The secret rhythm behind Radiohead's "Videotape"

3 months ago
Welcome to Vox Pop: Earworm! In my first episode of Earworm, I speak with Warren Lain. He's a Radiohead fan who also happens to be an incredibly talented ...

English subtitle

This story is about one of my favorite songs
by one of the most beloved bands in the entire world.
It begins on September 29, 2008 at a Radiohead show.
Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s frontman, is at the piano,
and he's about to play a song called “Videotape.”

Or, at least he's trying to.
"Temporary loss of information."
Thom Yorke, perhaps one of the most critically acclaimed musicians of his generation,
can’t seem to play four quarter notes.
"This tune called 'Videotape' that we’ve got
is just driving me crazy.
Absolutely crazy.
We kind of had an idea but we just couldn’t see it through."
The reason for all this is that this song draws its power
from a musical illusion.
"Radiohead are purposefully hiding something
in plain sight, or what you might say plain hearing."
That's Warren Lain.
He teaches his music students how to think
just like Radiohead.
"For him to struggle with that, it shows
that he's actually hearing
something a lot more complex."
The mystery is so deep that Warren made a 30 minute video
trying to decipher it.
"I was getting obsessed.
I was getting totally obsessed with this thing."
"Videotape" was officially released in 2007
but it wasn’t the first time fans had heard the song.
They were actually workshopping it in 2006,
most notably at Bonnaroo.
And it sounds completely different.
On fan forums, Reddit, and Youtube
there’s an endless debate over which one is better.
The Bonnaroo version is energetic and anthemic.

The album version sounds like a funeral march.

The two versions of the song couldn’t sound more different
but they actually share a common musical DNA.
And that DNA actually explains Thom’s messy start.
You see, the piano in "Videotape" is actually syncopated.
So to fully understand what’s going on here,
you have to know how to count music.
"The vast majority of contemporary music
is written in 4/4 time.
Which means there are 4 quarter notes in a measure.
The down beat carries the most amount of stress
and it anchors the rhythm of the song.
You can subdivide the 4 quarter notes into eighth notes
Those eighth notes can then be subdivided into sixteenth notes.
Try clapping on beats 2 and 4.

Seems easy, right?
Syncopation happens when you accent those notes
outside of the beat, on those “ands”.
And that is exactly what Thom Yorke is doing
with his piano to pull off this illusion.
"The piano should happen on beat one, but it’s doesn’t."
In Thom’s head, it’s shifted an eighth note ahead,
on the “and” between 4 and 1,
syncopating the entire rhythmic pulse of the song.
Here’s how you should’ve clapped.

"Have I already lost everybody
and no one's watching this video anymore?"
Probably, but let’s take a step back.
Syncopation is the backbone of a lot of genres of music,
to like afrobeat, funk, and jazz.
It’s meant to make music sound loose and fun,
and it’s really easy to spot in a song.

"That's kind of the heart of why syncopation is so cool.
Because it's interesting.
It kind of breaks up what otherwise would be
a more rhythmic monotony in a song."
So, if syncopation is so common
then why is it a challenge for him?
And if it is syncopated,
why does this rhythm sound so monotonous?

In Douglas Fields’ book "Why We Snap,"
he points out this very conundrum.
He says brain waves become phase shifted
so that the peak of the brain waves always occur
at a precise point relative to the next beat of a rhythm.
In short, rhythmic sound synchronizes the
brain waves of groups of people.
"So I'm going to do an impression, ok,
of what it sounds like to the audience members
that don't know that 'Videotape' is in fact syncopated.
So they hear the piano... ♪
their head goes one, two, three, four."
Or they clap on the wrong beat.
♪ [audience clapping] ♪
Radiohead is not just fighting their musical instincts
when they hear that piano,
they’re fighting against their own brain waves.
"As I went on and I looked deeper into this quagmire,
I found out that Phil had trouble
finding out where beat one was.
And I'm like, 'Phil's the drummer, what do you mean
you don't know where beat one was?'
In piano that's like not knowing where middle C is.
Here’s one reason why. Take a listen to this clip.

That kick drum —
an instrument usually reserved for establishing where the downbeat is —
isn’t playing on the downbeat, it’s playing with the piano.
"Hearing it as the end of 4 is,
especially without anything hitting on the downbeat,
that is complex.
That requires a really strong sense of internal rhythm
and the ability to kind of tune out
something else that’s screaming at you,
'this is the downbeat' and you say,
'no that’s not the downbeat.'"
That’s really the heart of it.
Thom’s piano, with that kick drum,
begins to take on the feeling of the beat.
And what gets established is pure deception.
"That is why Thom Yorke is struggling to play
in the '93 Feet East version.
"Right there, Johnny Greenwood is giving him a hi-hat
on beats two and four.
And so he'll try to play his piano not on
the hi-hat,
but just after the hi-hat."

"You're seeing a picture of a man who is using 100% of his mental energy
to try and get something just right."
Thom is playing his piano as if he's joining in
with something that's actually already playing.
And when you look for this, you can actually see it.
You can hear a little metronome very faintly
at the beginning and end of the song
if you turn the volume up.

"It's kind of like a train, and it's running,
and you're like, I gotta catch this train,
I gotta catch this train.
And if you miss it, you miss it.
And music can be very, very unforgiving like that.
As fans are bobbing their heads and even clapping like this,

The band is doing something totally different
to actually find the beat.
"Especially Colin Greenwood, the bass player.
"He is playing this really simple thing
and he's going like this.

He's just doing one of these, and it's just like
what, is he in a club right now?
I don't know if this guy knows he's playing a slow song.
If we simply superimposed a back beat in the right spot,
you’ll hear that club song they’re dancing to.

The appeal of syncopation is that you can hear it,
you can dance to it,
it serves as a rhythmic surprise in a song.
And that’s probably why Radiohead fans love the Bonnaroo version so much.
You can hear the syncopation.
"There's this moment in the song where it just kind of turns
from that subdued energy, and it just turns,
and it becomes frenetic.
And that moment I'm referring to is when Phil
starts to play a simple back beat.

And the only thing left for me to
acknowledge was,
if it is syncopated, why the hell did they bury it?
The only answer I could come up with is just because they really like it.
Because they really, really like amusing themselves and challenging themselves.
BBC Host: "Do you have a favorite song on the record?"
Thom "Uh, 'Videotape.'
I wanted to put it first, until someone pointed out that
if we did that, everybody would turn it straight off."
"You know how everybody thinks the song is kind of like"
The band actually hears it more like:
It's double the speed.
In fact, it's 154.78 BPM.
And don't ask me how long it took me to figure that out."