Friday, April 10, 2009

The Radiohead Model, Chapter 3: An Interstellar Burst

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/telegraph/multimedia/archive/01368/radiohead-ok-compu_1368625c.jpg

*MP3: Radiohead - "Airbag"
*MP3: Radiohead - "Paranoid Android"
*MP3: Radiohead - "Let Down"

1996 was the year of Alanis Morisette and “Jagged Little Pill.” It was the year that saw of Jane Seymour at her prime in “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” It was the summer of alien paranoia and the apex of Oasis. But on the underside of this, something even stranger was happening. People were likely surprised by the weird, malformed sounds coming from Alanis' opening act on tour. Jane Seymour likely didn't know the gents who rented her dusky English mansion while she was off bandaging Indians, nor the unsettling tunes they continued to shape in its draughty rooms late at night. Oasis lived and died in two years, taking the cumbersomeness of Britpop with them and leaving room for something different.

[Bill Pullman probably didn't think that music's independence day would begin with an electric guitar that sounded like a cello.]


Looking back almost 12 years on, it's easier to trace the thread that led to OK Computer, Radiohead's third LP and complete masterpiece. They held with the crowd for a while, working and learning their way through the standard sound of the day. They had played with each other, gigging and recording, for 11 years. Thom Yorke had conditioned a voice unlike anything known in modern rock music. Jonny Greenwood, already an accomplished guitarist, was beginning to feel his oats as avant-garde composer and instrumentalist. And brother Colin, Ed O'Brien, and Phil Selway were becoming much more than a rhythm section. It should have been obvious when the Pixies and classical composer Krzystof Penderecki were mentioned in the same breath. Radiohead had played their tuneup and were ready for the symphony.

Thus, the angular guitar/cello thrusts opening track “Airbag” and OK Computer into thrilling life, even Colin's bass starts in and stumbles like he too is surprised by what he's hearing. This is a theme of OK Computer. Real musicians playing together. Sorting out structure from the chaos. Bottlenecking countless ideas into one cohesive mood. Every song is played in a different room, with producer Nigel Godrich, one of the album's prime movers, expanding the space in each one. There are legends about this album, most of them associated with Jane Seymour's mansion. Legends of “Let Down” being recorded in a ballroom at 3:00 a.m., of “Exit Music (For a Film)” being recorded in a stone stairwell. “Paranoid Android” is a live take with a pissed off Thom Yorke improvising lyrics. The words are scary, claustrophobic, the music soaring and terrifying. There is tension in “Climbing Up the Walls” and uneasy release in “No Surprises.” Don't look away, the album seems to say. Don't leave me here.

Much of this atmosphere can be attributed, as always, to the intricate mind of Thom Yorke, the self-described “idiot savant.” The album's fragmented lyrics have the distinction of being both terrifying to read, as well as to hear. Yorke, who has a better voice than Bono, wails and soars more than ever, but also sounds wounded and unguarded. Multi-tracked extensively, his vocals struggle against the wall of sound rising around them, Godrich balancing them precariously against the mix.

The musically progressive heart of OK Computer, however, resides squarely in the chest of Jonny Greenwood. He wrote “The Tourist” in 9/8 and 12/8. His eerie electronics and synth sounds give the album its atmosphere and backdrop. And he fulfills the Penderecki name check in “Climbing Up the Walls,” where his dissonant string arrangements meet distorted guitar and Yorke's wrenching, animal-like scream in one of the most terrifying and exhilarating climaxes in the history of popular music.

The continually and surprisingly generous EMI also gave Radiohead no deadline for the album, freeing them up creatively and financially. With no alarms and no surprises, OK Computer was released in 1997 to reviews everywhere from mixed to ecstatically complimentary. What was clear was that Radiohead had created some kind of monstrous classic. The album went to number one in the UK and number 21 in the US, and the band won the Grammy for best alternative rock album. Years later, in light of further accomplishments, Spin Magazine would call OK Computer the greatest album of the 1990s. 1996 was the year of everyone else, but 1997 was the year of Radiohead.

But after yet another grueling tour (see the documentary Meeting People is Easy), the men of Radiohead were spent. The world took OK Computer into its hands and lovingly beat the band over the head with it. Everyone wanted to know how it was possible, and what could possibly come next. But Thom York was sinking into depression, and everyone was tired. Radiohead had to sleep for a while. With OK Computer, Radiohead had changed the musical landscape. Three years later, they would do it again.

(Erik Martz/Ian Anderson)

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