Thom Yorke - Harrowdown Hill [click link, click another link, download]
Radiohead have always been a politically conscious band; Hail To The Thief was a blatant snipe at the American elections. Thus it shouldn’t really be a surprise that on Thom Yorke’s solo album, The Eraser - which is in effect a collaboration with Radiohead’s longest running producer Nigel Godrich - more of Yorke’s social frustrations get vented.
Dr David Kelly - a weapons specialist - said five months before his death that he would "probably be found dead in the woods" if the American and British invasion of Iraq went ahead. In the events leading up to this, Kelly came under fire from the Ministry of Defence who allegedly put him “through the ringer”, after he admitted to a BBC journalist, that the dossier intended to persuade the invasion was “sexed-up”. For example, the dossier claimed that Iraq could have their nuclear weapons equipped and deployed within 45 minutes – an untruth according to Kelly.
According to Barney Leith, secretary of the National Spiritual assembly of Britain, “The teachings of the Baha'i faith strongly emphasise the importance of ... keeping one's word." This faith is one which Kelly himself prescribed to, and it is likely that he took his own life out of a feeling of guilt. This guilt arose from his involvement in the dossier, and also his promises to Iraqi officials and scientists to whom he had given his word that co-operation with weapons inspections would prevent an invasion from going ahead. However, if an invasion did go ahead, Kelly felt he “would have betrayed his contacts, some of whom might be killed as a direct result of his actions".
Kelly’s prophecy was a self-fulfilling one – he committed suicide and was found on Harrowdown Hill, with his wrists slit. Thom Yorke glares as he sings on his techno melodrama, Harrowdown Hill, “don’t ask me, ask the Ministry”. The whole song revolves around the thoughts that must have been circling Kelly’s head at the time he decided to end it all; the lyrics understandably bitter, especially the opening lines: “Don’t walk the plank like I did / You will be dispensed with / When you become inconvenient”.
As you would expect from such an outspoken and seemingly anti-Government (even anti-everything, would fit) figure, Yorke explores whether it was actually suicide or whether it may have been simply a case of manslaughter by the press, the MoD, the Government: “did I fall or was I pushed?” The entirety of the song is a glaring indictment of media pressure, and the fragility of the human heart. Exploring loneliness and how much a man can take: “I can't take the pressure / No one cares if you live or die / They just want me gone”.
If you didn’t know what the song was about, you would be forgiven for thinking it was typical Radiohead fare - if ever-so-slightly gloomier - but when you put the song into context and realise what it’s actually about, it becomes a political point, a moving, socially-conscious vignette that further proves the relevance of Yorke as a songwriter – capable of getting to the core of an issue and inside the heart of its subject. It hits you like a Bukowski poem - your heart is floored, but your head has trouble dealing with all the points raised. You don't know whether you agree or disagree - hell you don't know if there's even anything you can agree or disagree with - you just know that somewhere inside you something broke and you're both inspired and terrified. All you want to do is lie down; but you know you'll have the song on repeat instead.
*Sources: Guardian, BBC, BBC
*Notes: that Bukowski poem I linked is really fucking good. Trust me.