YouTube Covers: “Idioteque”

Is Radiohead’s strangest, most aggressive song impossible to cover?

Last month, we looked at “Get Lucky,” a song that seems easy to cover, if the dozens of great versions on YouTube are any guide. There were so many good ones, I had to pick my favorites based on tiny distinctions. So today, let’s go with something hard to cover. Radiohead’s “Idioteque” is among the greatest songs released in my lifetime, but interpreting its appeal is no simple feat. Its musical core is its icy synths — which sound like they’ve blown to Earth from the bleak void of space — and the electronic drums that more resemble the chittering of a giant insect than any human instrument. After scouring countless pages of covers, I found exactly three that I like. (Of course, they’re all on the first page when you search “Idioteque covers,” but thoroughness counts, right?) “Idioteque” may not give us the cornucopia of creativity we found with “Get Lucky,” but it does yield three genuinely great renditions. These days, I listen to all of them every time I fire up the original because they each illuminate a different aspect of one of my favorite songs.

Idioteque (Radiohead Cover) by Eric and Andrew feat. Roz

The verses are the gems here. Eric Zankowski’s hoarse, raspy voice draws out the grim desperation of lines like “women and children first,” and “ice age coming, ice age coming.” You can hear an element of barely-restrained panic underlying the song, which fits its imagery perfectly, but which Thom Yorke’s sneering strain is too cynical to acknowledge. Zankowski makes the song feel human.

The analog instruments further ground this version. Radiohead’s instrumentation is detached and dispassionate, showing us a great struggle from 10,000 miles away. Zankowski and Andrew Brown take us to the center of the conflict. The choked guitar that leads into the first verse immerses us in simmering tension, while the sharp mechanical crank of the typewriter and harsh pop of the beat-boxed drum keep us on edge. It’s cliche to say the computerized instruments give us an analytical take on the song, while good ol’ fashioned guitars and typewriters get personal, but in this case, it’s true.

This is my favorite “Idioteque” cover, but if it falls flat anywhere, it’s on the chorus. Zankowski gives the verses all they can handle, but since he’s not Thom Yorke, he can’t climb quite as high as the chorus demands. Fortunately, someone who can is just a click away.

Vienna Teng – Idioteque (Radiohead cover, Live December 21, 2007)

(The song starts at 1:25.)

I can enjoy any nice-sounding chamber music cover, but rarely do I feel the need to espouse its virtue. So what’s different about this one? Well first, “Idioteque” is just a beautiful song. Hearing it without its rough edges may blunt some of its magic, but doing so lets you appreciate the composition on a basic level. But what really elevates Teng’s version is her delivery of the chorus. Her voices absolutely soars through the high notes, lifting the whole song up in a dramatic swoop. The extra gear she finds the second time through is stunning. Yorke’s voice is the thread that holds Radiohead’s diverse canon together, and it’s a treat to hear someone who can match his biggest moments.

Idioteque cover (Levi Weaver)

(Annoyingly, Weaver stops playing from 1:02 to 1:40. He has a clean version of it, but it’s a lot less fun without the crowd.)

A friend of mine fell asleep listening to Kid A once. Then, he says, he had the most intense dreams of his life. The way he tells it, the earth was engulfed in the apocalypse when he woke up, and as he came to, he noticed “Idioteque” was playing.

Something about the song just feels like the end of the world. The pervasive menace and utter indifference of Radiohead’s version evokes an environmental disaster — civilization destroyed by an overwhelming and uncaring force of nature. The covers we’ve heard so far, for all their merits, lose this element. By narrowing their focus, they miss the big picture. But Weaver keeps it in his sight. The culmination of his version shows us a more violent and chaotic catastrophe. Ragarok, perhaps. He layers blunt guitars over wailing vocals over percussive smacks until the sounds tangle into a knot of frantic noise. He holds it there, just for a second, before he lets the tension dissipate with an exhausted whimper. It’s messier than Radiohead’s take, but just as destructive. And while I love listening to both renditions, I want no part in the world either of them creates. I think that’s the point.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.