenty-four years later, Radiohead were attempting to do much of the same, with an emphasis on the limitations of a technologically advanced society.
Whole essays have been devoted to the intermingled concepts of Dark Side and OK Computer, because each album offers so much terrain to explore. They both express an unease about the false sense of security to be found in mechanized travel (“On the Run” and “Airbag”), a theme rooted in experiences quite personal to the members of these two bands. They both wallow in skepticism when it comes to authority figures (whether in the form of an army general or a politician).
They both take a step back – or a space flight above – in order to find a vantage point that allows for a more philosophical take on what might make humans alien to one another.
Listen to Pink Floyd's 'Us and Them'
Listen to Radiohead's 'Lucky'
There are other, sonic references between the two albums as well. They feature spoken pieces (a variety of interview snippets on Dark Side, a whole track devoted to a passionless computerized voice on OK Computer), audible plane crashes, heartbeat rhythms and the hard-to-define sound of “space rock.” Radiohead’s “Lucky” appears particularly indebted to Dark Side, with its star-shine sweep of guitar and vocals. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood would claim Pink Floyd as an influence, only encouraging comparisons between the groups.
Radiohead had already forged this connection in the minds of some fans when the band debuted a live version of “Paranoid Android” the year before OK Computer’s release. Singer Yorke jokingly introduced the multi-part composition as a “Pink Floyd cover” before the band attempted to mock overblown prog-rock performances with overlong organ and glockenspiel solos. Snarky Radiohead maintained the backhanded compliment when the recorded version was released as a single, with artwork that included a pig (a nod to the Floyd’s flying prop) and stick-men shaking hands (a reference to the cover of Wish You Were Here). Yet, the musical similarities remain. For instance, “Paranoid Android” begins in 4/4 time and switches to the tricky time signature of 7/8 for a passage, and Pink Floyd’s “Money” starts in the unusual 7/4 time and transitions to 4/4 on a few occasions.
Watch Radiohead's 'Paranoid Android' Video
Watch Pink Floyd's 'Money' Video
Beyond Dark Side and OK Computer there exist more musical similarities between Pink Floyd and Radiohead, including each group’s emphasis on the whole album as a complete work, as opposed to focusing on singles. There are parallels in the bands’ methods. Even though the members of Radiohead have consistently been more harmonious in comparison to the famously fractious relationships in Pink Floyd, many of each group’s best works was the result of intense collaboration – not just in the recording studio, but also on stage where these bands enjoyed road-testing as-yet-unrecorded material.
Rock critic Jim DeRogatis perceived a connection between the groups’ live approach when attending a Radiohead concert in 2003: “As the members of Radiohead used a vast array of old analog equipment to create their futuristic outer-space symphonies and sinisterly themed mood music, I couldn’t help but think of David Gilmour, Roger Waters and company playing the songs from Meddle amid the Roman ruins two decades [sic] earlier.”
As DeRogatis noted, both bands used a mix of state-of-the-art equipment (synthesizers in Floyd’s case, laptops in Radiohead’s) and old or traditional instrumentation to push their sounds into something that resembles a possible future. And both bands were keen to employ any instrumentation that would best suit the song, whether it was stripped down to an acoustic instrument (“Pigs on the Wing,” “True Love Waits”), employed a radio broadcast for effect (“Wish You Were Here,” “The National Anthem”) or explored jazz flourishes for an unconventional rock approach (keyboardist Wright’s chord structure on “Breathe,” guitarist Greenwood tapped a jazz band to play on “Life in a Glasshouse”).
Listen to Pink Floyd's 'Pigs on the Wing'
Watch Radiohead Perform 'True Love Waits'
From dabbling in jazz to using bizarre recording effects, Radiohead and Pink Floyd each have a penchant for defying music industry expectations. Floyd followed their big commercial breakthrough with two albums that contained only five tracks each – challenging any Dark Side devotee with a short attention span on lengthy songs such as “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” or “Sheep.” And then they made a full-blown rock opera, 1979’s The Wall, which often favored storyline over musical interplay. Years later, Radiohead followed their star-making album with 2000’s Kid A, on which they eschewed rock instruments (and the release of singles) to fiddle with electronic music. Despite some trepidation among rock fans, the album came to be viewed as one of the band’s greatest accomplishments. They later turned the music world on its ear when they offered a “pay what you want” scheme for a digital download of In Rainbows.
But a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and there are plenty of factors that separate Pink Floyd from Radiohead. While the former grew to build impressive stagecraft (including a literal wall between the band and the audience) for its concerts, Radiohead have maintained a rather Spartan live approach to emphasize the music. They’ve also remained a steady five-piece since the late ’80s, as opposed to the members of Pink Floyd, who (in addition to mental illness) allowed testy relationships to alter the lineup and leadership of the group. Although each band’s most hallowed albums have long outlasted their release and promotion cycles, it could be argued that longevity is on Radiohead’s side, given that their A Moon Shaped Pool (released nearly 20 years after OK Computer) was received as a more vital work than Pink Floyd’s late-in-the-game Division Bell (released nearly 20 years after Dark Side). Plus, members of both bands have been in open conflict with one another, when Radiohead defied Waters’ petition (and the BDS boycott) to play a 2017 show in Israel.
When fans move past the controversial politics and free albums or the iconic album sleeves and walls built on stages, what matters with both Pink Floyd and Radiohead is the music. What unites, instead of divides, these bands is that each can claim a catalog of insightful, dynamic and detailed works that often broke free of the limitations placed by popular music on prog- or art-rock. At their best, the albums aren’t merely catchy or exciting or emblematic of a point in time. As they continue to reside on the shelf of the greatest rock releases, they present critiques of society, opportunities to (re)consider the nature of things and the chance to do it with the assistance of a spacey guitar solo, bewitching electronic gurgle, keyboard soundscape or plaintive wail.
So are Radiohead this generation’s Pink Floyd? Sure. Maybe not. Shrug. As Yorke once sang, “Don’t get any big ideas, they’re not gonna happen.”