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THE RISE AND RISE OF THE ROM EMPIRE
by James Oldham


Look outside and you'll see it. A typical view: cars in the street, wires overhead and, somewhere above, the distant trails of an already departed plane. Step away from the window and there's more of the same: a video recording, a TV screen full of flickering images and a newspaper plastered with remote news. You sip a glass of water, but even that tastes of chalk and chlorine. There's no way to clear your vision. Ever felt that you needed to escape from it all?
Oxfordshire 1996, and Radiohead finally begin to record the follow-up to 'The Bends'. Thom Yorke's brain is accelerating. The aforementioned view amplified by the conditions in which he's working. Recording at night, he goes to bed at dawn and wakes at ten to continue the lyrics. His state of mind is sleepless and fractured. Nerve endings are frayed and the atmosphere is intense.
When 'OK Computer' is finished, Yorke describes the 12 completed songs as "Polaroids in my head" - snapshots that form a larger whole. Away from distractions and shrouded in secrecy, Radiohead have created an album motivated and unified by one overriding theme: three years away from the millennium, Yorke wants to leave the planet and escape from the routine and clutter of life.
Not that Radiohead have chosen to follow a 1.5 million-selling record with a concept album; at least, not consciously. It's just that virtually every track on 'OK Computer' is driven by a feeling of impotence. You can gaze out of your window, flick on a TV or read a newspaper, but unless your power matches that of a fictional superhero or a multinational corporation there's no way you can alter your surroundings. The world speeds around on an axis of its own, and there's nothing you can do about it.
And it's that realisation which makes 'OK Computer' both age-defining and one of the most startling albums ever made. Here are 12 tracks crammed with towering lyrical ambition and musical exploration; that refuse to retread the successful formulae of before and instead opt for innovation and surprise; and that vividly articulate both the dreams and anxieties of one man without ever considering sacrifice or surrender. In short, here is a landmark record of the 1990s, and one that deserves your attention more than any other released this year.
What makes it so important is its context. After all, 'The Bends' elevated Radiohead into the sphere of stadiums. When they eventually tour Britain later this year, you will be watching them in the largest venues in the country. The transition, however, has been made with the soul of the band kept intact. Any temptation to follow U2 - and equate an increase in audience size with the necessity to generalise emotions and pontificate witlessly - has thankfully been avoided. The conscious decision with 'OK Computer' is to let the imagination of both band and audience to stretch rather than stagnate.
Because, while Thom was dreaming daily of planetary escape, the rest of the group were fashioning alien sounds from earthly instruments, in much the same way as Spiritualized's Jason Pierce became obsessed with new sound when recording 'Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space'. Jonny Greenwood, in particular, admits he became bored with the sound of his guitar, and consequently the listener is treated to a myriad of distorted effects, disguised echoes and electronic refuse.
Of course, the first single - 'Paranoid Android' - was designed to prepare you for that: six minutes of disconcerting sound and lyrical distress, half of which is dominated by freakish guitar spasms and jolting time changes, half by neo-classical choirs and calming acoustics. Surely one of the only comeback singles ever to summon up images of cascading snowfalls and Napoleon's retreat from Moscow? And certainly one of the most bizarre songs ever to find its way into the British Top Five. Still, as far as Radiohead are concerned, that's just the beginning...
The album itself opens with the slashed riff and sucking electronics of 'Airbag', a song that at once sets the scene for all that's to follow. Yorke's ambivalence towards modern technology (that's also present in the album's title) and supernatural insistence that he's "back to save the universe" are both made immediately apparent. Any hope such a feat might actually be possible, however, is quickly extinguished by the realities of the rest of Side One. There are simply too many obstacles in the way.
Not that the album immediately descends into hopelessness and morbid introspection, because, while avenues of earthly escape are explored and ultimately rejected, there remains throughout a tangible sense of purpose and uplifting sentiment. Once you've negotiated the real dissatisfaction of 'Paranoid Android', what unfolds is a curiously positive experience.
The lyrics of 'Subterranean Homesick Alien' might crave abduction from this planet and a chance to see the world from outer space ("Take me on board.../Show me the world as I'd love to see it") and 'Let Down' might recount the feeling of being "crushed like a beetle" under "motorways and tramlines", but at no point does this feel dispiriting or self-pitying. It's just a snapshot of the external world, a view from the window. It's the moment when cynical sentiment meets beautiful sound. If anything, it's a feeling of detachment, as if Thom Yorke really is an observer from another galaxy rather than a neurotic resident of Oxford.
And that's the contrast that's present in almost every track. As the world speeds by ever faster, Radiohead have attempted to retreat to calmer climes to voice their concern. 'Subterranean Homesick Alien', 'Exit Music' and 'Let Down' are all apparently peaceful: guitars materialise then fade, blissful hidden melodies drift by unnoticed, and previously static songs are suddenly given momentum by a change of the tide. Listen closer, however, and you will just about be able to distinguish the sounds of daily existence: of playground babbling and overloaded electrics, of surface noice and indistinguishable drones. The reality, as Yorke finally realises on 'Fitter Happier', is that there is "no chance to escape". You just have to accept it.
Occasionally, however, that proves impossible. After the fading noise of 'Karma Police', Side Two opens with a spate of ill-natured cacophony and dehumanised cynicism. 'Fitter Happier' sees Yorke wiring himself up to a synthesized voice machine and delivering a series of increasingly curious lifestyle slogans, while 'Electioneering' buries his rage at the power of multinationals under an avalanche of uncomfortable noise. It's the last (and perhaps only) moment of fight, and it's just from here that 'OK Computer' soars towards its climax.
The claustrophobia of 'Climbing Up The Walls' is rapidly replaced by a trio of songs that equal - if not surpass - 'Street Spirit (Fade Out), the beatific conclusion to 'The Bends'. Here the band truly dazzle. 'No Surprises' (billed as the band's attempt to rewrite 'What A Wonderful World') marries the resignation of Yorke's lyrics ("A job that slowly kills you/Bruises that won't heal... I'll take a quiet life") to a spacious wall of melancholy but bright xylophone chimes, while 'Lucky' - previously released on the 'WarChild' compilation - brings the conclusion nearer with the continuous surge of Pink Floyd-esque slow-motion guitars.
The album ends with the sound of Thom Yorke's brain decelerating. Buried within the monastic chanting and stately guitars of 'The Tourist', you can just about make out his voice (as grief-ridden and emotive as ever) trying to make sense of what's happening to him: "Where the hell am I going?/At 1000ft per second/Hey man slow down/Idiot slow down". It's the final, futile attempt to alter the progress of his - or indeed anyone else's - life and it's a perfect finale.
In the space of under an hour, Thom Yorke has reached the same conclusion a dozen times about the need (and ultimate impossibility) of an escape from this life and this planet. The end result, though, is not one of despair but of acceptance. Love, work, sleep and politics have all failed - and all you can do is accept it. Such stoicism renders 'OK Computer' a spectacular success: a true articulation of the anxiety of the late 20th century man backed with music not only of extraordinary grace and melody, but also of experimental clarity and vision. Truly, this is one of the greatest albums in living memory - and the one that puts an interstellar distance between Radiohead and their peers.
Escape might be impossible, the amount of information to take in daunting, but take another step back and have another look at life. This time you might find the view really is beautiful. (10)