20 years ago this year, Radiohead released their seminal album OK Computer. Michael Jensen will be reviewing the album song by song. So, if you're a fan, turn it up and enjoy.
“Airbag” opens with a swirling, distorted guitar figure and a crashing drum loop like Mack trucks rumbling past on a motorway; and, bizarrely, sleigh bells. It’s a grim and slightly menacing sound alleviated only by some angelic-choir synth. The guitar lead flexes up and down a middle-eastern mode, sounding like a call to prayer.
in the next world war
in a jack-knifed juggernaut.
It’s a diabolical scene, a postmodern-ordinary apocalypse: the freeway car/truck crash.
In a voice that is dreamy and unreal, Thom Yorke tells a mini-narrative of a quasi-religious experience: the feeling of elation you get when you almost die in a car crash. It is an unlikely scene for an epiphany: the modern motorway is a soul-less no-place from which nature has been erased; a not-anywhere-really, a place for flesh and bone to be ground down by steel and rubber; where the natural sounds are the shriek of brakes and the suck of tyres.
As the music builds, soaring wordless monk-chant vocals come in, adding to the sense of a new beginning of spiritual dimensions
It’s a moment of sheer grace. The buzz of adrenaline creates a feeling that life is new. This is consciously religious language: but in the dark asphalt world of the song perhaps that is as good as it is ever going to get. Yet Thom howls triumphantly:
In an interstellar burst I am back to save the universe!
His brush with death makes him feel impregnable and immortal. For a moment, he forgets the vulnerability of the human body before the whizzing masses of the mechanical monoliths, and feels superhuman, capable of mighty feats.
I’m amazed that I survived/ An airbag saved my life.
Technology is one of the great themes of OK Computer. Here at least technology is a life-saver: his face instead of beating the steering wheel of his fast german car plops gently into the inflating airbag, and he walks away from the accident. The technology may have created the danger, but also saved his life.
It’s faintly ridiculous, of course. The scene for this exhilarating experience is banal and dispiriting. The salvation is only momentary. But for a moment, life is precious and delightful: ironically, it takes a flirtation with death to fill us with an appreciation for life.
But it isn’t a moment of grace: it is only luck.
Paranoid Android [Despair]
“Paranoid Android” is the musical companion to the novel A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the movie Bladerunner.
In Hitchhiker’s we are introduced to Marvin, the paranoid android, who is really more depressed rather than paranoid, to be honest, but he’s a terrific comic creation.
Bladerunner, based on the Philip K Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is the high-water mark of 1980s Sci-Fi. The androids in that film are tragic rather than comic.
Is “Paranoid Android” comedy or tragedy? The title immediately complicates even that question, since a machine can’t feel, can’t be paranoid, and can’t be tragic or comic.
The character we meet in the song is more like the persona of TS Eliot’s Preludes. He is a wanderer in an urban waste-land, disturbed, isolated, and angry, begging the neighbours to just please be quiet:
Please could you stop the noise
I'm trying to get some rest
From all the unborn chicken voices in my head
Stop the noise? There’s plenty of noise to come, in his head and in the street. The falling chord progression of the opening verses, heralded by a brief hospital-pulse, is menacing, the pace insistent and plodding.
The maniacal threats follow:
When I am king, you will be first against the wall
With your opinion which is of no consequence at all…
In the background we can hear the electronic voice of the paranoid android.
The gentle acoustic guitar is overwhelmed in the second section of the song by Johnny Greenwood’s distorted solo, over the 7/4 rhythm and the din of the drum kit – all of it – which takes up the rage and alienation of the lines:
Ambition makes you look pretty ugly
Kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy
You don't remember
You don't remember
Why don't you remember my name?
There’s a curse on the yuppie set, ambition driven, the Thatcherite banker (I imagine) who is charmingly ruthless, the ‘Gucci little piggy’, made ugly by ambition. The alienated and lonely soul of the song goes unrecalled and unnoticed by the cliques that dominate the city.
The third section of the song is a hymn, constructed with shimmering harmonies:
Rain down, rain down
Come on rain down on me
From a great height
But it is a hymn of despair. At this point, the uplift in the music is ironic. It’s a prayer to be isolated and forgotten, from a person who is resigned to anonymity. Raining down on someone from a great height sounds like an invocation to death.
Or is it? Thom Yorke has said that the song is “about being exposed to God”. Perhaps, there’s a plea for forgiveness here – for washing in the baptismal water. Is it a plea for mercy?
And so: does God love his children?
You might be forgiven at first for thinking this was a straightforward statement, but the final line undermines it:
God loves his children
God loves his children, yeah.
I can only read that final ‘yeah’ as sarcastic (‘yeah, right’). Either God might love his children and not me, or the statement that ‘God loves his children’ rings hollow in the experience of the central figure of the song. It’s a loveless, despairing world, with no comfort.
Or maybe, just maybe, God does indeed love his children, and will rescue them from the leering demons of the Gucci set.