Gray Taylor takes us on a whirlwind tour of the majesty of Radiohead’s OK Computer twenty years after its release.
While the world celebrates fifty years of The Beatles’ worst album (they haven’t got one really, but I like to bait) it’s worth remembering that their Parlophone label mates, Radiohead celebrate twenty years of OK Computer this June. A record that began their career as not just anthemic, stadium band co-existing with U2-potentials, but as an experimental, leftfield act, capable of shifting otherworldly soundscapes. And all this without Brian Eno getting the drummer to play underwater.
They could’ve been a one hit wonder. I saw them support James in 1993, and even then they were hindered by people shouting, “Play Creep, you cunt!” (turned out that the heckler was a future bandmate of mine).
Still, even at last weekend’s brilliant Glastonbury headline set, you suspect some people get pissed off unless three songs in they’re not hearing Jonny Greenwood chopping his guitar into the chorus of “Creep”. One song can be such a hinderance, it can kill bands. They responded by recording The Bends (1995), an album that universally won over indie kids and critics alike, (apart from this indie kid and writer. For some reason I found The Bends to be lacking in ideas; I still find it a bit of an uneven record, because for every “My Iron Lung” and “Just”, there’s a “High and Dry” or “Fake Plastic Trees”, songs I still find it hard to connect with).
Then, in 1996, came the Help! charity album from the Warchild charity, the lead single being a brand new song by Radiohead, “Lucky”. Such was the beautiful power of this, that I had to take note. It started with an ambient drone or click or the sound through a rainy day window. The command of Thom Yorke’s vocal and the lyric. The band conjuring an epic from the lo-fi beginnings. This was new and old at the same time. It even made me reevaluate parts of The Bends. Did this band have a masterplan after all?
The next piece of OK Computer to hit the public was perhaps the most controversial. A six minute long, multi-faceted rock epic that easily rivalled “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Street Hassle”, or “Station to Station”. A track that resonates today as much as it did when I first took my flimsy CD single home and played it. When people say they don’t like Radiohead, I presume they’ve never heard “Paranoid Android”, a tune so textured, so perfect in its conception, that musically it floored me, zipping through multiple time signatures as if it were par for the course for a simple pop song.
Then there’s the lyrics. Yorke is seething here, truly seething for perhaps the first time: “kicking squealing Gucci little piggy,” he snaps. And, perhaps the greatest putdown in song ever, “When I am king you will be first against the wall, with your opinion which is of no consequence at all”, could be as easily aimed at Theresa as it was Tony. Clicks, pops, backwards sounds, sonically baffling noise grinding to halts before they get going. Epic, complex, singalong, pop, experimental genius. I am going to love their next album I thought.
And I did.
Twenty years later I still do. Along with Kid A (2000) I consider it their finest work. The opener “Airbag” is hard to beat as an opener – and we hard some crackers in the nineties; “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Yes”, “Girls and Boys”, “Rock and Roll Star”. “Airbag” is one of those. The band have clearly grown since The Bends; in fact they are incandescent with inspiration, forging this new career of experimentalism cohabiting with classic rock songwriting. Through then to “Paranoid Android”, which seemed somehow even more perfect than on the single; a track that can be either album track or hit single – there aren’t many of them.
People seemed to label Radiohead’s slower songs as miserablist, but just check out how uplifting (and, okay, uptight) “Subterranean Homesick Alien” is. Our character from “Creep” no longer a shy, spotted teen in the corner of the room, but actually so disaffected as a young adult as to be from another planet completely. OK, so “Exit Music (For a Film)” might be testament for some of their miserable credentials, but that strange electronic drone just wasn’t heard in indie music in 1997. The sonic palette of this song is incredible for the time, building to another killer line, “we hope that you choke”, perhaps prescient of all the future Radiohead fans trying to wail this song back at the band.
“Let Down” is just a classic, beautiful song, (and if you don’t believe me check out Toots and the Maytals’ version on Easy Star All Star’s Radiodread album, a version the band themselves prefer). “Karma Police” is so Beatles-pop-perfect that it even manages to sound like John Lennon is playing piano, plus here is perhaps their most humourous lyrics yet – yes, that’s right, Radiohead are quite funny. It’s a bit like The Smiths-affect, some people simply can’t look passed their intial reaction. But, “her Hitler haircut is making me feel ill”, is a damn funny line.
The weird music concrete, Stephen Hawking-sung “Fitter Happier” always did make me feel ill. Straight into the album’s most convential rocker, “Electioneering”, but it’s important to note how politicised this band are becoming by this point, an aspect that would be later reflect to powerful affect in songs like “You and Whose Army?” And let’s say the guitar work on “Electioneering” is some of the most tearing indie rock you’ll ever hear. The dark drone of “Exit Music” returns for “Climbing Up The Walls” and this still sounds like a band with a toe in dance music, or trip hop as it was known then, and was considered dance music, although you would need to take twenty mogadons to successfully dance to it. Sonically challenging again, Yorke’s vocals blurred into part of the soundscape.
They finish the album with a trilogy of their most beautiful songs; “No Surprises”, “Lucky”, and “The Tourist”. “No Surprises” has become famous as the video that almost drowned Thom Yorke, but, as a performance of it Glastonbury on the weekend proved, it is a simple, beautiful guitar phrase that remains sentimental without syrup.
And “The Tourist” may be the best thing here.
OK Computer truly is a sound concept piece, where tracks suppport each other, comfort and disturb each other, as in a family. That’s testament to the art of the album. As such, the extras the sky blue vinyl 20th anniversary release are nice to have but don’t really add anything. In fact “I Promise”, “Lift”, and “Lull” sound more like outtakes from The Bends and the excellent “Man Of War” more in relation to the Radiohead of “My Iron Lung” than of “Airbag”. The b-sides too are excellent, a reminder (“A Reminder” being one of the best b-sides here) that they had wonderful harmonic ideas to spare in 1997.
OK Computer still sounds like a soundclash between The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Bitches Brew-era Miles, Cluster, Eno, and numerous other probably incorrect reference points. But, like the seemingly shifting, non-committal cover art, this really was new music, inspired, but really more inspiring than anything else, allowing the indie band of the nineties to be far more than their original remit. Blur went onto make 13, Oasis decided that world wasn’t for them, Pulp recorded their best, most inventive work with Scott Walker, and countless guitar bands of the future luxuriated in the world Radiohead had shifted their music into, most notably on Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Of course, some bands quite rightly decided that if they followed the more simplistic template of “High and Dry”, “Fake Plastic Trees”, and, subsequently, Oasis’s “Wonderwall”, that they would make far more money and have drunk people sing their songs wrong forever. Well, I say long live OK Computer and it’s inventive bravery, taking me where I always want music to take me: somehwere else. Besides a fake plastic tree would be a real tree, right?
Join Gray Taylor and Gary Raymond tonight as they pay tribute to Ok Computer on their weekly Tuesday night radio show, The Random Album Show, 8pm-10pm only on EnergiZe Radio.