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Thom and Jonny premiered the song, that was then titled 'An Airbag Saved My Life', on British radio station XFM on october 28th 1995:



'An Airbag Saved My Life' was a headline that Thom read in an AA ('Automobile Association', British car roadside recovery company) magazine that came through his door. But the title is also a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Indeep's 1983 disco hit 'Last Night a DJ Saved My Life'.

According to Thom, the song itself is about the feeling you get when you realise that you've just missed having a serious accident, and the feeling of elation that follows. It was inspired by Thom's feeling towards cars (Stupid Car, Killer Cars...) after being involved in a car crash with his girlfriend when he was younger. The song is one of Thom's favourites off OK Computer.
The earliest available full band performance comes from may 26th 1996 at the Bataclan in Paris:
The band was apparently inspired by DJ Shadow to use cut-up drum beats for the studio version.
This page, titled 'stuck in a frozen lake', appeared on radiohead.com during the recording of OK Computer and features a text by Thom with notes about songs that were around then.
The relevant section was not highlighted in red letters in the original page:
an airbag saved my life* in an interstella burst i am back to save the universe computer drums bass wrong lift* is hard work you been stuck in a lift we been trying to reach you thom the belly of the whale (thanks Rei xxxx) paranoid android* get busy with the shakers while im fast asleep could you stop the noise im trying ta get some rest this the place it wont hurt ever again karma police* girl with hitler hairdo everybodys friend life in a glasshouse phew for a minute there i lost myself i lost myself sit down your safe now polyethelene*will never break down swirly self announcements. stuck in a frozen lake. the penultimate place in dante's hell. last flowers till the hospital*is a sign discovered in oxford -my unhealthy obsession with these institutions. analysts may get the connection. ambulances scream past my house at all hours of the day and night like the confessionals of Larkin's "Ambulan s." let down*in the midst of monster tour the momentum getting drunk to talk bombarded by dangerously high levels of radiation from xray machines. one day, one day... climbing up the walls*both managers and record company are nervous about such a nasty sound coming out of the speakers. this is a good sign. dogwander* bring on another take better than another cake. nude* it is a mans world. and this one is very confused and will have sex with anything woman who comes within a mile radius. but feels bad about it. so doesnt. exit song (for a film)* cannot be listened to more than once in a row. which made recording it easy. or not. but what film? big boots* it was a long time ago and i cant remember. a whole orchestra watching the film and playing along. real life is dull. i am i the white lotus flying off the quay with barbara bach.
(information incomplete)
....>>>>i like the idea of you listening to our recordings with your head resting gently in emptiness. or before going out. or when you've come back. i dont like the scientists breaking down its molecular structure and teaching it in O level chemistry i ont want to have expain it but it worries me stupid. there is a lot of crying goes into making things.<<<<.... the masters tell us that there is an aspect of our minds that is its fundamental basis, a state called "the ground of the ordinary mind." It functions like a storehouse, in which the imprints of past actions caused by our negative emotions are all store like seeds. when the right conditions arise, they germinate and manifest as circumstances and situations in our lives. if we have a habit of thinking in a particular pattern, positive or negative, then these tendencies will be triggered and provoked very easily and recurr and go on recurring. With constant repetition our inclinations and habits become steadily more entr ched and continue, increasing and gathering power even when we sleep. This is how they come to determine our life, our death our rebirth.
'AIRBAG'
Originally titled "Last Night an Airbag Saved my Life" in a typically tongue-in-cheek tribute to Indeep's 1983 disco hit, "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life", this makes for a brooding, claustrophobic start to the album.
Colin: "We wanted it to be like "Planet Telex" off The Bends - a start that's not really anything like the rest of the album. It's quite dancey That's cos Phil's been attending drum 'n' bass nights."
Phil: "I told you, I thought it was a line-dancing evening! It was actually DJ Shadow who inspired it - the way he cuts up beats is amazing. The end result doesn't really sound like what we were aiming for, but that's probably a good thing."
Ed: "It's about the wonderful, positive emotion you feel when you've just failed to have an accident; when you just miss someone and realise how close it was and stop the car and just feel this incredible elation. There's something joyous about it - life suddenly seems more precious."
Key Lyric: "In a jack-knifed juggernaut, I am born again."
Thom: "Airbags go off spontaneously, so researchers claim. I think that's a cool judgement, don't you? Driving along in your Mercedes."
Colin: "They're actually quite dangerous things. They can kill."
Ed: "What would you know about it? You can't even drive!"
Colin dates the start of the record back to the summer of '95 when they supported REM on tour. He recalls playing 'Climbing Up The Walls' at a soundcheck at the Hershey Stadium. Peter Buck was checking their progress from the sound desk, and when they'd finished, he walked away, whistling the tune with his hands in his pockets. 'No Surprises'. 'Let Down' and a different version of 'Airbag' were coming together. The latter took its final shape after Phil, inspired by the Mo' Wax sound, carved up a recording of his own drumming, giving it that artificial, reconstituted feel.
Jonny Greenwood opens up the song database on OK Computer.

"We tried to do a DJ Shadow, cutting up drum parts but, in the end we put everything through my guitar pedals."
"'Airbag' is also about how, the way I've been brought up and most of us are brought up, we are never given time to think about our own death. In fact, everything you do stems from trying to offset that fear with the idea of immortality."6

"So much of the public's perception revolves around illusion. That's what 'Airbag' is about, the illusion of safety. In reality, airbags don't really work, and they go off at random."7 Elsewhere, he darkly jokes, "Think about that when you're driving your Mercedes."8
Thom: "I remember mixing Airbag. Nigel played it back really loud and I thought, This is something we never dreamed we could get done. I was so happy I rang my girlfriend just to say, 'Wow, we've done something really great'. That's the height of the experience.

Then it stops, you finish the record and you're sick of it and the only time I get to like our stuff again is when we go out and play it live. There are a lot of good reasons for not doing tours: it fucks you up, it takes too long, it costs shitload of money. But... it's about looking people in the eye while you're playing your songs."
Thom: "I've got sick of planes and what they do to my body. I'm sure it shrinks your brain (laughs)."

Q: "But the bus is survivable?"

Thom: "Yes. Although, every time it judders it reminds me you're asleep in a sort of coffin. Last night I was having visions of how you could be asleep and drive off a cliff and not even wake up."

Q: "Is 'Airbag' off OK Computer about that kind of feeling?"

Thom: "Mmm, 'Airbag' is more about the idea that whenever you go out on the road you could be killed. Every age has its crazy idiosyncracies, crazy double-think. To me, for our era it's cars. I always get told off for being obsessed about it, but every time I get in my car I have to say to myself that I might never get out again. Or I might get out but I won't be able to walk."

Q: "That's a very, uh, acute awareness."

Thom: "I suppose it just comes from being a worrier. But Airbag is also about how, the way I've been brought up and most of us are brought up, we are never given time to think about our own death.

In fact everything you do stems from trying to offset that fear with the idea of immortality. Especially doing what I do. If you're a pop star, all you're trying to do is search for immortality. Or that's the cliche at least. Yet you're constantly a knife -edge away from being killed in a car accident. (Smiles) It's great!"
The drum track to "Airbag," which was recorded, sampled with an Akai S3000 sampler and then laboriously edited and manipulated over two days on the band's Macintosh. Yorke admits this technique was inspired by the work of DJ Shadow [a sample/turntable artist from the San Francisco Bay Area who has released two acclaimed albums on the London/Mo' Wax label- GW Ed.], and the result has led many to argue that Radiohead are, in fact, creating a sort of new rock/techno hybrid.
Ed: "'Airbag' was an attempt to do something like DJ Shadow. But because we haven't paid the dues, if you like, to play those types of music, we fail to get what we hope to achieve. But by going down that route, we find our own thing."
Thom: "Has an airbag saved my life? Nah...but I tell you something, every time you have a near accident, instead of just sighing and carrying on, you should pull over, get out of the car and run down the street screaming, 'I'm BACK! I'm ALIVE! My life has started again today!'. In fact, you should do that every time you get out of a car. We're just riding on those things - we're not really in control of them."
Part of the performance of 'Airbag' from september 3rd 1997 in London can be seen in Meeting People Is Easy:

Another performance of this song, from october 18th 1997 in Paris, is also in the movie:

Thom played the song on his own for the first time since 1995 at the gig in Cambridge on february 25th 2010:

Live performances #248 to #253 during the making of The King of Limbs:
248. january 24th 2010 The Music Box Theatre at The Fonda Los Angeles, CA USA Link
249. february 25th 2010 Corn Exchange Cambridge UK Link
253. august 6th 2010 Big Chill Festival Ledbury UK Link
  Thom solo section [prev. released songs] oct. 2009 april/august 2010
Videotape [2] 17 01
I Might Be Wrong [1] 01
Like Spinning Plates [3] 08 11 14
Fog [1] 06
Everything In Its Right Place [6] 05 06 10 14 17 18
Airbag [3] 11 15 18