October 8, 2007

Out With The Old

OK Computer was the album that woke me up, shook me, and made me giddily excited about current music. Until then, I had been in almost permanent class rock, R&B and old school hip hop rewind.

I first heard it while living in Ecuador in early 1998. At the time, I was listening mainly to tapes of several rock classics, including Synchronicity, The Joshua Tree, The Allman’s Brother and Sisters, and a compilation of Bob Marley tracks from Catch a Fire, Burning, and Natty Dread. (Yeah, I had managed a couple of more recent fare, like Portishead’s second and eponymous album, but a few listens to it on the first lonely nights in the capital encouraged me to put it to the side for a long while in the name of my own sanity and survival.)

I wasn’t totally oblivious to the current Anglo-American music landscape. The Spice Girls’ “Spice Up Your Life”, Chumbawanmba’s “Tubthumping”, and The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” were the tunes being spun on the Ecuadorian pop radio. Clearly, then, I was not a total social reject, but I was certainly a long ass way from hipsterness. For some reason, I had not heard the new album from Radiohead, a band that I was familiar with only by name, probably for “Creep”.

My introduction to the album came through a US study abroad student who was also renting a room in the apartment of my Ecuadorian host family. One day he showed me what seemed to be a very intriguing collection of current music, although I had to bashfully admit that I was rather unfamiliar with most of it. He kindly offered to play me some tracks from his favorite albums at the time. All of it was rather entertaining and offered nice background noise as we chatted about various subjects, but it wasn’t until he put on OK Computer that I started to really take notice. I quickly asked if I could get a copy on tape and he generously obliged.

Enclosed by myself in my room at night, I started to listen to this new music that had so caught my attention. I was immediately transfixed; I was left marveling at the beautiful, remote, and floating tonalities created by the diverse guitars and Thom Yorke on songs like “Air Bag”, “Karma Police”, “No Surprises”, and “Let Down”. Songs like “Paranoid Android” and “Climbing Up the Walls” threw me into a joyous fit of excitement and sustained attention, provoking thoughts and feelings of controlled rage and social protest. By the end of it all, I was left in utter amazement at what my ears had just heard. Why had I not been aware of this before? Where had this music and this band come from?

Shortly after, I started to realize that I wasn’t the only one to notice. MTV Latin America was playing the “Paranoid Android” video regularly. I saw a cover of Rolling Stone – 1997 year in review issue, I believe – featuring them on the front or a key article on them. The secret was out, and while one part of me wished that this music was just for me and a select group, I was simultaneously thrilled to see how universally embraced this album was – sort of that “I knew it” sensation of self pride.

In the ensuing weeks and months, OK Computer became my top and perhaps only spin on my walkman. I was completely sold on the greatness of this album and band, so much so that I seemingly forgot about the other music in my abbreviated collection. Better said, the other stuff seemed a bit tired and irrelevant at that point. Before leaving Ecuador and heading to Chile, I distinctly remember giving my cassettes of The Police, U2, Marley and company to friends and how easy it was to part with them. Somehow, OK Computer was all I needed and all I could talk about. My Chilean housemate, Chris, must have noticed because he would jokingly jibe that OK Computer was a cheap derivative of Bauhaus and nothing more.

But, I was not to be swayed in my thinking. This was the best album that I had heard in a long time and certainly the best of the 1990s. The emotional intensity and the utter conviction of the overall sound were astonishing. The album was pure catharsis.

Looking back, I realize how OK Computer marked the beginning of my quest to seek out new and more diversified current music. Back in the US, the Radiohead web page, music criticism pages like pitchforkmedia.com, and independently owned record stores were my new and frequent destinations. My mission was clear: I had to be extra attentive for I couldn’t let the next OK Computer come out without me realizing for so long again.

No comments: