No alarms and no surprises: Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ turns 22
Many of the early works of novelist/essayist Mary Gaitskill are known for their transgressive nature, exploring realms considered taboo by many. She’s received a Guggenheim Fellowship (2002) and has been a nominee for both the PEN/Faulkner Award For Fiction (1998) and National Book Awards (2005). In 1997, she interviewed Radiohead prior to the release of their groundbreaking LP, OK Computer. The resulting piece, “Alarms And Surprises,” appeared in AP 117 and succeeded in getting frontman Thom Yorke’s hackles up for a moment. With the 22nd anniversary of the album occuring this weekend—and the band’s recent decision to share their aural notepads to foil a would-be extortionist and aid a charity—we thought it would be the perfect time to unearth this meeting of minds from our archives.
Thom Yorke is sitting in the restaurant lobby of a cheap hotel in Atlanta, eating and sneering. More precisely, he’s sitting with guitarist Jonny Greenwood, eating a large club sandwich and sneering at a very opinionated journalist as she deconstructs his music for him. Radiohead are on tour to support OK Computer, so Yorke has to put up with this kind of thing, but...really.
“I’m gonna start with ‘Creep,’” she says of the band’s 1993 hit from their debut album, Pablo Honey. “When you first hear it, it sounds like a pretty, almost sentimental song about an ugly subject. It’s sung in such a pretty way about a painful experience.”
“There’s the pretty thing and the painful thing underneath it, and the dynamic tension between the two.”
Greenwood, a gentle, charming presence, gives her an encouraging, if not slightly uncomfortable, nod. Yorke ratchets the sneer up a notch. The journalist charges blindly.
“When I first heard the song, I didn’t like it ’cause I thought it was too pretty...”
Yorke looks over his sandwich, outraged.
“It was making something really awful pretty—’cause if you really have to feel the way the song describes, it’s not pretty; it’s horrible.”
Even with his mouth full, Yorke looks like he could spit.
“Well,” she says, “it is horrible.”
“Horrible’s a word, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. A descriptive word.”
“Another word,” he snorts.
“But then I just thought it was a beautiful song,” she chatters on about the Radiohead track. “Plus, it’s interesting because it’s got something very pure put together with something theatrical put together with loathing and disgust.”
Yorke emits a short, sarcastic laugh. “I don’t know what world you’re occupying,” he says, pushing aside the sandwich. “Yeah, that’s true for a certain element of the music—if you want to look at it that way. But you’re using very limited reference points. It’s the wrong context. It’s just a pop song.”
She recoils from the slap, then rebounds. “Well, then. What is the context for you?”
Without answering, Yorke and Greenwood rise from the table and walk off to have their photos taken.
It’s hard to blame Yorke for sneering. It’s also hard to blame the journalist for perpetrating. Radiohead make pop music, and anyone who wants to talk super-serious about pop risks sounding like a raving fool. But even the humblest pop song can be a weirdly powerful thing. You’re in a dumpy little bar somewhere, and “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes comes on the jukebox; the whole room is suddenly different. And Radiohead make pop music that’s complicated.
A band such as, say, Oasis, come at you in a big, bright bolt, hit everything they’re supposed to hit good and hard and then go away when you turn off their record. Radiohead are a lot subtler and trickier, and when you turn off their music, it doesn’t quite go away.
Their previous record, 1995’s The Bends, was like a dream in which you’re groping your way through long, barely lit hallways, finally arriving in a beautiful room full of sunlight and toys and everything you ever wanted—and then having the morphine wear off. A lot of the songs have the feel of loss, deprivation and free-floating melancholy, but the tender muscle of Yorke’s voice gives them a unique, resilient beauty.
OK Computer, however, is like a series of startling snapshots, vignettes about car crashes, psychotic intruders, demented careerism and fantasies of alien abduction, all linked by their own peculiar narrative sense. Drummer Phil Selway characterizes it as “more realistic and fluid” than The Bends, which he finds “wooden” by comparison.
“There’s more freedom in the way we’re producing now,” he says. “There’s none of the shock tactics of stepping on distortion pedals at points, [as we did on] The Bends.”
On an emotional level, OK Computer feels like a cacophony of tones and feelings: The self-contempt of “Creep” is turned outward with a vengeance (the line “kicking, screaming Gucci little piggy” from “Paranoid Android” has an almost obsessive charge), but the music also has cartoony humor, woeful darkness and frailty all playing off one another with strange, sometimes cheesy grace. On the back of the album, just under the contents, is the line “we hope that you choke,” and on the front are the words “lost child,” and both phrases make sense on this record. Which is exactly the kind of fancy, analytical commentary Yorke does not like.
“The context to the music is more brutal than the way you’re hearing it,” he says. “A pop song is just something sitting on a shelf—it’s like a carton of skim milk.” Having returned to the table, he’s speaking to the journalist somewhat more mildly. “It’s not meant to bear the weight of theory.”
“Well,” the journalist sheepishly says, “I know what you mean. When I listen to music, I don’t analyze it. I just listen. But this is an interview, and I had to have something to say. I mean, I’m embarrassed. But I don’t know how else to talk about it.”
“The point is, I get really nervous when people jump on the emotional impact of our music because I don’t want us to have to take responsibility for [their misinterpretations].” —Thom Yorke
Yorke’s expression changes; he looks very different when he’s not sneering. He sits forward, hesitates a bit, then starts talking. “The point is, I get really nervous when people jump on the emotional impact of our music because I don’t want us to have to take responsibility for [their misinterpretations],” he explains. “Sometimes it’s amazing how much you can hear in something after you’ve recorded it. Your brain makes patterns that aren’t necessarily there. Something that was essentially thrown down independently of the rest of the track—which is what we’ve done a lot on OK Computer: We turned off the rest of the track and put a track down with atmosphere or a noise and listened back, so your brain starts seeking patterns between the two.”
“It’s like seeing Jesus in a spaghetti advert,” Greenwood says. “Or thinking that if you behave well in your life, then you’ll...”
“Eh?” Yorke smirks at his bandmate.
Greenwood fumbles a second, then says, “It’s the kind of pattern you’re talking about.”
“OK,” Yorke says, as if conceding.
He’s not living up to his reputation as a shy, delicate fellow. Indeed, Yorke seems to be a strong, even gristly personality. At the same time, he seems extraordinarily sensitive to other people’s influence, especially to what they might want from him as a pop star. He gives the impression of someone determined not to give himself up, as if he’s dug down deep and holding tight, discovering that he has the strength to do so. Which isn’t to say he’s not shy or delicate. In some situations he might be, but this interview isn’t one of them.
“Then there’s the false authority in mass-producing a work,” he continues, “which gives it a false sense of significance. The thing of taking responsibility for your work is to a high extent bullshit because a big part of it is simply that yours is being mass-produced and someone else’s isn’t. Yours is getting marketed in ways that other people’s isn’t, and that’s part of how people approach it, independent from the work itself.”
“What do you mean, ‘take responsibility?’”
“That we have to satisfy that [expectation] again,” he elaborates. “I feel that we’re set up and expected to perform again in that way. One of the satisfying things about doing OK Computer was that I felt we’d gotten to a state where I didn’t have to get emotional about what I was doing. The best vocal takes I did were usually first takes where I hadn’t gotten into it yet. So I wasn’t trying to be emotional. It seems like the most overtly emotional things now tend to be adverts and gospel music.”
“How are car commercials emotional?” the journalist asks.
“Look at the way the families interact in them,” Yorke says. “Look how happy they are.”
“They have a child,” Greenwood pipes in. “They all look healthy.”
“In the advert, the emotions aren’t genuine,” Yorke continues. “But if they were—if there was a camera in front of two people genuinely feeling that way, well, everyone’s already seen the car advert, so that genuine emotion has been circumvented forever. There are certain emotions you think are trite, certain things you’d never say to your partner because it’s corny. Because it’s been stolen to sell products.”
“I don’t know,” the journalist says. “I’ll go ahead and say corny things.”
“But for Generation X...” Yorke frowns, then changes tracks. “I have that problem. A lot of my experiences are circumvented before they happen.”
“I have that, too,” she says. “But it’s not about commercials. It’s just a human fuck-up.”
Yorke’s face changes again. Part of him is wearing the tough, skewering look he’s worn throughout the interview, and part of him is looking vulnerable and wobbly. It’s like he’s wearing “we hope you choke” and “lost child” at the same time. Later in the interview, he says, as he’s said in previous interviews, that the idea of “the tortured artist” is an absurd myth. But he sounds pretty tortured, or at least beleaguered and confused, unsure of where his boundaries end and other people’s begin. And it’s no wonder; pop is a very wiggly world.
“We have a direct experience of our music only briefly,” he continues. “Like Patti Smith said, when she writes a song, she’s proud of it for about the length of time it takes to finish it. Then it’s never hers again. It’s always other people’s. They’ll give it back to you in responses, but essentially [the experience] is over [for the musician].
“Again, the reproduction thing—you hear [a song] again and again, and you forget how you responded to it at the time [you wrote it],” he adds. “It feels like you’re playing in a vacuum, and it gets very frightening and very depressing because you’re reading about it or hearing about it, and people are saying the right things to keep you sweet. But you’re not actually getting any genuine connection of why the fuck you’re doing this concert or this interview. This is part of everything I don’t really understand. So the best thing is not to enter into the argument at all. Just say nothing. Claim you lied. Move on.”
More cordially this time, Yorke says goodbye and leaves the table. Greenwood lingers a moment.
“The thing you have to remember is that we’re English,” he says. “We’re not raised to talk about ourselves or to be overly emotional or sincere. Especially in public—or even in private.” —Jonny Greenwood
“The thing you have to remember is that we’re English,” he says. “We’re not raised to talk about ourselves or to be overly emotional or sincere. Especially in public—or even in private.” He smiles affably. “So that’s what you’re running up against.” He flexes his long, beautiful hands and stands with a polite inclination of his head. “So, good luck then.”
The show the next night is outstanding. He might be evasive in interviews, but on his own turf, Yorke is right there. If this is a carton of skim milk, it’s like a Hans Christian Andersen carton, where you open it up and all kinds of crazy stuff come pouring out, scenes and creatures that form and dissolve with the inky weirdness of dreams. The audience is riveted, straining toward the milk, er, music, stretching their hands up like they’re trying to take it in through their palms. It’s like secret places are being stroked, places that nobody could describe and probably won’t remember when the concert’s over; but it doesn’t matter for the moment because the music just sounds really, really good.
Backstage, the journalist approaches Yorke with a smile on her face. “That was a beautiful show.”
“Thank you,” he says, smiling back. “Sorry about the other day.”
“It seemed like you were being mean,” she says.
“Oh, I was,” he admits. “But it seemed like you were doing this heavy literary thing, and I didn’t like it. But then I realized it wasn’t like that.”
She hesitates. “I know you don’t like to deal with emotional stuff,” she says, “so you don’t have to deal with this, but there’s this friend of mine who’s 17, and your music had a really good emotional effect on him.”
“Seventeen?” Yorke smiles even more. “Really?” He can sneer like a bastard, but when he smiles, he looks like a 17-year-old himself.
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“Yeah. I know him because he’s a writer.” She tells him about this friend, who was a street hustler from the ages of 13 to 15. His mom was a drug addict who sometimes turned tricks with him, and who ultimately abandoned him in a hotel with an older man. Through a public clinic, he got hooked up with a psychiatrist who basically saved him—although it took a while.
“He didn’t know how to deal with the psychiatrist at first,” she continues. “He couldn’t talk to him. So he played him your record, The Bends, and they talked about that. It’s how they bonded—your record was how they were slowly able to get into other subjects.”
She doesn’t add that the kid (a raw talent who writes under the name Terminator) said the record expressed feelings he had but didn’t know how to convey. But what she does say is also true: “He doesn’t think you’re responsible for his feelings. He’s smart. He doesn’t expect you to make the same music on every record, even if it was really important to him. And he wouldn’t care what somebody wrote about it in a magazine. Your fans probably don’t, either. The magazine article is just somebody talking. Even if it’s interesting, it’s just a frill. It’s the music that counts.”
“That’s great,” Yorke says. “You should write that. That’s better than anything I could say.”