No. 6 OK Computer – Radiohead
Think back to good old 1997. The Spice Girls straddled the world like a day-glo coloured colossus, Tony Blair was being elevated to the level of an all-conquering romantic hero who could only be played in the cinema by Robert Redford and Tom Hanks’s lovechild, and Oasis, The Verve and The Prodigy between them were telling all right-minded indie kids that everything would be grand provided we all hoovered the requisite wheelie bin-full of jazz salt up our collective hooters. So why did this hunch-shouldered, lazy-eyed miserable ginger dwarf have to shuffle into view to tell us that in fact everything wasn’t grand, that this enormous socio-political orgy would soon result in a catastrophic information implosion, that soon we would need someone to pull all of us kicking screaming gucci little piggies out of the aircrash? Why did he have to spoil the party?
Confusion, overload, static, seclusion in Jane Seymour’s mansion and a diet of Bitches Brew and Maxinquaye were the inspiration for OK Computer, the most critically worshipped English album since Revolver. And where the year’s other major releases, Be Here Now and Urban Hymns, seemed like a desperately out-reaching celebration of everything that was going on in the world, Radiohead’s third album instead seemed vacuum-packed, hermetically sealed, a cryogenically preserved nugget of life on the eve of the millennium, waiting to be discovered by races of the distant future.
The recording process was fascinating. Lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood had asked on the bands website for fans to send him unusual chords, Airbag was conceived to sound like “a car crash”, No Surprises “like a child’s toy”. The glacial Exit Music (For A Film) was based on the Baz Lurmann interpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, and where a minor chord ballad in the hands of any other band would be perhaps whimsical and romantic, here it is brutal; a desolate tumbleweed-swept strum of acoustic guitar with a moaned vocal so crisply recorded you can hear the spit in the corners of Thom’s mouth, then a grotesque bass line hoofs through the dirge while the drums flail away and the moan becomes a heart-wrenching wail. We hope that you choke, indeed.
1997 was the year for ridiculous choices of singles. D’Yer Know What I Mean, Risingson, Smack My Bitch Up. Paranoid Android was more ridiculous than all of them, and the track on which Radiohead show that it was they, rather than Oasis, who truly picked up the baton of the Beatles and David Bowie as the future of british music. A preposterous three-act rock opera, hyper-modern lyrics and the most innovative musicianship since the early years of the Factory label, it got to number two in the singles charts, helped no doubt by the bizarre promo video featuring Paramount Channel mainstay Robin, and uses the word “Gucci” as a term of abuse. It is astonishing.
OK Computer could have been the most influential album of all time; it was mind-bogglingly inventive, fearless, and a mainstream success. Yet, it almost seemed as if their contemporaries were afraid to try and follow it. Every band in its slipstream would release albums that revelled in retro-chic, such as The Strokes and The White Stripes, and after Radiohead drained themselves of all their creative juices with 2000’s remarkable Kid A, they would disappear up their own rectal cavities for seven years until the beautifully executed release of In Rainbows. It seems, in hindsight, like a glorious opportunity wasted. This was music that could melt candles; from the blissful voyuerism of The Tourist to the terrifying domestic prowler narrative of Climbing Up The Walls (listen to the scream at the end) these were songs that connected on a human level like no other band since The Smiths. They weren’t miserable, they weren’t depressing. They were just utterly brilliant.
Best Tracks: Exit Music (For A Film), Let Down, Climbing Up The Walls
Best Moment: The glorious crescendo to Let Down, where Thom and Ed’s vocals soar and swirl like grains of pollen on a summer breeze and this saddest of lyrics produces one of the most inspiring passages of music of all time. Radiohead’s finest ever moment.
Like this? Try: So obvious, Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd, 1973.
Allen Miles is 33 years old and lives in Hull. He is married and has a 3 year-old daughter who thinks she’s Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. He is a staunch supporter of Sheffield Wednesday FC and drinks far too much wine. He spends most of his spare time watching old football videos on youtube and watching 1940s film noir. He is the author of This Is How You Disappear, which is widely recognized to be the best book ever written. It is available here. http://tinyurl.com/disappear2014
Great write-up. Interesting you mentioned Tony Blair, wasnt Electioneering on the album about Tony Blair? I remember they had hidden artwork in the cd in Kid A which had monster drawings of Tony too. They really didnt like him.
Didnt realise Exit music was inspired on the Romeo and Juliet film, good knowledge. The song they did for the soundtrack of that film is really good.
That’s Talk Show Host, isn’t it? Good song. Cheers for the comment. I actually think if you made a twelve track compilation of the best songs from Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail To The Thief it would probably be the best album of all time, but they refused to trim the fat off and spread it over three albums. Shame.