Radiohead Give Star-Crossed Lovers Their ‘Exit Music’: The Story Behind Every ‘OK Computer’ Song
After much introspective writing on The Bends, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke changed his perspective for the songs on OK Computer, focusing outward on society, authority and technology. So it’s curious that the composition which Yorke considers his most personal bit of writing on the album was the result of a commission.
While Radiohead were touring in 1996, they were approached by Baz Luhrmann to contribute a song to the soundtrack of his forthcoming film, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. The director sent the band a rough cut of the last 30 minutes of the movie, which sees the star-crossed lovers Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes) kill themselves as a strike against family pressure to keep them apart. The heightened emotions in these closing scenes – including Danes putting a gun to her head – struck a chord with Yorke, who had seen a previous film version (Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation) as a kid.
“I saw the Zeffirelli version when I was 13 and I cried my eyes out, because I couldn’t understand why, the morning after they shagged, they didn’t just run away,” Yorke recalled. “The song is written for two people who should run away before all the bad stuff starts. A personal song.”
The singer toyed with the idea of using lines from Shakespeare’s original text, but gave up the idea in favor of paraphrasing the predicament from the view of the teenage couple. The quiet desperation is evident in Yorke’s lyrics: “Pack and get dressed / Before your father hears us / Before all hell breaks loose” and “Breathe, keep breathing / I can’t do this alone.”
That desperation also is mirrored in the song’s simple beginning – just Yorke’s sleepy, sad voice and Jonny Greenwood’s strummed guitar, meant to reference the starkness of Johnny Cash’s live prison recordings. By recording Thom’s vocals in a stone staircase at St. Catherine’s Court, the band was able to achieve a hollow, natural reverberation that suits the loneliness of the words.
As the song continues, a haunting mellotron choir begins to howl, a warbled portent of the doom that’s just a shot away. Before long, the ballad builds to a violent climax, punctuated by the entrance of Phil Selway’s drums and underscored by Colin Greenwood’s buzzsaw bass. But in the end, all we hear is Yorke, with his dying wish: “We hope… that you choke.”
All that was left was the title. Radiohead chose “Exit Music (For a Film)” – both a literal interpretation (the music played over the closing credits of Romeo + Juliet) and a figurative one (the characters’ deaths are their final “exit”). Although the band granted use of the song in the movie, released in the fall of ’96, they prevented it from being on the soundtrack album. Radiohead wanted to save the song for inclusion on OK Computer, which wouldn’t come out for another seven months.
“It’s the only song we’ve ever done on demand,” guitarist Ed O’Brien told Melody Maker in 1997. The movie “looked great so we did this song straight away… The only thing I don't like is ‘Exit Music’ appears over the end credits, so it will just play to the sound of loads of chairs banging upright… But I still think it fits with the film amazingly well, especially as the lyrics are actually quite personal.”
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