By Amanda Silberling
When Radiohead released their divisive eighth album The King of Limbs in February 2011, it had been nearly four years since the release of the revered In Rainbows. As fans, we were parched.
This lull sparked the era that cemented the stereotype of the rabid Radiohead fan: poring over obscure B-sides, searching for clues to solve some puzzle that we weren’t sure actually existed. We worshipped Radiohead with such intensity that when music critic Chuck Klosterman proposed that singer Thom Yorke predicted 9/11 on Kid A (2000), we considered it. Meanwhile, blogger Kevin Flick devised the complicated Binary Theory, asserting that 1997’s OK Computer and In Rainbows are companion albums linked by ones and zeroes, and that In Rainbows marked the culmination of a 10-year master plan to blow our minds. Even a decade later, journalists are still producing 10-minute video explorations into hidden rhythmic structures on In Rainbows. With such high expectations and obsessive fandom, it would have been hard for any album to meet the intensity.
But then, on February 16, Radiohead dropped the music video for “Lotus Flower.” We weren’t ready.
For five minutes and seven seconds, Yorke dances alone in a warehouse, moving erratically over a bassy looped beat. He wears a black bowler hat, using it as a prop as he twitches and grooves to the rhythmic electronica. The video’s minimalist, black-and-white style demands close attention, both to the unfamiliar music and to the uncomfortably intimate eye contact Yorke makes with the camera. Between its experimental video and departure from Radiohead’s past catalog, many fans were skeptical.
“When I saw him dancing in that video, I was like, ‘Thom has betrayed me,’” says Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes. He’s somewhat facetious, remembering how important Radiohead had been for him as a self-described moody teenager. “How dare Thom dance? I thought he was supposed to be, like, the king to moody white males.”
Pecknold feels differently in 2021: “Now I would relish the opportunity to film dance videos.” But the initial impulse of confusion makes sense. Even after decades, there was still a cognitive dissonance at play. How could the guy who became famous for brooding about being a creep and a weirdo end up dancing so unabashedly? What does it mean to spend years desperately awaiting new studio material, only to get five minutes of Thom having fun, jumping around?
All across the internet, the video’s energy was infectious. Yorke’s “Lotus Flower” dance became a meme, with fans mashing up his choreography with other songs, like Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” In another fan creation, Yorke auditions for Black Swan. For years to come, these dance moves would become a staple in Radiohead’s live performances, and fans delighted in learning the movements. We can only wonder what TikTok would’ve done with “Lotus Flower,” had the app existed 10 years ago.
Much like the viral TikTok dance crazes that make stars out of scrollers today, the “Lotus Flower” moves might’ve looked off the cuff, but they were carefully chosen. His seemingly improvised gestures — gripping the top of his bowler hat, shaking as though he were possessed — were actually crafted by the Resident Choreographer of the Royal Ballet. The clip was the result of a collaboration between Yorke and Wayne McGregor, one of the most celebrated choreographers in England, as well as director Garth Jennings. McGregor helped Yorke shoot the video all in one day. There was no rehearsal process. Instead, the artists bounced ideas back and forth and filmed the movement phrases immediately, recording about 30 seconds of the video at a time.
“When we were talking, he said one of the things he loves to do is look out into the crowd, hijack somebody’s movement, and take it on for himself,” McGregor remembers. “I loved that idea, so that’s how we worked. I would do something with him, and he would copy in real time.”
Of course, the band’s new musical experiments inspired the dance as well. Even though Radiohead had long since strayed from prototypical guitar music to experiment with a more digitized sound on albums like Kid A and Amnesiac, “Lotus Flower” and other songs on The King of Limbs went a step further.
In a 2012 Rolling Stone profile of “the most experimental band in music,” producer Nigel Godrich explained Radiohead’s writing process: He challenged the five-piece to put aside their guitars, drums, and piano for two weeks and make music using only turntables and vinyl emulation software, like the equipment Yorke had been using at recent DJ gigs in Los Angeles. Guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, who wrote his own sampling software to create The King of Limbs, was eager for a new challenge. He told Rolling Stone, “We didn’t want to pick up guitars and write chord sequences. We didn’t want to sit in front of a computer either. We wanted a third thing, which involved playing and programming.” The result was an album so complex that when they toured, they needed two drummers to perform simultaneously, so they invited Portishead’s Clive Deamer to drum alongside Phil Selway.
For ambient producer and engineer Scott Hansen, who performs as Tycho, The King of Limbs marks a technical achievement in electronic music that remains untouchable. “I think the holy grail, at least for me, is chasing this very pure form of distortion,” he says. “You can hear cheap distortion, and you can hear fuzz distortion like you hear a guitar pedal. There’s all these different types of distortion, but they have their own and it’s just so refined and so well-executed.”
“Lotus Flower” continues to be such a powerful influence for Hansen that he uses it as a reference when producing Tycho songs. “Whenever I’m working on final mixes, I flip back and forth like, ‘Is it hitting this frequency? Is it getting close to doing what this is doing in the bass frequency?’”
Despite the masterful molding of loops and samples on The King of Limbs, some of the album’s most salient moments come on songs like “Give up the Ghost” and “Codex,” where these endless textures are stripped away. On an album that’s only 37 minutes long – Radiohead’s shortest to date – these moments make an impact.
“[The King of Limbs] came out at a time when I was touring a lot – that was kind of right when Fleet Foxes put out Helplessness Blues,” Pecknold remembers. “I often find myself listening to Radiohead on an airplane or [in] an airport, and it conveys that disconnection or alienation of those spaces. I remember putting ‘Codex’ on repeat for a six hour plane ride in the middle of tour, and there’s something about those consistent piano chords, that really tiny drum sound, the way the melody was moving.”
Still, the headiness of The King of Limbs would position it as one of Radiohead’s least-liked records, despite its unrivaled achievement in production and mixing. But this is why “Lotus Flower” brought us so much joy – on an album that wasn’t very accessible even for the most devoted of fans, its video offered an entry point as it made its digital rounds.
“I absolutely loved collecting all the memes attached to it,” McGregor says. “At one point, I had about 70 different versions of the dance. I love the discussion it generated and the freeness it created in other bodies.”