On Monday 16th June 1997, not just one, but two albums were released which even at the time looked set to become established classics in the rock canon: Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’, Spiritualized’s ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’. The Spiritualized album undoubtedly had the bigger impact on my life, influencing the music I was writing at the time rather too obviously and introducing me to a whole new range of sound (Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane etc). I still think the album sounds wonderful – and its mix of visceral intensity and naked emotion still chimes with me. Jason Pierce is hardly the best lyricist in the world, but here he found a way to capture aching sadness in simple sentiments, from the clever rhyme scheme of ‘I Think I’m In Love’ to the simple directness of ‘Broken Heart’ and ‘Cool Waves’. It’s a shame that Pierce has spent much of the subsequent decade trying to escape from it – either by building a bigger, more manipulative sound on ‘Let It Come Down’ (the first time his ambition outstripped his ideas) or by stripping it all back for the raw and mostly derivative ‘Amazing Grace’.
Whilst ‘Ladies and Gentlemen…’ sometimes appears in more outré greatest albums lists, it’s ‘OK Computer’ that has undoubtedly had the biggest cultural impact, for better or for worse. Many writers still highlight its focus on technology and urban alienation, but it seems bizarre that this still strikes people as groundbreaking. The writer of The Guardian piece I linked to above obviously hadn’t heard Kraftwerk’s ‘Computer World’ or Devo’s ‘Freedom Of Choice’.
A bigger problem is that Thom Yorke’s lyrics are mostly weak. His political attacks are vague and inarticulate, and I don’t think ‘OK Computer’ says anything particularly profound or clear about man’s relationship with technology. It offers no argument and certainly no solutions for its predominating feelings of alienation. Yorke actually fares much better as a lyricist when less detached and more vulnerable (the key tracks for me remain ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ and ‘Let Down’). Overall, The Flaming Lips’ ‘The Soft Bulletin’ (1999) managed to address similar themes with more humanity, compassion and optimism.
Where OK Computer is interesting thematically is that, when placed in context, it is pretty much uniquely negative, and somewhat prescient. NuLabour had just won a landslide victory, and there was much vacuous and ill-judged celebrating, and plenty of odious schmoozing at number 10. Yorke’s frustration and rancour now looks rather shrewd, if only he could have expressed it more potently.
Musically, it still sounds expansive and impressive, but mostly in a rather formal and self-conscious way. The Pink Floyd comparisons are justified, as it’s stylistically very close to ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ and sometimes similarly turgid. When they allowed themselves to experiment with rhythm (as on ‘Airbag’ and ‘Paranoid Android’) the results were compelling, but the plodding tempos of ‘Karma Police’ and ‘No Surprises’ offered little that was truly new, although the former’s coda prickles the nerves somewhat. I’m not sure it’s fair to say they paved the way for Muse, Keane and Coldplay as that kind of blandly anthemic stadium rock can probably be more fairly traced back to the more bombastic excesses of the eighties. Still, I’m rarely inclined to listen to ‘OK Computer’ these days. Much like ‘Sgt Pepper’s…’ (about which Marcello Carlin has written incisively at Church of Me http://www.cookham.blogspot.com/, so I won’t bother) and ‘Nevermind’, it seems one of those albums that will simply be accepted as a classic, without much sensible criticism ever being applied to it. There’s so much weight of high praise surrounding it that simply hearing it feels stifling and oppressive.
Since its release, Radiohead have proved themselves to be an intriguing and adventurous band, although often poor editors of their own work and unable to make decent decisions. Had they combined the best parts of ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ into one short album, they would have produced a clear masterpiece. This goes against the prevailing critical consensus, but ‘Hail To The Thief’ still strikes me as their most successful album to date, combining all their musical concerns into one consistently engaging whole, but people with opinions I respect disagree with me on this. It’s for the best of these works that I still feel the band are an easy target for those who dislike the idea of ambition and complexity in popular music, but ten years on, ‘OK Computer’ strikes me as having a reputation built on rather uncertain foundations.
As an afterthought, both Radiohead and Spiritualized have new albums scheduled for the Autumn and it will be interesting to see where they are at in 2007!