China: 20 Years of OK Computer

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Radiohead – OK Computer

Released May 21st, 1997 on Parlophone Records

RYM:  #1

BestEverAlbums:  #1

Oh boy.

First of all, I want you to look carefully at that heading section.  Both of the sites I’ve used this year to glean “best of” rankings from – the two largest crowdsourced music ranking sites on the internet – rank OK Computer as literally the greatest album ever recorded.  That uncomfortable feeling that’s washing over you?  That tiny little intense bit of pain that’s set itself up in the centre of your brain, pulsing with madness and threatening to grow into some sort of blood-soaked brain tsunami?  That’s fifty-plus years of music critic bullshit melding with Baby Boomer arrogance to tell you that this can’t possibly be the case.  In fact, if you slap that ol’ Boomer lens on your face and look outward, such an idea is more laughable than anything else.  Surely these people have forgotten about Pink Floyd, that amalgamated Rolling Stone-fueled smug critic machine cries out.  Obviously the Beatles are objectively the greatest band ever and every single album they ever released is in fact the greatest piece of music ever recorded, hallelujah and amen, just as our forefathers and their magically mysterious Beatlemania intended.  The Stones!  Black Sabbath!  Led Zeppelin!  Any of these bands our parents grew up with and forced into our heads as collectively better than anything that came after, from 1980 onward; this, that shrill voice claims, is real music.

Increasingly, though, that condescending gate that Boomer mythology has put up across the history of modern popular music – the one that plants itself in around 1982-1984 and lets very little in if it came afterward – has been bereft of a keeper.  The internet facilitated a lengthy, often nonsensical conversation about popular music, it’s hierarchy, and it’s relative worth across decades.  That, in combination with the fact that the glory days of “alternative rock” are now (somehow) twenty years gone has led to a reevaluation of the music of Generation X and the oldest Millenials with regard to the self-interested myth-making of Boomer publications.  The same has happened in other art forms.  Cinemaphiles convinced that Citizen Kane was the greatest movie ever made probably feel that same maddening itch and pulse in their heads when it turns out that a number of crowdsourced movie rankings place Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind in the #1 slot of the best movies ever made (or, failing that, the second-most popular option, The Shawshank Redemption).  Changing demographics and the slow die-off of the Boomer generation has flipped the switch on their supposed stranglehold on real music, whatever that happens to be.  People don’t read Rolling Stone and Melody Maker and NME like they used to.  The gatekeeping paradigm shifted online around the turn of the century with the rest of print media, and so when it comes to popular music the tastemakers are far more likely to read Pitchfork and The Quietus than they are Rolling Stone.

Generational culture wars aside, though, is OK Computer the “greatest album ever made”?  An examination of that has to begin with some definitions and explanations, for the pedantic and the curious.  When we talk about “the greatest album ever made” we mean “the greatest popular music record released since 1963, when the Beatles crossed the Atlantic and ushered in the modern era of blended pop and art.”  While “Greatest Albums Ever” compilations like those found online or in the pages of Rolling Stone feature a few albums made in the 1950s, they’re mainly heavyweight bop albums that are the exception more than the rule.  The temporal range of the “Best Ever” lists coincides with the development of the album as an art form.  Popular music was, prior to the early 1960s, mainly singles-oriented.  We don’t talk about “great Elvis albums” because they were spiritually just compilations of 45s anyway.  Singles were important after Beatlemania as well (they still are) but from ’63 onward the album, as a singular piece of art, began to dominate the way people consumed pop music.  If this seems Boomer-centric, it is, but it also reflects changes in technology and distribution of physical products that lend themselves well to a Marxist analysis.

In addition to temporal analysis, there is unfortunately a racial filter involved as well.  “The Greatest Album” is always something produced in the Global North.  The Global South is completely left out of the picture, with the notable exceptions of Fela Kuti and Bob Marley.  The music of the West is prioritized; music from eastern or southern Asia is only discussed in Western media when it fits into the pre-approved Western molds.  Even within Western popular music there is a stark racial divide.  Rolling Stone‘s 500 Best Albums Ever extravaganza features precisely one black artist in the top 10, Marvin Gaye.  The crowdsourced efforts do even worse:  BestEverAlbums features no black artists in their top 10 and neither does RYM.  Tellingly, RYM’s chart has the first black artist coming in at #11 (Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue), which seems to say We’ll throw you a bone, but don’t think for one second that you really belong here to black American musicians.  This, despite the fact that all of the key pillars of modern pop music draw their inspiration at least in part from three predominately black musical movements:  the electric blues (from which rock ‘n’ roll sprang, and from which psychedelia gained it’s heft); Motown (soul, R&B, and later funk and hip hop); and jazz.  Further, both RYM and BestEverAlbums prominently feature Led Zeppelin, who made their bones on the wholesale piracy of Willie Dixon’s back catalog.  As such, any discussion of “The Greatest Album Ever” is immediately compromised by the inherent generational, cultural, and racial biases that are brought to the discourse.  This is without even getting into a post-modern understanding of what the “greatest” album even means – to deconstruct the entire process of what determines greatness and near-greatness in an extremely subjective and emotionally-driven form of expression like music would take a lifetime in itself.  To talk about it requires one to assume that there are greater overarching meta-narratives, that music is in fact sacred and driven, and that we can determine rankings of recordings on scales whose criteria make sense if you squint a lot and don’t think too much about it.

So, if we frame the discourse with an admittance that we are talking about a narrow spectrum of available music that carries with it unfortunate biases with regard to race, sex, and culture, is OK Computer the greatest album ever made?  It becomes, at this point, a matter of comparison:  what did the Boomers uphold as the greatest records, and how does OK Computer compare with them.  If we look to the crowd again, there is some definite overlap in the top 10 of both RYM and BestEverAlbums.  The Beatles show up, of course, with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon is there, as befitting an album that spent a legendary 420,000,000 weeks on the Billboard charts.  The Velvet Underground & Nico is there, for reasons I went over several weeks ago.  Led Zeppelin IV is there, because nothing goes better with a bong load than some Stairway, maaaaaaan.  These are the usual suspects when Boomers and Boomer aficionados start listing the best albums ever made.  The Beatles provide fey psychedelic weirdness backed with impeccable melodies and song structures that experimented but didn’t break the mold entirely.  Pink Floyd crafted epic guitar-driven songs that were at once adventures into space and examinations of the dour nature of the English personality.  The Velvet Underground made it okay to be messy and to let a lot of your mental anxiety shine through.  Led Zeppelin glamoured listeners with the irresistible call of pure volume.   Where does Radiohead fit in with this?  Pretty much everywhere.

Right from the beginning, the thick, overdriven strings that open “Airbag” promise something different.  It’s as though Loveless were reborn, cured of the opiated languor that permeates that album.  The guitars take the experimental leads that people like David Gilmour and Robert Fripp imagined and plays with them, smudging and expanding and blurring until the guitar becomes an alien and interesting instrument all over again.  Thom Yorke’s voice hangs haunting and sodden with deep existential dread over the viscous liquid that roils beneath it, summing up the horror and paranoia of modern life in the form of a story about the time an airbag saved his life in a car accident in the mid-1980s.  And that’s just the first song.  “Paranoid Android” ups the ante significantly.  Johnny Greenwood’s guitar figure is unsettling – creepy, even – and Yorke’s vocals only amplify that.  Written in four parts, much like John Lennon’s “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, the song is central to the album’s mixed feelings about human existence and capitalism.  Described by Yorke himself as “about the dullest fucking people on Earth”, the song has its roots in the time Yorke found himself in an L.A. bar surrounded by vapid rich assholes high on cocaine and themselves.  There’s a sense of disgust with that sort – capitalists, and by extension, capitalism – that runs through much of the album.  “Subterranean Homesick Alien” speaks of isolation and the feeling of being alien from one’s own culture; “Let Down” is about the hollowness of corporate-sponsored sentiment and the similarity of pop songs and advertisements.  “Electioneering” summons a Chomsky critique of capitalist society, while “Climbing Up The Walls” turns that critique inward, examining the headspace of paranoia and distress.  “No Surprises” combines the two, finds the soul-sucking job on par with soul-sucking politics, and whispers about the handshake of carbon monoxide in search of an exit.  “Lucky” brings the album back around again, imagining a plane crash to complement the car crash that started the album.  “The Tourist” is like a ghost in the wreckage of this suicide and loss of control, imploring the listener to stop rushing through life and take the time to enjoy or at least acknowledge the experiences around them.

Musically, OK Computer is an impressively dense album.  The strings that herald the arrival of “Airbag” return in differing forms throughout the album, to greatest effect on “Climbing Up The Walls”.  On that track, the theme of internal chaos is mirrored by a backdrop of sixteen violins, each tuned a quarter-note apart from each other and inspired by “Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima”; Johnny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements would, in the 21st Century, be one of the band’s most enduring strengths.  Filtered and fiddled keyboards play a large role in the album as well, especially on “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, “Let Down”, and the Beatles-referencing “Karma Police”.  Greenwood and Ed O’Brien layer guitar in sinuous, overlapping ways, outdoing David Gilmour on the mournful wail of “Lucky” and drowning out Zeppelin on both “Paranoid Android” and “Electioneering”.  There are even post-modern (for the era) flourishes in the form of drum machine programming, dub approximations, and neo-classical arrangements.  Few bands in history have ever been able to blend the sacred and the profane in a way that transcends both; none of them have made it sound as utterly seamless or integral to the human experience as Radiohead on OK Computer.

Part of that transcendence comes from the album’s influences, of which the band has been quite forthcoming.  The initial inspiration for the sound of OK Computer came from Mile Davis (as seen above) and his 1970 avant-jazz Bitches Brew.  Further inspiration came from Elvis Costello and the Beatles, as well as soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone (he of the indelible popular sound of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns) and Krautrock band Can, who were known to use the recording studio as an experimental lab.  Another part comes from the surroundings it was recorded in.  Like many English rock bands before them, Radiohead chose to record in an old English mansion, St. Catherine’s Court.  The acoustics of the place can be heard especially well on “Exit Music (For A Film)”, which was recorded in a stairwell, and “Lucky”, which was recorded in a ballroom in the witching hour.  Most of the album was recorded live, with the band unwilling to potentially destroy a good thing through retakes and overdubs; Thom Yorke went with a one-take-and-done approach to his vocals, fearing that he would start to doubt everything if he stood around and thought too much about it.

The greatest album ever recorded, though?  I think you can make a strong argument for it – as I’ve laid out above.  It out-Floyds Floyd.  It doesn’t ride the swampy concerns of a minority artist, like Zeppelin.  It paints a more accurate picture of 1997 (and beyond) than the Beatles ever did in 1967.  It flows and carries on, without ever coagulating or getting bogged down in disappearing into the band’s own head.  Thom Yorke, upon being asked about the critical explosion of goodwill that greeted the release of the album, protested that Radiohead didn’t set out to create art, they just wrote pop songs.  The counterpoint to this of course is that the best artists never set out to create Art, with the capital intact and all the pompous weight that is loaded into the word present and accounted for.  They set out to replicate what they’re seeing, reading, or hearing in their head, and if they’re good enough people will find some reflection of themselves or their lives in it, and embrace it accordingly.  In the neo-liberal, corporate-driven, emotionally artificial and distant world of the Washington Consensus, there is a lot of reflection to be found in OK Computer, lyrically, musically, and spiritually.  Many talk about tapping into the zeitgeist.  OK Computer actually does it.

 

 

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