Album: OK Computer
Release Date: June 1997
Producers: Nigel Godrich & Radiohead
"Fitter, happier, more productive, comfortable, not drinking too much, regular exercise at the gym (3 days a week), getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries, at ease, eating well (no more microwave dinners and saturated fats), a patient better driver, a safer car (baby smiling in back seat), sleeping well (no bad dreams), no paranoia, careful to all animals (never washing spiders down the plughole), keep in contact with old friends (enjoy a drink now and then), will frequently check credit at (moral) bank (hole in the wall), favors for favors, fond but not in love, charity standing orders, on Sundays ring road supermarket (no killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants), car wash (also on Sundays), no longer afraid of the dark or midday shadows, nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate, nothing so childish - at a better pace, slower and more calculated, no chance of escape, now self-employed, concerned (but powerless), an empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism), will not cry in public, less chance of illness, tires that grip in the wet (shot of baby strapped in back seat), a good memory, still cries at a good film, still kisses with saliva, no longer empty and frantic like a cat tied to a stick that's driven into frozen winter shit (the ability to laugh at weakness), calm, fitter, healthier and more productive, a pig in a cage on antibiotics."
- "Fitter Happier"
PART ONE: New Millennial Anomie
“The Bends was an introspective album… There was an awful lot of soul searching. To do that again on another album would be excruciatingly boring.”
- Phil Selway
“I spent a lot of time trying not to do voices like mine. The voices on “Karma Police”, “Paranoid Android” and “Climbing Up The Walls” are all different personas. I think “Lucky”, the lyric and the way it's sung, is really positive, really exciting. “No Surprises” is someone who's trying hard to keep it together but can't. “Electioneering” is a preacher ranting in front of a bank of microphones.”
- Thom Yorke
Morrissey gets a bad rap. For over two decades he’s been this “godfather of mope” or whatever, and if you really listen to his lyrics, they’re usually so over the top with the pumped-up woe-is-me routine that it’s pretty funny. Thom Yorke has the same kind of reputation, but for him, it’s mostly well-founded. Granted, in recent years, he’s lightened up a bit, especially in interviews, but most people only interested in surface information think of him as a sadsack, whining and crying all the time. It’s kind of his own fault though; beyond his highly elastic and emotive voice, he tends to sing about broken things a lot of the time, whether it’s hearts and marriages, or governments and citizens and societies.
OK Computer is Yorke’s most obvious collection devoted to this melancholy, and yet this is no general, tears-in-your-beer kind of affair. No sir. OKC is a very specifically sharpened and aimed kind of depression, at the time a modern, Y2K kind of depression. The band’s previous album, The Bends was as straight-forward as Yorke could be in the broken heart department, but a lot of the guitar rock came through as bright color to offset his gray, bummed-out vibes. Following this album, the bellyaches of Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail To The Thief are either emotionally scattershot or murked up to obscure what he really wants to say, the overall moods of these albums purposely fashioned as a series of mysteries to throw off detractors’ easy labels – one of the reasons that Thom Yorke might seem more cheery in recent years is because he’s having fun fucking with certain corners of the media. But the Computer, it got his undivided attention, unerring focus because the subjects that he decided to write about here struck a previously unstruck chord in him (and of course made this the turned corner that directed all the albums since).
There has always been a lot of debate over whether OKC can qualify as a “concept album” (I hate that term), and while the band has always emphatically said no, Yorke does admit a vague, similar theme to all the lyrics, mostly because he was tired of writing about love, and he found new things to write about. But it’s less of a lyrical thread than a mood. If you think about it, as an album with a general overall theme of urban anomie with a side of authority paranoia and saturated nervousness over the new technological revolution – faster, more compact, more individual and therefore exclusionary…intentional loneliness, essentially – OK Computer is more of a literal ‘concept’ album than a rock opera with a clear narrative string and characters for the singer to inhabit. It’s more of a loose definition in relation to how people have always taken it, and that makes the tag less of a dirty word.
You can sense the unity between the title, the album artwork (continued throughout the associated singles & EP’s), and the lyrics. The title is ambiguous – is it a statement, a question, a response? It can be argued that Yorke spends the album afraid not necessarily of a computer, but instead what the computer represents – the sci-fi future that we all grew up with, explicitly our idea of what the future is supposed to be like, and the fact that it’s now our present. Some of the album artwork has a quaint quality reminiscent of late 1950’s advertising, the kind that is continued today, conveniently, in things such as the emergency procedures laminate you find on an airplane; these things are placed side by side in the CD booklet, and then defaced, a pretty clear message of at least where our jumping off point should be.
It’s not entirely clear what specifics should be taken from the imagery – again the ‘concept’ is kept loose, more a permeating dystopian melancholy than clear talking points of society’s ills – though I’d like to propose that Yorke, who has had a co-art director credit on each album starting with this one (collaborating with Stanley Donwood), is implying the wholesome politeness of post-WWII America is the kind of society that is predisposed to conformity, a conformity that would be listless enough to allow the development of that era’s idea of future tech to one day slowly wear away at everything from creative, independent thought to even face-to-face human interaction. Remember the big Skynet artificial intelligence takeover that is the crux of the Terminator films? Yeah, it happens in a fictional August 1997, ironically in the same summer this album was released. There is no denying our world was afraid of the new millennium and looking ahead at technology passing us all by. Now put yourself in the place of a 28 year-old singer-songwriter tired of writing about love and prone to soaking his art in depression and frustration anyway. Yorke turned his lyrical eye to whatever the standout elements of the fictional dystopian futures he grew up on were, and applied them to the real life parallels he saw.
OK Computer is littered with images of Big Brother-esque police states and paranoid citizenry, the stuff of frequent fiction; it’s even possible to see art imitating art, as the lyrics certainly touch on similar themes to Alan Moore’s classic anti-Thatcher graphic novel V For Vendetta, and in turn its film adaptation could definitely have used OKC as its soundtrack. The first words on the album are “In the next world war…”, which is pretty telling. It’s never been clear to me what “Paranoid Android” has to do with a paranoid android (specifically, Marvin from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), and how the lyrics all work out, but there is definitely an implied fear of government – the line “when I am king you will be first against the wall” always felt gleefully aggressive to me, followed by the tyrannically dismissive “your opinions which are of no consequence at all”; of course, we are lead right into the section where Yorke as said tyrant king is ordering beheadings simply because one of his subjects didn’t remember his name. “Karma Police” could possibly continue the monarch’s declarations, commanding that arrests be made on simple misdemeanors like ‘talking in maths’ and ‘buzzing like a fridge’, apparently illegal in this alternate universe.
“Electioneering” juxtaposes the elected official with the monarch – no doubt thoughts formed by a British mind, especially with Tony Blair palling around with Oasis at the time – and as Yorke paints images of riot shields and cattle prods, it’s clear that these authority figures (including the Shakespearian father from “Exit Music”) are here to draw our contempt. It’s never laid out by Yorke, but it’s one of those things that as soon as you read the lyrics, it’s clear he wouldn’t have written a song about them otherwise. Yorke sees them as stifling life much in the same ways that an A.I. technology might, and wants to put up a fight, later singing “The head of state has called for me by name, but I don’t have time for him”, as well as “Bring down the government…they don’t speak for us”.
That character, that point of view from “No Surprises”, is Yorke’s narrator, and it’s the narrator that experiences this updated definition of anomie that permeates the album. It seems to me that anomie in the traditional sense is like the opposite reaction of anarchy – when normalcy and order are absent, anarchy is the chaos that results, while anomie is essentially passive, an overwhelming community malaise, a societal depression. In the late 20th Century though, with the millennium approaching and fears of the Y2K disaster popping up in the media, anomie had to take on new facets. Fear of lack of available information was one key – in the years since, the world has grown exponentially concerned with not only the ins and outs of the media, but more so the trivial secrets of celebrity and beyond, going as far as creating a mainstream fetish out of voyeurism. By most likely writing about a stuffy corporate world, Yorke actually managed to critique a vapid movement that wouldn’t happen for another five years, singing the oft-quoted, “Ambition makes you look very ugly, kicking squealing Gucci little piggy.” It was a warning, and now it all feels dirty; gossip journalism jumping from tabloid pages onto the internet, and it lets anyone with a cable modem play seedy detective in the privacy of their homes, damaging the way you might eventually interact in person, growing to assume that everyone is deep down perverted in some way, and that maybe it’s OK just to stay home and not bother.
This leads to a prominent feel of disconnection from your neighbor, resulting from rapid technology advances. This is often cited as the major element of this new figurative population wet blanket; we don’t realize it, but it starts with shopping from home or wearing our iPod earbuds during our commutes (the banality of which is confronted on the first verse of “Let Down”), and snowballs from there. The next thing you know you don’t even introduce yourself to your new neighbors until you can’t avoid them when you both take the garbage out at the same time, going months maybe without meeting. Believe it, it’s happening now. Next thing you know, we’ll have robots to take out the garbage. I bet Japan has them now.
The booklet for the Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP, which was released in the US as a companion piece to the album (and to promote the Against Demons tour), is a bit more focused on translating the themes on the album. There are dozens of phrases, some ominous, that suggest a society suffocating in all literal and figurative ways, and they get more desperate-sounding from page to page:
Help us to help you. Uniforms. Thick smoke, no breeze. Missing persons. 200 people faint; hard to breathe. 200 commercial organizations; military, governmental, and non-governmental organizations. Do not get out. What might have been. The more you drive, the less intelligent you get. Oxygen should be regarded as a drug. Thick smoke not evenly distributed. If you don’t ask me out to dinner I don’t eat. Lobster-skin-shopping-mall-coffee-stained-lipsync. Nothing in common. Unbelieving nausea. A flaming, but living, pigeon. The results of this intrusion into your life will be used ‘responsibly’. The innocent have nothing to fear from the rapidly expanding data industry. Story begins with explosion; ends with explosion. Your fantasies are unlikely, but beautiful. Reduced enjoyment and pleasure. The smoke came back extremely thick and abrasive. Awareness by social class. I’m safe and sound. People are aware, but not that bothered. Authorities here are alert. Everything I do/say is suspect. A strangler’s hands. No autonomy; a lethal cocktail; horrific violence. I am bad. I am to blame. I think a little more sucking-up is needed. Food and water crisis developing. A tortured night. A serious and adult expression. My suit hangs in front of me, full of nothing; it is up to me to fill it with myself. Have a safe day. Words on a gravestone. What will we mean? Nothing. General loss of interest. The last player left in the game is the winner. A smile like the grim reaper. Children go to school tied together, led by parents. Airport closed; people coughing yellow phlegm. Not sleeping okay; trapped in hyperspace.
Following all of that wonderfully chosen language is a passage from Noam Chomsky that sheds light on Yorke’s view of this new millennial fear, information transfer and the resulting disconnection, and how it has evolved from the apathetic conformity of that late 50’s America:
“…people would like to think that there’s somebody up there who knows what he’s doing. Since we don’t participate, we don’t control and don’t even think about questions of vital importance. We hope somebody is paying attention who has some competence. Let’s hope the ship has a captain, in other words, since we’re not taking part in what’s going on...
It is an important feature of the ideological system to impose on people the feeling that they really are incompetent to deal with these complex and important issues: they’d better leave it to the captain. One device is to develop a star system, an array of figures who are often media creations or creations of the academic propaganda establishment, whose deep insights we are supposed to admire and to whom we must happily and confidently assign the right to control out lives and to control international affairs…”
Thom Yorke’s narrator wants to buck these trends, but there is also a sense of helplessness (The ‘job that slowly kills you’, the carbon monoxide and the ‘final fit’ of “No Suprises”), or at least inevitability to them that weaves in and out of the lyrics (and the artwork). The narrator is struggling with this crippling anomie – taken to a point of personal positive reinforcement techniques the kind found in the chilling “Fitter Happier” – but trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel, which in this case would be making peace with the titular computer, or technology in general. Consider just the song titles for a moment, words or phrases of stress – ‘paranoid’, ‘surprises’, ‘homesick’, “Let Down”, “Karma Police”, “Climbing Up The Walls” – and then the intended sarcasm of “Fitter Happier” or “Lucky”, or going even further – on the back of the album’s booklet, “The Tourist” appears to have a long-form title which reads “The Tourist in Times Square in nuclear fallout reflective clothing in his personal space”, which so promotes the ideas on display within some of these songs that Radiohead should’ve ran with it. The original title of “Airbag” was the genius “Last Night An Airbag Saved My Life”, a play on the classic Indeep single “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life”, and a presentation of the notion that maybe technology can be salvation. Yorke’s narrator even expresses his shock at that notion: “I’m amazed that I survived; an airbag saved my life”, but he’s working at it, earlier on proclaiming “In the neon sign scrolling up and down, I am born again”.
It’s quite possible that Yorke is positioning his tyrant against his fearful narrator – the narrator is the one making strides, the one talking in maths that the tyrant wants the Karma Police to arrest – and the voices in the narrator’s head are telling him to not “hit the panic button, hit the alarm”. The conclusions of all these tugs of war are left dangling, yet there is a sense of hope in the moving “Lucky”. Yorke’s cries of “kill me again” are linked to the neon second birth of “Airbag”, but he decides he wants to be pulled from the aircrash, and it’s gonna be a glorious day. And considering the mesh of new music technology and human artistry on Kid A and Amnesiac (both in the relief of the new millennium, Y2K in the rearview), what might have been just sci-fi fantasy were actually ways for Thom Yorke to deal with where his head was at in 1997, against his own demons, his authorites on alert, his personal space – the OKC logo is two stick figures shaking hands, one holding a briefcase – and to offer them as chronicles of where the world was at in 1997, the new millennial anomie, figurative bandages for mass worry, assuaging fears that in the shadow of 2000 and technology speeding like fast german cars, music can know how you feel, and it can be your airbag.
PART TWO: The 8-Track of The 90’s
“The resurgence, and arguable final entrenchment, of manufactured Pop Stars by their handlers over supposedly more artistic fare – and more importantly the acceptance of such common pleasures by critics – razed the significance of the complete album. Which is why OK Computer, and it's ‘Best Albums Ever’ companion Loveless, eternally top these polls: somehow we doubt we'll ever see their like again.”
- Brent DiCrescenzo, Pitchfork’s Top 100 Albums of The 90’s, 2003
No. No. No No No. And fuck you very much for trying to play revisionist culture sniper. Yes, I’m talking to you with your healthily overworked iTunes account and your iPod permanently on shuffle. And oh, you over there, yes you, elitist vinyl sniffer trying oh-so-hard to get back to bygone “glory days” that you weren’t even born for. Fuck you as well. Yes we all know that, say, Sticky Fingers is the motherfucking shit, but there isn’t much difference between it and OK Computer, construction-wise – the former is 10 tracks and 46 minutes, the latter is 12 tracks and 53 minutes. So I don’t want to hear any crap from baby-boomers or random-play-brained ADD kids about the CD being put out to pasture, because right now, the CD is keeping the album alive.
Dai Griffiths, Head of the Department of Music at Oxford Brookes University, wrote a book on OK Computer. In many ways, it’s impenetrable, at least I thought so, as far as getting across the clear points that OKC is the best album of the last however-many years. I had to read it twice, the second time with a highlighter, in order to chip away at the excess to find the real good stuff. What he does really nail though are the ins and outs of the compact disc, and what it has meant to music, and more specifically to the idea of the album; this is something that bears discussing when considering OK Computer specifically as an example of a great album, and the time when it was released. The CD is the bridge from the past to the future, and it has brought us to a place now where we have unlimited possibilities, for better or worse.
The album, the collection of songs as a unified statement of an artist’s work, or as a snapshot of that brief period in the artist’s life, was pretty much the best invention in 20th century music. It has been, for the truly important artists with more to say than a single or two can hold, the vessel that best got their point across. The greatness of the album as a format is now taken for granted, something second nature to anyone who has ever become interested in modern popular music, but to think back to 1964, when Elvis was making movies, Dylan was still acoustic, and the British Invasion was just touching down in the US, the album was still just a collection of songs. Now, for the most part, it did already hold one of its key distinctions, which was that the songs collected were usually of the same period of creativity, but a thematic coherence had yet to be established, at least in Rock & Roll. Now, I’m not talking about concept-album storylines again; it’s way more basic than that: the way an artist explores a sound, a palette from which they’re going to work from. Icons like Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, and Ray Charles had already toyed with album-length sounds, and The Beatles, Beach Boys, and Dylan were about to explode things to a degree that these new approaches would become the norm.
Now, fast forward to the late 1980’s, to the slow, public coming-out party of the CD. The possibilities that the compact disc offered changed the entire idea of what the album was. The main reason was the time it allowed: 70+ minutes. Griffiths points out that this changed the entire culture of the album. For example, think of the 1970’s, when kids would get together in bedrooms to get their minds blown by Floyd or Zeppelin. The longer you make an album, the less inclined you are to sit and endure the entire thing in one sitting; the activity of listening was forced to be more individualistic, a trend that has taken over in the age of the iPod. The big artistic statement – the double album – was all of a sudden not as special; legendary works like The Who’s Tommy or The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St. could now fit on only one disc, losing some of their epic magic. Conversely, in the present, note the post-Strokes Indie Rock love affair with returning to short album lengths. I personally love it, cuz it was good enough for Revolver or Ramones, right, but I think more importantly it speaks to a key reaction. Throughout these twenty years we’ve been examining on this list, the music world has been married to the compact disc. And as much segregation remains in commercial outlets, rock and rap fans are as intertwined as ever, and I think we can all agree that we’re all sick of mediocre 70-minute albums that could be whittled down to a really good 45-50 minutes; in many ways, it diluted the art in the musician creating the perfect collection and then sequencing it in its own special way.
More importantly than any other feature, the CD allowed for programmability, effectively putting the issue of sequencing in the hands of the listener. At that moment, the idea of the great album should have been dead; not only could fans play songs at random within a set that was supposed to have a specific order, but they could also program out songs they were less fond of, striking them from record, deleting them from what that album meant to them, changing the intended piece of art. It was quite obviously the first step towards the song-by-song usurping of the music business by iTunes. It was everything we always said we wanted, when we’d buy albums with four good songs and seven or eight stinkers. It eventually overloaded secondhand CD shops with copious amounts of Cracked Rear View and Jagged Little Pill and Pieces Of Me enough to put them out of business. Be careful what you wish for.
Hope came from the artists of the mid-90’s Britpop movement, so devoted to repeating the works of a time gone by, that they naturally worshipped the album as artistic work. Radiohead were obviously a piece of that without being a slave to the idea. Interestingly, the UK is way more single-minded, so the idea that Britpop’s leading lights respected the album while also catering to the starving singles market was a bit odd. More than anything, Radiohead went with the flow for The Bends singles and found great success, definitely unexpected seeing as “Creep” wasn’t that big a deal at home. It doesn’t appear though that the band gave it much thought, especially considering the wild decision to release the schizophrenic six-and-a-half minute “Paranoid Android” as the lead single for their third album. Singles chart fortunes I’m sure were pleasant for them, but the album was the focus to their campaign.
OK Computer is the last great statement in what a great CD album can be. It was released at the tail-end of the format’s dominant era, before the backlash started in earnest and birthed our current marketplace. It’s longer than most classic 60’s and 70’s LPs by about 10 minutes, but appears to preserve the side-break of vinyl by placing “Fitter Happier” as a sort of intermission (though reports have always varied as to whether it should end Side One or begin Side Two). It’s also shorter than the average CD album, probably by about 5 minutes; this is no 70+ minute wank fest like Oasis’ ’97 offering Be Here Now. Radiohead had a clear idea of their piece of art as it related to the medium in which it would be delivered to listeners – the CD could have easily been crammed to its 79-minute limits with good songs that were instead saved for singles and EPs. It was a perfect statement in length and sequence, ironically perfect enough that it eliminated the need to skip or program, the key features of the format it so well represents. In that way it stands at ease next to essential albums from the vinyl era, and proves that despite all the technical opportunity that the CD format has given the music business, there can be such a thing as a classic album on CD. And while you can say I’ve given you 99 other examples, OK Computer is by far the best.
PART THREE: Taking America by Karma and Luck
“There's a lesson to be learned from the album's success. It underlines the fact that radio and record companies underestimate what the general public are capable of listening to. This is not above people's heads. We're people, and we're making it; other people can get it too."
- Ed O’Brien
When Kid A was released in October 2000, it debuted at #1 on the Billboard album chart. If you were judging strictly on Radiohead's previous chart experience in the US, this would have come as a surprise to you considering that their previous full-length, OK Computer, peaked at #21, and they weren't exactly a singles machine like they were at home - Gen-X's very own “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Paranoid Android” went top 5 as the album's appetizer.
So now that we're finally here, and this is the almighty #1 album, the question of 'why' is inevitably linked to a 'how' - how did Radiohead conquer America? Because that's where the answer lies really. It was America that was the swing vote so to speak. The election was for best band on the planet, and to win, they needed a best-album-ever to believe in; a signal of change to use a currently valued word. 1997 was a great year for music in that it had at least half a dozen certifiable classic albums, if not a whole dozen, so OKC had stiff competition for attention when it came out. To get to where we are now, I could relay statistics, but telling you a story is more fun - a report from the frontlines, sort of, kind of like sneaking into a movie but you've missed the first 25 minutes.
Everyone knew “Creep”. Then most people under the spell of your Green Days and Smashing Pumpkins and Becks forgot to check out Radiohead's sophomore classic The Bends. That's a story told hundreds of times. It’s OK. The wrong has been righted all these years later for sure. It is now considered the classic that it always was. In the early months of 1997, that's when you would find me falling from a great height onto the Radiohead bandwagon. My friend Ross raved about The Bends at the same time that my New York cable company started carrying MuchMusic, Canadian MTV broadcasting from Toronto. It was serendipity - MuchMusic played the fuck out of Radiohead's five Bends videos, and me, locked into a heady obsession with Jeff Buckley's Grace, could do with some more excellent choirboy alt-rock as I also explored vintage 70’s Punk and tired of the Classic Rock which I had held in such high esteem for the preceding few years. Much's programming backed up Ross' claims - dude, this is a band you need to know going forward.
And so it went for most current Radiohead fans I'm sure, because you'd have to be crazy to believe that all the people that bought Pablo Honey have stuck with them for the long haul. The Bends was the gateway album. And shit, let's be honest, when OK Computer came out, a lot of people were confused. There has been so much applicable history since, but when OKC was released, it was a weird album. Obviously it was good, but was it accessible to a new audience? I'd say it was a stretch. I can tell you what I thought: there were some sweet riffs in there, but the only song that really stuck with me was “Karma Police” because it sounded like “Sexy Sadie” by The Beatles.
There had to be a bridge from the initial confusion to today's worship, from a place where Radiohead would play “Electioneering” on The Tonight Show because A&R had concluded it was the song that sounded most like The Bends, to today, when message boards full of Radiohead diehards complain that the same song is the weakest link in the OKC chain. And like so many great pieces of art, that bridge has been time. The year that followed the album's release was a year full of reevaluation for fans and critics, a year for word of mouth, for the cosmic alignment to settle in.
OK Computer is an album way better than anyone expected, released into a music world of no dominant scene or genre. Alternative had splintered and thinned out, pop was eyeing a resurgence as was a new kind of heavy metal, and most importantly, it was also a year of raised acceptance for all things British. While Blur decided to ‘woohoo’ their way toward approximating Pavement and Noel Gallagher's song ideas disappeared up his nose, the world feasted on a post-Britpop wave of Anglophilia that extended to The Verve, Primal Scream, Spiritualized, The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Portishead, Cornershop, and eventually even Robbie Williams; more than anyone though, Radiohead took advantage by touring the fuck out of the record, and succeeding because they could back their shit up from every angle.
I started working at Tower Records in November of 1997. At this point, OKC was firmly ensconced as an album-of-the-year favorite to everyone who gave a damn; we all agreed it was a great album. But by the spring of 1998, it was different. A line was crossed. Fans that would’ve been devoted before were now rabid. The band released the Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP (a collection of UK B-sides) as both a thank you to fans and as a promotion of their spring theater tour. Our store had a ticket outlet, and I remember the manager crushing employee/fan dreams of cheating the system when we were informed that we'd have to stand in line for tickets with everyone else. Two shows at the legendary Radio City Music Hall, with Spiritualized supporting, the last two dates of the tour no less. Standing on line, you couldn't help but feel something special was happening, like every young Smiths, Cure, U2, R.E.M., Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, Nirvana, Pavement, Blur, Beck and Bjork fan had come together and decided this was the band that they had been waiting for. Radiohead had done something right, mixed just the right amount of ingredients. OK Computer had been the call - this is our triumph, the culmination of the Alternative movement.
Tickets went on sale, and I was shut out; the guy in front of me got the last ticket. Radiohead have played New York around a dozen times since, and I still haven't seen them. Karma, luck, and how much money is in my wallet have yet to see eye to eye. But I hang on to hope. Thanks to my job at the record store, I was fortunate enough to attend listening parties for both Kid A and Amnesiac, so I've gotten close. Regardless, I know that they will remain that band that my generation turns to, and that the next generations discover like I discovered The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. You can see in their faces now, when they do webcasts and special performances for fans, that the band knows that the unerring support that they’ve accumulated from fans is itself the greatest reward for all the music they’ve made. It’s translated into a living, a career, and as they continue to make consistently incredible music, it’s the least we can do. If nothing else, it lets us be confident that shit is happening for us – to quote Jeff Buckley, “It’s all about now!” It lets us know that when our parents brag about what music they grew up with, we have one thing they didn’t – Radiohead – and they made the best album of the last 20 years.
PART FOUR: Just Five Friends in the English Countryside
“And when it was great music it was great art and it didn’t have anything at all to do with labels and who says Mozart is by definition better than Sonny Rollins and to whom…
Sometimes we are lucky enough to have one of these people like Miles [Davis], like [Bob] Dylan, like Duke [Ellington], like Lenny [Bruce] here in the same world at the same time we are and we can live this thing and feel it and love it and be moved by it and it is a wonderful and rare experience and we should be grateful for it…
It’s all in there, the beauty, the terror and the love, the sheer humanity of life in this incredible electric world which is so full of distortion that it can be beautiful and frightening in the same instant…”
- Ralph J. Gleason, from his original LP liner notes for Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, 1969
“What they've done is use a stunning assortment of shrewd instrumental ideas to express contemporary anxiety and alienation, all in the form of pop songs, on albums conceived to be more than the sum of their parts.”
- Marc Hogan, citing Radiohead in his Pitchfork review of Deerhunter’s Microcastle, 10.08
In hindsight, it’s easier to see the mastery of their craft. When OK Computer came out, Radiohead were thought of as just another “Alternative” guitar band clogging the airwaves, and in that transitory summer when music shifted directions in so many ways, the music world was puzzled with what to really do with them, especially since few had given The Bends the time of day. What was music like in the first half of 1997? We were basking in the glow of Beck’s Odelay, mourning Biggie, and bracing for the hit of supposed next big thing Electronica. Who wanted to waste their time with five pasty English boys who had been holed up on an estate somewhere recording paranoid art-rock?
And then we heard “Paranoid Android”, and collectively said ‘what the fuck??’ A mindbending choice for a single at six and a half minutes, it’s funny to realize now that what we all said about it then still holds true: “Paranoid Android” was the “Bohemian Rhapsody” of the 1990’s, but more than that because the individual sections stack up as stronger (Thom Yorke has also compared it to The Beatles’ “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, which also works nicely), with more thematic mystery in its lyric. The guitar tones of the shuffling opening sparkle like a summer afternoon, and yet the mood of the piece is chilly. Without a doubt, “Paranoid Android” encapsulates the band’s instrumental skill best – three guitarists continues to be the main attraction, allowing Ed O’Brien to take some time out for percussion or Jonny Greenwood to molest his vintage keyboards and other noise-making contraptions. Electric piano pops in and out before that colossal riff slashes its way in; I think the images of Jonny, head down, hair swaying, attacking his guitar are so burned into fans’ minds that he gets credit for all the cool guitar moments, but it’s O’Brien pealing off the classic riff while Greenwood is busy whittling away at his solo. O’Brien emerged as the kind of MVP support player in the mold of R.E.M.’s Mike Mills on OK Computer, going toe-to-toe vocally with Thom Yorke on “Android”’s operatic section, on the climactic third verse of “Let Down”, or the gorgeous harmony on “No Surprises”, the kind of voice that seems to always be hanging in the background. Of course, knowing now that “Paranoid Android” began, and was played live opening for Alanis Morissette (at her peak) in American arenas, as a 14-minute mega-epic complete with organ solos, I think we should be glad the band edited themselves and we got to hear the finished product.
The way the disparate pieces of “Android” work together to form a great whole is much like the varied approaches of each song collected to produce a greater album, or the five band members’ individual strengths adding up to more than the sum of the parts, allowing the band to climb to new heights (which they haven’t come down from since). If OK Computer works as the masterpiece we treat it as, it’s that much more remarkable considering the two distinctly different recording periods that birthed the album, one before that Alanis tour and one after. But even before that, the soaring charity anthem “Lucky”, released as a single before work on the album even commenced, set the tone for the proceedings, already exploring Thom’s new lyrical pastures, but also translating his fears into uneasy sound. Right off the bat, there is something different about the way it sounds, not the usual downbeat feel of Radiohead, a different shade of gray, deeper, musically more saturated with despondency but lyrically hopeful in Yorke’s own warped pleas to “kill [him] again, with love”. The guitars soar when Yorke soars, and stagger in the gutters when Yorke finds himself there. Obviously, the make-or-break moment is his pained “It’s gonna be a glorious day” in the second verse, slyly guided by a subtle rising synth off in the corner; surely that one heart-crushing line delivery won over thousands of mopey teens, the spiritual flipside to the joy of Bono’s “I wanna run, I wanna hide!!”. The combined hum of the band on the instrumental coda of “Lucky” might clinch the award for the band’s best song, not overly flashly, and yet simply perfect for all of its 4 minutes and 20 seconds.
Following the lead of “Lucky”, four of the album’s songs came from the “Canned Applause” sessions, the first of the album’s two genesis locations, a converted shed out in the countryside with no running water. These five tracks together reveal the band’s new directions while still bearing musical progressions from The Bends. The lullaby of “No Surprises”, seemingly delicately left behind in the night rather than recorded by a rock band, shows the band still working with essentially the same color palette as on the previous album (with some new bells and whistles), but now for different ends (the backing vocals on the final chorus pleading “get me out of here”). “Electionerring” takes the chaos of “My Iron Lung”’s freakouts and sustains them for an entire song. Now, granted, it’s obviously the most overt song regarding the band’s new lyrical focuses, but the lyrics aren’t really there, slogan fragments instead of prose, letting the music do the talking. It’s definitive racket – brittle, tinny guitar plucking out the melody on one side, fat, slobbering riffage drooling all over the other side. The rhythm section is vibrating reaffirmation of life, the realization that the wordless power of Rock & Roll is its ability to compel you to move.
One thing I’ve come to realize in the process of closely examining OK Computer is that “Subterranean Homesick Alien” is probably their most underrated song. I’m guessing the reason is that it completely doesn’t fit with the rest of this album. For one thing, none of the lyrics fit with the overall threads of the other songs, instead as a stand-alone introspective piece about alien abduction, and how maybe it’s not such a bad idea considering the state of society. It’s weird that I’ve always felt that the song feels very American to me, like the narrator must be American simply because you never hear about alien abductions elsewhere, or maybe because Yorke sings of “warm summer air”, and well it must always be cold and rainy in Radiohead’s world, right? The electric piano that conducts the melody also gives it a humid summer vibe, the guitars swirling and blinking like fireflies (or possibly the lights on alien saucers) very American South damp overgrowth, the rhythm section rolling at a lazy pace, Colin Greenwood’s bass reduced to a buzz that’s not unlike when oppressive summer heat creeps past the hundred mark. The narrator’s state of mind is receptive and open, yes a little worried, but more composed than the paranoid blurts on the rest of the album.
“The Tourist”, featuring absolutely devastating vocals from Yorke, one of his most breathtaking performances, and sizzling glam-god lead by Jonny, amounts to the band’s very own “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide”, the kind of slow epic that can bring the house down night after night. It glides in at a morphine-drip pace, caressing you, comforting you after your long hard journey through the album’s world, but after the first chorus, Jonny’s guitar flashes its fangs, but only for a moment, as if building its power to explode at just the right moment. That moment is after the next chorus, focused with laser precision, strong-arming the rest of the band, bumping up against Yorke’s self-aware cries, flailing around with grace.
With more songs written but not yet recorded, Radiohead jumped on the Alanis tour to work out some new material, and those songs would form the rest of the album. Constructed on laptops in the back of a tourbus and during soundchecks in massive American arenas, “Paranoid Android” and these others songs exhibited an expansiveness the band hadn’t explored before. The sublime “Let Down” actually sounds as if were recorded at one of those soundchecks, the ringing guitar arpeggios ricocheting off the concrete slab and beams of steel (actually, it was a ballroom at 3am). More than any other song on the album, it succeeds strictly on its overpowering sound, a nod to Phil Spector’s “wall of sound”, chords and arrangements magically chosen for maximum emotional impact, like the guitar solo being in a different time signature than the rest of the music, or the dual vocal lines in the third verse raising all the hairs on your arms and back of your neck. Where “Let Down” works because it fills all the spaces with shimmering guitar din, “Exit Music (For A Film)” written for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, works on what it leaves empty. Initially occupied only by a quiet acoustic guitar, Thom Yorke’s voice enters by taking up almost the entirety of the atmosphere (achieved by recording on a stone stairway). As the song builds, he recedes to make room for the elements piling on, from sampled strings to Colin Greenwood’s apocalyptic bass explosion, Phil Selway’s swinging drums; when Yorke breaks through with “And now, we are one…”, the song unleashes its full power, if only for a few moments, collapsing soon after under the weight of the lyric’s drama.
The newer tracks, recorded at the estate of actress Jane Seymour, presented the band breaking away from the traditional song structures they had traded in, instead honing songs through creative arrangements influenced by a wide range of sources, from composers like Olivier Messiaen and Krzysztof Penderecki, the film scores of Ennio Morricone, Miles Davis’ landmark fusion double album Bitches Brew, to the more expected Pixies. Obviously, between “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police”, there is a debt to The Beatles’ White Album. “Karma Police” has remained the gateway for less adventurous listeners, their biggest hit this side of “Creep”, but not all is right in this police state. There is weariness in Yorke’s voice that gives away the ruse; it’s a technique used by countless artists, the sleight of hand, the nice pop song that slides through meta self-reflection and disintegrates into digital decay. That decay continues in the interlude “Fitter Happier”, and wordy, possibly formless diversion, a trip to Radiohead’s most avant garde side, sounding like a sci-fi take on Sonic Youth’s “Providence”.
Besides their listening habits, the rooms of the mansion they were in contributed to the atmosphere of the album, as I mentioned on “Let Down” and “Exit Music”. The song with the most obvious benefit is the terrifying “Climbing Up The Walls”, where the sounds bleed so much into the ether that you can just close your eyes and visualize the high ceilings. Musically, it’s Radiohead’s first step towards what would come on Kid A and Amnesiac, eschewing the guitar-bass-drums rock makeup into something wholly new and creepy. The guitars exist almost entirely as texture – there’s that one clean Edge-like line stuttering along the the walls – and the emphasis is placed on ambient noises and electronic fuzz. Selway’s drums have a metallic tone to them, and coupled with the buzzing bass, the rhythm section suggest dub reggae. Jonny Greenwood is working from the other end in, his Penderecki interest showing through on his string arrangements, the violins descending into white noise as Yorke loses it completely.
Jonny Greenwood’s monster guitar-and-cello riff that opens the album went a long way towards solidifying this album as one for the ages – it works as a welcome, sort of telling you that this is something you want to pay attention to. And the album didn’t disappoint. “Airbag” is the condensed version of the album, in it all the musical and lyrical ideas of the following songs are at least suggested, from the string section, to Yorke’s one of a kind voice, to the further guitar examination and destruction. Much like the coda of “Lucky”, the wordless ending of “Airbag” features a serendipitous aligning of the band playing to their strengths, and also just playing. Over Phil Selway’s infamously DJ Shadow-inspired jumping-bean beat, and Colin Greenwood’s attention-stealing bassline (the album’s best), the guitarists are getting restless, their strings crumbling into chopped up electronic bursts and waves of static, and under it all, Yorke is emoting, just his voice undulating on auto-pilot. But the feel is one of joy, a release of pressure; it’s the sound of the best band of the last twenty years being themselves, and it’s awe-inspiring, one of many moments on this album which illustrate how fortunate we are to have a band to match our times.
02. "Paranoid Android"
03. "Subterranean Homesick Alien"
04. "Exit Music (For A Film)"
05. "Let Down"
06. "Karma Police"
07. "Fitter Happier"
09. "Climbing Up The Walls"
10. "No Surprises"
12. "The Tourist"
"Karma Police" [video]
- "Paranoid Android" [video]
- "No Surprises" [video]
- "Lucky" [video]
As seen in the documentary, Meeting People Is Easy, Radiohead nearly went insane and broke up from the amount of touring they did to support OK Computer. The one remaining upside to that stressful journey is that there is a ridiculous wealth of video online from that tour. Therefore, you will only find performances from June 1997 through 1998 below, to keep with the premise that the album wasn't the only great accomplishment of this fertile period for the band.
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 1]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 2]
There's a great moment in this part where Thom is playing the freshly-written, future Kid A highlight "How To Disappear Completely" at soundcheck in an empty Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC. He had written the song during this tour to keep himself sane, and later called it the song he'd like to be remembered by.
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 3]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 4]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 5]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 6]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 7]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 8]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 9]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 10]
Ends with a great early version of "Nude", then called "Big Ideas (Don't Get Any)", played at one of the aforementioned Radio City concerts. Long considered the 'holy grail' of unreleased Radiohead tracks, "Nude" finally appeared on 2007's In Rainbows.
Live at Hammerstein Ballroom, New York, NY [12.97]
Recorded for MTV's Live at the 10 Spot, this widely bootlegged show became one of the last great actual music moments that MTV aired before becoming a mess of reality retard retreads (although the band did it again in 2003, uptown at the Beacon Theater).
- "Paranoid Android"
- "Subterranean Homesick Alien"
- "Exit Music (For A Film)"
- "Let Down"
- "Karma Police" & "Fitter Happier"
- "No Surprises" & "Lucky"
I was going to post "Airbag", but this performance of "The Tourist" is brilliant proof that Thom Yorke is one of the finest vocalists of the modern era, and as a bonus we get a Stardust-solo from Jonny Greenwood.
Live at the 1997 Les Eurockéennes de Belfort Festival
- "Exit Music (For A Film)"
- "No Surprises"
Live at the 1997 Glastonbury Festival
- "Exit Music (For A Film)"
- "Karma Police"
- "Climbing Up The Walls"
Live on Later with Jools Holland, 06.97
- "Paranoid Android"
- "No Surprises"
"Lucky" [live at soundcheck for Washington DC, 08.97]
- BONUS: "Airbag" [live at the 1998 Tibetan Freedom Concert]
- BONUS: "Paranoid Android" [live at Amnesty International '98]
- BONUS: "Let Down" [live in San Francisco, 04.98]
- BONUS: "Karma Police" [live on Letterman, 08.97]
- BONUS: "Electioneering" [live on Leno, 07.97]
- BONUS: "Climbing Up The Walls" [live in San Francisco, 04.98]
- BONUS: "Lucky" feat. Michael Stipe [live at the 1998 Tibetan Freedom Concert]