[End of the Year Polls]
1 - OK Computer
Radiohead, Parlophone, 1997
UK Top 20 peak: Number 1; estimated sales: 500,000 (UK); 2m (worldwide)
When Radiohead were readying themselves to record OK Computer, multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood acknowledged the blank-canvas state of affairs by posting a website message asking fans to send him unusual chords. Sadly, the response was nothing more stimulating than “a G Minor 7th and uninteresting variations on a diminished B”. Soon though, quite evidently, ideas of a radical hue were flowing free. The effect was vivid yet diverse.
Chin-stroking reviewers suggested comparisons with Pink Floyd’s music and Michael Stipe’s lyrics. More evocatively, guitarist Ed O’Brien saw it as “troubled Spector”. Then, when he talked to Q, Thom Yorke breezily catalogued previously unidentified songwriting influences track by track: Björk (Airbag, “It sounds stupid, but it was Isabel off the Post album, don’t ask me why”), Johnny Cash (Exit Music For A Film, “The Prison Tapes, you can hear the prisoners willing him on, whooping and laughing, the songs are so powerful in that environment, I get spine tingles every time I hear it”), Miles Davis (passim). In fact, Yorke said that the late bebopster and fusion pioneer’s pivotal jazz-rock album Bitches Brew was “at the core of what we were trying to do with OK Computer, building something up and watching it fall apart, reverberating. That’s the beauty of it. Subterranean Homesick Alien was born out of listening to Bitches Brew endlessly. The first time I heard it I thought it was the most nauseating chaos, it sounded as though it came from Mars, I felt sick listening to it. But then, gradually... You aim for something that you’ve fallen in love with and you completely miss, but you do something else with it.”
Far more confident and assertive since the success of The Bends – and, incidentally, Yorke’s nourishing encounters with songwriting heroes Michael Stipe and Elvis Costello – they took a rigorous intellectual line on the emotional content of the record. In Let Down, Yorke warned himself, “Don’t get sentimental/It always ends up drivel”. Accordingly, in word and vocal tone, he strove for the perspective of an impartial witness, a reporter, rather than “chuckling myself into it”. Even so, Jonny Greenwood remained sceptical about claims of objectivity and distance from the material. “He is revealing things about himself,” he reckoned. “He confesses. He’d never admit that though. It’s just like Mark E. Smith pretending none of his songs are about himself.”
Regardless of contradictions and enigmas, OK Computer is a dense and weighty piece of work. It shot into the chart on the reputation of its predecessor The Bends, then hung around for month after month, not exactly preaching to the masses, but gradually gathering intense appreciation.
The Bends was hardly soft-option rock, but OK Computer is a tougher proposition. For all the distorted guitars that blast through Airbag, Electioneering and many other tracks, riffs and tunes are by no means the whole deal. For instance, to songwriter Yorke, “the most significant thing in Exit Music is the bass line. It’s incredibly brutal.” It slides up the mix and pounds against the fragile vocal and acoustic guitar. To be over-literal, perhaps since the song was written for Hollywood’s biker-style version of Romeo And Juliet, the oppressive bass – wielded by elder Greenwood brother, Colin – speaks for the blood-feuding forces that destroy the young lovers (who say “Goodbye cruel world” with the song’s and the album sleeve’s parting curse, “We hope that you choke”). The bass plays the monster again in Climbing Up The Walls, a report from inside the imagination of a mass murderer (“Do not cry or hit the panic button”).
In Subterranean Homesick Alien it is seagull guitars and a trilling piano that draw attention away from the stock allure of tune-and-beat and out into more spacey sensations germane to the song’s cosmic-farcical story (aliens peer down on human folly shooting “home movies” for the folks back on Zarg or wherever). The cod chorale which sweeps in over sweet acoustic and violent electric guitars in the middle of Paranoid Android is another diversion toward the heart of the matter: “The dust and the screaming/The panic, the panic”.
As to lyrical content, Yorke did concede to Q that autobiography enters into Airbag and Lucky. They touch on his morbid fear of car or plane crashes, while also apparently asserting a cheery faith that he would emerge unscathed. Incidentally, the completion of Airbag happened to present him with a rare moment of fulfilment unalloyed when “we’d just finished the bass (that bottom line again) and I thought, This is something we never dreamed we could get done. I rang my girlfriend just to say, Wow! We’ve done something really great.”
Personal neuroses aside, it seems that some of Yorke’s social views emerge in OK Computer also. An unredeemed cynicism and rage blurts through several of the later tracks: “Voodoo economics/It’s just business/Cattle prods and the IMF/I trust I can rely on your vote” (Electioneering), “Now self-employed/Concerned (but powerless)/An empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism)” (Fitter Happier), and finally, “Bring down the government/They don’t, they don’t speak for us” (No Surprises).
However, Yorke was at pains to stress that – in part, contrary to the J. Greenwood confessional thesis – the loopier characters to whom he gives voice are the product of irony and imagination, not psychotic role-play. Uninhibited, he voyages out to fairly freaky shores, ranting “Off with his head, off with his head” in Paranoid Android, and “Karma police, arrest this man/He talks in maths/He buzzes like a fridge/He’s like a detuned radio” in Karma Police. It’s probably not so much fascism he’s portraying, as a world totally wired with tension. The Tourist is so “overcharged” with nervous electricity that, “They ask me where the hell I’m going at 1,000 feet per second/Hey man, slow down/Idiot, slow down”.
But other protagonists are well beyond such self-awareness, desperate though it may be. The killer in Climbing Up The Walls has surrendered all empathy for other people to fantasies of violence, while the Stephen Hawking-like computerised voice of Fitter Happier subsumes pent-up emotions into ghastly Prozac’d bromides (“At ease/...A safer car (baby smiling in back seat)”). Paranoid Android seems to speak for all these misshapen souls when it concludes, with a hint of Kurtz’s universal horror, “The vomit, the vomit/God loves his children, yeah!”
Perhaps Radiohead offer some kind of acid balance to Oasis’s mission of bringing good cheer to the nation. The difficult OK Computer spread the word, hauling Pablo Honey and The Bends back into the Top 40. In his five-star Q review of the album, David Cavanagh said, “Now Radiohead can definitely be ranked high among the world’s greatest bands.” That still doesn’t sound extravagant. Yorke, the Greenwoods, O’Brien and drummer Phil Selway may have been together now for 12 years, but for unfathomable group-dynamic reasons, their collective passion remains undimmed.
Magic Moment: The infinite weariness of No Surprises’ refrain, “No alarms and no surprises, please.” Most refreshing.
A reader writes: “We’re all fucked and the world’s a mess and we’re all alienated and alone. But we’re together in our isolation – and armed against our doom.” Orla Russell – Conway, Dublin.
6 – The Bends
Radiohead, Parlophone, 1995
UK Top 20 peak: Number 6; estimated sales: 800,000 (UK); 1.9m (worldwide)
One critic called The Bends the “depression soundtrack” of 1995. Frontman Thom Yorke responded: “It’s not an excuse to wallow. I don’t want to know about your depression. If you write to me I will write back angrily telling you not to give in to all that shit.” The album administers the pull-your-socks-up medicine in more palatably inspirational form.
The opening minute of Planet Telex declares palpable progress post-Pablo Honey: huge phased piano and guitar climax, then dissolve into a heart-stoppingly gentle refrain, “Everything is broken/Everyone is broken.” While Just (Do It To Yourself) smells a lot like Teen Spirit and Yorke goes untypically passionate on Sulk, the rest of the album dwells on the acute, subtle pleasures of both balance and violent lurching between the massive and the delicate.
If My Iron Lung and Black Star throw you around a good deal, High And Dry, [Nice Dream], Bullet Proof... I Wish I Was and the graceful Street Spirit (Fade Out) are all fluttering eyelids, sighs and swoons. In this vein, Fake Plastic Trees proved something of a vocal epiphany for Yorke: “When we were recording The Bends nobody looked for big emotions, which is why it worked. But Fake Plastic Trees was the one where, despite us having a tough time in the studio, it turned into a real emotional experience.” It was also the first lyric he’d written that satisfied him, “in being not entirely serious it’s upsetting or whatever, I don’t know”.
Overall, with The Bends, Yorke dug much deeper into the allusive power of metaphor. Acknowledging the number of illness references in the lyrics, guitarist Jonny Greenwood was keen to steer listeners away from narrow responses like, “Oh, that’s Thom obsessing on all the time he spent in hospital as a kid.” For physical ailment read emotional uproar, he urged. So, for instance, Bones is not a toe-tapping evocation of osteoporosis, but an image of psychological crumbling. As Yorke’s mission statement at the time said, “If the music doesn’t go beyond our own experiences the whole point of making this record is lost.” Then again, millions of listeners evidently got the idea in one, without recourse to seminars, just because The Bends says its piece straight to the heart.
Magic moment: High And Dry’s first sad-angelic “Don’t leave me high/Don’t leave me dry.”
A reader writes: “A powerful, bruised, majestically desperate record of frighteningly good songs.” Gary Robinson, Dancaster.
61 - Pablo Honey
Radiohead, Parlophone, 1993
UK Top 20 peak: Number 25; estimated sales: 400,000 (UK); 1.9m (worldwide)
Radiohead have since badmouthed their debut album, partly because it gnawed at frontman Thom Yorke that Creep (their breakthrough American hit), Thinking About You, Prove Yourself and Blow Out added to such a plaintive expression of low self-esteem. The author grew weary of singing “I’m a creep” and “I’m better off dead” every night, when really he’d started to feel quite chipper. But the band’s discomfort has not deflected appreciation of Pablo Honey’s nice balance between often gale-force guitars and appealingly semi-detached vocals on songs which fold in The Byrds, U2 and grunge ingredients without provoking cries of “Sire, he’s copying!” Ripcord, I Can’t and Lurgee, in particular, are star turns.
Magic Moment: Still Creep: Jonny Greenwood’s guitar grunt a bar or two before the chorus. An accident kept in because it sounded great.
A reader writes: “A stunning debut.” Vicky Burke, Co. Mayo.