OK, Computer, Boot Up Kid A

Quick Radiohead story …

The celebration of the 20th anniversary of the band’s record OK Computer (and the subsequent OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997-2017 remastered releasemade me think back to when I first heard Radiohead and why, despite the legendary status of the LP, I listen to their other albums more … (Hold off, diehards, I come in peace.)

The first song I ever heard from the band was “Creep”, of course, off Pablo Honey. I hated it. No. Loathed it. At the time, it was like an evil cross between Beck’s “Loser” (which started off well, but wore quickly) and Crash Test Dummies – exhibiting the former’s heavy-handed (albeit catchy) penchant for wallowing in loser-dom (Am I a loser, baby? So why don’t you kill me? No thanks.) with the latter’s non-stop radio and video saturation. So, I avoided Radiohead and its records entirely. One day I’m up early morning and at a Borders books (remember those?) — back when they had that circular listening area, an employee (nearly always well-versed in music) in the middle, who’d open any CD you brought up for your listening pleasure. I got to know the guy at my store since I loved listening to music for hours. Having the ability to hear anything I wanted made me much more aware of the craft of making music and the multiplicity of styles, from jazz to punk.

This guy at Borders and I were the kind of friends who likely didn’t remember each others’ name on a given day, but were happy to see one another at the store. I guess our connection was a mutual admiration for each other’s taste. (A few years later he tried pushing M.I.A. on me, well before anyone had ever heard her wildly rhythmic music. I listened to a few songs, didn’t understand his excitement and begrudgingly told him she was good. But I didn’t listen as closely as I usually do to records. At the time I thought she was inventive but musically spastic. For shame, right?) But this particular morning he acted like he’d discovered the location of the Holy Grail and wanted to let me in on the secret — in whispers:

Borders’ guy: (Whispery. Looking over his shoulder for infiltrators.) “Man, you have to listen to the new Radiohead. I have an opened copy, and it’s a week before the official release, if you want to hear it.”

Me: “No thanks. I’ll pass. Not my thing. They’re an okay band. Just not for me.” (I’d never heard a song outside of “Creep” — and didn’t want to.)

But I capitulated, as I’m prone to do. I sat down, placed the headphone cups over my ears. He slid the disc into one of six or seven multi-disc players under the counter and smiled back at me as the door closed. First track locked in …

Gorgeous tones. Dissonant harmonies. Odd time signature, then …

Everything. Everything. Everything. Everything. In its right place.

Wordless listening.

And then … “Yesterday I woke up suckin’ a lemon.”

See, the thing with knowing a lot about a subject, be it books or films or in this case music, is you learn to hear it differently than people without that background or who haven’t had the chance to put in the time. Inadvertently or not, to me, that second random, repeated, floating phrase felt like a head-nod to the past within the band’s own trailblazing style. It meant an alluring connection from this adventurous song, exuding modernity, to 1930s Robert Johnson’s lyrics in “Travelling Riverside Blues” (“Squeeze my lemon ’til the juice runs down my leg”; the only other time I remember the word “lemon” in a song outside of The Books’ The Lemon of Pink) — a song covered by Led Zeppelin — who also sung “The Lemon Song” which owes its existence to Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor”. It was confusing; disjointed my thinking. This isn’t rock, indie or blues. Made me want to hear more.

Next came the title track’s delicate micro-beats, punctuated by the song that sold me on being a forever-fan of Radiohead, “The National Anthem”. That repetitive opening bearish bassbeat, schizophrenic echoing like a distorted horror movie soundtrack, the steady drumming and noise falling sway to the introduction of a real paranoid android:

Everyone. Everyone around here. Everyone is so near. It’s holding on. It’s holding on.

It’s so unhinged. “The National Anthem”? What a lark. The whole song, titularly warm and patriotic was in fact terrifying, loud, frenetic, a kind of teetering controlled chaos. A brass section is unleashed into a kind of pandemonium of the damned. Horns sound like high-pitched screams. Instruments fight for air, conjuring imagery like a swarm of twitching hands struggling as they sink further into the fiery bog. A trumpet wails like a siren. Ghostly keyboard pitches. Shrieking and awful squelching like dying pelicans. Saxophones belching, a plague of raining frogs. (Now the crescendo will forever be linked with lead singer Thom Yorke’s mad Saturday Night Live freakout dance. It was both beautiful and berserk. See above.) The song, lyrics would fit right at home with the singer’s previous employment as an orderly in a mental institute. The national anthem is insanity, hell and murder. Everyone has got The Fear. What a bleak worldview. I loved it.

Eventually I got to the end of the record, inspired and exasperated — feeling like a new world of sound combinations had just been unlocked.

“That’s some of the best fucking music I’ve ever heard. What do you call that? I’ve never heard anything like this. Thanks so much, dude. They’re not like this on their other albums are they? “

He says no. Gave me a quick history of the band’s sound.

To this day, my first Radiohead was Kid A and that’s why my first recollections of enjoying the band jump straight to that record (and even Amnesiac) before an earlier album like OK Computer. Call me a Radiohead fan late bloomer. (For the record, my favorite OK Computer track is “Climbing Up the Walls”, which I could write an essay about.)

I’m having a bit of fun here. Of course we’re lucky this isn’t an either/or proposition. We can enjoy both records, clearly. But I do occasionally ask myself when reaching to play Kid A or OK Computer — do I want to travel by buggy — when I can travel by rocketship?

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