Radiohead’s ‘Hail To The Thief’ is 10 today (June 9). It’s often seen as a stop-gap album – or as Colin Greenwood put it, a “holding process” – casting one last look back at the indie of ‘The Bends’ and ‘Pablo Honey’. But it was never going to be another alt rock record, nor would the band meet pure electronic expectations post-‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’. ‘Hail’ assimilated instruments with laptops and laid down some pretty experimental, challenging sounds. So much so that the album’s never had quite the same amount of adoration as the others. Last year it was ranked last in an NME poll and at the time reviews weren’t bad at all, but they weren’t typically ecstatic.
The most common criticism of the album – from both fans and the band itself, retrospectively – is its length. In 2008, Yorke posted an alternative tracklisting on W.A.S.T.E that left out “A Punchup at a Wedding”, “We Suck Young Blood”, “I Will” and “Backdrifts”. Judging by interviews afterwards, it was a difficult period for Radiohead. “I think we had a meltdown when we put it together,” Yorke told Spin in 2006.
To celebrate the album a decade on, I spoke to producer Nigel Godrich about the story behind the album and the parts he’s most proud of.
I think there’s some great moments on there – but too many songs. I think that’s kind of agreed amongst the camp these days but at the time it was just what happened. I love ‘Sit Down, Stand Up’ and ‘Go To Sleep’ but there’s a lot on there on which I think I could have done a better job. I guess it’s always like that. As a whole I think it’s charming because of the lack of editing. But personally it’s probably my least favourite of all the albums
The album was the 6th and final due in Radiohead’s fraught record deal with EMI. ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ had been recorded over a long period of 18 months in the studio and they were looking to make an album in a more spontaneous way. They headed to Hollywood at the suggestion of Godrich:
I had worked at Ocean Way in LA with Beck and had an incredible experience, as it’s an incredible studio. It was really an environment I hadn’t ever been in before and I was eager to get the Radiohead guys out there as I knew it could work for us too and be a good change of scenery. So we did a two week session and most of the meat and potatoes of the record in that time. It was very fast moving and very fruitful. We were aiming to do a track a day, and we kind of did it. After that we came home and re-did some stuff, did some new stuff and added things to the LA recordings. But some of the original rough mixes from those first sessions are what you hear on the record. About a third of them actually!
His clearest memory? “Thom repeatedly telling me just how much he hated LA.”
The wonder of the record, in my mind, is the friction between recorded instruments and sounds made electronically. It’s an exciting and vital merging of man and machine, though in occasionally crude and uncomfortable ways. Godrich was sceptical:
I kind of don’t [think it works]. In a way that’s the criticism I would have of it. It didn’t really have it’s own direction. It was almost like a homogeny of previous work. Maybe that’s it’s strength..?
It was certainly conscious though, and, as Yorke suggested to MTV, unavoidable:
The last two studio records [Kid A and Amnesiac] were a real headache… we had spent so much time looking at computers and grids, we were like, ‘That’s enough. We can’t do that anymore.’ This time, we used computers, but they had to actually be in the room with all the gear. So everything was about performance, like staging a play
‘Hail To The Thief’s genius lies in this sense of drama. It’s a weird record, that’s for sure – a stuffed gland of neuroses and paranoia, lyrically and sonically – but its intensity is electric, and, in my mind, it’s one of the most magnificent moments of the band’s career.
It opens with Johnny Greenwood plugging in his guitar. “We’re on,” he says, against flickering feedback, to which Thom replies, “that’s a nice way to start, Johnny.” For a second, the listener is in the studio with Radiohead, party to their personal chatter, before being swept off by ‘2+2=5’. Whether the comment was meant seriously or not, it’s apt, immediately introducing the crucial sense of theatre that percolates through the rest of the album.
From the Dante’s Inferno inspired ‘2+2=5’, ‘Hail’ unravels like some kind of 21st century Dystopian fairytale. With “Welcome to the jaws of hell/ We can wipe you out anytime,” ‘Sit Down, Stand Up’ builds this sense of suffocation and control. “We’re rotten fruit/ We’re damaged goods/What the hell, we’ve got nothing more to lose,” Backdrifter shrugs, set against an otherwordly sine wave. The use of synths instead of guitar for the crunchy, winding riff turn ‘Myxomatosis’ into a sci-fi film about zombie rabbits. ‘We Suck Young Blood’, oft suggested as a track that could’ve been omitted, rises and falls like the climax in an opera. ‘The Gloaming’ is a bleak sketch of the witching hour that brims with dislocating anxiety (Yorke once said it was his favourite track on the album).
Yet this dark undercurrent’s shot through with with flashes of light relief. As soon as the opening chords of ‘Go To Sleep’ thump out in the sturdy key of G after the first act, we relax a little, the harmonic warmth continuing through ‘Where I End And You Begin’. ‘There There’ is more of a traditional Radiohead odyssey, stylish and tight, but also appealing to non-Radiohead fans – the single reached number 4 in the UK chart.
The lyrics paint a fantasy-like pantomime, with Thom setting himself up as some kind of character keen not to “wake the monster taking over” or give something to “the rag and bone man”. It’s a surreal world with sound effects (the vocal siren in ‘There There’) and even a quasi-rap from Yorke in ‘Wolf At The Door’. Post-2001 and the American Election, people assumed the title of the album referred to George W. Bush and it was a political/protest album. Yorke claimed it wasn’t, and that the title referred to John Quincy Adams, the 19th century US President.
So how does the album fare in 2013? Yes, it could’ve done with some editing. Had it been honed at the time, it would be even greater. But it still has moments of sublime beauty and the histrionic undertone adds to its strength. Yorke’s tears when he heard the finished ‘There There’ were totally justified. “I just thought it was the best thing we had ever done,” he told the BBC. So, happy birthday Hail To The Thief, an album that conveys more emotion than many bands do in their lifetime, even if Radiohead don’t think it’s perfect.
What do you think or love about the album a decade on? Let us know in the comments below