Advanced Riffs: Radiohead 1997-2011

Locomotive 2“Riff” is a term of uncertain origin and very loose usage. The theory that it’s an abbreviation of “refrain” (as part of a song) is plausible, given that repetition is the premise and in some sense the goal of riffing.[1] I’d like to tighten up the definition so that we can focus on a distinctive major asset a rock song can have. A riff, I submit, is a much-repeated motif dominating a song’s rhythm and bass parts that also has significant melodic interest, so that there’s a kind of short-circuit surprising charge to it as these diverse song-values come together. It feels like The Very Principle of The Song thrust unexpectedly in your face, repeating every four beats (“You Really Got Me”) or taking eight beats (“Satisfaction”)–long enough to be of melodic interest and short enough to be powerfully repetitive. Unlike various sorts of strong motif that are allotted their particular moments, the true riff carries large portions of the song, including verses. (“Purple Haze,” no; “Whole Lotta Love,” yes.)

A riff can strike us as pleasingly Simple, as in all the examples I’ve given so far, or as impressively Advanced. For me, as for many guitar and bass beginners through the years, the original Advanced Riff is in “Day Tripper”(The Beatles, 1965).

“Day Tripper”

It’s hugely satisfying to play that figure once, twice, endlessly, and to meet the coordination challenge of singing the song over it.

A proper riff is a signature statement and a sturdy mobile platform – like a locomotive that will pull your train however long you want it to. “Sweet Home Alabama,” possibly the gold standard of radio-ready riffing, goes on almost five minutes, and you may not be averse to hearing it again.

Speaking of radio, the most consistently interesting band for riffs may be Radiohead. Surprising in retrospect, they did not start out living by the riff. They’re not doing it yet on Pablo Honey (1993) or The Bends (1995). In the last track on The Bends, “Street Spirit,” we hear a familiar device closely akin to riffing–the repeated articulation of a chord that lodges in your mind as a main physiognomic feature of the song. But that figure isn’t vying for melodic status or grabbing at the beats the way a riff does.

“Street Spirit”

With OK Computer (1997) we’re suddenly in a different world in many ways, including riffwise. “Airbag” hits us right off with a blaring motif with great riff potential –

“Airbag” beginning

although no, that motif won’t actually be used as a riff. It’s Track 2, “Paranoid Android,” that defines the mature Radiohead approach and is built on a beautifully phased-in riff sounding at first  like this:

“Paranoid Android” 1

Which turns out to be a teasing anticipation of the loud version:

“Paranoid Android” 2

A few tracks later, “Electioneering” gives you a robust riff possibility as an opening statement and then constantly reminds you of it, barely keeping a lid on it, during the verse – making it a Latent Riff:


Radiohead amazed the world with their next move after OK Computer, the electronica-oriented Kid A (2000). Listen to the spooky opener, “Everything In Its Right Place”:

“Everything In Its Right Place”

It’s a riff! An interestingly borderline riff, just barely melodic and rhythm-accenting enough to qualify. Throughout Kid A Radiohead plays with the subtle difference between riff and background pattern, between vaguely melodic propulsion and submelodic texture. With many of these tracks, depending on your mood you can feel either the strongarming of a riff or the sliding-by of a pattern (e.g. in “In Limbo,” aptly named for my point):

“In Limbo”

“National Anthem” is a boldly riff-driven number where the riff is obviously a bass line first picked out on a guitar but then played as though it were an electronic loop in a process piece. A nice touch: as “National Anthem” transitions into the horn frenzy of its last half, the first horn we hear is a traditional honking saxophone reminding us of the grand heritage of riffing:

“National Anthem”

“Pyramid Song” (Amnesiac, 2001) offers a slow-motion piano-chord riff that is nothing like guitar-bass rock riffing–until after two minutes the bass finally comes in to prove that all along this has been precisely a dreamy revisit of “Satisfaction”:

“Pyramid Song”

Once you latch on to the riff, your experience of the song fundamentally changes. A train engine is taking you someplace.

“Go To Sleep”  (Hail to the Thief, 2003) begins with a deceptively folky guitar pattern, something on the order of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”:

“Go To Sleep” 1

Quickly enough, you can tell it’s a riff. It declares its riffing nature even while confounding your perception of its time-structure (it’s in 10 in the first section, till 1:23 in the song).

“Go To Sleep” 2

Once it settles down to measures of 4, they show you the pure motor in it:

“Go To Sleep” 3

At the end the fade-out gently confirms your hunch that the same motor has been the essence of the riff throughout.

“Go To Sleep” 4

“Bodysnatchers” (In Rainbows, 2007) starts out very much in “Day Tripper” mode, stating the riff and then singing over it:

“Bodysnatchers” beginning

Then a chorus gets layered over the riff feel (the riff’s melodic part drops out but is still implied by the continuing percussion pattern), so you get the relentless reliability and the chorus’s enlivening change all together.

“Bodysnatchers” chorus

Will Radiohead ever quit riffing? The evidence of their last album is that they will not. You can’t tell at first; the opening tracks of King of Limbs (2011), “Bloom” and “Morning Mr. Magpie,” have patterns, not riffs (do you agree?):


But the riff is back in track 3, “Little By Little.” (Do you agree? This is an extraordinarily long one, four measures.)

“Little By Little”

In my estimation, Radiohead’s riffing train is still rolling.


As reverent students of the riff we should not leave our subject without saluting a prime historical source and overflowing fountain of riffing, the Count Basie Orchestra. Their riff mania starts at 2:08 in this youtube for “One O’Clock Jump.” It raises the question, can rockers go polyphonic with their riffing? Can riffs be layered and braided Count Basie-style? Or does that defeat the take-charge purpose of a rock riff?

Listen to Stevie Wonder getting a similar effect in “Superstition”:

“Superstition” end

[1] The expression “riffing on,” such as might be done by a comedian, implies an idea being used as a base for a series of forays, but now the “riffs” are the forays rather than the base. In music, riffing is what maintains the base.

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Classic Unique: Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine” (2005)

Extra extra extra ordinaryOur words wait quietly in the dictionary with their meanings ready, paws tucked under. When we take them out,  sometimes we try to make them sit still there, there, and there, like in info-speak; or let them run, like in poetry; or we jerk on their leashes orally for a momentary effect, like in every third or fourth moment in live conversation.

It’s a human imperative not to let live conversation seem run-of-the-mill, and so we inflect many words, especially pronouns, to make them seem unique in that moment: “Thenk YEW!”

Some words have to be said nonstandardly because that’s their (standard) meaning. “Unique,” for example, needs to be a shriek, “yew-NEEK!”

As we go blathering and listening along, we unconsciously put together a performance dictionary of special-enough ways of saying the standard nonstandards. Popular music contributes heavily to this dictionary. Whenever it’s time to make “you” sound special, especially in reproach or wheedling mode, I’ve got Dylan’s “Didn’t yewwww?” in “Like A Rolling Stone” to draw on.

Here’s a beauty:  “extraordinary” in Fiona Apple’s song (at 1:03 in the clip).

“Extraordinary Machine” first 2 verses & chorus

It’s an extraordinarily difficult word because of the fast pace at which the words are coming out and the big jump (an octave) up to the impossible syllable following “ex,” which phonetically is something like “st[r]au[r].”

The word feels really good, and not just as a vocal-melodic lark with a touch of big-city impudence; it strikes us as a justified comment on the quality of rhyming and phrasing and philosophizing that we’ve heard in the song so far.

Apple’s “extraordinary” is one of the many items in my performance dictionary that’s aspirational—I can’t actually perform it. But I have it ready to jump in my imagination.

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The Thought of Wising Up: Aimee Mann, “Wise Up” (1996)

ClaudiaClaudia singing along with “Wise Up” in Magnolia

Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” is a magnificent example of deep effects achieved by simple means.

At first the music seems to consist of nothing but a lovely G major 9th chord. That is the regular G-B-D plus F-sharp plus A—really a G major chord spliced together with a D major chord. Here one chord works as two, an alternation between G and D being suggested by playing just those F-sharp and A notes that belong to D every other measure. Over the piano a vocal melody shoots upward to that high A (it’s not/what you thought . . .) that’s a bit displaced in relation to a G chord but right at home in a D.

It’s surely one of the greatest of all first chords, and the first of two great hooks. The song works powerfully right off the bat. The initial hook is a question: which of the two superposed chords, and which implied key, is me? G with displacement or D as home?

We’re taken then to another place – not the answer to the question, but the framing of the feeling of the possibility of an answer, a sweetly serious realizing that a person could, before the game is over, wise up. The song puts a move on us without spoiling its enchanting simplicity. It sets up a repetition of the phrase we expect to be penultimate, the phrase that ought to precede the chorus’s resolution because it uses the teaser of going from G to E major:

It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop

and there could very well be a third time just the same, after which we’d go from the E (the fifth of A) to an A (the fifth of D)

[till] you wise . . .

in order to pivot in the usual way back back to home chord D:


That’s not what happens. Instead, the third time starts straight up with D, a gentle surprise, followed by A, C, and G, making up the grand four-chord progression of I, V, bVII, and IV in the key of D.[1]

not     going to stop till you wise . . .

The words are still “It’s not going to stop,” but putting the four-chord platform under it turns it from a yearning or oppressed feeling into a positively stated thought, a view, a thesis even, which in the melancholy world of “Wise Up” is tremendously hopeful.


[1] On four-chord progressions see the post Triumphant Return to Four Chords.

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The Greatest Point: Nilsson, “The Most Beautiful World In The World” (1972)

Even joke music means something, right? Because otherwise, why go to the trouble of striking a jokey attitude? You’re making some kind of run at what you’re joking about. It’s all for fun, we know, but . . . what is your point?

Harry Nilsson raises this question constantly with his almost relentlessly facetious yet affecting work. He even raises the question “What’s the point of having a point?” on his album The Point!

The final track on the parody-fest Son of Schmilsson is “The Most Beautiful World In The World,” which obviously grows out of the philosophical humor of the title—treating the ultimate frame of reference as a thing within that frame of reference. David Hume noted in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion that you can’t judge our world to be intelligently designed because you have no way of comparing the making of worlds to distinguish better design from worse.[1] The world is what we got, period (WWGP). So apparently Nilsson jumped up from reading Hume and thought he’d explore the absurdity of evaluating the big WWGP.

The point is, you’re equipped with this word, “world,” and you’re intent on having a relationship with what the word refers to, with you turning to It (or preferably He or She) and It/He/She turning toward you, even though “world” is just “what is” and there can be no choice about it. It’s so strange. You can

Tell her she’s beautiful  [and]
Roll the world over
And give her a kiss and a feel

 The song starts as a Caribbean spoof (remember the “lime in the coconut” on Nilsson Schmilsson?), which would be sufficiently entertaining. But at its midpoint it pivots to another style entirely. After a few lines of a vague sort of song prologue we’re no longer used to, it becomes clear that for some reason we’ve been switched to a Tin Pan Alley idiom of the 1930’s, very refined and romantic. This too is parody, of course, but in juxtaposition with the earthy faux-Jamaican sound of the first part it comes across as seriously meant. There’s a direct assessment of the philosophical situation in the lines

And though there are times when I doubt you
I just couldn’t stay here without you

Does Nilsson puncture the dream of seriousness with “Roll the world over/And give her a kiss and a feel”? Or is that precisely where he makes his point?


[1] “Have worlds ever been formed under your eye?” David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part II, p. 324 in Essential Works of David Hume, ed. Ralph Cohen (New York: Bantam, 1965). Much the same point is made in Hume’s classical model, The Nature of the Gods by Cicero.

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The Ten-Year Hook: The Rolling Stones, “Rocks Off” (1972)

As the poetically inevitable result of my complaint about The Trouble with Horns, Matt Smith made me a mix of great horn parts in rock (posted now in Mixes).

When “Rocks Off” by the Rolling Stones came on, I wondered forgetfully what the great horn thing would be—I mean, we already have “Honky Tonk Women” and “Bitch” to consider, and anyway, I prefer to keep my distance from Exile on Main Street. But then it happened, and I remembered: the horn event is great because it turns the nondescript buzz of an Exile track into a true song with a chorus. It’s the big stone that lets you cross the creek. It’s the blaring high note first heard at 1:12:

My reunion with this hook was indeed happy, although I don’t want to hear it again anytime soon. Maybe ten years from now would be about right. (I exaggerate, for the sake of my title.)

This raises the question, Can there really be hooks on ten-year cycles – that is, elements of songs that you love hearing again, but only at super-long intervals? Does this go against the whole idea of loving something?

The parallel question may be more important: do you have dear friends you’d prefer to see only once every ten years?

Well, ten years is too long, but with both hooks and friends there are clearly different rhythms of love. You’d probably like your very favorites to be daily fare but others more like weekly or monthly or, in some cases, yes, just annually. How could there be a longer interval than that with enough loving consciousness to qualify its object as a hook, and not just a pleasant surprise?

Listening to “Rocks Off,” I realize how this sometimes works. The song seems to me mumbly and murky and only potentially a song until its horn hook redeems it. If I listened to it every day I’d be increasingly conscious of everything in it that rubs me the wrong way. (And whose fault is the wrong-rubbing?) So it is with my long-cycle friends as well. They’ve got that great sound I need to hear again – once in a while. It can be part of the hook to be aware of, even committed to, that long-cycle, high-school-reunion rhythm of exposure.

Here’s another great horn hook that I need NOT to hear every day, the explosion of free blowing in the last three minutes of “The National Anthem” by Radiohead, starting at 2:54:

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Experimental: Pere Ubu, “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” (1975)


You’re in a hole-in-the-wall record shop rooting around in a singles bin and you find a release by Pere Ubu (Pere Ubu!) called “30 Seconds Over Tokyo.” That’s the hook, for starters: you don’t know why an underground Cleveland band in 1975 would pick up this shard of World War II history, and you’re ready for a cool juxtaposition or non sequitur, whatever it is. You know it ain’t going to be no Ballad of Jimmy Doolittle (captain of the famous raid).

What’s intriguing, as it turns out, is that it kind of is a ballad of Jimmy Doolittle. The words take you through the raid from a slightly delirious pilot’s perspective, and before it’s over the synthesizer even mimics the drone of the B-25 engines.

The sun a hot circle on a canopy
The ’25 a racing blot on a bright green sea
Ahead the dim blur of an alien land
Time to give ourselves to strange gods’ hands

And the music style in the verse is Black Sabbath-y—not predictable, in this context, but not what you’d call provocative either. Still, you are made to puzzle over what it all means because of the borderline insanity of singer David Thomas’s delivery and the disturbing electronic commentary of Allen Ravenstine. The band is fulfilling its promise to be EXPERIMENTAL. You and the band are collaborating to see what happens when you mix ingredients that don’t come together naturally. The music as you’re now experiencing it is that event. That’s the principal hook. More than anything, it’s the attitude: everyone here is ready to try something!

A great experimental band like Pere Ubu also creates replayable hooks inside the track where you’re vividly aware of the mad scientists at work and impressed by their results. I find the unleashing of sounds as we come out of the second verse stanza (the one quoted above) really lovely:

“Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” 1

The song has made the “one way ride” of the B-25s [1] your model for contemplating this thing called life, in some of its most alienating aspects; then in the last section the electronics do tremendous things to make you feel the engine- and radio-noise qualities of this life:

“Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” 2

Here’s what’s become of it, as of 2013. Robert Wheeler playing theremin is fun to watch (coming in at 1:45):


The categories of experimenting and improvising are interestingly related, I think.

You can see that David Thomas is the right poster boy for experimentalism from the way he talks about the beginnings of Pere Ubu on the liner notes of Terminal Tower:

Pere Ubu was assembled to record these songs [including “30 Seconds Over Tokyo”] and maybe others. Rehearsals yielded “Heart Of Darkness” and indicated that this combination of personalities could produce an interesting music.

He’s striking the mad scientist note. Experimentalism is defined by trying new combinations of known things (a sound, an instrument, a kind of song, a personality), whereas improvisation is defined by playing freely enough to let new music emerge (see the earlier post on this). Obviously Pere Ubu’s music owes a lot to improvisation for its development, and the players keep improvising to keep the songs interesting. It would be a very strange experimental group that didn’t improvise. But I wouldn’t have used “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” as an example of improvisation.

Conversely, if you look under the hood of improvising—say, in the mind of Jimi Hendrix while producing his Woodstock improvisations—you will surely see a lot of conscious experimentation. He isn’t just gushing out new notes, he’s working with combinations: this chord change at that earlier point, that sound effect in this section, etc. But we hear him as an improviser because he convincingly owns the new music expressively. The trial-and-error assemblage is hidden from us. There are errors in there, or anyway unintended effects, but they’re fitted into the flow.

In pure experimentation there are duds but there is no such thing as an error. You wanted to see what would happen and you saw what happened. Perhaps you wanted to try everything—now you are one step closer to your goal.


[1] The bombers couldn’t carry enough fuel to return to base, so they had to land in China. That mostly didn’t work out very well.

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Forward Progress: Suddenly, Tammy!, “Hard Lesson” (1995)

Freeway forward progressIf you think “Hard Lesson” is a great album opener because it gets you charged up in a forward-moving way, if you’re amazed at how it pulls together all the lanes and overpasses when you play it on the freeway, then let’s talk:

Suddenly, Tammy!, “Hard Lesson”

We start with this simple syncopation, showing the slingshot effect of hitting beats early in the piano notes:

bum BUM……..BUM………bum BUM

Already changed up in the second measure:

bum BUM………bum BUM………BUM

And then a three-note group in the third measure brings the chord change with a gentle right hook:

bum bum bum BUM………bum  BUM

Measure 5, the piano left hand continues the same but the right hand starts chopping chords like this, adding to the rhythmic texture:

……………..chop……….chop………..chop chop

but varying the pattern, of course, in measure 7 and beyond – OK, I’ll stop. The point is, by these simple means we’ve been convinced in just a few seconds that the song is going to keep us moving forward with a steady pulse while poking up and down and in and out unpredictably within the four-beat box. “Hard Lesson” sounds genuinely unwilling to turn its rhythm gestures into a groove that you could take for granted. The singer and bass keep mixing up their patterns in the same spirit—they have lots to tell us. All while driving steadily with the drums around 60 miles an hour.

Coherence in bouncing around together forward is a life ideal: it’s seeing all your friends having good times at your party. “Hard Lesson” is compelling in this way because its variations stay in a sweet pop vein. We’re not talking about the raspy irregularity of a Deerhoof piece that kicks pop form around:

Deerhoof, “God 2″ (2014)

Precisely because “Hard Lesson” is thoroughly pop, it ruffles the pop waters more affectingly than anything that sounds experimental. Here we’re accepting the pop norm that heavily suppresses forward progress—the guarantee of compact hooks that show up quickly and return again and again with their shots of pleasure right on cue—but under this regime we’re progressing anyway.

Compare how Suddenly, Tammy! use the same resources to create more of a circling effect in “Whole Lotta Girl” (on the lost album Comet). This is nice too.

“Whole Lotta Girl”

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