October 4, 2007

Kicking Screaming Raving Drooling

One of my college roommates used to make fun of another roommate for buying Radiohead's first album, Pablo Honey, on the strength of the single "Creep". The dismissive derider thought that Radiohead was clearly a one hit wonder on the tail end of the grunge phenomenon and would never be heard from again. Although I liked "Creep" well enough, I never bothered to listen to the album nor did I muster a counterargument. For all that I could tell, he was right.

A little while later, I heard a different acquaintance's copy of their second album, The Bends, and was shocked by how good it was, but I was too proud to go out and buy my own copy of it, because I didn't respect this dude's taste in music enough to allow myself to be so directly influenced by him! So I continued to resist becoming a Radiohead fan until I heard the undeniably great "Karma Police" and "Paranoid Android" and just had to finally purchase this wonderful CD. I still remember where and when I made that purchase and recall that day whenever I pass by the store, a big box next to an interstate where I pulled over on a whim, on road trips.

In short, OK Computer is absolutely deserving of its reputation as the Dark Side of the Moon of the '90s.

More specifically, we get a great intro a la "Speak To Me"/"Breathe"/"On the Run" in "Airbag" that establishes some themes while not blowing us away, but building up the anticipation with chord progressions and arrangements bringing unresolved tension. Then on to the main feast: on Dark Side we got the soaring, epic "Time", and here we get something arguably even better: "Paranoid Android" is one of the greatest prog rock tracks ever produced (whether Radiohead actually likes prog or not!). I love the loose feel of the acoustic guitars throughout the early part of the song and Colin Greenwood's playful groove on the bass, and, as usual, Thom sings the hell out of this one (And the lyrics! "Kicking, screaming, Gucci little piggie!" Hell, yes.), but this all still just build up for the guitar riffage/carnage to follow; Jonny Greenwood's Lovetone Meatball effect on the guitar solo absolutely kills.

With gut-punches from "Time" and "Paranoid Android" coming so soon after the album's introductions, do both of these albums peak too early? A case could be made for that, but they both attain great heights later, too, and function beautifully as cohesive listening experiences, so I tend to think that the albums probably flowed best with these tracks in their respective places. And flow is a key similarity here, in that both albums are better than the sum of their parts by virtue of the fact that they are both such superb bodies of work in their coherence and listenability on the whole (even when they're bringing on some serious depression!).

After the respective epics, the albums continue to flow in the same directins for now as we get a bit of a break in the action on both albums and mellow out a bit with "The Breathe Reprise" at the end of "Time" and "The Great Gig in the Sky" on Dark Side and "Subterranean Homesick Alien", "Exit Music (For a Film)", and "Let Down" on OK Computer. It is interesting how both "Great Gig" and "Exit Music" develop, dazzle, and dissolve in similar fashion, both moving the listener in similar fashion due to the expert song-craft employed by these two amazing bands.

Next we get the albums' "big hits" in "Money" and "Karma Police". Beyond that distinction, there's really not much of an honest comparison to be made between these tracks, but we continue to see how similarly the albums flow anyway. And there's still plenty left to enjoy on both of these albums, as we get moving slow songs about forms of isolation in "No Surprises" and "Us and Them".

The albums close in distinctly different fashions, much of this owing to the fact that Dark Side of the Moon is a concept album with musical themes that are reintroduced, rehashed, and resolved, whereas OK Computer continues to explore new musical directions. This aspect of the comparison also feeds into the whole "Dark Side of the Moon of the '90s" bit in that concept albums, while they are still being made, will probably forever be associated with the 1970s, the decade in which Dark Side of the Moon was released. If OK Computer had been a concept album, then the comparison probably would not have worked as well in terms of either its identity as a strong product of its times or of the widespread acceptance that it attained, which are absolutely essential for this comparison.

It is notable that OK Computer was obtained and enjoyed by such a wide swathe of rock fandom, even as represented by my own group of friends, who have fairly divergent musical tastes, because that is the kind of popularity that made Dark Side of the Moon the cultural touchstone of its day, too. Just about everybody of certain ages who was into rock music at the time of these releases knows these albums and can be expected to be conversant on the topic, even if they don't like them. I once dated an older woman who was convinced that I was someone else who was posting online, merely because the other guy and I shared a mutual love of both Radiohead and Neil Young; she failed to understand how thoroughly unremarkable that is. Name any major rock act plus Pink Floyd or Radiohead, and fans who share a love for both of them are going to be common.

Some may view it as a disservice to compare the albums in such direct fashion, especially since, despite the numerous comparisons, there is zero evidence that Radiohead was consciously aping or performing any sort of homage to Pink Floyd with this album, so let me be perfectly clear that I only intend to present this comparison on the basis of commonalities that both of these great albums happen to share and which have resulted in a frequently made observation that proves true under scrutiny. Radiohead definitely was not seeking to rehash any sort of '70s prog; Jonny Greenwood reportedly does not even like Dark Side of the Moon. Relatively speaking, Radiohead, who had started off sounded like a mishmash of U2 in a grunge direction with greater chops in evidence than either of those institutions, was bringing something just as new and excellent (if not even greater) to the table as Pink Floyd had within the natural progression and context of their own musical abilities and influences.

So now that we have that comparison out of the way, so what? An album doesn't attain greatness in a vacuum, so it's worth examining how it changed the musical landscape, especially in the case of this particular album. The album's title represents an obvious concession to technology, but this is still in large part a guitar album, especially in comparison to the direction taken by the band later on Kid A and Amnesiac. Still, much was made of that title at the time, and techno, although it never really caught on in the States like the media claimed that it would, seemed poised to dominate with the guitar reportedly on the verge of extinction. Although that didn't happen, there definitely was a rash of successful Radiohead clones popping up like Doves, Travis, and Coldplay, so, in that respect, the album has continued to influence the charts, even though it never helped to usher in any sort of techno-age at all.

However, although guitar driven rock directly influenced by Radiohead remains with us, we may never see the likes of an album like OK Computer and its widespread acceptance throughout rock fandom and influence on fellow musicians again. With the popularity of music downloading having hurt physical rock album sales, it is evident that the dynamics of music sales have shifted appreciably, and more rock fans are taking the opportunity to less expensively explore their own preferred niches, making it far less likely that rock fans will come together over and fully absorb an album in such a fashion ever again.

A few years after its release, some all-time-greatest-album lists placed OK Computer squarely at the top, and, although that has grown rarer, I still would not have a problem with it.


venerableseed said...

I was teaching English in Chile to three wonderful chemists working for Wyeth Industries. One day Jorge asked if I needed a ride home or at least to the metro station. I said sure.

In his tape deck was, of course, OK Computer. "This is the best album ever," he said with a large grin on his face.

"Do you understand what he is saying," I asked.

"Más o menos. I love it anyway. It is like Pink Floyd, no? I love Pink Floyd. It is good, but not as good as Pink Floyd. They are the best. Radiohead is just copying right?"

Eurowags said...

Very nice post and really good stuff there. I really like your observation on how the album was embraced by such a wide variety of music listeners. The ending with an assessment of its impact musically and culturally is also very noteworthy and most appropriate.

Kuhla said...

Am I the roommate in question who was ridiculed for having Pablo Honey? I was going to use that reference in my post about OK Computer. Thanks for stealing my thunder, and a pox upon Mark Miller for making fun of me for owning Pablo Honey, a line of attack I never really understood. Then again, I've never really understood why people give a shit what other music people have in their collection. Unless its Robbie Williams, of course. Anyone owning a Robbie Williams CD deserves to be ridiculed.

Jahidi Hoya said...

Robbie Williams is an absolute musical genius. He is a combination of Michael Jackson, George Michael and Elvis Presley. I am tempted to move to England solely for the reason that they appreciate his talent.

One day he will hit it big in the United States and you will all have to stand in line to kiss my ass.

LenBarker said...

Seed, great story about Jorge from Chile.

Kuhla, sorry to steal your thunder! I only remember Greg making fun of you for owning Pablo Honey, but I guess that he was just repeating what Miller had said.

venerableseed said...

You don't think OK Computer is a concept album? I guess I always took that notion for granted. The concept of pre-millenium tension in a world that has become impersonal and cold and inorganic. Plastics and all that.

But I do agree that it is an album in the 70's LP AOR sense. Each song must be sequenced where it is and be just so. I think its even funnier that the Fitter/Happier songs comes right in the middle, presumably the place right after you've flipped the tape. Is that how you sequenced it AYM in the Dodge Neon.

Are we the only generation that subconsciously listen music in the context of cassettes?

Gen Yers (wish I knew their perspective) default listening medium must be a CD and its easy control and seamless queuing while the next set must see things with disposable low quality mp3s that take no coherent order.

I don't know if this necessarily means the album is dead but its not as alive as it once was. Is OK Computer the last of its breed, a throwback even?

TheAngryYoungMan said...

I didn't intentionally space it that way, it's just the way it worked out. KP didn't quite fit on Side 1 of the tape so it was KP, Fitter Happier, etc. to begin Side 2.

I really don't have a strong connection to cassettes though. I didn't start buying music in earnest until I was in 8th grade, after I got my first CD player. Even in the Neon, I just had a couple of albums copied onto tapes. For long trips Nuria bought my a Discman with car adapter to plug into the tape deck.

Eurowags said...

To this day, I still don't understand that well the comparison with Pink Floyd. Perhaps that's because I am not an overly enthusiastic fan of the Floyd and, hence, am naturally hesitant to seek such a connection.