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Icons of Rock: Phil Selway

on December 07, 2009, 3:15pm

When people look at Radiohead, the first person everyone notices is either Thom Yorke or Jonny Greenwood. That’s not surprising given that Yorke, as the frontman, is in charge of the songs’ lyrics, vocals, and occasionally crazy dancing. For Greenwood to get recognition, all he has to do is play his guitar and the audience’s attention will hone in on him. However, neither Yorke’s singing nor Greenwood’s chord progressions would move forward much without the strong, rhythmic drumming supplied by Phil Selway.

Selway was born on May 23, 1967, in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. He met all of his future bandmates while attending Abingdon School, a boys-only public school. In 1985 the five students formed the band that would eventually turn into Radiohead. Originally called On A Friday (due to that being their usual rehearsal day), the band played its first show in late 1986 in Oxford’s Jericho Tavern. The band’s trajectory was put on hold for a few years when all of the members, except for Greenwood, gained their university degrees. Selway studied English History at Liverpool John Moores University. He even had a job as an English teacher at one point before his music career took off.

phil selway Icons of Rock: Phil Selway

Once everyone had received their degrees, On A Friday began to ascend quickly. Through recording demos like Manic Hedgehog and active gigging, the band caught the attention of Chris Hufford and Bryan Edge, who became the group’s managers. After a chance meeting between bassist Colin Greenwood and EMI representative Keith Wozencroft, On A Friday was signed to a six-album record deal in 1991. Changing its name to Radiohead, taken from a Talking Heads song, the band released its debut EP, Drill, in late 1992. From there, the history is well known.

philselwayphildoesthecongas Icons of Rock: Phil SelwaySelway’s drumming stuck to the classic/alternative rock style for Radiohead’s first two album, Pablo Honey and The Bends. Once OK Computer rolled around, his skills became far more prominent as the music got more experimental. “Airbag” featured an electronic drumbeat programmed from a recording of him playing that lasted only seconds, an experiment with manipulating rhythm that Selway would use greatly on Kid A. “Paranoid Android” highlighted Selway’s speed as well as his ability to quickly move between different timings. If you can tune out the guitar, you’ll hear Selway rip across the drums as he bridges two sides of Greenwood’ solo. On many of the normal 4/4 time songs, he worked in a more repetitive, solid technique, sometimes including a motorik sound.

Once the work on Kid A began, no one in Radiohead stuck with only their known skill set. Everyone was branching out, including Selway. Moving away from the standard drum pads, he started working with drum machines and digital manipulators to create fresh rhythms. The adjustment wasn’t easy for him, though, and he wondered what a drummer was supposed to do on an album without traditional instruments. From the bombastic, apocalyptic “Idioteque” to the slightly stumbling, walking pace of “Morning Bell”, Selway came through to a new territory in terms of innovative timing and the use of technology to advance the songs’ beats.

However, Selway’s ultimate drum track has to be “Pyramid Song”, from 2001’s Amnesiac. The mostly-piano driven piece really begins to take off about halfway through when Sleway’s jazz influenced compound rhythm kicks in. For most people, this song would seem difficult to play along to due to Yorke’s frequent short pauses in the piano melody. However, Selway’s marching jazz beat provides the perfect support for Yorke’s piano and vocals to float over. Just because this was some of his best work, it doesn’t mean that he hasn’t had great tracks as of late. Listen to “There There”, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”, and “Reckoner”. You’ll hear the drum pattern of a man who evolved from playing straightforward rock beats to creating some of the most innovative rhythms of the past 20 years.

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