Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Number Eight: Radiohead's OK Computer (1997)

I purchased OK Computer a little bit after the hype began. I don't know if anyone else remembers this, but OK Computer was huge in the music press. Everyone talks about Nevermind like it was a revolutionary album but I don't remember feeling that way at the time. OK Computer did seem revolutionary.

I first listened to the album while on a family road trip from Modesto to Vancouver. I remember putting on my headphones and getting more and more excited by what I was listening to. I think the other two albums that were on heavy walkman rotation for me at this time were The Smiths' Louder Than Bombs and The Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I had recently purchased The Pixies' Surfer Rosa and loved it as well. Then came OK Computer. It's the first album I remember being present for, in a general sense, at release. I felt like part of something bigger and more important. Exciting things were happening and I was listening to them! This was the CD equivalent of driving to Fresno with my Dad to see Pulp Fiction before it hit wide release.

The video for "Paranoid Android" was odd and captured your attention, but the music was more interesting. Thom Yorke has repudiated comparisons to "Bohemian Rhapsody", noting that his song isn't as musically complex as Queen's. That may be true, but to this music theory neophyte it sounds comparable and I vote it as the "Bohemian Rhapsody" of the 90's. (If you're keeping track, Belle & Sebastian's "Your Cover's Blown" is the "Bohemian Rhapsody" of the 00's.) "Paranoid Android" has an amazing slow build that's like 10 seconds of a Pixies song stretched to 6 minutes. Then there's the amazing payoff--"Off with his head man!"

"Electioneering" is the other stand out track - a catchy rock single with a beat you could dance around to and enough Radiohead weirdness to make you feel superior to Nirvana fans at school. "Karma Police" is good, but doesn't have the energy or surprise of my two favorites. Overall though, there are no bad moments - you can skip the computer voice if it really bugs you - and that consistency is something I value. Even one misstep can throw you out of the groove of an album and ruin the feel.

OK Computer marked the end of mainstream innovation in rock. It was the last great album that meant something beyond the pages of Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.com. Sure, we've still got Jack White but he seems more like that last Roman in Britain, lingering behind to pay homage or just because he likes the place so much.

11 comments:

Little Earl said...

This one's up there but, as you know, I'm actually a bigger fan of other albums from '90s England. A lot of times Radiohead seemed like they were trying too hard to "break down" the standard rock song, when their own best songs were probably their more classicist tracks. My favorites from this album:

Exit Music (From a Film)
Karma Police
No Surprises
Lucky (I keep looking for the "Waters/Gilmour" co-songwriting credit but I have yet to find it in the liner notes)

yoggoth said...

I know that's what everyone says, but I really don't hear that much "breaking down" in OK Computer. Compare it to Hail to the Thief in which every song sounds like it was chopped up to avoid fulfilling critical expectations. If King Crimson or Pink Floyd or The Talking Heads is classic rock how is OK Computer anything other than "the standard rock song"? The standard rock song is a pretty broad category.

Little Earl said...

Yes, you're right, OK Computer really is "standard rock," especially when compared with Radiohead's later material. I wonder why I don't quite like the album as much as I seem to want to. It grew on me to a point, and then stopped growing - while other '90s albums are growing on me still. I guess I just don't relate to Thom Yorke very much, and the whole vibe just leaves me a little bit colder than the other British bands do. I mean, I've seen this album in the top ten of Greatest Albums of All Time lists. I don't think it's quite that good. But hell, compared to most indie rock today, OK Computer is Sgt. Pepper.

yoggoth said...

See, now why'd you have to go and say "compared to most indie rock today, OK Computer is Sgt. Pepper." OK Computer isn't indie rock and you dislike contemporary mainstream rock as much or more than you dislike contemporary indie rock. Why the hate??

Little Earl said...

Well everybody knows contemporary mainstream rock is shite, so to say anything is better than contemporary mainstream rock is to not say anything at all. And as far as Radiohead not being indie rock, well, no, technically they aren't but as far as America is concerned they basically are, and besides, they are really a part of the whole "indie rock narrative" as it's laid out in places like Pitchfork. Come to think of it, what is "indie rock" anymore? I mean, when the White Stripes and Arcade Fire debut in the Billboard Top Ten, isn't "indie" just a useful stylistic designation rather than a financially meaningful distinction?

yoggoth said...

The genre known as "indie rock" definitely has expanded over the years but there is not way you could consider Radiohead an Indie band. That's just silly. Radiohead released their first album on a major label and they had a hit single on that album. They then released several other hit albums on a major label. Almost everyone knows who Radiohead are. Under what possible definition of indie rock would they be included?

The White Stripes were indie and then signed to a major label. Arcade Fire are a very successful band that are still signed to an independent label. Indie rock can either refer to a band that is signed to an independent label, or one that used to be and still has the sound associated with bands from independent labels. The term may not mean much but it means more than you're letting on.

Little Earl said...

Radiohead are indie...because I say so.

Herr Zrbo said...

Have to agree with LE here, I think of indie at this point as being a style rather than some reference to music labels. Indie is the new Alternative.

As a person who doesn't really listen to Radiohead I think of them as indie. No videos on MTV, no appearances on TRL? Indie in my book.

yoggoth said...

I guess, but then Radiohead doesn't even sound like indie rock. Are we just using indie as a description of any band that doesn't sound like the stuff played on rock radio stations?

If indie is the new alternative who are the bands that you would include in this category?

herr zrbo said...

Hmm, I suppose you could say there are real indie bands that are true to the sense of the description, aren't on a major label, small following etc. Then you could say there's this other more mainstream group of bands that utilize the indie sound but are definitely not 'indie'. Bands such as Radiohead, White Stripes, most 'The' bands, etc. Maybe they started out small but at some point they went big, yet they still utilize this indie sound. Does this make any sense?

yoggoth said...

But Radiohead didn't start small and doesn't sound like indie!!!!