Secrets of the Radiohead Set List

Photo: Hee Jin Kang

Radiohead, currently on a nineteen-date tour of the U.S. and Canada, has played over 800 shows without repeating a set. “One of the worst things in music is when bands play the same set every night,” says Ed O’Brien, who plays guitar and sings backup vocals for the group. “We did about three and a half weeks on the road with Alanis Morissette just before we went to the studio for OK Computer—she played the same set every single night, and they’d been touring for like fifteen months. Her musicians literally went mad.”

Along with front man Thom Yorke and drummer Phil Selway, O’Brien puts together set lists after lunch on the day of each show. “For this tour, we have about fifteen new songs, and before the tour, we went through a list of about 100 old ones, then whittled it down and rehearsed 45 songs, and we draw from those.” We asked O’Brien to go through the list after last Tuesday’s show at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

(1) You and Whose Army?
(a haunting, slow song)
We’ve been able to open with these songs ’cause we’re playing all theaters on this tour—it’s intimate, so you don’t have to come out all guns blazing. Although there were a few hecklers last night. It’s a North American phenomenon. You know, “Hey, Thom!” In Japan, it never happens. In Europe, people tell them to shut up.

(2) 2 + 2 = 5
One of the things that marks our band—that Thom and Jonny used to drive home all the time—is sounding different. You can do it through stuff like using unusual intervals on harmonies [in songs like “2 + 2 = 5”]. The trouble with a lot of rock music is that people are still doing their Beatles and their Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young harmonies. You can’t just keep making replications of those things.

(3) 15 Step/Morning Bell
Putting “15 Step” and “Morning Bell” together was deliberate. “15 Step” is in 5/4 and “Morning Bell” is in 7/8 [both rarely used rhythmic structures]. It’s nice to have a bit of clapping, a bit of audience participation, if they can get the beat. In Spain, they love “Morning Bell”—all the fast clapping is like flamenco music. But in the West, we’re not very rhythm-savvy. Anything not in 4/4 is hard for a lot of people.

(4) Fake Plastic Trees/Climbing Up the Walls
Last night, when we played “Fake Plastic Trees,” we hadn’t played anything off OK Computer or The Bends. It had been all new stuff, it had been Kid A–Hail to the Thief–Amnesiac stuff. Sometimes people need reassurance. About nine or ten songs in is a really good place to put two really well-known songs.

(5) Idioteque
Some of these songs are quite technical, quite complicated, and they do need a bit of rehearsal. “Idioteque” needed a bit. Last night, we started too slow—Jonny [Greenwood] sets the tempo with an analog dial on his AX drum machine. Phil indicated to Thom that it was too slow, so we started over.

(6) The Bends
In that spot, we were either going to play “The Bends” [an up-tempo fan favorite] or “Exit Music” [a slower ballad]. The theater felt like a club because the ceiling is so low, and the songs from “The Bends” era were all first played in clubs, so when we got to the break after the main set, we said, “This feels like a ‘Bends’ night.”

Not present: “Creep,” the band’s first and still biggest radio hit
“Creep” is on the list of songs we’re gonna play on this tour, but it hasn’t felt right yet. We will do it some night. It’s a great song to play. The reaction you get is really extreme.

Secrets of the Radiohead Set List