2.8 Radiohead: OK Computer
Radiohead’s new album, The King of Limbs, was released with little fanfare. There was no need as this band seems to venture in any direction they desire and listeners will follow. The band formed in 1985 but officially christened themselves as Radiohead in 1991. Over twenty years, the band has continually evolved and left recordings in their wake that quietly developed into an ever-unfolding and radically diverse collection. They have provided a soundtrack for a post-modern culture, future apocalyptic warnings culled from the present and a desire for connection in a sometimes sterile and emotionally stilted world.
Enough has been written about Radiohead in the past twenty years and I have no desire to add another profile to the pile. Facts about the band can easily be found on their website or on Wikipedia. What I’m interested in writing about is how this music actually works as a way into our hearts and minds, or more specifically, my heart and mind.
First, I want to get this out of the way. I am tired of justifying my gushy enthusiasm for the group. The response I often get when I refer to Radiohead: “I can’t stand Thom Yorke’s voice.” Okay, I get it, it’s not for everyone. But I really don’t care. The singer’s voice in the band Rush makes my skin crawl. I just don’t listen to them. I don’t feel the need to impart my utter repulsion for his voice to every Rush fan I encounter. What I would suggest is if you don’t like Yorke’s voice, get over it, you’re missing out.
Second, after the voice, people often tell me Radiohead’s music is pretentious. The band’s lyrics are intelligent, thought-provoking and sometimes shocking. This is a bad thing?
Third, after the voice and the pretentiousness, the music is depressing. I actually find most of their music incredibly uplifting and hopeful. One man’s hope is another man’s sorrow, I guess. Sure, the band often writes about difficult subjects and explores troubling concepts. But in my humble opinion, anyone that doesn’t look at the dark side of life is just fooling himself or herself. If you listen long enough, there is probably more hope in a Radiohead album than they would want to admit. This is music that is truly alive.
The first Radiohead song I heard was ‘Just’ from the album The Bends. It was the music video that first caught my attention, you can watch it HERE.
I didn’t know what to make of it and I certainly didn’t understand what the hell was going on. But it didn’t matter. It wouldn’t be until OK Computer arrived where I started paying attention. Again, it was a music video that caught my attention, this one for the song ‘Karma Police’, you can watch it HERE.
The music was strange, the singer was not your usual front man (that weird voice!) and there was a narrative – both in the music and the images – that crept up on you and hit a nerve. It would take one final music video to convince me, ‘No Surprises’, you can watch it HERE.
The music video was nothing except a close up of Yorke’s face as the tank he stood in filled with water and he drowned. Now that's uplifting! Why this encouraged me to track down the music was no mystery to me at the time. The conflict between the irony of the lyrics, the lightness of the music and Yorke’s haunting stare did it for me.
A friend of mine provided copies of The Bends and OK Computer. I remembered one day when I was ill. I plugged my earphones in, started listening and by the time OK Computer was over, I was no longer feeling sick. I’m still listening to the album.
Two other experiences cemented my connection to Radiohead. Both experiences came from a small concert they played while on tour after the release of the OK Computer follow-up Kid A.
During the concert, the guitarist Jonny Greenwood practically stole the show. At several points, he played guitar, swing it around his back, jumped on the piano, pressed and held the pedal on the piano, turned to the keyboards beside the piano, switched back to his guitar, banged out some notes on a xylophone, more piano, back to the guitar…you get the point. He also had a transistor radio he used to make sound effects and played another instrument that was not readily identifiable but looked like a piano with guitar strings. He did this for the entire two hour-plus show.
Greenwood’s performance was physical as much as musical.
The other experience was during the song ‘How to Disappear Completely’. There was a moment near the end of the song where Yorke had to really nail a high vocal note. His voice cracked and he stopped, visibly upset with himself. They played that part again, and again, he missed the note, but this time, he punched the microphone off its stand. He composed himself, they tried again and he nailed it perfectly. I don’t know what this meant, perhaps that he was an anal-retentive perfectionist asshole. But perhaps it also meant he was someone that relentlessly pushed himself to always be better.
Radiohead has been important to me. Like any egocentric music fan, I feel as though they are recording music specifically for me. Perhaps this is what great artists can do – they have the ability to create work that calls out to you, hits you at the right time – just when you needed it.
OK Computer started this obsession. Many years ago, I wrote a long drawn out story that was based – song-by-song – on the album. This was my interpretation, and I think I would add to the above statement about great artists by saying they make you do most of the work. There is no blueprint for what they are trying to say, many lyrics still don’t make sense to me and others are just incoherent. But this is the fun – you get to fill in the gaps. It becomes yours.
I mentioned that a friend of mine provided me with a copy of OK Computer. I probably should not be writing about this here, but instead deleting this, and sending a message directly to this person. But I can’t do it.
I met this friend of mine in residence at university. He lived down the hall from me and we would see each other in the hallways, smile and nod, and that was it. Finally, we got to talking one day – about what, I can’t remember, probably music or movies – and from then on, we hung out on a regular basis.
He was a ridiculously talented guy: Visual artist, actor, musician and writer. He helped me through that first year, introduced me to many new people and we often talked late into the night about everything from art to our personal histories to our dreams. It sounds like the usual university experience – naïve student finds his voice – kind of thing. I suppose, but it was important to my development as a creative person and as a person in general.
This friend of mine cracked a hard shell I had around me.
Radiohead was apart of this. The soundtrack played in the background. OK Computer landed when I was in my first year at university and you heard it spilling out of the hallways everyday.
After that year, my friend and I moved on. We found ourselves in different places and we tried to keep in touch. I would like to say that we ‘grew apart’, but I didn’t do my part. I wasn’t responsible and mature enough to recognize an imperative friendship because it existed and expanded beyond the confines of my immediate vision. I couldn’t see that as you grew older, it was important to let go of some people but pull others closer.
And now, when I listen to Radiohead, especially OK Computer, I might not always think of the friendship I missed out on, but it is there, lurking in the background.
So, as I said in the beginning, I’m sitting here writing this to everyone but I can’t write to one person. I wonder if too much time has gone by. Too much of a gap between now and then.
Sounds like a Radiohead song.