In Defense of Radiohead
The King of Limbs Deserves a Listen

I’ve just heard about the death of Nicholas Courtney.

Most of you are probably wondering just who Courtney is. But Doctor Who fans everywhere are having a sad, sad day today. For more than 40 years, off and on, Courtney played Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, commander of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, a regular foil to the anti-establishment Doctor. The Brig was one of the most beloved Who characters ever, and that’s down to the dignity and grace with which Courtney played him.

The Brig first appeared in 1968’s The Web of Fear, and was characterized as a tough, no-nonsense military man. But when he became a recurring character with 1970’s Spearhead from Space, the first story of the Third Doctor’s era, the writers began realizing that Courtney was very funny, in a subtle way. Courtney got some of the funniest scenes and lines of 1970s Who, the most famous of which came in 1971’s The Daemons: “Jenkins! Chap with wings there. Five rounds rapid!” (It’s funnier in context.)

Courtney drifted away from the show after 1975’s Terror of the Zygons, but they always found clever ways of bringing him back. He played two versions of the Brigadier from two different time periods in 1983’s Mawdryn Undead, and came out of retirement to face an evil witch from Britain’s mythical past in 1989’s Battlefield. His last appearance was in 2008, in the Sarah Jane Adventures story Enemy of the Bane. Courtney was much older and softer than we’d seen him before, but he still had that twinkle, that sense of mischief that he always brought to the character.

And Courtney was reportedly every inch the kindly gentleman off-screen as well. I wish I’d had the chance to meet him. Nick Courtney died Tuesday at the age of 81. I’ve been a fan of his since I was seven years old, and this news just knocked the wind out of me. Rest in peace, Brigadier. You will be missed.

Here is a brief obituary by Doctor Who DVD producer Ed Stradling.

* * * * *

Lately I’ve found myself in an interesting position: I’m defending Radiohead.

Specifically, the band’s eighth album, The King of Limbs, which has lit the Internet on fire over the past six days. As usual with Radiohead, it’s either a masterpiece or a disaster, a work of art or a swindle of the highest order, Thom Yorke’s labor of love or his continued insistence on flipping off his longtime fans. There is no middle ground with Radiohead, no option of simply saying, “Meh. Whatever.”

What’s surprising me most this time is which side I’m coming down on.

I’ve been pretty vocal in the past about my disdain for Radiohead’s post-OK Computer work. They went from creating the greatest album of the 1990s to wallowing in remote, simple electronic nothings, and along the way, forgot how to write songs. And man, they used to write magnificent songs. Dazzling multi-part epics with soaring choruses and stunning buildups and breakdowns. Even something simple like “Just” is superior to most guitar-rock you’ll hear these days, and when they really let loose (“Paranoid Android,” “Karma Police”), they were unstoppably great.

It’s taken me more than 10 years to stop hating Kid A, the first of their synths-and-no-songs releases. I remember hearing it for the first time (a week early, in a planetarium) and thinking, “They have to be kidding.” I despised it from the first, and couldn’t understand where the band that crafted OK Computer had gone. Over time, I’ve warmed to it, but not too much – I still never again have to hear “The National Anthem,” or “Treefingers,” or “Idioteque.” I wanted songs, and I got loops and atmospheres.

Amnesiac, released a year later, was even worse. Sonic squiggles alongside repetitive beats-and-moans sculptures, with only a couple of redeeming tunes (“Pyramid Song,” “I Might Be Wrong,” “Knives Out”) to its name. And since then, it’s been like listening to a formerly great band stop trying. I liked Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows, but neither one knocked me out. I think In Rainbows is the best thing Radiohead has done since 1997 by a country mile, and it’s still not half as good as The Bends.

In Rainbows was also the first album the band self-released through its website, which is becoming its modus operandi. Last Friday, The King of Limbs hit the web, 24 hours before it was scheduled to be released. This time, instead of offering a pay-what-you-want model, Radiohead gave us two options: a nine-dollar download, or a 48-dollar limited edition “newspaper album,” that includes two vinyl records and hundreds of pieces of artwork. (The standard CD and vinyl editions will be in stores on March 29.)

So I paid my nine dollars, but I have to say, I wasn’t overly excited about it. Deep down, I hoped this would be the album that finally renewed my faith in this band, but I didn’t have very high expectations for it. Those expectations were lowered even further when I saw the track listing: eight songs, 37 minutes. The shortest Radiohead album ever. That didn’t do much to convince me they’d knocked themselves out trying on this one.

But as The King of Limbs unspooled for the first time, I found myself getting wrapped up in it. At first blush, it sounds like Amnesiac meets Thom Yorke’s solo record The Eraser, and given that, I ought to hate it. But I don’t. And each time I listen, I find more to appreciate and enjoy. This is the furthest thing from The Bends and OK Computer they’ve made, and yet, it’s the first one that convinced me that they’re on to something, that this experimentation has finally borne fruit.

I’m not sure how to explain it. It’s not the use of organic instruments alongside the electronic pitter-patter, because they’ve always done that. This album has horns and strings and acoustic guitars galore, but so did Kid A. But I think Yorke and company have finally figured out how to balance their cold electronic side with their warm and human one, and The King of Limbs is the first one that gets it right. I don’t feel distanced from this album at all. I feel drawn in by it, particularly the gorgeous second half.

But it’s in the first half where Radiohead makes most of their great leaps forward. The opener, “Bloom,” could have fit on The Eraser – the drums are cut and spliced, likely from Phil Selway’s actual playing, into a nearly dubstep rhythm, and Colin Greenwood’s bass is muted and processed into a strange, almost jazzy tone. Thom Yorke uses that amazing voice to meander over a simple and repetitive melody. It shouldn’t work. But then the strings come in, and Yorke hits those higher notes, and somehow, it does.

“Morning Mr. Magpie” is even better, based on a galloping guitar figure and more of those folded, spindled and mutilated drums. It sounds like a live band put through a bank of computers, and made to resemble something more electronic. The chorus is low-key and easy to miss, and I wish the song had gone a few more places – it’s the “Bodysnatchers” or “Where You End and I Begin” of this album. But the more I listen, the more I like it, particularly the ambient breakdown in the middle.

Still, I found myself thinking at this point that Radiohead had delivered another so-so release, one that would get a middling review from me. Two tracks later, “Feral” dropped my spirits even more. It’s a pointless loops-and-sounds instrumental, the kind of thing that probably creeps up onto Yorke’s hard drive without much effort. With only eight songs, The King of Limbs could scarcely afford to throw one away on something like this.

Luckily for me and the band, sandwiched between those two tracks is one of the best post-OK Computer Radiohead songs, the great “Little By Little.” Spanish guitar surrounded by electronic sounds, Yorke digging into a real, honest-to-god chorus, some finely detailed production – this song is a little wonder. Again, I hear more each time I listen, and the rich sonic depth isn’t just confined to this one track. The King of Limbs was clearly labored over. It’s an airy album, but a thick one, and the sonic detail is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention to it.

The first half is an important step in Radiohead’s evolution, but the second half contains the gems. These four songs – “Lotus Flower,” “Codex,” “Giving Up the Ghost” and “Separator” – are my favorite they’ve done since OK Computer, especially in sequence. You’ve no doubt heard “Lotus Flower” by now, and may have seen the ridiculous video that accompanies it. It is, bar none, the sexiest and slinkiest tune to bear the Radiohead name, Yorke stretching that silky falsetto over a juicy synth bass and Selway’s deceptively funky drumming. It’s the one that gets stuck in my head the most.

But the last three… they’re the most heartrendingly beautiful tracks I’ve heard from this band in more than a decade. “Codex” finds Yorke digging into a gorgeous melody over phased-out piano and some subtle, yearning horns, and it moved me like little else in this band’s catalog. If you were upset with them for ruining “Videotape” with random percussion, you’ll love this. It’s organic and beautiful, and it’s matched by “Give Up the Ghost,” which circles around a delicate guitar figure. When Yorke gets to the title phrase, it raises goosebumps. It’s absolutely lovely.

And then comes “Separator,” a very simple and optimistic song, but one that works brilliantly at the close of this album. “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong,” Yorke croons over a practically soulful beat and bassline, before hitting these lines: “Like I’m falling out of bed from a long and weary dream, finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying.” It’s a long way from the paranoid fantasies of OK Computer to this, but it feels hard-fought, and well-earned.

I would never suggest that The King of Limbs is a return to form for Radiohead. If you’re waiting for them to recapture the soaring genius of their early works, you won’t find that here. This is the furthest the band has tunneled into their own rabbit hole, and those who consider them pretentious and overhyped probably won’t find much to change their minds.

But it works for me. For the first time since 1997, what they’re doing makes sense, and inspires me. I have no idea if you’ll hear the same thing in this little record, but I feel like The King of Limbs is the one on which (most) every piece of their jigsaw falls into place. Like the music itself, the advances the band makes here are subtle ones, but they make all the difference in the world. I’m happy to defend this album – it has worked its way under my skin like nothing this band has done in nearly 15 years.

I like Radiohead again. Who’d have thunk it?

Next week, women rule the school, with new ones by Eisley, Lykke Li and Julianna Barwick. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow my infrequent twitterings at

See you in line Tuesday morning.