Horror Songs

Radiohead Climbing Up The Walls Is A Horror Film In Sound

My cultural taste began to develop between the end of the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s. During this time, I saw countless movies and realized that horror is my genre. During these years, I started listening to music obsessively and learned that my direction is rock (or if you like, alternative rock). Then I started falling in love with Radiohead, who has since taken me to other worlds; I’m sorry for the kitsch. Songs and albums that must make you feel. Of course, these songs are not happy. Some bring tears to my eyes almost every time I play them (did someone say “Exit Music: For A Film?”), and others wanna make me scream in pleasure or maybe fear. 

And there are also scary songs here and there, which I was happy to adopt when I discovered horror. The song “Climbing Up The Walls” is the ninth track on 1997’s “OK Computer,” the band’s best album and arguably one of their biggest ever (and there are many, many charts and lists that show just that). Radiohead’s “Climbing Up The Walls” is not the best or most famous song on this perfect album. It’s also not one of the four official singles (“Paranoid Android,” “Karma Police,” Lucky,” and “No Surprises,” for those interested. Go listen!) Still, the song just scared me for years. The lyrics, the music, that scream of Tom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead, at the end of the song. So what does Radiohead “Climbing Up The Walls” means, and why is he scary at all?

Radiohead Climbing Up The Walls Lyrics

I am the key to the lock in your house

That keeps your toys in the basement

And if you get too far inside

You’ll only see my reflection

 

It’s always best when the covers are up

I am the pick in the ice

Do not cry out or hit the alarm

You know we’re friends till we die

 

And either way you turn

I’ll be there

Open up your skull

I’ll be there

Climbing up the walls

 

It’s always best when the light is off

It’s always better on the outside

Fifteen blows to the back of your head

Fifteen blows to your mind

 

So lock the kids up safe tonight

Close your eyes in the cupboard

I’ve got the smell of a local man

Who’s got the loneliest feeling

 

That either way he turns

I’ll be there

Open up your skull

I’ll be there

Climbing up the walls

Climbing up the walls

Climbing up the walls

 

Radiohead Climbing Up The Walls

 

What’s So Scary In Radiohead Climbing Up The Walls?

There are all kinds of pieces of music that you can define as scary. As you have probably read on our website, there are familiar and creepy pleasantries from horror movies: the theme song of “Halloween,” “The Exorcist,” and so on. Songs related to horror movies also fall into the category, whether those were explicitly written for them or have undergone a significant change (Freddie Krueger’s song is based on a classic nursery song). “Jeepers Creepers,” for example, is a legitimate and classic song that appeared in many texts even before they chose to base an entire horror movie on it (or at least call the film after the name) and make the song an essential part of the plot.

Some songs are not related to horror movies but are scary. Yes, like Radiohead’s “Climbing Up The Walls”. Here is, for example, a nice reaction video of a kind young guy who hears Radiohead for the first time and tries to understand where they have been all his life:

Well, the truth is that to understand the source of fear in this song, it is enough to hear it. Try to do it like you do with a good horror movie: at night, at high volume, in the dark, preferably when alone at home. Even without focusing on the lyrics, it’s hard not to notice that its atmosphere is particularly chilling, or as the music magazine Melody Maker defined it, “monumental chaos.”

The gloomy tone, the wailing guitars that sound like screams, the distorted electronic instruments and drums, the synthesizers, Tom Yorke’s creepy tone that blends well with the horrific words, and of course, the last half minute, with Tom Yorke’s guitar solo and screams, could, in my opinion, fit into the soundtrack of any horror movie. The guitar that sets the tone in large part of all those Radiohead songs is quite gentle this time, with the rhythm increasing mainly thanks to the electronic elements and the instruments – until the ending, when everything explodes, along with Thom Yorke’s voice.

Radiohead Climbing Up The Walls (8)

Musically, we achieve the eerie atmosphere largely thanks to the violins. The song is based on string instruments, but not in the traditional way (as far as you can expect Radiohead’s music to be standard). The genius Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist and keyboardist of Radiohead, composed the string section by himself. It is said to include 16 separate violins, which play with differences of a quarter tone from each other. You won’t be indifferent if you’ve seen this magic happen at a Radiohead concert.

The playing of the string instruments is influenced by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and, more precisely, by his piece “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.” This is no coincidence, as Greenwood is one of his biggest fans. So much that rumor has it that after the two met, Greenwood gave a concert based on his version of Penderecki’s works, which was a massive success with about 50,000 spectators. Even horror fans should be familiar with this complicated Polish name, or at least some of his works. Penderecki is the composer of much of “The Shining”‘s masterful soundtrack, with his compositions also incorporated into the original “The Exorcist” (not that famous theme song, of course), “Twin Peaks,” and David Lynch’s “Inland Empire,” among others.

The use of string instruments in Radiohead “Climbing Up The Walls” impresses even those who are not necessarily familiar with music and is quite unusual compared to what we have become accustomed to in recent decades. Greenwood said, “I got very excited at the prospect of doing string parts that didn’t sound like ‘Eleanor Rigby’, which is what all string parts have sounded like for the past 30 years.” Ouch!

So, Who Is Climbing Up The Walls?

As with many other Radiohead songs, in this case, the complete interpretation is up to the listener’s discretion. However, in the decades since its release, Radiohead frontman Tom Yorke and his friends have provided some insights about “Climbing Up The Walls” meaning.

You don’t need to be an expert psychologist to understand that the song deals with psychological issues that are considered complex and threatening, such as depression, paranoia, and inner demons. The piece can express mental distress and anxiety (remember the sentences about putting the children in the safe? or the threat to open the skull?), and especially danger lurking in the subject of the song. You can see these as a person’s internal struggles (“we are friends until death”), among other things, feelings of paranoia or loneliness.

Climbing Up The Walls Meaning - illustration by "Horror World"

According to one of the more common analyses, the disturbing and evil “monster” that Tom Yorke sings about is a metaphor for all those disturbing thoughts and feelings inside the mind of the song’s subject. The internal psychological struggle that accompanies it, the mind that becomes a battlefield (or, in our context, a location for slashers). So, is the speaker here the paranoid fear itself? Is man doomed in the end to the monster that surrounds him, as one might infer from Yorke’s blood-curdling screams?

According to Old Time Music’s fascinating analysis, in its simplest sense, it is about a man who slowly loses his grip on reality due to madness, obsession, or some other mental condition. He is a man who is trapped within his psyche and uses the control he still has to manipulate those around him. As time passes, the person loses his sanity more, becomes paranoid, and develops feelings of fear or betrayal. According to this analysis, the phrase “climbs the walls” expresses the idea that the person is trying to escape from his skin, and the whole song describes the dangers of obsession and control.

The Social Context Of Radiohead Climbing Up The Walls

Like many other Radiohead songs, “Climbing Up The Walls” was not written in a vacuum. Yorke used to work as an orderly in a mental hospital when the Care in the Community policy came into effect in the United Kingdom. As can be concluded, the intention here is that the treatment of a person with a physical or mental disability will be done in their private home and not in designated institutions. This policy was practiced already in the 60s and 70s of the last century but came into force in 1983 during the reign of Margaret Thatcher.

“The song is about the indescribable, which crushes the skull,” Yorke said in an interview, referring to the days when he worked in the same mental institution. “We all just knew what was going to happen. And it’s one of the scariest things to happen in this country”, Yorke said. “Some people can’t sleep with the curtains open in case they see the eyes they imagine in their heads every night burning through the glass. Lots of people have panic buttons fitted in their bedrooms so they can reach over and set the alarm off without disturbing the intruder. This song is about the cupboard monster”. The band’s drummer, Phil Selvey, also addressed the ghosts that haunted him and made him sleep every night with his head almost completely covered in a blanket, metaphorical or otherwise.

At that time, Yorke said, he read an article in the newspaper about a “standard” murder case in which it was clear to him that the person involved was mentally unsound. “I was perversely fascinated about how a person could live a life and just turn around one day and do something unimaginable,” he said. The context, or the social critique, is that people are not being appropriately treated. That controversial British policy is clear evidence.

Since that song, countless Radiohead masterpieces and albums have passed, including songs that deal with our inner monsters (among them “Reckoner” from the In Rainbows album, which to some extent complements this song). So even if it is not entirely clear what is climbing the walls, according to Thom Yorke, there is no doubt that it is an inner feeling that may accompany us all: the fears that can appear at night, the monsters that come out of the closet and climb the wall, our danger if we do not know how to protect ourselves.

Radiohead Climbing Up The Walls (6)

Everyone has a horror movie, and bands like Radiohead turn it into a scary song.

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