Radiohead - OK Computer
For those who don't already know, the
music industry is pretty ridiculous. It is not really concerned
with art, it only wants to "sell units."
The aesthetic value in the music put out by groups like the Spice
Girls or Matchbox 20 may be on the low end of the scale, but these
groups' respective record companies are usually wholly pleased
with the revenue created. Knowing this, it is amazing that an
album like OK Computer was even allowed to be made.
If you were lucky enough to discover Radiohead by way of their
1993 break-through single "Creep," you heard a band that sounded
different. The band's first album Pablo Honey, which included
"Creep," was released around the tail end of the Seattle movement.
"Creep," A song about alienation with everchanging dynamics and
a soaring melody, was embraced by MTV and put into heavy rotation.
This song got people interested in the band and especially in
its frail-looking front man, Thom Yorke, whose voice possessed
a great and unique sense of urgency.
1995's follow -up, The Bends, showed a band progressing and
growing lyrically and musically. While some of the subject matter
dealt with a desperate disappointment in things not genuine in
today's society, the pieces showcased a greater experimentation
with song structures, harmony and rhythm. Clearly evident by this
point was that Radiohead were craftsmen in the studio as well
as on the concert stage.
By 1996, critics and fans alike jumped on the Radiohead bandwagon.
You couldn't turn on the radio or MTV without hearing the album's
two major singles, "High and Dry" and "Fake Plastic Trees."
It would make sense then to assume that the anticipation for
the next record was very high. With OK Computer, Radiohead not
only delivers, but points the way for pop music in the future.
From the menacing opening guitar tiff of the lead-off track,
"Airbag," it is clear that OK Computer tackles new sonic ground
for a pop music format. As is the case with the entire album,
the instruments played by the band (Thom Yorke, vocals and guitar;
Jonny Greenwood, guitar and keyboards; Ed O'Brien, guitar; Colin
Greenwood, bass; Phil Selway, drums) are electronically manipulated
by computers and other machines.
A lot of the album's drum tracks are processed, cut up, and
looped, yet do not sound mechanistic. Colin Greenwood's angular
and sporadic bassline weaves in and out of the song, while random
electronic noises can be heard in the background.
The album's first single, "Paranoid Android," and its accompanying
video is perhaps the biggest shock of the whole record. The track
is a six-and-a-half-minute, four-movement epic that reminds the
listener of Seventies progressive rock, championed by the likes
of Yes and Genesis. Various members of the band have pointed to
the Beatles' "Happiness is a Warm Gun," which works in movements,
as part of the inspiration for the ambitious undertaking. Interestingly
enough, from an album filled with electronics and technology,
the track opens with arpeggiated acoustic guitars.
Radiohead then goes on to break cardinal Rule #1 of pop music
by throwing in odd time signatures.
"We have gotten a bit sick of the number four," Greenwood said
in an interview. "Is repeating that riff a fourth time going to
make your life any better?"
While the band navigates a relatively heavy riff between 4/4
and 7/8 time, Yorke sings, "Ambition makes you look very ugly/Kicking
squeeling Gucci little piggy."
The single's video is animated and follows the misadventures
of two youths. Any further interpretation would be meaningless
and probably incorrect.
Radiohead's intimations of an apocalyptic future, and their
attitude that "technology is the end of us all" echo throughout
most of the songs on OK Computer.
An obvious nod to Dylan, "Subterranean Homesick Alien" has
lines like, "Up above aliens hover making home movies for the
folks back home/Of all these weird creatures who lock up their
spirits, drill holes in themselves, and live for their secrets."
"Fitter Happier," a truly scary track, sounds like a transmission
from an alien visiting Earth to its "home" planet, with its computer-generated
voice coldly and monotonously reciting phrases like "fitter, happier,
more productive, comfortable,. not drinking too much."
"Exit Music (For a Film)," as close to transcendence as pop
music can get, changes chord structures like the most complex
be-bop, and mood and timbre like the heaviest of the Romantic
composers' greatest works.
To describe it as a requiem played by rock instruments would
not be a stretch. The playing of the Radiohead members on all
the tracks, it should be added, is very sensitive and tasty. Nothing
is rushed-, no one overplays. The distorted bass that enters towards
the end of the song is classic Radiohead: something you don't
really expect, but something that completely belongs. "Exit Music"
also showcases something unique to OK Computer, which is the use
of Jonny Greenwood's keyboard-made choral voicings, an integral
part of the album's (and especially the track's) special sound.
Other album highlights include "Karma Police" and "The Tourist,"
a chilling tune where Yorke sings in an angelic falsetto, 'They
ask me where the hell I'm going?/At 1000 feet per second/Hey man
slow down/Idiot slow down." As with many of the album's choruses
(if we can call them that) the "slow down" lines are very moving
and relentless, not with aggression but with subtlety.
Overall, OK. Computer is a concept album for the Nineties,
complete with a bleak look at the present and a bleaker look at
the future. Possibly, some hope can be interpreted from the lyrics,
but they are for the most part filled with cynical and pessimistic
imagery. The music is complex, daring, dissonant, distorted, and
never really relies on conventional song structure or traditional
song writing technique. The imagery is thought provoking, urgent,
and displays artists who are acutely aware of what they're doing.
OK Computer does not sound like a record made by chance. Even
the schizophrenic cover art and liner notes are reminiscent of
Rauschenberg's experiments with collage and EE Cummings' verse,
which was purposefully broken up, lower case, and grammatically
OK Computer is analogous to what Sgt. Pepper was for the Beatles
30 years ago. It is still a pop record, but the sound is drastically
changed. "A Day In The Life" and "Paranoid Android' were made
with the same spirit in mind.
Although it may be irrelevant, OK Computer begs a comparison
to U2's Pop. For years, U2 had been on the cutting edge of technology
and craft. However, their latest album Pop showed a band which
had become a mockery of itself, Pop was a direct attempt at a
band to reinvent itself, while O.K. Computer appears to be the
result of years of evolution, not a marketing ploy to jump on
the "electronica" express. Radiohead did not force the issue.
Rather, OK Computer is simply what Radiohead is at this point
in time. Can't wait for the next one.
Written By: Iyla S.