‘Electioneering’ Puts Radiohead on the Campaign Trail

For as long as they’ve been in the spotlight, the members of Radiohead have never been shy about sharing their political opinions. But their songs mostly offer mere glances of those thoughts. For instance, while there is a thread of anti-capitalist sentiment on OK Computer, you’d be hard-pressed to wrangle an honest-to-goodness message song on the album.

The closest candidate might be “Electioneering,” which seems more direct in its political approach. It certainly has a blunt musical approach, with scratching electric guitar work from Jonny Greenwood and hurtling percussion from Phil Selway (plus a cowbell!). Unlike everything else on OK Computer, this hard rocker could have likely been at home on 1993’s Pablo Honey – although it might even be too blunt for Radiohead’s debut.

With a title like “Electioneering,” defined as the act of working hard to get elected, it’s not surprising that Thom Yorke’s lyrics had political inspirations. The singer revealed the multiple newsworthy events that influenced them.

“I was thinking of the Poll Tax riots when I wrote this – the moment when the horses broke through the barriers and everyone started smashing windows,” Yorke told Select. “It’s also from watching too many MPs on telly – you just get that feeling of, ‘Whoa, I’ve seen this once too many times.’”

Hear Radiohead Perform ‘Electioneering’

Over the grinding jangle of the music, Yorke mixes political footballs and battle armor – “Riot shields, voodoo economics / It’s just business, cattle prods and the I.M.F.” – while taking on the persona of one of those “MPs on telly.” He repeats the phrase, “I trust I can rely on your vote.”

But the singer isn’t merely playing the part of a politician. As much as the outside world was influencing “Electioneering,” Radiohead’s own experiences also played a role in the song’s creation. To the British rockers, the burdens of record promotion seemed similar to the campaign trail.

“When you have to promote your album for a longer period, in the United States for example, you fly around from city to city for weeks to meet journalists and record company people,” guitarist Ed O’Brien told Humo magazine. “After a while you feel like a politician who has to kiss babies and shake hands all day long … If Tony Blair can behave as a pop star, why shouldn’t we feel a bit like politicians?”

“Electioneering” was one of the first songs that Radiohead completed for OK Computer, recording it at the band’s Canned Applause studio in Oxford, before sessions moved to St. Catherine’s Court (where the majority of the album’s tracks were captured). It also made appearances during Radiohead’s 1996 tour, although in a slightly different form. The end of the song featured Yorke and O’Brien singing a refrain of “Doin’ it all” over and over in a bouncy bit of resolution. That “feel good” moment was left off the album version.

Watch Radiohead Perform an Early Version of “Electioneering”

Removing that tag from “Electioneering” meant that the song’s final words were Yorke’s repeatedly howled statement, “When I go forwards, you go backwards / And somewhere we will meet,” followed by a crush of guitars. The singer spoke about his vision of progress … or the lack thereof.

“The sentence ‘When I go forwards, you go backwards and somewhere we will meet’ is about: Not giving a damn about that bulls—,” he told Humo. “After a while, you get this attitude of, ‘You’re all in this circus, but I laugh with it.’ On the other hand, I do need those votes, of course.”

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They used to wish they were special. Now they’re the most artistically significant band of the past few decades.

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