The Kicking, The Screaming, The Panic, The Vomit... The Greatest
What's the best song from the last 15 years? As NME.COM hits its 15th birthday, we compiled our top 150 - and at the top was Radiohead's prog-sprawl masterpiece 'Paranoid Android'. NME.COM editor Luke Lewis explains its endless appeal.
Where were you when you first heard it? I'll never forget. April 30, 1997, Wednesday night: the first exclusive play on Radio 1‘s Evening Session. I'd expected ‘The Bends’ part two. What I heard instead was bizarre and breath-taking: six and a half minutes of spiralling melodies, twisted—metal dissonance, robot voices, and a desolate choral coda featuring the words, “The dust and the screaming... the vomit... the vomit".
The song left me spellbound, exhilarated, slightly baffled... but pretty certain I’d just experienced An Event, something colossal and unprecedented. I immediately called up a friend to try and make sense of what we’d just heard. What I definitely didn't do was snort tea through my nose and go, “Ha ha! The dust and screaming! That's hilarious!"
It’s puzzling, then, that Radiohead have always insisted that ‘Paranoid Android‘ — the solemn, sprawling lead single from their 4.5 million-selling third album ‘OK Computer’ —was all a bit of a giggle. Far from penning a universal hymn of woe, Thom Yorke claims he picked the title as a self-mocking “joke”, and says the lyrics are “not personal at all”.
The band have said that the writing process was “a laugh”. When they came to perform the song, said guitarist Ed O'Brien, the whole thing had them “pissing ourselves as we played”. Anyone would think they’d written ‘My Humps’, not one of the towering rock songs of the 20th century.
And yet... they protest too much. I have a theory. I think that Radiohead knew they'd written an era-defining masterwork, but — in a very British way — felt embarrassed by the grandeur of their creation, and ever since then have bash fully tried to make light of it. They’re not fooling anyone.
See, ‘Paranoid Android’ may do many things, but it doesn’t exactly get you firing up the ROFL-copter. There’s a reason why it has never been used as a goofy soundbed on The Planet’s Funniest Animals. Anyone with ears and a brain can tell that this is a song about the horror of modernity. Yorke surveys the grand sweep of humanity and finds he’s disgusted by all of it. We’ve all been there, especially while watching The Xtra Factor with Olly Murs.
The more pretentious among us might point out that “Paranoid Android”s fragmentary structure and overarching mood of bleak horror recall TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, a poem that Yorke and Colin Greenwood once performed aloud at school (and according to Greenwood, Yorke was “totally” into it).
So, is ‘Paranoid Android‘ a ‘90s equivalent — a modernist masterpiece with distortion pedals? Well, yes, I think that’s exactly what Radiohead were aiming for.
And you know what? They succeeded. Besides, this idea that ‘Paranoid Android’ was intended as a joke — a sozzled attempt to rewrite Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ - doesn’t quite tally with Yorke’s own of account of how he wrote the lyrics. They came to him at 5am following a hateful night out among coked-up music biz types in Los Angeles.
“I was trying to sleep when I literally heard these voices that wouldn’t leave me alone," he recalled, back in 1997. “Basically, [‘Paranoid Android’] is just about chaos, chaos, utter fucking chaos.”
When pressed to reveal more about the “kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy" who inspired the song. Yorke described it as “inhuman... you do oft en see demons in people's eyes. Everyone was trying to get something out of me. l felt like my own self was collapsing in the presence of it.“ Hmm. So not quite dashed off as a rib-tickling novelty wigout, then? Lest you doubt that “Paranoid Android” burns with a core of genuine misanthropy, note the hex on the single sleeve. The ensuing world tour was called Against Demons. “Paranoid Android” is a song about seeing evil in the world around you, and being absolutely terrified by it.
So how come it's so thrilling to listen to? What prevents “Paranoid Android” from being unbearably bleak is the song's endless inventiveness. It’s so complex it took Radiohead 18 months of rehearsal before they could play it live. Tellingly, ‘Paranoid Android’ is essentially uncoverable: those who've tried, like Weezer, have failed dismally.
Standout moments? How about the guitar solo, hissing and spitting like a power cable let loose in a storm? Or better yet, the bit where the guitar cuts out, leaving a chasm of distortion before the final choral lament, which has always made me think of hooded monks marching with bowed heads, like Joy Division's ‘Atmosphere’ video?
Of course, it's really three entirely different songs stitched together, and was built tip piecemeal, layer upon layer, growing into this crazy toppling Jenga tower. Colin Greenwood recalls the weird feeling of vertigo this instilled: “We recorded the first bits and we were really into it. Each of the other bits had to be as good as what came before. It was really exciting... but it just raised the stakes each time and piled the pressure on.”
The best song of the past decade-and-a-half? Yes, because “Paranoid Android” predicted so much of what came alter. Not just the tenor of rock music, which took a more gloomy turn in the song's wake, but the broader culture too. ‘Paranoid Android' was recorded before most of us had internet access or mobiles. But the world it skewers one of dislocation, information overload, bile - speaks to our times uncannily. Long may this extraordinary song rain down, rain down on us.
INSIDE THE ANDROID
Classic inﬂuences? Apple Mac cameos? This song has 'em all!
The video was directed by Magnus Carlsson, and starred the Swede's animated Robin character. Playful yet disturbingly weird, it was edited to remove mermaids’ breasts. The bit where a fat diplomat in a G-string cuts off his own arms and legs with an axe is fine though, obviously.
Both versions of the single were backed by stunning songs: the prog-tastic ‘Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)’, the guitar-driven Morricone thrash of ‘Pearly", the bitter, waltzing ‘A Reminder’, and ‘Melatonin’, the synths of which pointed to the band's future.
MARVIN THE PARANOID ANDROID
A depressed robot in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Yorke used the description to parody the way the media and public saw him. How self-aware.
While supporting Alanis Morissette in 1996, Radiohead frequently performed an early version of ‘ParanoidAndroid’, complete with an epic Hammond organ solo at the end and a “rave down".
The song saw Radiohead's first high-profile use of this retro instrument, which plays tape loops when you press a key.
THE BEATLES AND QUEEN
The inspiration in stitching together discarded songs was taken from these two rock legends, and two of their maddest songs: the Fab Four’s ‘Happiness ls A Warm Gun’ and Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. “It really started out as three separate songs," said Yorke, “and we didn't know what to do with them. Then we thought of ‘Happiness...’ and said, ‘Why don't we try that?”’
Unusually for Radiohead, they featured a guest star on ‘Paranoid Android’ — Fred, an Apple Mac speech simulator. His is the amiable voice that repeats, “I may be paranoid but not an android" behind Yorke in the first section's chorus. He also starred in ‘OK Computer"s ‘fitter Happier’ - wonder if he got any royalties.
Bassist Colin Greenwood on the moment it all came together
‘Paranoid Android’ has been chosen as the best song of the past 15 years. Happy?
Colin: “That's brilliant. Thanks so much! It's very cool that people still like it."
What’s your standout memory of recording it?
“We were in Bath, recording at [Tudor manor house] St Catherine’s Court. We were having drinks, and then we started doing percussion on a drum loop that Phil [Selway] had made. It grew from there. We'd already rehearsed an early version of the song, played it on tour with Alanis Morissette - obviously it didn't go down very well. Originally it had a 10-minute organ outro [see sidebar overleaf], which ultimately we ditched and replaced with the “rain down" section. Was that the right decision? I think so, but sometimes I regret the lack of psychedelic, patchouli-soaked organ madness."
Was it obvious you'd written something special?
“I don't know. Who can say? There's something savage and cartoon-like about it, which was reﬂected in the video, which I really love. The song is wild and savage – something we did when we didn't know how to do anything. There were no rules. The recording took a long time, but it wasn’t difficult. It was easy, it was a fun time.”
Give us a visual picture of the moment it all came together...
“We’d had a drink - but only one. Orange juice with vodka. And we were in this large wooden ballroom. We’d lit candles. And we were jamming, which is something we’d never done before. That brought a spontaneity, which helped the I song come to life. It's essentially three different songs stitched together. Were the lyrics there from the very start? I don't remember."
What do you that people love about it so much?
“It's a bit like ‘Bloom’ on our new record [“The King Of Limbs”]. I like songs that have a universe inside them. Loud and soft, pretty and ugly, fast and slow. ‘Paranoid Android’ is all those things. It's brilliant to play live. As for why anyone else likes it? It's like being in your own comic strip. Serious fun."