17 March 2015

Radiohead - OK Computer

How to tackle a monster – part one.  I think I have actively been avoiding reviewing old albums for an awfully long time, to be honest I am always looking for new music.  I get angry when people say "music stopped being good in 1996/2001" - bollocks, you are just not trying any more.  I always look for something else, but sometimes it is appropriate to look back.  So why am I reviewing an album that I have heard so many times that I have not listened to it in years?  This album is a huge album, over the years since its release in 1997 it has gained praise from all quarters and is one of the few records that is in the semi-regular polls for the best album of the year (along with Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and The Beatles ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).  It has been given this mythical status which is a bit strange to me in some ways, so revisiting it might make things clear in some ways; but the main reason for me reviewing this is my recent review of ‘Radiodread’ by the Easy Star All-Stars (cleverly linked here).  It had me wondering if my view of ‘OK Computer had changed over the years – it has been an awfully long time since I have heard this album in full.  But as always, here is a bit of a history lesson in regards to the record before the review.  When this album came out, Radiohead were popular and on the ascent, but they were starting to sound like another slow and depressing indie rock band that would eventually dissipate into nothing.  Even after their brilliant second album ‘The Bends’, in some quarters they were known more for being the band who made the monster hit called “Creep”.  It hung like a millstone from their necks and they were not satisfied with their lot in that way, they wanted to change and on this album they truly did make something different.  It was a game changer for the band, but not as much as what would come afterwards; but that is for different reviews, at this point they were just a band from Abingdon, Oxfordshire and they were not the world conquers that they are now.  So, how has this album aged over these years and has my feelings towards it changed?

Staring the album is “Airbag”, it is a lively beginning by the standards of Radiohead at the time; its off-kilt drum beat comes across as aggressive as it did back when this was first released, it was a change from the direction that the band had followed on ‘The Bends’ which side stepped the audience expectations in a master stroke.  It might be strange to talk about Radiohead in terms of being small and new, but whilst it was their third album and they were the darlings of the indie press – they were not the all-conquering heroes that they have since became.  This song sets out that Radiohead were no longer happy to keep the normal indie rock vibe, they did not want to be known as the band that had released “Creep” for the rest of their life, starting with this sort of opening did a lot change the point of view of the create unwashed.  But it was the next song “Paranoid Android” which truly placed that cat amongst the pigeons as far as perceptions of Radiohead were concerned, it was a top three single upon release, over six minutes in length (something which was not the norm at the time and sadly still is not) and showed that the band were not happy with their lot in any way, shape or form.  The phrase into the bridge before the electric guitar is still an impressive piece even after all these years.  The title which to me references Marvin from Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy fits the song perfectly, it may take its time to prove its point but from the point of view of when it was created, it still sounds as if the band is trying to change who they were and are (and by that turn – who they would become).  The third track on this album is “Subterranean Homesick Alien” which starts with a sound that somehow reminds me of the song “At The River” by Groove Armada, it is one of those numbers which never really meant anything to me and even with the passing of time it still has a slightly hallow echo to the sound.  It probably prepared me for more influential piece of long music that I would listen to years later, but I still zone out on this song and it confuses me the praise that it receives.  Next we are introduced to “Exit Music (For a Film)” with an acoustic guitar and Thom Yorke sounding as happy as ever, did I say happy?  No, I mean the other thing; it is like living in a small dark coffin of your own self-loathing with no sense of redemption to come.  It is a dark and disturbing number that is not for the weak hearted, tread carefully dear reader if you have not heard this before – it is seriously depressing.

“Let Down” is the fifth song on the album, musically it is such a change from “Exit Music (For A Film)” that I feel an almost euphoric release; but you know that this is not a happy song just by the title alone, it is a strange mixture on offer here and it was always a track I used to skip.  However, it is now one of the songs I listen to the most as it just seems to have a little more in the way of musical depth behind it; it just seems to be free of all the shackles which are a big part of this album and that is something I will get back to later on in the review.  The next track is one of the most towering numbers from any band I have ever heard – “Karma Police”.  As far as songs go, I am sure that this is in my top 3 tracks I have ever heard.  The song is a dark twisted call to arms against the world and all foes of the band at that point – the phrase “This is what you get when you mess with us” is all you need to know about this song.  When I first heard it I just stopped dead in the street, to this day I still have that same feeling about the song and nothing will be changing that feeling.  “Fitter Happier” is a strange noise piece with a robotic voice talking slogans and encouragement to people as an off-key piano plays in the background with low feedback and noise interrupting every now and then whilst the robot talks on with no regards to the sounds around it – I have heard better art songs, but I have also heard a lot worse as well to be honest. The next song is “Electioneering” which sounds a little too big in places for this album, if anything it has a hint of Oasis about it (or maybe Oasis stole the riff for something else).  It is a brash and loud number that shows that there was still passion in the band, even if it does sound out of place with everything else that they were aiming for in places. 

Track nine is “Climbing up the Wall” which brings the album crashing back down to earth with its dark soul and broken heart, it is claustrophobic, desolate and beyond salvation; so naturally it is a highlight of the album with its dramatic chorus and sludge-esque guitars and bass.  It has certainly improved with age and it is an equal to “Karma Police” in terms of ambition mixed with stature.  To be honest, on another album it would have been the top track, but it is up against a legendary song that is hard to beat – a great, spectacular number all the same.  After this we come to “No Surprises” which enjoyed a lot of fame back when it was released as a single, in no small part due to the video which had Thom Yorke in an astronaut’s helmet which was at one point filled with water making it look as if he drowned.  For me it is a song that does not meet the expectations of the lyrics to be honest and has been done better elsewhere since this song was released.  It always felt as if they were trying to make part two to “Street Spirit (Fade Away)” with this number and it sort of drifts along to its ending without making any impression at all.  If it was not for that video, I really doubt that it would have been held in as high a regard (I fully expect all your comments of hatred – please address them to the wall behind you, it will care more).  After this is “Lucky” which is the penultimate track of the album, as mentioned in the Radiodread album it was originally released on the Help album for the charity Warchild.  It is always the forget child of the album for me, almost as if it was tucked away in the corner and left on the shelf all alone; but I find this to be one of the highlights to this record, it has grandeur, vision and is akin to “Paranoid Android” in terms of ambition and change to the band’s style at that point – a secret classic on this acclaimed album for this listener.  Finishing the album is “The Tourist” which once again goes along a similar path to “Subterranean Homesick Alien” in terms of music, it is very relaxing and well played; but it just bores me to tears, it tries to aim for the dramatic towards the end of the song but it does not reach that goal – it is not bad, just a poor choice to end the album.

So how has this album fared over the years?  Well the overall view for the record has not changed if I am honest, what is good has remained so (“Karma Police”, “Paranoid Android”), somethings have improved (“Climbing up the Wall”, “Let Down”) and songs which did not work for me (“The Tourist”, “Subterranean Homesick Alien”) still remind strange creatures that I struggle with.  Now, hindsight is great at clearing up matters as this album was a strange beast for me back in the day; but the change that the band wanted to complete happened on ‘Kid A’ (review cleverly linked here), that is when the shackles of ‘Pablo Honey’ and (to a certain degree) ‘The Bends’ were truly broken and all bets were off.  This was the beginning of that journey which we can now see, they were aiming high and to a certain degree it was achieved.  However, this is not the best album ever – sorry, but there is too much on here which just good and not worthy of the praise that the music press (and some of my friends) lay at its feet.   I feel a bit like Peter Griffin at this point when he says he does not like the film The Godfather when he says it insists on itself – this album is like that, the praise is bigger than the worth of the material (and this is coming from someone who bought it when it was original released).  I also feel like I am about to make another statement which is akin to admitting I prefer the film The Money Pit….. It is not even the best album Radiohead released, for me it is either ‘The Bends’ or ‘In Rainbows’.  But with all that said, this is not say it is not a good album – once again, the mark is high; it is just not the best album ever.  For the record – neither is ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or ‘Sgt Peppers Heart Club Band’. 

8 out of ten - Oh, now you have my attention and maybe my money, time and heart

Top track – Karma Police

You can purchase OK Computer from Amazon here

You can visit the Radiohead website here

Here is a link to their Facebook as well

You can stream the album on Spotify here

For our Deezer users, here is a link for you

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