Celebrated for their forward-thinking approach to distributing their music – they famously pioneered the pay-what-you-like download with ‘In Rainbows’ – Radiohead chose the unexpectedly old-school medium of Radio 4’s Today Programme to debut their new song, ‘Harry Patch (In Memory Of)’ – although sadly they didn’t stick around for a chinwag with Evan Davies on the merits of the Private Finance Initiative.
The minimalist, lushly orchestral track is a tribute to Harry Patch, the last surviving British veteran of the First World War, who recently died age 111 (July 25), and was an outspoken chronicler of the horrors of The Somme.
It’s not the first time Radiohead have shown concern for the effects of war – in 1995 they donated the track ’Lucky’ to the ‘Help’ album in aid of the War Child charity, over a year a before the song appeared on ‘OK Computer’.
However, ‘Harry Patch (In Memory Of)’ marks the first time the band have tackled war explicitly in their lyrics.
Featuring only strings (scored by Jonny Greenwood) and Thom Yorke’s voice, the song is reminiscent of such stripped-down Radiohead ballads as ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’. It’s sung in the imagined first person voice of Harry Patch (in fact the lyrics are based on an interview he gave shortly before his death), and bears echoes of Wilfed Owen’s celebrated poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ in its focus on the dread of chemical warfare.
Entirely free of guitar, drums or electronic touches, ‘Harry Patch In Memoriam’ is a spellbinding and straightforwardly beautiful Radiohead song in the ‘No Surprises’ mould. It also marks a lyrical departure for Thom Yorke, who has until now steered clear of lyrical explicitness or writing in character, preferring to deal in abstractions.
The song is available to download from Radiohead.com, with profits going to the Royal British Legion.