OK Computer. Radiohead.
1997, Capitol. Producer: Radiohead and Nigel Godrich.
IN A NUTSHELL: One of the strongest, most interesting 2/3 of an album I’ve ever heard! The sounds are cool, and the songs range from soaring epics to soft lullabies. Singer Thom Yorke has a knack for melodies, the rhythm section is top-notch, and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood is one of the most creative minds in rock. Halfway into this album, I’m sure it’s destined for top-10, but the last few songs don’t deliver on the promise.
The people who today know me as the debonair, charming, some-would-say-George-Clooney-esque bon-vivant and social butterfly, might find it hard to believe I didn’t have a lot of dates in high school. But it’s true – I didn’t. Believe it or not, I was awkward as a teen-ager, both in looks and actions. Chubby, with bad hair and little knowledge of style, my unease among people and lack of self-esteem didn’t provide the necessary components for a personality that could easily overcome my appearance. However, mine was a classic “ugly-duckling” story: I am now a beautiful swan.
Because of my lack of success with girls, including multiple failed attempts across many years of teen-ager-dom at trying to get girls to like me1, I don’t think I was ever happier in my first 18 years of life than when I got my first real girlfriend. I say “real girlfriend” to rule out a brief romance with, and planned marriage to, a girl, “Debbie,” in kindergarten; I don’t mean to imply that I had a series of fake girlfriends, or even one fake girlfriend. I didn’t even know how to get the fake girls to like me.
When I say “like me,” I mean “like me-like me,” the first-person version of “Of course she likes you! But she doesn’t really like you-like you.” I was generally well-liked by boys and girls through Middle School and High School – a nerd, sure, but not so strange that I endured beatings or significant bullying. But this likability kept me within the “Friend Zone” with basically every single girl I ever liked2. I was a perpetual Duckie.
But in the late summer before my senior year of high school, my three years of toiling in the marching band remarkably and unexpectedly paid ACTUAL social status dividends when, during rehearsals for our football halftime show, a cute baton-twirler in my grade named Jenny called me over and introduced me to another cute baton-twirler, a sophomore (not) named Bonnie. Jenny said, “You stand near Bonnie when you play your solo, so I thought I should introduce you to her.” Now, my lack of success with girls during high school was in part due to my inability to recognize when a girl liked me. But in this case, Jenny practically slapped me across the face and shouted, “Hey!! This girl likes you! I MEAN LIKES YOU-LIKES YOU, DUMMY!” This time I got the message.
Bonnie was cute and funny and smart, and best of all, she seemed to think the same of me. At first we would talk at band practice, and then I got her phone number. This meant I could call and offer her a ride to band practice. This meant I’d have an opportunity to say goodnight when I dropped her off. This meant I would have to a) figure out if I should kiss her goodnight, and then, depending on the outcome, b) ACTUALLY DO IT! This meant the first time I drove her home from band practice I was sweating and woozy and fearing how I might screw things up when we got to her driveway. When I stopped the car, she said thank you and leaned over and gave me a long kiss on the lips!!! This meant I drove home happier than I had ever been.
I don’t remember any declaration of going steady, nothing formal like the “pinning” I’d seen on Happy Days and other shows about the 50s. In the 80s, we just sort of started walking in the halls together and holding hands and answering “yes” when asked, “Are you going with Bonnie?” It was understood that we’d go to the Homecoming Dance together, that we’d go meet at The Mall on weekends, that we’d make arrangements to go to movies or to each others’ homes.
We made out some, which was fun, although rather stressful. So many questions: “Should I do something different with my hands?” “Should I tell her my neck hurts and ask to switch seats?” “This has been fun, but would it ruin things to say I want to go back to watching the movie now?” We didn’t do anything physical besides kiss, which was fine by me. After we broke up, Bonnie called me in tears because some girl I didn’t know told her that she heard we’d broken up because Bonnie didn’t “put out.” I told her it wasn’t true, but I didn’t admit that I had been terrified the whole time that she’d WANT TO do more than kiss. I mean, I’d think about it, sure, but it was sort of like thinking about driving on the PA Turnpike: I’d only recently learned how to start a car; I’d need to learn way more about its buttons and dials, not to mention yielding and merging, before I even considered heading up an on-ramp.
If it sounds like it was boring … well, it was – after a while. It was amazing at first, the kissing, the hanging out, the knowledge that someone liked you. Those happy feelings carried on for several weeks, maybe a few months. But after a while, I got bored. A good example of why were our phone conversations. It was apparent to both of us that, as part of “going with” each other, we should talk on the phone regularly. But what to discuss was really unclear. After a quick rundown of the day (“I have math homework.”), the friends (“Josh made a joke in American Lit.”), and the possible future plans (“Lori is having a party on Saturday.”) we both were at a loss. It was awkward – we’d sit there and just sort of breathe at each other, both of us with nothing to say, and unable to figure an appropriately conversational and gentle version of “Look, I like you and all, but this call is really boring now so I’m hanging up.3” Then, when a decision to hang up did arrive, the insipid, nauseating exchanges of “You hang up, no you hang up” were excruciating. The phone calls began to feel pointless, much like the entire “going with” experience.
Of course, being 17 and having very little experience relating with other humans apart from my two best friends, I had no idea what to do. My friends weren’t good comparators: I had never (and still haven’t) made out with either of them, and we’d never stayed on the phone breathing at each other. I was at a loss. I thought Bonnie was nice and I really liked her, but I just didn’t want to spend my time with her anymore. I finally called her up and said some version of “It’s not you, it’s me.” In retrospect, I should have told her in person, and I shouldn’t have told her an hour before the Big Game – a basketball game against our rival high school that was one of the social highlights of the year. I rationalize it by thinking, “Well, I was clueless, and there’s never a good way to break up with someone,” but it was a really lousy way to do it.
Some experiences in life start off amazing, and the fact that they don’t maintain that ability to amaze shouldn’t diminish one’s appreciation for the entirety of the experience. I look back fondly at my time with Bonnie; I can still feel the excitement of that first kiss, (and all those kisses); the happiness that someone was waiting by the cafeteria stairway just for me; the joy in sharing private laughs; the fantasy of driving on the turnpike … Some things fizzle out, and it’s just the way it goes.
And this brings me to Radiohead’s album OK Computer.
As with (probably) most people my age, my first introduction to Radiohead was through the video for their song “Creep,” which was played nearly round-the-clock on MTV in 1992. The 90s turned out to be an era for one-hit-wonders that rivaled any other. In 1992, the song “Creep” seemed to ensure that Radiohead was destined to share “Wait, what’s that band again?” status with acts like The Lightning Seeds and Urban Dance Squad. At a party around 1996, a friend tried to convince me that the band’s latest record, The Bends, was excellent, but I scoffed – no way were the “Creep” creeps making decent music, I was sure.
Then sometime around the summer of 1997, I was home sick from work. I was on the couch flipping through TV stations, and figured I’d check MTV to see if “Pop Up Video” was on. It wasn’t. But I did see one of the weirdest, coolest videos for one of the oddest, coolest songs I’d ever seen: Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” I couldn’t believe this song was by the “Creep” creeps.
I’ve often heard one song from a record, then rushed out to buy it and found myself greatly disappointed by most everything else on it. (I’m looking at you, New Miserable Experience.) But OK Computer grabbed me right from the first twenty seconds of the album opener, “Airbag.”
Phil Selway’s drum beat is funky and odd and propels the song, and when Colin Greenwood’s bass pops in about 32 seconds in, a unique rhythmic table is set for the rest of the song to build on. Singer Thom Yorke’s simple melody draws in the listener, and the guitar lines and assorted noises create a spooky and powerful backdrop for his sneering vocals and inscrutable lyrics to swim through. I love how Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood’s guitars work together, and also Jonny’s solo at 2:25. But what makes the song extra-cool to me is the false ending at 3:28. Strange squeaks arise, and Selway and Colin fit tightly played rhythms into them, but then at around four minutes the band re-enters and runs out the song, revising the main guitar riff. Clearly, as a Beatles fan, I can’t say this is the most mind-blowing song I’ve ever heard, but it left an immediate, long-lasting impression. This song is like that first kiss by a first girl/boyfriend, those first moments when you realize, “Wow. This may be the best thing ever.”
But things get even better by song two! Just like your new, first Significant Other will randomly spring a flower on you, or unexpectedly put an arm around you, and make you fall even harder, “Paranoid Android” pops up to surprise and amaze the listener. The video, above, can be distracting because it’s so weird – but the song is epic. It opens with a quiet acoustic guitar surrounded by wiggly electric guitars, haunting electric noises4, and Yorke’s unique vocal style again singing hard-to-grasp lyrics about modern life’s futile pursuits. At 1:57, the second part begins, and by 2:09 the song quickly moves into a 7/8 time signature for a few bars, then back to 4/4, proof that Selway and Colin G. are a top-notch rhythm section. The song gets aggressive quickly, starting with Yorke’s increasing venom and a cacophony of rock starting at 2:42. The next minute is a frenzy, as Jonny screeches one of my favorite guitar solos ever starting at 3:00, and by 3:17 is back in 7/8 time. It all ends suddenly when Part 3 begins, around 3:27. It’s a choral section, really, with multiple voices – soft and gentle, yet building to a splatter of further aggression at 5:37, and a reintroduction of the main theme, with another excellent solo. The entire song is brilliant.
So here you sit, young lover. A week or two into your first real relationship, and I’ll tell you what will happen: it will stay excellent, and maybe even get a bit better. Something will happen – maybe you’ll find out that like you, he also has an older sister in college, or that both of your moms go to the same hair salon and probably know each other. Somehow, by some small token, your belief that this is “for real” will be cemented in the same way “Subterranean Homesick Alien” cements OK Computer as a record for the ages.
This may be my favorite Radiohead song ever. It’s moving – one of their few songs in which the lyrics actually resonate with me. As a kid who usually felt out of place in his small hometown, the idea of getting away was always on my mind – even when I didn’t realize it. Selway’s drumming is once again remarkable, but its the guitar that makes this song – Jonny’s leads throughout and the atmospheric touches. He’s not afraid of pedals and computers and anything he can find to make a cool sound, and even though I tend to favor straight-ahead, blues/rock guitar, I love Jonny Greenwood. But what I love most about the song is simply the feeling of it. It gives me chills. It’s unexplainable – much like first love.
And the next experience to plunge you deeper into love that first time around, now that you’ve been dating for 3 weeks, will be something breathtaking and deep that gives a clear indication that you were meant to be together. He admits he cried when the team lost that playoff game; she reveals she cheated on that math test, and you’re the only one who knows. Something will happen to tell you “It’s really real now – not kid stuff.” It will feel much like the breathtaking power of “Exit Music (For a Film)”
It’s a cinematic song, obviously, given the title, the lyrics telling the hopeful end of what appears to have been a sad story. It’s just Yorke and an acoustic guitar, with keyboards that sound like human voices. Sounds of children playing add to the feeling, and the band breaks in at 2:48 and – as with most songs on the album – builds to an emotional release at 3:20, a powerful, rolling synth bass carrying the weight behind Yorke’s belting. It subsides to quiet guitar and voice, leaving a memory behind. It’s not that every song is getting better, but with every song the album is building a case for being one of the all-time greats in my book.
In a first love, the unexpected will happen, and sometimes it will be wonderful. It doesn’t have to be huge – for me, I always remember Bonnie’s house as the first place I ever had microwave popcorn. That sounds unimportant and funny, but my family had only recently bought a microwave by 1984 when I was going with Bonnie – they still seemed sort of fancy to me, and I was skeptical of them. But Bonnie’s popcorn changed my views. A little thing, but a lasting memory. To this point in OK Computer, Radiohead has been mostly about power and weirdness, so the lovely song “Let Down” is a bit of a surprise. It again has really cool guitar work, this time dueling guitars of Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood – subtle, intricate figures that at times sound like they’re playing a different song than the rest of the band. Yorke weaves a nice melody throughout, and in a gentler voice sings a song that again speaks to frustrations with the modern world.
Once again, Radiohead pulls their trick of seeming to end a song, around 2:31 this time. But once again they build it up, this time to a thrilling last verse, from 3:40, with great harmony vocals. If this album is your first girl/boyfriend, at this point in the relationship you are feeling quite certain that you will be married for life. And the next song, “Karma Police,” does nothing to diminish the good feelings.
This is the “hit” from the album, hitting #14 on the US “Hot Modern Rock Tracks” list5. I don’t think it’s a great song, but it is a fine addition to such an outstanding album. Piano-driven, with wry lyrics about how annoying others around us can be, it also has a pretty great guitar part – as most all the songs have so far.
In many relationships, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where everything goes wrong; in others, there is no doubt. Maybe you find your new boyfriend going through your purse, and he plays it off cool, like “I really needed a paper clip, and I thought you might have one,” … but still, you have no idea how long he was rooting around in there, and wonder why he didn’t just ask. Maybe you find a note in your car that fell out of your girlfriend’s backpack, in which a friend asks “does he know anything?” and references a party that you didn’t attend. Or maybe you have a huge fight about some random detail, and what’s revealed in that fight – whether words or actions – causes you to rethink your entire appreciation of what has come before.
Song #7, “Fitter, Happier” is that fight.
The song is just a stream of words from a voice synthesizer6. The Beatles surrounded “Revolution 9,” John Lennon’s avant garde sound collage, with 29 other songs on “The White Album,” and even with all that cover people still question the band’s decision to release it. On OK Computer, even with 6 amazing tracks preceding it, “Fitter, Happier” makes me feel angry, cheated; annoyed that I have to skip over it every time I listen. It makes me think the band thinks I’m a chump.
But then – song 8. “Electioneering.” We are rocking again, and I can try to put the previous song out of my mind.
“Electioneering” has a raucous guitar, and a ramshackle feel (accented by a cowbell!) that allows me to grant forgiveness to the band for the previous song. It’s as straightforward a rock song as I’ve heard from the band. It’s a protest song of sorts, lyrically challenging the idea that democratic elections can actually work in individuals’ best interests. Relationship-wise, it’s like a small gift after the big fight: it doesn’t make everything all right, but at least there’s an acknowledgment of the difficulty. There is hope that the ship can be righted.
“Climbing Up the Walls” fails to right the ship.
It’s a slow dirge, with customary squiggles and beeps and a pretty great guitar solo. But there’s a lack of urgency, a certain somberness with a tinge of drudgery – which is far different than what has come before. Many of the previous songs were mid-tempo, or slow, but they just felt different than this. It’s the type of song that makes me reflect on how great all the previous songs were; except for that one. For the first time in this relationship, you are questioning whether your initial instincts were accurate.
“No Surprises” simply raises further questions. It’s a lovely song, reminiscent of an old Claudine Longet Christmas song called “Snow” that my parents used to play. But as pretty as it is, it sounds repetitive, and when the band tries to do a customary “Radiohead build up,” at around 3 minutes, it just feels flat. In relationship terms, you’re now starting to wonder if you were duped earlier: maybe it was all a lie, and THIS is the real person.
How did it all go so wrong? You are hurt, angry. The little things that used to mean so much – there’s a false ending in the next song, “Lucky,” which once again morphs into a terrific guitar solo restating the main theme, the type of thing I used to rave about – now just seem tiresome, like imitations of the good that came before. Those quirks you put up with that used to say “unique” – like incomprehensible lyrics – now simply say “weirdo,” calling into question your own ability to make good decisions. Has the other person changed? Have you? At this point, does it matter?
Fitting, then, that the album’s closing track, “The Tourist,” sounds so much like a breakup set to music. Sad, repetitive, almost funereal, the fact that it has some beautiful harmony vocals simply makes it more poignant. I listen to the song and imagine a slideshow of happier times: me, excitedly listening to “Airbag;” me and “Paranoid Android” being weird and goofy together; “Subterranean Homesick Alien” picking me up off my feet and spinning me around … “The Tourist” ends with a single tone struck on a bell, leaving a sense of cold finality. “Yep,” it seems to say, “that really happened. And now you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering what it all meant.”
But try and remember: the good was very, very good. The bad wasn’t awful, and could have been worse. Life is strange and we never know where events will take us. But if we can move through life and try to focus on the positive, and try to forgive ourselves and those around us for the negative, we’ll be happier with the memories we’ve made. On the whole, OK Computer makes me very, VERY happy!! I don’t regret the relationship at all. Despite its ups and downs, it was exactly as it should have been. And I’m a better person for having gone through it.
“Subterranean Homesick Alien”
“Exit Music (For A Film)”
“Climbing Up The Walls”