On September 26, 1995, I formed a very negative view of a band that many of my friends adored.
On that day, I traveled to Noblesville, Indiana with Ray Rizzo to see REM in concert. REM was aggressively mediocre in that performance, but the opener was downright dreadful. It was an English band named Radiohead.
I knew who they were. Their song “Creep” had been on the radio. To me, they sounded like an even mopier and whinier version of Nirvana. They utilized the “soft verse/loud chorus” effect that Nirvana made mad bank with. Their singer, Thom Yorke, sounded like a tortured cat. As the opener their mix was mud. The stage show was better suited for a club. It just didn’t work. (Even allowing the second-tier sound and stage show that openers are forced to endure in deference to the headliners.)
Radiohead was touring behind their second album, “The Bends,” but the only song hitting me from the radio from that platter was “High and Dry,” which was…fine. I focused my listening hours elsewhere.
In 1997, I moved to NYC. It was a distracting year. I still wrote about music for the daily back home, but much less. I was looking for a job writing about music in the Big Apple. I didn’t get a bite—at least not a bite that paid the bills. When my money ran out, I took a job copyediting for a national jewelry trade publication. In other news, Radiohead released an album called “OK Computer.”
I didn’t care. Radiohead was that shitty band I saw open up for REM, the group that had that trendy song “Creep.”
Because of my love of music and my past gig as a music writer, I’ve had friends who are musicians ever since I was in high school. It seemed like every other time I talked to a musician friend, they asked if I’d listened to “OK Computer.” Even Ray, who was with me when Radiohead drained all the excitement out of Deer Creek Music Center in Noblesville that hot September day in ’95, was talking up that record.
No. I was like Bartleby the Scrivener. “I would prefer not to.”
One day, Brad Cates had had enough. Brad was a singer in a band in which several of my friends played. I knew from many conversations with him that he could see inside songs to find good things. I didn’t and don’t have the same taste as him, but I learned to respect his big ears—he heard music better than me, for sure—likely still does. He burned a copy of “OK Computer” and mailed it to me.
I gave in. I listened. If someone feels strongly enough about an album that they would burn a copy and snailmail it 800 miles, it deserves a spin. The first cut, “Airbag,” had a heaviness to it that offered a doorway in. It was moody and atmospheric, like a restrained Led Zeppelin and a tighter Pink Floyd, updated for the times. And then, “Paranoid Android” changed my expectations for ALL rock music, from that first listen until today.
Can I keep this brief? Probably not. The song isn’t brief. Here goes…
“Paranoid Android” starts with some picked acoustic guitar that is punctuated by a descending guitar figure and some percussion. Yorke enters with a narrative that sketches a depressed, angry misfit wanting people to leave him alone. Keyboard textures provide a bed for the eerie and unsettling vocals and guitars. It’s dark and brooding, and there’s a computerized voice somewhat buried in the mix. That robotic voice is meant to evoke Marvin the Paranoid Android, a sad-sack character in Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a humorous social commentary. Radiohead is playing with us. They invite us to find all the doom and gloom funny.
About two minutes into this 6:23 song, a bass line by Colin Greenwood takes center stage. The song begins to reveal itself as a piece with several sections. Percussion continues to tinkle and drive the tempo, locked in with the elaborate guitar parts. (One critic called the tune “a titanic guitar opera.”) Things get louder, with a screaming Jonny Greenwood electric guitar solo roaring forward, then yielding to an elegiac, wordless, legato vocal chant around the four-minute mark. Yorke enters with lyrics asking rain to fall “from a great height.” Another layer of Yorke vocals sketch out a vegetarian nightmare with “the crackle of pigskin” and what seems like an indictment of God or the beliefs of some people regarding God’s purported wishes and feelings for “his children.” The droning background vocals and Yorke’s list of short phrases then suddenly yield to a full-blown guitar freakout that is equally met by some high-energy drumming from Philip Selway. Guitars take us out, with a frantic shaker edging to the front of the mix…and then abruptly it is over.
Thematically, it’s hard to argue that the song isn’t about alienation and mistrust of technology. The paranoid android that “speaks” during the song seems to mistrust his own existence. The concerns about technology made more sense back in 1997; all our concerns about technology seem now to be buried under absolute and unbreakable bonds of servitude to our electronic devices. It’s too late to mistrust technology now.
I became friends with a graphic designer and rock musician named Chris Bracco while I worked at National Jeweler magazine. I was working my way up the masthead and he was assiduously staying in place as assistant art director—he didn’t want any more from his day job than necessary, because rock was his love. We talked obsessively about “OK Computer.” I can remember several occasions when we were standing on a subway platform or riding a train and dissecting every single note from every movement in every song from the album. I mean, totally geeking out, along the lines of, “yes! And then Jonny comes in with that descending guitar motif!” It was wonderfully excessive.
I listened to “OK Computer” through headphones. I listened to it on an iShuffle (remember those?). I listened to it LOUD on my stereo.
The rest of the album maintains the high quality of “Paranoid Android.” “Exit Music (for a Film), a dirge with incredible weight, accomplishes the nearly impossible: It effectively distills one of Shakespeare’s plays (Romeo and Juliet) into a 4:25 pop song. Radiohead wrote and recorded it for the movie “Romeo + Juliet,” and the filmmakers didn’t use it in the film. (That makes me wonder about the sanity of Hollywood, or at least the director Baz Lurhmann.) The song is as intimate as a lover’s breath, then a big blob of guitar and keyboard weight suffocates the song’s characters in dread. The song ends with sounds that make me think of a flock of starlings singing and flying backwards.
“Let Down” is the best sad-day song I know. When I want to sit in a fetal position in a depression among brambles and vines on a rainy day in the woods, in a deer’s napping spot, contemplating the raindrops running down my forehead, this is the soundtrack for it. “Karma Police” was a hit, and it perfectly expresses the anger of someone who wishes the world would just wake up and be the way the narrator thinks it should be. And at the end, Yorke casts all of the sentiment in doubt as he repeats “Whew, for a minute there/I lost myself.” “Climbing Up the Walls” foreshadows some of the thick, almost monochromatic texture of subsequent Radiohead songs on further albums, with Yorke’s vocals modified almost to the point of utter illegibility. “Electioneering” begins with a tambourine (or sleigh bells?) that reveals itself to be more like the warning of a rattlesnake than a sassy shake of a percussion instrument, then an unholy racket of guitars, bass, and drums subsequently surges behind Yorke’s lyrics about corrupt politicians.
But “OK Computer” is more than all of this. Ignore the lyrics, look past the mood, and hear the music.
Jonny Greenwood’s lead guitar work makes it all perpetually interesting. He is the kind of guitarist who seeks out the widest possible variety of sounds from his instrument. The riff that obliterates the choral section in “Paranoid Android” reportedly had been hanging out in the back of Greenwood’s brain for a while before the perfect application for it came along. He is a guitar nut, with an ear for sweeping sounds and surprising elements. He spikes the punch. (Consider that the amorphous, staccato grunts from his Telecaster at the beginning of the chorus on “Creep” was an intentional disruptor. He reportedly thought the song lacked energy and was too pretty.) As much as Yorke seems to epitomize Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood is likely the architect of the band’s music. His guitar chimes prettily, moves quickly, growls menacingly, and provides mammoth riffs worthy of a rock ‘n’ roll band. That’s him on keys, too.
Is it the message or the music? Something I witnessed in a now-defunct Irish bar in Astoria, Queens suggests the latter. “Paranoid Android” was on the jukebox at Gibney’s, and I heard it there every time I visited (which was often). One night, I was passing away the hours and the brain cells with a friend at a table and the song came on. After the choral passage arrived in “Paranoid Android” and gave way to some guitar squall, Selway’s drum fill/short solo burst through the speakers, and one of two beefy Queens guys at a table in front of me played air drums ABSOLUTELY PERFECTLY in sync with the record. When the drum part was over, he acted like he had never flailed about with invisible sticks at all. z