Because OK Computer was released on May 21, 1997, I was seriously motivated to publish this review at the start of the year to avoid becoming engulfed in the 20th Anniversary of the Greatest Album of the 9o’s hoo-hah.
The “Best of Anything” is a pretty lame concept because any criterion you could use is shaky at best. Record sales have as much to do with musical excellence as the popularity of Doritos has to do with culinary achievement. Influence is often cited as a reason, but a lot of that is based on how many famous musicians happened to mention that they liked a particular album. If you’ve done as much research as I have over the years, you’d know that Paul McCartney loves every piece of music he has ever heard and that Thom Yorke has cited different influences for the same song depending on his mood and memory. I suspect several artists mention other artists to build up good karma and get a plug in return, while others realize that many music journalists aren’t that bright so they need to hand them a few questionable analogies to help them meet their deadlines. There’s also the undeniable fact that many influential albums flat-out suck, and are only influential because someone with more talent and imagination found something interesting in the muck that they later transformed into a listenable piece of music.
After looking at several Best of the 90’s lists on the net, I noticed that they’re full of albums by Liz Phair, Courtney Love, Alanis Morissette, Sleater-Kinney and other female artists whose claim to fame was that they were daring enough to liberally sprinkle their lyrics with that unladylike word, “fuck.” Apparently that was considered some kind of feminist breakthrough in the waning days of the century.
Fuck. If I had started blogging in the fucking 1990’s I might have beat out fucking Dylan for that fucking Nobel Prize.
With sincere apologies to Oasis fans, Sade and PJ Harvey, MBE, it’s likely that the championship round for Best Album of the 90’s is going to come down to a bout between Nevermind and OK Computer, a thrilling match between two bands whose lineage can be traced directly back to the Pixies. Two bands steeped in existentialist grunge battling it out for meaningless glory! Tune into find out which album best captured the alienation of an entire generation!
I really hope it doesn’t go there, but I hoped Hillary would beat Trump, so I’m not very good at this hope thing.
I hope it doesn’t go there because these silly debates diminish both the works and the artists who produced them. A September 2000 article from The Guardian featuring Thom Yorke expressed it best:
In 1998, Q readers voted OK Computer the greatest album in the world. A new UK albums poll by Colin Larkin, canvassing 200,000 punters, has The Bends at number two, after the Beatles’ Revolver, with OK Computer at number four. But Yorke says of such polls, “Well, it means nothing. That sort of thing never really did my head in, because there was no way of relating to it.”
For Yorke, who turns 32 in October, the unpalatable paradox was that everything good they had done had been stripped of personal meaning and reduced to hyperbolic headlines. The band felt manipulated, like record company puppets, or media dancing bears. The reward for doing great work, it appeared, is being made to feel completely trite. This is fine for Oasis, for whom the music took a back seat to marketing long ago, but for Yorke and Radiohead, it rendered their entire purpose futile.
So if the great debate about Best Album of the 90’s comes down to a tie between Nevermind and OK Computer, I’m good with that. It doesn’t mean dick.
Having made the effort to learn to play and sing several songs from both albums on guitar and piano, I appreciate both as unique works of art. When you learn a song, you become more aware of the subtleties in the subtext, the impact of tone color and the emotional effect of a chosen chord structure. On that basis, I consider both Nevermind and OK Computer multi-dimensional, richly satisfying experiences.
However, in the interest of full disclosure, my recent listening habits do reveal a personal preference. I don’t listen to Nevermind that much anymore, but I listen to OK Computer quite a bit. When I put the iPod or iPhone on shuffle and a song from Nevermind comes up, I skip it about half the time. When something from OK Computer appears, I’m drawn to it, and usually turn the volume up. I have to be in the mood for Nirvana; Radiohead has the ability to put me in the mood.
Just like my partner! That’s why she got the job!
One other tiny admission: my initial reaction to OK Computer was anything but positive. This was because during the late 90’s I was consumed with getting and giving bruises in the mosh pits and paid only scant attention to Radiohead. My first in-depth exposure to Radiohead was Kid A, one of my favorite albums ever. Conditioned by what I heard on Kid A, OK Computer seemed rather raunchy and scattered. To overcome the bias I had to hit the reset button, so I spent months listening to Pablo Honey and The Bends while avoiding the temptation to slip “Optimistic” and “Idioteque” into the mix. When I listened to OK Computer in the proper context, the change in perspective was shockingly delightful. OK Computer not only touches on several socio-cultural themes near and dear to my brain but features a string of superbly-arranged compositions that represented a quantum leap in sophistication over their first two albums.
The layered richness of OK Computer is on full display in the opening track. “Airbag” continues the exploration of a theme that first appeared in “Ripcord” on Pablo Honey: the utter fragility of human existence as captured in the symbolism of do-or-die devices (airbags, seat belts, ripcords, etc.). While “Ripcord” dealt with the psychological fragility inherent in a life based on the pursuit of earthly treasures such as material wealth and political power, “Airbag” focuses on the vulnerability of body and soul in a cold universe where a simple accident or being in the wrong place at the wrong time can terminate life without notice.
The mournful guitar motif establishes a melancholic mood only slightly countered by a lovely guitar counterpoint and contrasting thrusts from the beats. The complexity of the music mirrors the complexity of emotion in an “airbag moment,” those unforgettable experiences when we are snatched from certain oblivion by dumb luck, the nuances of science or fail-safe systems that do exactly what they were designed to do but still leave us believing in miracles.
I had my “Airbag” moment while sitting in the passenger seat of a pre-airbag sports car headed to Lake Tahoe for what I hoped would be a weekend of hard fucking, drinking and gambling with a promising young stud I’d met in SoMa one night. While he was as handsome as fuck, he wasn’t much of a conversationalist, so when we were passing through that boring stretch of I-80 around Vacaville, I felt myself drifting off. I was only half-awake when I heard him say, “Oops.” Next there was the loud bang from the force of a car colliding with the driver’s side door at seventy miles an hour, causing us to carom across three lanes filled with high-speed traffic. My reaction to impending doom was hysterical laughter interspersed with encouraging words to the driver—“You’re okay, you’re okay”—as I attempted to guide him through the traffic stream to the safety of a ditch that paralleled the freeway. We landed awkwardly but safely in the earthen confines of the ditch, where the driver’s side door collapsed to the ground with a punctuating thump. I continued to laugh my head off from the exhilarating rush of improbable survival and only stopped laughing when I saw my companion’s face twisted in pain as he tried to support his now perfectly useless left arm (later repaired at the local hospital). The event probably lasted ten seconds but it plays in slo-mo in my memory, imprinted there forever to remind me that of how ridiculously close I came to death, saved only by the geometrical miracle of our accidental trajectory towards a drainage ditch.
Never got to fuck the guy, but when I finally got back to The City that night, I did discover the powerful healing benefits of 110 proof Scotch.
Befitting a complex topic, “Airbag” is a masterpiece of contradiction. Tim Footman captured the technological-musical conflict in Welcome To The Machine: OK Computer and the Death of the Classic Album when he observed that “the musicians and producer are delighting in the sonic possibilities of modern technology; the singer, meanwhile, is railing against its social, moral, and psychological impact.” Within the song itself, the fundamental human contradiction is expressed through the repetition of that mournful motif contrasting mightily with the joy expressed in the line, “I am born again.” I found it fascinating that Thom Yorke wrote the lyrics for this song in a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Blake was the poet of contradiction, embracing humanity’s conflicting drives as the exquisite tension at the core of human existence. In “Airbag,” Radiohead captured the fundamental absurdity in human behavior that a Vulcan could never understand: human beings cry tears of joy and laugh in the face of danger. We love life but our mortality colors life with an infinite sadness.
In terms of format, “Paranoid Android” is the 90’s version of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, though I think Radiohead does a better job of connecting the disparate parts through a combination of thematic foreshadowing and repetition. I love the fuck out of the guitars on this piece, both acoustic and electric, and while the quiet opening with the shift to LOUD is pure Pixies, Radiohead executes multiple dynamic shifts in the song, with the “God part” perfectly sandwiched between complementary guitar explosions. Thom Yorke found his inspiration for the song during a night out in a coke-filled La La Land night spot crawling with users and takers, and his reaction mirrors that of David Bowie’s parting shot to L. A. as he headed for Berlin: “That fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth.” On the surface, the song seems terribly judgmental (“Ambition makes you look pretty ugly/Kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy”), but Yorke’s choice to merge his identity with Douglas Adams’ ultimate snob Marvin the Paranoid Android feels like a “message to self” that taking a superior attitude is self-defeating (a sentiment echoed in the computer voice background text, “I may be paranoid, but no android.”) Still, I find myself struggling with that very issue as I contemplate the 60 million losers who voted for Trump, and you know what? Right now I feel pretty damned good about being superior if superior means I pride education over ignorance and human rights over narrow-minded, paranoid prejudice.
Enough Trump! Let’s talk aliens! When people ask me the common conversation-warmer question, “If you could live anywhere, where would you live?” I invariably surprise them with my unhesitating answer: Deep Space Nine. Live on a massive space station with a great view, infinite diversity, impressive shopping, holodecks to cater to your every fantasy and the greatest bar/gambling joint in the galaxy? Sign me up! And the rooms! I would activate the security seal on that door, crank up the replicator on command, fuck for a whole month straight and never leave my quarters! So yes, I completely embrace Thom Yorke’s pro-alien sentiments on “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” and we’d have to race with each other to see who would be the first to leap through the hatch into the spaceship. “You’d really want to leave EARTH? Why?” I’ll let Thom explain it for you:
The breath of the morning I keep forgetting
The smell of the warm summer air
I live in a town where you can’t smell a thing
You watch your feet for cracks in the pavement
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
They’re all uptight, uptight
The beautifully dreamy music of the song is the perfect background for an imaginative leap, but the single-word chorus, with its extraordinary melding of arpeggiated guitar, hanging rhythms and majestic drum rolls, gives me the chills every time I hear it.
Things seem to be going on quite swimmingly on OK Computer until “Exit Music (For a Film)” fills my headphones. I usually skip it. While I appreciate the alt-ending to Shakespeare’s worst play ever, the song is too fucking slow to hold my interest. I also believe that Romeo and Juliet have to be the two dumbest characters in literature, and I hated the movie with its gratuitously violent ending. My views may be colored because I grew up in a time when teenagers of my generation offed themselves in spasms of drama queen stupidity, but I don’t think “Exit Music” belongs on this album. It interrupts the flow and doesn’t connect well with the primary themes.
Oh, well. I didn’t like everything on Revolver, either.
But I love “Let Down,” a gorgeous piece of music that captures the unthinking inhumanity built into too many systems of mass transportation. When I moved to France and became the Grand Poo-Bah for the company’s European operation, I spent two years in fucking airports, often feeling “crushed like a bug in the ground.” I flew hundreds of thousands of miles, putting up with screaming babies, smelly passengers, crappy food and urine-drenched lavatories, earning Super Dumbshit Frequent Flyer status on three airlines. I find it outrageous that the reward for frequent flying is more fucking flying! Why can’t they let us exchange the miles for spa visits, concerts and ballets, where we can relieve our bodies and minds from the poisonous stress and dehumanization of air travel?
That someone could write a song about mass transportation as beautiful as “Let Down” is a testament to Thom Yorke’s empathy for those of us who suffer on jam-packed buses, constantly late trains and the ugly reality of air travel:
Transport, motorways and tramlines
Starting and then stopping
Taking off and landing
The emptiest of feelings
Disappointed people clinging on to bottles
And when it comes it’s so, so disappointing
Let down and hanging around
Crushed like a bug in the ground
Let down and hanging around
The arrangement is exquisite, with Colin Greenwood providing strong, steady and appropriately melodic bass while the guitars serve as arrhythmic wind chimes, capturing the dizzying feeling you get when you’ve been traveling too long. Thom Yorke’s vocal is a masterwork, expressing the flat dullness of inhuman experience in the first verse, awaking to the possibility of resistance in the scale-dancing melody of the second, and building to the curiously triumphant vocal kaleidoscope of the last verse. Two parts of “Let Down” always give me the chills: the spot harmony on the words “chemical reaction” in the second verse and Phil Selway’s muscular double-time wrap to the instrumental bridge preceding the final verse. Despite the unpleasantness of the subject matter, “Let Down” ends triumphantly and joyously, for while the wish for a human experience in mass transit may be “hysterical and useless,” the expression of genuine human emotion is always an uplifting experience.
I find “Karma Police” equally uplifting, but for different reasons. The theme is similar to “Paranoid Android” in that it expresses the wish that we could make all the bad people go away, but the humor here is more obvious and economical:
Arrest this man, he talks in maths
He buzzes like a fridge, he’s like a detuned radio
Arrest this girl, her Hitler hairdo
Is making me feel ill and we have crashed her party
The phrase, “He buzzes like a fridge,” is one of my favorite lines ever—one I’ve recalled on several occasions when meeting with boring business people who talk only in numbers. I love the clarity of the low bass tones from Colin Greenwood, a testament both to his superb handling of the instrument and excellent engineering. Thom Yorke sings the “Sexy Sadie” chorus with the quiet confidence of a man who believes in the inevitable march of karma, beautifully supported by faint angelic voices and late-night piano bar patterns. More importantly, the shift in Thom Yorke’s voice through an echo effect during the fading verses of apology accentuate the bipolar feelings we have about wishing that those annoying people in our lives would go to hell and stay there. “For a minute there, I lost myself, er . . . no, I didn’t, you really are an asshole.”
One of the more striking and oddly controversial pieces on OK Computer is “Fitter Happier,” where the words are spoken by the “Fred” voice on a now-ancient Macintosh using the now-obsolete SimpleText program. While the technology may be passé, the listening experience remains entirely compelling, in large part due to the unfeeling artificiality of the primitive computerized voice. Thom Yorke called this “the most upsetting thing I’ve ever written,” and I wholeheartedly agree. The piece is a creepy but prescient warning of a conformist society shaped by mass programming where Health Nazis rule the world and we all pretend to get along happily with all those annoying people we just sent to hell in “Karma Police.”
Fitter, happier, more productive
Not drinking too much
Regular exercise at the gym
Three days a week
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries
No more microwave dinners and saturated fats
The song reminds me of a meeting I had with an HR person when I first joined my former employer, a classic HR type who had drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid about “wellness programs.” “Surely you’re going to want to enroll in the Wellness Program!” “What’s it involve?” “Oh, you set goals for yourself like exercising, cutting down on saturated fats, getting your cholesterol checked, remembering to stand up every thirty minutes to avoid potential vision and ergonomic problems, staying active—things like that. There are also special programs to help people quit smoking—” “NOT interested,” I interrupted. She looked at me as if her internal program was stuck in a loop. “But why? It saves you money on medical premiums, helps keep our benefits costs down, and best of all, keeps you healthy and happy.” “That’s nice, but I enjoy smoking and have no intention of quitting. I don’t eat three balanced meals a day, I eat one-and-a-half, and once or twice a week that one meal is a cheeseburger with all the trimmings, loads of fries and a milkshake.” “But you look so healthy! Don’t you want to take better care of yourself and stay healthy?” “Not if it means I have to give up things that make life worth living!”
Things have only gotten worse. When I was in the States last fall, I saw dozens of people wearing Fitbits and Apple Watches to remind them when to stand, breathe, move and shit. Do people really need a fucking piece of technology to compensate for a lack of self-control? Don’t people realize that the health fad is one of the biggest conformist scams in history, and that its purveyors are using your innate fear of death to condition you? Why can’t y’all just listen to your bodies and figure out what works for you ALL BY YOURSELVES?
Needing a counterpoint to “Fittier Happier” as quickly as possible, Radiohead provides with the raucous and marvelously sloppy “Electioneering.” I would love a wordless version of this song because often I’ll tune out Thom Yorke and focus solely on the guitar interplay. It’s not difficult to do because the guitars are already raised in the mix to underscore the noisy confusion that we call politics. While Mr. Yorke was technically writing about the post-Thatcherian British political scene, the recollection of the band members was that the song was more about the experience of schmoozing with music business types and all the handshaking they had to do . . . which brings up a valid question. Why is so much human interaction governed by bullshit? If it is true (well, yes, it is true) that people cannot make informed choices without clear information, why do we spend so much time bullshitting each other and pretending to be people we’re not? This is more of a rhetorical question than a real question because I know the answer. I can’t be “the real me” at work—I wouldn’t last a minute, and I need the money. A lot of times we allow ourselves to be swayed by “experts” or “the crowd” and mouth their bullshit because it makes us more pleasant company. Go along to get along, dammit!
Whether you like Radiohead or not, you have to admit that their music always gives you lots to think about.
Unlike “Fitter Happier,” “Climbing Up the Walls” was intentionally designed to sound creepy, and while it’s not the most pleasant listening experience on this or any album, the soundscape does give you the creeps, especially when the violins simultaneously play notes that are an irritating quarter-step apart. According to Colin Greenwood, “No Surprises” was designed to counteract the creepiness of “Climbing Up the Walls” with something more soothing, and on that level it more than succeeds with its sweet guitar-and-glockenspiel-guided arrangement reflecting the stillness we experience when listening to a musical box. The lyrics, though, reflect the quiet desperation of some of Ray Davies’ characters—people who are trapped in meaningless lives and too frightened to do anything about it:
A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heal
You look so tired and unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t, they don’t speak for us
I’ll take a quiet life
A handshake of carbon monoxide
No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
And like Arthur, what’s left is “Such a pretty house/And such a pretty garden.” “No Surprises” is a terribly sad but truthful song about the economic and social alienation that occurs when the impersonal system is working as designed. No, they don’t speak for us, and that in itself is an ongoing tragedy.
The tempo and mood of the album remain on low simmer with “Lucky,” a song about fickle fortune and misfortune accented by reference to the rescue theme we heard in “Airbag.” The arrangement oscillates between still and grand, featuring marvelous bass work (again!) from Colin Greenwood. You get the feeling that the narrator doesn’t have a chance in hell of having his luck turn, and that the rest of his life will consist of “standing on the edge” of disaster.
OK Computer ends with Jonny Greenwood’s “The Tourist,” a slow-tempo song with significant amounts of space. While the song appears to deal with a nutcase driver who likes to keep his foot on the gas regardless of the danger to pedestrians, the title indicates that the deeper theme is human obliviousness when interacting with a different culture. All cultures operate at different speeds, and it’s obvious that the “idiot” in this song is never going to get it. In contrast to the lyrics, the music is ironically comforting in the quiet sections, as if we are being rocked to sleep . . . only to be awoken by an idiot barging into our safe and sound culture . . . most likely an American idiot, as Americans are known around the world for their loud, high-speed and astonishingly rude behavior and blindness to cultural nuances.
Well, at least 60 million of them are known for that. Now that I think of it, there’s one guy in particular who embodies . . . ENOUGH TRUMP!
The choice to end OK Computer with four low-tempo songs certainly influences our sense of the album’s overall mood, leaving us with a palpable feeling of melancholy. If you were to change the track order and place “Let Down” or “Electioneering” in the final spot, you might feel more of a lift, but in the long run you’d experience some confusion, as if Radiohead had decided to let us off the hook. Personally, I think the track order is essential to understanding one of the core themes of OK Computer: in a world that seems to be careening beyond the boundaries of common sense due to the simultaneous collision of high-speed digital technology and slow, unfeeling bureaucracies who view human beings as inconvenient statistics, we all need to heed the warning to The Tourist—-“Hey, man, slow down!”—and ask, “What the fuck are we doing to ourselves?”
Decidedly and appropriately ambivalent about technology, insightful about the human causes of modern human alienation and performed with intensity and intent, OK Computer is a timeless work of art that marked another huge step in Radiohead’s impressive trajectory. They would make another great leap forward with Kid A, and to this day, Radiohead continues to produce high quality work. Radiohead’s catalog proves without a doubt OK Computer was not “the death of the classic album” but an affirmation of the unique artistic possibilities of the album format. While the album may have lost some of its commercial luster, I believe that high-quality albums produced with clear artistic intent and integrity will always have a future . . . if we take the time to SLOW DOWN, listen to them, and reflect.
I’m probably the only millennial who can say this: my mother turned me on to Radiohead.
During the latter half of the 90’s, while completely disengaged from that colossal waste of time known as the American High School, I spent most of my time developing my erotic skills. Because of raging hormones and an insatiable desire for physical contact, my personal radio dial during that period was tuned into punk (with a sprinkle of Oasis). Punk gave me the intensity I craved, validated the leather garb I loved to wear and challenged my physicality in the sweet hardship of the mosh pit. I heard some Radiohead during that period—“Fake Plastic Trees,” “High and Dry,” “Karma Police” and “Let Down”—but I didn’t pay much attention to them. In comparison to the no-bullshit, sharp-edged energy of punk, Radiohead seemed mushy and ambiguous.
All that changed during Thanksgiving weekend in the year 2000. I had just started my second year in college and had come home to spend the holiday weekend with my parents in San Francisco. It was the day after Thanksgiving—no, I didn’t have a hangover, so it must have been the day after the day after—and my father had gone off to attend to the needs of one of his tenants. He’d asked me if I wanted to go, but when I found out he was leaving at the ungodly hour of 9 a. m. I took a rain check.
I woke up around eleven, showered, threw a robe on and wandered into the kitchen. My mother was in the dining room doing the finances or something, so I grabbed a cup of coffee, cut a slice of sourdough, spread some butter on it and took my repast in the living room. I remember Bax’s Sonata for Viola and Piano playing on the stereo and I was automatically visualizing the rise and fall of the notes on the score (a habit from years of music training) when my mother came in and took a seat.
“Ah, Bax, if he had only made up his mind what he wanted to be,” my mother sighed.
“I love the viola, though. Everybody forgets about the poor viola,” I responded. We listened to the end, and then my mother said something that fired up all my sleepy neurons.
“I want you to listen to something.”
This was big: my mother rarely asked me to listen to anything. She is much more dogmatic about not forcing her tastes on her daughter, firm in her belief that I should make my own choices with as little parental influence as possible. My father, on the other hand, is a notorious fudger, always trying to imbue his daughter with the same enthusiasm he feels for the music he likes. I have usually resisted my father’s sales pitches, but when my mother spoke, I listened. While I didn’t share all her tastes, I always knew I would learn something from the experience due to her rich understanding of music and her own remarkable performance skills.
“Tante Marguerite was kind enough to send me the vinyl version,” she said as she took the disc out of the sleeve and put it on the turntable. I didn’t bother to pay attention to the name of the album or the artist, knowing my mother would never surprise me with something like The Greatest Hits of Sgt. Barry Sadler.
Soon the room was filled with warm, cushiony sound with fragments of electronic speech. The effect was completely mesmerizing; my mind and soul felt completely enveloped by the music. I knew it was Radiohead once I heard Thom Yorke’s voice, but this was a very different Radiohead than the one with whom I had a passing acquaintance. The only time I broke concentration for a second was when I heard the swooping sound near the beginning of the fourth track—I looked at my mother and she responded to my silent query with a smile and a nod. The only lyrics I heard distinctly were the various mantras, but I resisted shifting to language mode. I just wanted to immerse my heart and soul in the music, and the music accommodated my desire. When the album ended we sat together in silence for several minutes.
“Oh, maman, that was so . . . so . . .”
“Une expérience sublime, n’est ce pas?”
“Yes! Sublime—le mot juste! And that was an Ondes, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, I thought you would appreciate that.”
“Léo Ferré—my first exposure to Baudelaire,” I reminisced. “We should play that before I have to go back.”
My mother nodded, then moved over next to me and put her hand gently on my knee. “You see? There’s a universe of music out there and you have shut it out. I thought this would be a pleasant reminder.”
I felt a brief wave of punk dogma resistance, but then I just looked at her and laughed. “I’d like to listen to it on the headphones now. I know it’s Radiohead—what’s the name of the album?”
I listened to the album several times that weekend and my appreciation for it increased every time. Once I returned to the dorms, I scanned the buzz about the album on the Internet and was shocked to learn that Kid A had ignited a virtual civil war among Radiohead fans and music critics. The nay-sayers dismissed it as self-indulgent crap, and they seemed really angry about it. The favorable commentary seemed almost apologetic by contrast, a “give it a chance” argument.
“Shit,” I thought, “Maybe all that punk did ruin my ears!”
Then I thought of my mother, a classically trained pianist and flautist who appreciated great music from every genre, a woman who adores music as challenging as Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and as straightforward as John Lee Hooker and Françoise Hardy. What the fuck was going on? Had I gone crazy? Had the world gone crazy?
Then it dawned on me: I didn’t have the history. Kid A was my first full exposure to Radiohead. I didn’t know shit about their previous albums, and I had no idea that OK Computer was considered the greatest album of the 1990’s. I came to Kid A with no expectations whatsoever, while the rest of the music world awaited Kid A with tremendous anticipation. They couldn’t wait to see how Radiohead was going to follow their acknowledged masterpiece.
Curious about this disconnection, I sought out a dorm mate who was a big Radiohead fan and borrowed her copy of OK Computer. The experience was as disappointing as a limp dick. It seemed disorganized, fragmented and ragged. I now understood why all the OK Computer devotees were up in arms about Kid A—Radiohead had taken everyone’s expectations and shattered them into a billion tiny fragments. Later I grew to appreciate OK Computer and a solid majority of the work in Radiohead’s catalogue, but the experience taught me a lesson that is easy to remember and just as easy to forget when you’re caught up in the emotions triggered by music: everything I hear is filtered through my expectations, and expectations alter the listening experience, whether I know it or not.
Kid A is unusual in another respect: I loved it the first time I heard and I’ve loved it every time I’ve played it. That almost never happens. Usually my first reaction to what I’ll later acknowledge as a great album is on the opposite end of the spectrum: anger, disgust, confusion, denial, frustration. The only explanation I can come up with for my enduring passion for Kid A is that it hit me at the right time, and the memory of that moment possesses a certain glow. Not much of an explanation, but that’s all I’ve got.
In researching the history of how Kid A progressed through the culture, I was dismayed to learn that Radiohead fans who claimed they “got it” adopted a superior attitude towards those who didn’t. Oh, for fuck’s sake. This is music, people, not a fucking crossword puzzle! There are no answers at the back of the book! Each of us will have a unique reaction to a piece of music that is just as valid as anyone else’s reaction. Let’s consider one of my all-time favorites: Schubert’s C Major Symphony (No. 9), shorthanded as “The Great.” I don’t have the slightest idea what it means, but I know what it means to me. There are moments when I visualize myself sledding through the Tyrol at a nice, jolly pace; others when I feel the finality of death at my doorstep. Sure, because of my music training I can hear the Beethoven influence, Schubert’s amazing ear for melody and I even know that part of the third movement is a scherzo—but all that is background information that has nothing to do with whether or not I like what I’m hearing.
I run into the same problem when I try to discuss James Joyce’s Ulysses with English majors. They’ll go on and on about the Homeric connection, the mythological analogies and the whole hero/anti-hero dynamic before they lower themselves to ask for my opinion. “Funniest fucking book I’ve ever read,” I reply, delighting in the look of shock on their faces as they struggle to come up with a witty riposte to this unlettered yahoo (I also think it’s the most moving book I’ve ever read, but I like the shock value of the other response).
So, can we get on with it and just enjoy Kid A? What a novel thought!
While most people focus on the music and sound of Kid A, the lyrical methodology is often ignored, in part because Radiohead considered the music inseparable from the lyrics and refused to print them on the liner notes. According to Mr. Yorke, the lyrics are “like pieces in a collage,” a comment that encourages the listener to ignore them. This is unfortunate, as I find the fragments extraordinarily interesting and loaded with meaning. The best analogy to the poetry on Kid A can be found in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the sixth stanza in particular:
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
Eliot offers us a peek into Prufrock’s “idiot dialogue”, the constant, often anxious chatter that fills our heads throughout the day. Nearly every waking moment of our lives is filled with this internal dialogue, ranging from reminders-to-self to the hundreds of things we think but never say aloud. Prufrock’s unstated anxieties are rather common: worries about what people will think of him and the fear that, despite his best efforts, they will pick out the flaws in his physical presentation. Most of the lyrics on Kid A are fragments of the idiot dialogue running through Thom Yorke’s head: snatches of friendly advice, common wisdom, artistic interpretations, cliché phrases, sudden anxiety attacks, reactions to the world’s ugliness. What gives these disconnected thoughts meaning is a combination of supportive musical arrangements and the brief breaks in the dialogue where Yorke puts the voice in his head on hold and emerges from the soup of inner dialogue to attempt contact with the real world and the human beings in it.
We experience this dynamic right from the start in the mesmerizing opening number, “Everything in Its Right Place.” The title itself is a folkloric proverb (“a place for everything and everything in its place”) attributed to several different neat freaks in the annals of history, including Benjamin Franklin and the Reverend Charles Augustus Goodrich (“Have a place for every thing, and keep every thing in its proper place.”) Such advice might have been quite useful in the slower pace of the 18th and 19th centuries, when social structures were simpler and time moved at a much slower pace. In a high-speed world of constant motion, ever-shifting social norms and the unceasing bombardment of information from multiple sources, things change faster than our ability to make sense of it all and put them in their proper place. Despite the absurdity of these no-longer timeless proverbs, we hold onto them for dear life in an insane effort to find meaning in the madness.
The song opens with the warm tones of the Fender Rhodes and bass; soon we hear a heavily-filtered voice mumbling incoherently then repeating the disconnected phrase, “Kid A.” It feels like we are entering Thom Yorke’s head, and his quiet repetition of the word “everything” feels like a mind searching for the right phrase. He finds the rest of the fragment—“in its right place”—a discovery emphasized by the chord shift but compromised by the introduction of vocal babble. The babble vanishes for a moment when the next phrase appears—“Yesterday, I woke up sucking a lemon”—repeated four times, with the original chord returning on the final “a lemon.” The source of the fragment is Thom Yorke’s personal experience: during the OK Computer tour, the unhappy, on-the-verge-of a-nervous-breakdown Mr. Yorke wore an expression that looked as if he had indeed snacked on the sour fruit. Next the voice returns to the repetition of “everything,” with gradually increasing intensity. When the chord shifts downward again, the repetition of “in its right place” wavers and sounds less confident. The memory of a Rothko painting enters the mix (“There are two colours in my head”), and Yorke sounds like he’s desperately trying to find meaning in the image while other voices press upon his brain for attention (“What is that you tried to say?”) Now the voice feels more anxious and the music becomes more intense as Yorke tries to put it together . . . but I’m not sure—and it sounds like he’s not sure—if the “you” he is addressing is himself or another person. In either case, communication is lost:
There are two colours in my head
There are two colours in my head
What is that you tried to say?
What was that you tried to say?
Tried to say . . . tried to say . . .
Tried to say . . . tried to say . . .
The build of layered voices and gradually louder instrumentation creates tremendous tension, relieved only in part by the return to quiet on the last repetition of “say.” As the song dissolves into a final repetition of “everything . . .” the words themselves are electronically truncated, interrupted, fragmented. The softness of the music contrasts mightily with the sense of failure to understand and communicate; both the music and the cliché proverbial phrase are now superficially comforting. “Everything in Its Right Place” may not make literal sense, but it makes emotional, intuitive sense—and as a musical composition, it is a tour de force.
The title track (“Kid A” is the name of a setting on a sequencer used on the recording) is allegedly about the first cloned baby. After the scientists cloned Dolly the sheep, the world went mad for a few years speculating on the potential sci-fi horrors of human cloning.
We had so little to worry about prior to 9/11.
The song opens with a whirling sound in the process of deceleration, soon joined by the sound of an approaching train signal. A keyboard that sounds like a cross between a celeste and a toy piano enters the sound field, followed by the foundational bass and beat. The effect is curiously charming, and Thom Yorke’s processed vocal sounds like a baby in a very small incubator, or whatever container a scientist would use to nurture a cloned baby. The extended fade between verses is almost heavenly, and the fade of an artificial baby wail definitely grabs your attention. While the lyrics do little to support the cloning angle or the larger questions of morality, the piece fits nicely into the overall mix, and while I supposed it’s possible that the first cloned baby might be given the impersonal moniker “Kid A,” it’s much more likely that the first functional clone would be more like “Kid Q,” given the human propensity for fucking up.
“The National Anthem” was built on a bass riff Thom Yorke had come up with in his teens, a relatively simple but incredibly compelling motif with an ominous feel. The music rising above the bass prior to the vocal is a marvelous mix of synthesized sound, vocal loops, backwards horn segments and the Ondes Martenot. Thom Yorke’s vocal on the two mini-verses is also processed to produce a childlike effect, something like the voice you might imagine came from the girl who exposed the bullshit in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The lyrics reflect that perspective: a child experiencing a crowd singing the national anthem would be very likely to penetrate the façade and say the unthinkable:
Everyone around here
Everyone is so near
is holding on.
Everyone is so near
Everyone has got the fear
is holding on
is holding on
The final segment in the song features a horn section engaged in ironic cacophony, reflecting the true fears and anxieties of those trying to buck themselves up with the silly lyrics of “God Save the Queen” or “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke wanted the horns to sound like something Charles Mingus might have written, and I think they came pretty close (though there are a few phrases that cross the line into Ornette Coleman). In terms of application, the piece is very reminiscent of Oasis’ “Fuckin’ in the Bushes,” in that both pieces are perfectly designed to serve as concert openers.
The Ondes combines with acoustic guitar to open the melancholy piece, “How to Disappear Completely.” Also based on Thom Yorke’s painful experience on the OK Computer tour, the swooping sound of the Ondes expresses the disorientation of soul and mind when faced with the unreal. Colin Greenwood’s gorgeous bass run provides a secondary melody consisting of notes of relatively short duration that create a slight tension with the flowing, primary melody with its frequently elongated notes. After allowing himself the luxury of dreaming of a nice float down the Liffey, Thom Yorke approaches his so-called real life as if he’s a man standing at the edge of a cliff staring down at the rocks below, a stance affirmed by the repetition of the key lines, “I’m not here/This isn’t happening.” Those lines were words of advice from R. E. M.’s Michael Stipe on how to deal with the unreal atmosphere of stadium concerts:
Strobe lights and blown speakers
Fireworks and hurricanes
I’m not here
This isn’t happening
I’m not here, I’m not here . . .
Here the idiot dialogue is used as an attempt at generating a sense of self-discipline, but the swooping sound of the Ondes communicates that the footing remains fragile and uncertain. The theme of uncertainty—of self, of other, of the world at large—dominates Kid A, and “How to Disappear Completely” foreshadows the more complex explorations of this theme appearing later on the album.
Radiohead then offers the listening audience a sort of intermission with “Treefingers,” a fascinating electronic composition that has a largely soothing, calming effect. If it seems funny to put such a quiet piece in the middle of a record, it will all make sense once we move to the far more intense second half.
After five tracks dominated by electronica, the appearance of guitar, bass and drums comes as a blessed relief. “Optimistic” is a certified ass-kicker by one of the greatest guitar bands ever, but also a song that reminds us of how much Radiohead sacrificed to achieve the artistic vision of Kid A. Common sense dictates that you continue to play to your strengths, and deciding to limit the presence of guitars seemed as dumb a move as sending your ace pitcher to the bullpen to do mop-up work. As things turned out, this counter-intuitive shift was a stroke of genius, and the scarcity of guitar-dominated songs on Kid A makes you deeply appreciate the one you get.
The mantra for “Optimistic” is another random phrase from the collection of life’s wisdom, this time courtesy of Thom Yorke’s partner, Rachel Owen. Them had expressed his worries that Kid A would turn out to be a piece of shit, and Rachel told him, “You can try the best you can/The best you can is good enough.” For a band that rarely settled for good enough, the mantra is slightly ironic, but good advice for perfectionists who tend to see the flaws in everything. Pushing the ironic meter to the max, “Optimistic” turns out to be one of the most dark and bitter songs on Kid A, a relentless attack on the fish-eat-fish world of piggies big and small:
This one’s optimistic
This one went to market
This one just came out of the swamp
This one dropped a payload
Fodder for the animals
Living on an animal farm
The most vivid imagery combines the human wariness of helping other human beings with a disturbing metaphor of the modern human condition:
I’d really like to help you man
I’d really like to help you man . . .
Nervous messed-up marionette
floating around on a prison ship . . .
Despite its essential pessimism, “Optimistic” is one of my favorite Radiohead songs because of its essential relentlessness. I also love Colin Greenwood’s scale climbing run on the chorus that seems to vanish into the ether.
A funky little jam that ends “Optimistic” dissolves nicely into the guitar introduction for “In Limbo.” Once the band comes in, all hell breaks loose: they all seem to be playing different rhythms at different speeds; the effect is like watching a movie where the sound is out of sync and the film wobbles between regular speed and first-stage fast-forward. Even when the arpeggiated guitar pattern establishes the verse pattern and Thom Yorke begins singing, the sense of musical vertigo remains. Since the song is about existing in limbo, the musical arrangement makes perfect sense and is brilliantly arranged and executed. The uncertain rhythms reinforce the core theme of uncertainty, and the lyrics—again describing the experience of floating, drifting, losing one’s way—make “In Limbo” one of the stronger thematic pieces on the album.
It is also a superb lead-in for the album’s centerpiece, the deeply compelling experience of “Idioteque.” Drawn from Jonny Greenwood’s extensive experimentation with electronic sound and rhythm, the four-note motif, unwavering beat and minimal chord variation form a background similar to a drone song, a form that allows for more melodic play and flexible vocal phrasing. Thom Yorke had proclaimed “I’d completely had it with melody” in describing his songwriting mood leading up to Kid A, but even he couldn’t resist the obvious melodic possibilities when mapping out the song’s chorus.
The lyrics again are derived from Yorke’s internal dialogue, but the internal voice in “Idioteque” is colored with a manic sense of urgency as it tries to grasp the inhumanity of the real world. The lyrics in the first verse form a circular pattern around the central phrase, “Women and children first,” a phrase that has no meaning detached from impending disaster:
Who’s in a bunker?
Who’s in a bunker?
Women and children first
And the children first
And the children
I’ll laugh until my head comes off
I’ll swallow till I burst
Until I burst
Who’s in a bunker?
Who’s in a bunker?
I have seen too much
I haven’t seen enough
You haven’t seen it
I’ll laugh until my head comes off
Women and children first
And children first
Thom Yorke’s vocal approach is that of a man trying to make sense of senselessness, an almost breathless and slightly detached retelling of the horrors of war. His voice takes flight into falsetto in the chorus, featuring the apparently curious lines, “Here I’m alive/Everything all of the time.” The odd statements reflect the frequent stories of those who lived through the great wars in history and described the period as the most interesting time in their lives. All though the verse and chorus, the main vocal is enhanced by well-placed fragments of supporting harmony and vocal echo, deepening the sense that the experience Yorke is describing is one that will echo in his head for a very long time.
The second passage shifts to the insistent predictions of looming environmental catastrophe, here in the form of a new ice age. Our narrator resists the predictions at first (“Let me hear both sides”) but is then consumed by typical witch-burning madness (“Throw him in the fire”). At this point, the combination of the insistent beat, the drone-riffing melody and the increasing sense of urgency in Thom Yorke’s voice create an all-consuming listening experience, capped by the way his voice breaks on the first rendering of the line, “This is really happening.” After the chorus we enter an extended percussive passage that calls up imagery of machines in motion, perhaps towards an unknown front, perhaps expelling the fossil fuels that warm the planet. While that interpretation of wordless sound is little more than pure speculation, there’s no denying the emotional impact of the return of the four-note motif and the utter sadness that simple pattern communicates. As the song fades over the repetition of that motif and the fixed electronic rhythms, we hear fragments of the song’s mantra . . . the first of the children, the children first, the children. While “think of the children first” has become a tired cliché in a world where adults, with their bizarre obsessions with guns, hatred, racism and violence, completely ignore the impact of their actions on their children, “Idioteque” is a passionate plea to hit the reset button, put our petty conflicts aside and create a world where we are not killing and hurting our children . . . or each other.
“Morning Bell” is a less intense, but still compelling piece about a failing marriage that continues the theme of devaluing the children in the pursuit of pettiness. “Cut the kids in half” is a chilling commentary on our lack of Solomonic wisdom. The secondary theme—about waking up one morning and wondering who the fuck you are and who the fuck is lying next to you in the bed—is less explicit. I’m not sure why they chose to place an alternative version of the song on Amnesiac, a decision that weakened that album’s appeal to me. I think alt versions belong on deluxe editions, where I can choose to study or ignore them.
Church organ (you can hear the stops!) opens the path to “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” a sad commentary on our tendency to form identities and habits from our contact with film and television. The omnipresence of image projection in our modern Western culture has created a culture so image-focused and other-focused that it becomes easy to separate ourselves from the real person and imagine our lives as a perpetual film where we play the leading role. This trick allows us to escape any responsibility for our actions while we watch our gradual disintegration with gruesome delight:
Red wine and sleeping pills
Help me get back to your arms
Cheap sex and sad films
Help me get where I belong
Actors playing alcoholics nearly always when the Oscar, and there’s nothing like on-screen debasement to enhance your acting credentials. The lure of the visuals encourage the weak and stupid to admire the fallen hero and transform the pursuit of happiness into the pursuit of manufactured thrills. This ability to mythologize our lives actually robs them of any genuine meaning; instead, we become “tragic” figures in the falsest sense of the word. What clinches the song for me is the introduction of the harp in the second verse: the obvious nod to maudlin melodrama is brilliant musical satire . . . but goddamn, what a sad, sad song. Kid A ends here . . . or not. There is a brief synthesized piece following “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” then well over a minute of silence, which seems oddly appropriate . . . the effect is rather like the forty-five seconds of piano fade at the end of “A Day in the Life,” a long moment for the listener to collect thoughts and feelings.
Even with my mother’s gift of enlightenment, my initial love affair with Radiohead was relatively brief. After the disappointing first contact with OK Computer, I returned to punk and the pursuit of sexual pleasure, completely forgetting about Radiohead for oh, about ten years. Once I connected with my life partner, my sex drive remained at peak levels, but all that time I’d spent on sampling potential fuck buddies was now free time to explore music again, a development that resulted in this blog and a reunion with Radiohead.
I resisted an almost addictive urge to start the reconnection process with Kid A and instead began at the beginning, with Pablo Honey and The Bends. Approaching OK Computer in chronological order led to a deeper appreciation, but the pleasure I felt when listening to that album simply did not compare to the absolute delight I felt hearing Kid A again. It remains my favorite Radiohead album, the sublime sound of artists overcoming fears and expectations to create something unique and wondrous.