Radiohead – OK Computer

It’s really hard for me to overstate the importance that this particular album from Radiohead has had in the shaping of my musical taste, but I’m going to try anyway. Ladies and gentleman, here is Radiohead’s best album:

I'm convinced that great albums never need good cover artIf I had the opportunity to take you by the hand way back to the year 1997 (which apparently turned out to be a very good year for British rock) when I first heard this album, you might quickly become confused by what you see. Indeed, I hated OK Computer for what seemed like a long time. It was the first album I had ever heard from Radiohead, and I didn’t really “get” it. This “Radiohead” group was starting to become an obsessive thing for all the other teenagers I knew, and here I was clutching my Christian rock albums firmly against my chest. Of course, it wasn’t religious fervor that alienated me from this sound, it was simply that I felt the whole thing was pretentious and lacking in any kind of musical solidity and what’s the deal with that guy’s voice.

No, two things had to happen before Radiohead would become one of my favorite bands. For one, I had to see them. I don’t know what it is, but the image of the group performing their iconic MTV live performance while on tour promoting the album really struck a chord with me. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s because nobody really looks like Radiohead:

*shudder*Well, at least not in concert.

Once I saw them perform the songs live, and realized there was a lot more going on than I thought, I decided to give them a second listen. That second listen, of course, was The Bends.

Inspired by an unspeakably attractive girl who was way into Radiohead at the time, I gave their second album a listen. I quickly realized that this band actually knows what they’re doing, and all the musical density that I thought was lacking from OK Computer was right there in a 3-guitar-led rock squad that had apparently perfected melancholy british pop so hard that they had to change at all costs.

Indeed, changing at all costs is what Radiohead has been all about ever since, well, ever. The staggering popularity of The Bends and the press and fans alike regarding Radiohead as some kind of mix between the ultimate “guitar band” and Thom Yorke as the ultimate “sad sack balladeer” was something they would need to get away from, lest they become like every other British band and keep recording the same stale album every 3 years.

It was this new-found realization, and the sight of seeing this band who are weird on what I consider a very “earnest” level, that led me ultimately to enjoy OK Computer for what it is: an album that is basically the antithesis to the modern “guitar rock” album.

Oh sure, there are guitars in it, boy are there ever, but just try and find a pentatonic scale or searing ascending high note solo. There are 2 guitar solos on the whole album, courtesy of Jonny Greenwood, and they are both completely flipped on their ear. The point of the album is not flashy instrumentation, not Thom Yorke hitting every hight note he can, or the band being as self-indulgent, “progressive”, or experimental as they could have been. No, the point of OK Computer are the songs themselves.

Each of the 12 songs were carefully recorded over a graciously “whenever you please” sort of timeline (I guess record companies have learned a thing or two since Deep Purple’s day) in many places and very carefully placed in a grand order on the album. The opening, “Airbag”, sounds like an opening, and the closer, “The Tourist”, sounds like a closer, and there’s not a wasted moment in between.

Really, that’s why I consider Radiohead to be anything but a “prog” band. Progressive rock, at its best, is flashy, experimental, and off-putting to most persons of sensibility (thus why nerds like me absolutely eat it up). Prog at its worst, however, is meandering, full of empty space, and boring to most persons of sensibility (thus why druggies like it).

Radiohead, in combining the tried-and-true 4 minute pop song with as much experimentation, flash, and off-putting meandering as possible, kind of condensed the “prog” formula into something that actually charts. At least, that’s what I assume the magazine articles say with headlines like “Punk Floyd” in regards to the band.

Yes, Radiohead is a band that persons of sensibility, nerds, AND druggies can all get into, and OK Computer is what put them there.

Some highlights of the album are hard to pick out, since the album is quite cohesive, but I will say a few words at least about each of the songs to give an idea of what I like about them.

The song “Airbag” is mostly interesting due to it having that kind of “this space for rent” feel, like something is missing from the song at all times. This was achieved by taking a few seconds of Phil Selways’ drumming, cutting it up into a catchy beat, and then sprinkling it all over the song, with the bass only occasionally joining in, because apparently bassist Colin Greenwood “forgot” to add in filler parts. I forgive him for this, because it really adds a sense of purpose to that groove he actually does come in with.

“Paranoid Android” is a song that I think a lot of people take more seriously than they should, after all its very title is an allusion to Douglas Adams, possibly the greatest man to ever be born in England. It was written, in a very popular Beatles’ move, by scotch-taping together 3 existing songs and then throwing in what I like to call the ultimate guitar solo made by someone who has no rights being a guitar soloist. Its crassness is its beauty, poetry in and of itself. Before I was aware of Progressive rock and its 23 minute epic wank-fests, the 6 1/2 minutes of Paranoid Android seemed like the longest song in the world to my 15 year old self.

“Subterranean Homesick Alien”, a sort of parodied title after a famously incoherent Bob Dylan song, is the last song on the album that I would ever finally “like”, and I think the reason is that the chorus was hastily thrown together from what sounds like The Bends‘ leftover tunes. Also it’s a song about being abducted by aliens, that has yet to really work in music that’s actually trying to be cool. Having said that, I actually do love this song.

“Exit Music (For A Film)” is what I consider “comically sad”, in that it’s so sad, its very sadness becomes kind of a joke, like how sad can you get? Actually, a brilliant man named Graham Linehan caught on to that feeling as well, as the song was included in the show Father Ted as a great joke. Either way, when I was 15 this song had me hook, line, and sinker. I really thought I had uncovered the gloomiest music in the world, it wasn’t until I became a fan of subtlety that I decided this was not so.

I will say, at this point, that one of the great transformations the band permanently went with after The Bends is in Thom Yorke’s voice. Instead of doing the Jeff Buckley thing and singing as if to say “Look what I can do!”, he mastered the art of the powerful tenor high note in the previous two albums and then, upon recording this album, instead took on the philosophy of “What else can I do?” Hence, a lot of his singing really lends either a sense of neurotic nervousness, biting sadism, or those glorious high notes, and he controls them all with more authority and restraint than all the Travis’s and Muse’s you can think of.

“Let Down” was a song that took me a long time to get into, and only just tonight did I realize why. The song is the band’s “nod to Phil Spector” in that everything is drenched liberally in reverb and there is too much going on to really get a sense of “there’s a song going on here”. Of course, before realizing that, this song has been everything from the one I skip all the time to my favorite and back again. Nowadays, I still love the song, but much more live where there isn’t as much reverb.

“Karma Police” is the only tune that I feel is kind of “mundane” on this album. As a centerpiece, it’s a perfect “broken pop song” with its many chord changes and even a key change at some point. Still, it’s “pop” enough to be the song that’s still on the radio every single day, despite the song having self-contained lyrical disgust for songs that are like that. What a self-loathing number!

“Fitter Happier” is one of those ideas that sounds way better when under the influence of some kind of chemical (in this case, alcohol). It’s a computer reading off a disturbing list of “slogans” that Thom wrote as a song but ultimately decided that there are things that are too pretentious for the human voice. Having the words read by a Mac is an interesting idea within the confines of a song that has smatterings of sci-fi all throughout, but is not a song that can stand on its own.

“Electioneering” is far more like it, a gruff, angry D minor rock-out featuring as much cowbell as Christopher Walken could ask for, and another lovely anti-guitar solo. The vague political-ness of this song would forever tie Radiohead to the tired, boring old “political band” grouping, but they were kind of asking for it.

“Climbing Up The Walls” is a song where the reverb and endless tracking actually makes a lot of sense, because it’s a song about going crazy and finding a serial killer climbing the walls of the inside of your skull. Wonderful! The bizarre string arrangement of this song is the first we get to see of Jonny Greenwood’s ability to make almost anything sound screwed-up, and the climax of the song features Thom Yorke’s rarely-featured ability to scream his guts out in a way that would be completely terrifying if it weren’t pushed so far into the background. Seriously, Thom can put other screamers to shame when he wants to.

After that period of horror, the album completely mellows out with “No Surprises”, which is one of those perfectly melancholy songs where everything comes together beautifully. From the guitar arpeggio to the glockenspiel to Thom’s subdued delivery of some very desperate words calling for… whatever it is he’s calling for, it’s some pretty vague ideas, to be honest. Either way, I kind of wish this song was sooner in the album, only because it’s so rarely heard by people who only want to hear the album’s “A-side”, but then again, it’s in a perfect place on the album as a whole, serving as a gateway to the mellowed-out ending to the thing.

“Lucky” brings things to a mid-tempo and “positive” light, however positive you can expect to be in the key of E minor. Really, it perplexes me to hear the band themselves talk about the music that influenced OK Computer, because none of it sounds remotely like the source. Perhaps Radiohead, in their trademark mischievous ways, are just tricking everyone, or maybe they’re just on really good drugs.

“The Tourist” is kind of an irony I suppose, in that it contains the only instance of Thom singing like in the old days, entirely in high-notes, yet the song itself was written entirely by the guitarist. Jonny just wanted to make a really slow, “straight” song about people being treated differently outside of their comfort zone, and about how one should “Slow down”. It’s such an interesting thing to me that this album ends not in some thunderous climax or with some throwaway tracks to pad out the length (though I do like that the very last thing we hear on the album is an egg timer going off, like “Ding! That’s the album!”) Instead, “The Tourist” is kind of a lullaby, a calming, cooling song that sort of dispels all the uneasy rocking your brain has been going through. Thus, the album starts by kind of building upon itself an entirely different and, at times, totally dangerous sound, and then sort of floating it all away with a slow number compelling the listener, the singer, the band, the entire world, to “slow down, idiot, slow down”.

Yeah, Ok Computer never quite became my “favorite” album, not even of its release year (1997 was far too good a year for Christian rock for this usurper to rise above), but its long-standing influence on music in general, its boldness, originality, and just great collection of songs makes it an album that, in my mind, deserves all the enormous praise that is continually heaped upon it. Anyone who wants to make a good album in this day and age would do well to pay attention to OK Computer, even if the band themselves never went back to repeat the formula. Maybe YOU could be the next Radiohead rip-off!

Until then, Ding! That’s the album!

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2 Responses

  1. It’s OK, I started listening to the Pumpkins because of a chick too. Not only do they mess up your life, they make you listen to music that people make fun of you for listening to :-p

  2. Yeah my first girlfriend got me into U2, ’nuff said!

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