This is one for the good days
Radiohead - 'Videotape' (In Rainbows - 2007)
Radiohead have always had a good track record with ending albums; we will see them feature at least three more times in the initial run of this Substack. 'Videotape' is possibly the best album closer the band have produced. It couldn't appear elsewhere on this album; it has to be the final track.
In Rainbows was Radiohead's seventh album, and despite being regarded as one of the best albums of the year on release, more words (both online and off) were dedicated to the release than the music. For anyone who doesn't know, it was released first digitally by the band themselves and then physically by XL Records with the MP3s (Wot? No Ogg Vorbis?!) being available on a pay-what-you-like mechanism.
I still remember when the album came out, 10th October 2007; I had taken the day off work and spent the morning listening to the album three times in a row. Then devouring the first stellar reviews that came in and excited chatter on the message boards of the day that passed for social media for music fans. Without being too hyperbolic, I'd heard the stories about windows being flung open the weekend that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released with the various songs pouring out of record players into the streets and sinking into a nation's consciousness. Many people listening to a record for the first time on release day and writing about it was a novelty by then. This was the era of Soulseek and YouSendIt files which meant that most releases that decade had been leaked far in advance of release date, and the only barriers to hearing them was fast enough broadband, knowing where to look and having enough space for the files. This landscape is expertly covered in Richard Witt's How Music Got Free, a Netflix series I'd dearly love to see.
On the day, with lots of people posting on message boards, it was fascinating to see which tracks took the lead in early views on the best tracks, generally the faster rockier tracks first, and then the likes of 'All I Need' and 'Videotape' started to grow on people.
The process of recording the song was, according to Yorke, "agony" as the song pivoted away from the version played live in 2006.
We would have these days where there were big breakthroughs and then suddenly… no. 'Videotape' to me was a big breakthrough, we tried everything with it. One day I came in and decided it was going to be like a fast pulse-like a four to the floor thing and everything was going to be built from that. We threw all this stuff at it. But then a couple of months later I went out and came back and Jonny and [producer] Nigel Godrich had stripped it back. He had this bare bones thing, which was amazing.
Some Radiohead fans are still disappointed with the way 'Videotape' evolved into something resembling a funeral march, much like 'Life in a Greenhouse’ on Amnesiac, and has the same end of life subject matter as 'Motion Picture Soundtrack that closes out Kid A. The 2006 live version from Bonnaroo sounds more like a festival anthem in the making
The track itself has that syncopated drumbeat where the song is in 4/4 time, but rather than having the piano on ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR, it is on one AND two AND three AND four AND one... This is all covered, including Thom Yorke struggling with the intro at 93 Feet East and how an audience struggles to clap along as they hit the numbers and not between them by Vox's on The Secret Rhythm behind Radiohead's 'Videotape' YouTube video.
The protagonist in 'Videotape' is dying; he is at an ending but has decided that he wants to face alone - "Because I can't do it face to face." so he chooses to be immortalised on videotape, the irony being that in 2007 VHS was a dead technology1. I'm not sure what the content of the video is, but I can imagine it as a Big Brotheresque look at your best bits which, if it was on VHS, would be sitting in a landfill a decade later.
There are also references to the mechanics of VHS itself. Red, blue and green is the colour theory that video uses to render images and cover all of the colour spectrum found in rainbows. More noticeably, Selway's drums start to loosen at the first time Yorke sings the title phrase. They start to spin away from the tightly syncopated rhythm, imitating an unspooling tape reel as the drums disintegrate into an impression of the TARDIS vworping.
Also on In Rainbows is the song 'Faust/Arp', and Goethe's Faust reoccurs in this song with Mephistopheles waiting to haul the protagonist away from the pearly gates. Faust realises how beautiful life is as he is dying, and Yorke also sings of a perfect day, implying it is a final one at the song's end.
Whilst being an excellent conclusion to a warm and vibrant album, Videotape isn't even an ending. In the same way, the protagonist feels his legacy will live on as he flourishes in the afterlife; the song's last moments are immediately picked up on 'MK 1' on the bonus second CD. You can even argue that it segues nicely into 'Bloom' at the start of The King of Limbs.
While telling BBC Radio 4 in 2008 that it was one of his favourite songs the band had recorded, he wanted the song first on In Rainbows. - I'm glad that wasn't the case.
It had to be the final track.
Ironically, the digital release of In Rainbows in October 2007 made the physical release in shops in January 2008 a somewhat subdued event. By this point, those who'd ordered the expensive deluxe editions already had them. I've often wondered how much extra money the band made from the very favourable USD to GBP exchange rate of $2.04:£1, jacking the price of the US Special Editions to $80. I would argue that the time between In Rainbows and when The Beatles released the CD remasters of their back-catalogue (09.09.09) is, for now, when I’d time the death of CDs.