Every important and culturally relevant band/artist has a seminal album in their catalogue that stands above the rest as the most influential, creative, ground-breaking, and/or brilliant. This is the album that automatically comes to the forefront of most people’s minds when the band/artist is mentioned and it’s hard to find anyone who disagrees. The Beach Boys have Pet Sounds, The Rolling Stones have Exile on Main Street, Pink Floyd has Dark Side of the Moon, AC/DC has Back in Black, The Clash has London Calling, Prince has Purple Rain, Bob Dylan has Highway 61 Revisited, Miles Davis has Kind of Blue, Springsteen has Born to Run, Nirvana has Nevermind, Run DMC has Rasin’ Hell, the Beastie Boys have Paul’s Boutique, Michael Jackson has Thriller, the Beatles have………well……….the Beatles have whatever album I listened to last.
Alright. In all fairness, I’ll play this game. With a gun to the head, I guess I have to say that the Beatles have Sgt. Pepper.
Now, granted, all of these artists (and the many that I neglected to mention) have several other albums that are amazingly brilliant, important, and influential, but for one reason or another, these albums have found their way to the pinnacle of their respective artists’ careers. You could argue that you think other albums are better (as I prefer Abbey Road over Pepper), but you would also have to concede that these albums mentioned really are the most important work the artist has ever done. And Radiohead is no exception, as OK Computer clearly stands out as their crowning achievement. From the opening track, you could just tell this band had ascended several different levels.
The first memory I have of this album was in the summer of 1997 right after it had been released. I was in the middle of my second tour of duty as a camp counselor at Keuka College just outside Penn Yan, NY. During the morning hours, the campers would go to their classes and the counselors who weren’t teaching got to hang around the dorm watching movies, taking naps, playing pool and ping pong, and occasionally planning out the afternoon activities for the campers. It was on just such a morning when I first saw the video for “Paranoid Android” which was the first single released from this album. Needless to say, I was confused. Not just by the video (which while aesthetically pleasing, is quite bizarre), but by the song itself.
It would be a few years before I saw the sheer brilliance of this song and finally one day claim that it is my favorite song of all time. It starts off with a sort of schizophrenic acoustic guitar part that launches into a spacey and tripped-out guitar loop. After the second verse and engrossing and infectious blues groove, all of a sudden you’re hit in the face by a frantic and urgent electric guitar chord which launches into a full band entry that holds nothing back and just sets you on fire. Just when you think you have an idea of what’s going on, everything slows down and you are sent to a place that provides you with the greatest two minutes ever recorded. And then you are returned to the very same chaotic band entry that confused you in the first place and when you just begin to gather your thoughts again, it abruptly stops. It's an absolutely stellar song. Game over.
But the first time I heard it, I was nowhere near that epiphany. Remember, at this time in my life I was not a Radiohead fanatic. I liked their first two albums, Pablo Honey, and The Bends just fine. But as far as I was concerned, the best band out there was Oasis. So when I saw this video with my fellow camp counselors in the lounge of Davis Hall, it was more background noise than it was one of my favorite songs of all time. I did not feel some urge to go out and buy it. For some reason, it just went over my head and I didn’t think much about it. That is, until the most influential person in my life (musically speaking) came along and started telling me how amazingly awesome the entire album was.
While my older brother Mike has usually steered me down the right path with introducing me to some phenomenal music, his greatest achievement was getting me into OK Computer. He talked about it frequently and to the point where I had to start to pay attention. Finally, he bought me a copy of it for Christmas (which for the life of me I can't remember if it was in 1997 or in 1998) along with a copy of the 1976 Genesis album A Trick of the Tail which was one of the first Genesis albums made after the departure of Peter Gabriel. Oddly enough, old school, prog-rock, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis might be my brother’s second biggest influence to my musical tastes, but that is a story for a different blog post. Suffice it to say, Christmas that year ruled.
The first song that really got my attention on this album was the fourth track, “Exit Music (For a Film)”, which encapsulates not only what I love about Radiohead, but about music in general. Essentially, if a well written song can build to a rousing crescendo from a mere appearance of nothingness, it’s pretty much going to earn its spot amongst my favorite tracks of all time. This is particularly true for me if it takes the song a long time to build and throws in a variety of different parts, but sometimes, as is the case with “Exit Music” it works just as well if the crescendo is relatively brief. The icing on the cake here is the final eerie last lyric that simply states “We hope that you choke”, repeated a few times over. How does it not just sink into your brain? I distinctly remember really hearing this song for the first time in my brother’s apartment in Philadelphia and it just struck a chord with me. The clouds lifted, I rubbed my eyes, arouse from my six year slumber and realized that this moment could quite possibly mark the turning point of my appreciation and affinity for Radiohead. There was no turning back.
I became consumed by this album. I listened to it incessantly at college. And when I put the headphones on and paid it the full attention that it was due, I heard even more in it. I heard parts that I never had before and then I challenged myself to listen for those little parts hidden away in a sea of sounds and instruments, and when I did discover a new ditty that I had previously missed, it was like discovering my own small pot of gold. And the album was loaded with these moments. What helped me appreciate and love them even more was the fact that I started associating myself with people at college who shared the same feelings I had and I started listening to their albums with groups of friends. It was like our own small cult and I suppose you could say that this was the official beginning of my musical snobbery. Yes, I admit it. I am a music snob. And while there were several moments, experiences, and bands that played critical roles in this progression, OK Computer sealed the deal. And the way I approached music would never be the same.
It wasn’t long before OK Computer became one of my all time favorite albums and it has remained so to this day. It’s almost unfair to any album that will come out from now until the day I die because the bias I have towards this album is palpable and downright unfair. But then again, I suppose that’s just how it goes in such a subjective medium. I mentioned in my post about The Bends that it is the album I would recommend to any newcomer and the album that I would have trouble understanding why anyone would not like it. I still feel that way, but for the music fan that can branch out just a little bit and be open-minded enough to allow OK Computer to seep into one’s being, this album is so much more satisfying. Yes, it is strange and creepy. It’s not an album you could necessarily put on at any time, and it challenges the listener in some parts. But in its essence, it is flooded with melodic, infectious, and powerful songs that become more and more addicting as the listener gives it the time to do so.
I realize there are many music listeners out there who do not approach the format in that way and giving even a little effort to allow an album to soak in would be too wearying, but for the fan who can give even a little bit of time, this album will not disappoint. I can’t say that about any of their subsequent albums, so for those out there who are a little bit squeamish, so to speak, your train gets off at this station. But don’t worry. For those out there who can't go any further, this stop is so worth it.
Not surprisingly, this was the album that really started to blow up Radiohead’s proverbial spot. The game changed and the band found themselves swarmed in a sea of media frenzy and coverage that made them uncomfortable at best and clinically neurotic and depressed at worst. They did not enjoy the spotlight by any means and the media hype that followed just didn’t mesh with what they desired. There is no greater account of this feeling than the documentary Meeting People is Easy which chronicled the world tour that followed the release of this album. I didn’t see it for many years, and when I finally did, I couldn’t believe how uneasy it made me. It is not something for the faint of heart as the style is extraordinarily chaotic and nerve-wracking. Just watching Thom Yorke and the band try to answer such generic and mundane question as the mainstream media asks is painful in itself.
But when I think about it again, I suppose creating this film in any other way would do a grave injustice to the band in terms of truly understanding where they were at this time. And I suppose it was at this point and for these reasons, that Thom Yorke and co. decided that they owed nobody anything. From this moment on, they were going to do whatever they wanted. Now sometimes this backfires and the artist in question becomes obsolete and mediocre. But Radiohead is so good, so talented, so creative, so innovative, and so intelligent that their risk ended up defining a ground-breaking band that might have alienated previous fans, but kept enough of us around to truly appreciate what they were trying to do.
I’d also like to point out, that while it was my brother who broke down the wall and showed me the way and brilliance of Radiohead, he has since fallen off…….way off. He has not been much of a fan since this album and now says that he just doesn’t get them. It’s kinda sad really, but also understandable. For the direction they went in after OK Computer was one that would change the nature and fabric of the band for every album to follow.
What came afterwards was very controversial and divided fans left and right. The guitars pretty much went away and the band opted for a more electronic approach. And while I understand why many fans became confused and upset by this change and started to lose interest, I would argue that this was just the beginning of their brilliance. I suppose people like my brother and people like me will just have to agree to disagree. But for now, let us all just take a moment and bask in the universal feeling that OK Computer truly encapsulated how amazingly brilliant an album can be.