fridge buzz now
RADIOHEAD'S SOARING, ANXIOUS AND BRAINY ROCK MUSIC HAS STRUCK THE AMERICAN NERVE, WEIRDLY RESTORING FAITH lN NOT ONLY POP MUSIC, BUT THE HUMAN SPIRIT. DEAN KUIPERS DIGS FOR THE HEART THEY KEEP HIDDEN FROM THE HYPE.
Nothing is more difficult than the present. Who can really live in it? This whole place - planet Earth, I mean operates by modi that come in two flavors: one, look what they did to me; and two, please god let me be ready for what's going to happen next. Maybe I've just revealed my terminal American-ness, and life in Rangoon or Quito is made up of infinite shades of now-ism ... but I doubt it. These are, after all, the last two years of the American Century. In a recent interview, William Gibson, the godfather of so-called 'cyberculture,' told me that no one wants to accept his books as anything but futuristic. "But I really do think of myself as somebody who's trying to write realistically about the present!" he chuckled. "Which is something that's scarcely been done, because the present has become so unthinkable it already falls so far outside the parameters of the traditional toolkit of naturalistic literature." The present is unthinkable because we don't have the tools to think about it. Even Gibson had to make it act like sci-fi to help people get it
Radiohead have written The Present into an album of rock music. OK Computer feels so right because it is the tool you previously lacked that would tell you what you are right now. Or what right now sounds like, anyway. And even - if we still lived in a world where album covers became icons what it looks like. And since what it looks like is a terribly complex schizoid lonely suicidal mess, where media-inflected future-anxiety is the frisson du jour and our sense of place and identity have lost meaning, Radiohead made OK Computer hauntingly beautiful. Just to remind us that we, like the present, like the music that defines a moment, have no choice but to transcend.
'We were worried," says Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien, looking unslept and road-worn in New York's Soho Grand Hotel, in town to do MTV's "10 Spot" program. "We'd been told by the record company that this album had big potential to go over people's heads and for people to miss it completely.' Radiohead singer and character center Thom Yorke looks up from the beginnings of a last-minute Christmas list. 'Yeah, we were kind of resigned to the fact that it would,' he says.
By now, Radiohead are resigned instead to the absurd things their album has done to people's heads. It's sorta beautiful that the February '98 Q readers' poll called OK Computer the #1 album of all time. Wrongheaded, but beautiful. Like watching films of girls screaming at the Beatles is beautiful just for the purity of their desire. Radiohead were also Spin's Band Of The Year. Rolling Stone's critics poll said they were the best band, and the readers poll had them at #3 (behind, uh, Sublime? More proof that democracy produces inferior product). They got a Grammy nomination for Album Of The Year. They were #2 for 1997 (behind Spiritualized and the Verve) in the UK weeklies Melody Maker and NME. #1 in Mojo and Vox. In every writer's 1997 top ten list everywhere. Etcetera, ad nauseum.
Thom Yorke: It was really confusing, because there was no intention of being obtuse when we were doing it and the next thing you know, people are saying, 'Oh it's a really difficult recording.' I didn't really get that, I thought it was a pop recording. But once you've finally finished it, you just don't fucking know anymore anyway, and you just have to release it and see what happens. Then you can move on to the next thing. We spent a long time doing it; we were extremely confused by the time we finished. I was.
Ray Gun: Will it change your opinion of the listening public to know that something that everyone predicted was going to be difficult actually hit?
Ed O'Brien: Of course it does, particularly in America - and it's getting more so in in the UK and Europe - the taste makers and programmers, they underestimate the general public completely. The trouble with a lot of the music in this country is the radio stations. Modern rock is such a stale format. As far as I can work out, and we can work out as a band, the music that they put on the stations is not for the people, it's to satisfy the advertisers. It's completely reactive as opposed to proactive.
Thom: There's a line in 'Karma Police," about "he buzzes like a fridge,' and when you're driving around and around, and you have the alternative stations on in the background, or in your hotel room, it's just like a fridge buzzing. That's all I'm hearing. I'm just hearing buzz. It's really odd. You just have to laugh, 'cause -
RG: Well, the one song that you had that was really embraced -
Thom:- Yeah, that had the fridge buzzing in it.
RG: - by the modern rock format -
RG: - was 'Creep.'
Thom: That was a good fridge buzz.
Above the fridge buzz, OK Computer extends the leap of faith that was their lovely second album, The Bends, to cut a line that's high and clean, a visionary burn. They've blackened a universe of bald "I'm an alienated youth' anthems and horrible fourth-generation ska with the searing light of music that dares to be gorgeous, quiet and towering, not ironic at all, not retro, forward-leaning to the point of being progressive, and still (or because of this) mounting up as an epic of postmodern alienation. Yes, like U2 and, yes, even more like REM, but without the feelgood concessions and without the baggage. And if you still hear a buzzing, that'd probably be your nerves. Perhaps neurotic times call for a music (and a spirituality) that somehow openly references neurosis. Yorke's inspired lyrics and choir-boy vocalese make OK Computer quite possibly the most accurately and electrically neurotic rock album of the decade.
It peels open the mad, slippery cacophony of The Present like a Sonic Youth joint or the epilepsy-inducing twitch of the Aphex Twin, but it somehow also draws out the saccharine and peace (however arch) of an early prog rock like Pink Floyd. It is the sound of deeply personal fears not bogged down in deep sentimentality. But mostly it's just plain tense. Electrically charged. Fearful. Yorke and the boys letting loose little trills from their, (our) humming anxieties.
'Airbag' sets the tone by probing Thom's fear of death by car crash (which is mirrored by "Lucky," which is about his fear of death by plane crash). In it, his character sees himself "In the neon sign scrolling up and down, I am born again." He is an "intastella burst.' (All lyrics copied here directly as they appear in the CD liner notes.) The second track, 'Paranoid Android,' ups the volume as he tries to 'get some REST? from all the unbornchikkenvoices in my head?" Later, there's "the dust & the screaming/the panic/the panic' and 'the yuppies networking/the vomit/the vomit.' "Let Down" rings in with "motorways & tramlines. starting and then stopping. taking off and landing." By then, the album is raging, full of 'panic buttons,' "climbing the walls,' "open up your skull i'll be there,' "this man talks in maths he buzzes like a fridge has like a detuned radio," and, in 'The Tourist," sometimes i get over charged thats when you see sparks. they ask where the hell im going?? at 1000 feet per second."
And, of course, the capper, the electronic android voice of "Fitter Happier" running down a list of vaguely menacing self-improvements to finally arrive at: 'like a cat/tied to a stick/thats driven into/frozen winter shit/calm/fitter, healthier and more productive/a pig/in a cage/on antibiotics."
My understanding, from reading a lot of Harpers and the Journal of the American Medical Association and other smart stuff, is that crisis makes people feel they're really living. Because being alive now is about living on the edge of breakdown. And the number one problem in the world is loneliness. Radiohead's is a world where intellect and soul are vulnerable to technology, fascism, ignorance, homocidal martiacs, and just pure separation from self. So, here's your album. But, from the very first instant that Thom's voice appears in 'Airbag," we are also seduced by lovely melodies and the sheer rightness of the voice. There is some truimph amidst the menace: 'In an intastella burst I am back to save the universe!"
What does that line mean, surrounded by a poem about surviving a crash in a German car? I don't know. Maybe only that street reality and cartoon reality can and do co-exist in the hypertextual Now. Also, melodiously winding out as the first chorus of the album, it seems to announce that fun, super-heroic, big-question stuff is about to happen here, however buried in character. And by the time we're halfway through track two, "Paranoid Android," Radiohead have seamlessly segued from distorted-guitar-driven paranoid ravings ('When I'm king you will be the first against the wall') to a melt-in-your-mind vocal chorus ('come on rain down/from a great height") so angelic you just never want it to end.
And so on, the juxtaposition of perfectly-chosen sensations. By the time you get to track three, "Subterranean Homesick Alien,' you understand it's more than beautified neurosis. There is compassion for a fractured, deconstructed human condition. Though Thom's character wants the aliens to come and take him away from his 'up-tight" countrymen, "all these wierd creatures who lock up their spirits, drill holes in themselves and live for their secrets," he's somehow at peace with their ignorance: "I'd show them the stars and the meaning of life. They'd shut me away. But I'd be alright I'm just up-tight." I suspect that people cannot help but interpret this rare synthesis peace with neurosis - as something spiritual.
Thom: There was a really mind-blowing thing for me when we did the Tibetan Freedom Festival. At the end of that, I was sort of in a bar, and it was really late, and it suddenly dawned on me that actually, for whatever fucking reason, people had basically given us the message that we could - people were prepared to tolerate us expressing ourselves. I know that sounds really stupid, really basic. But since we signed on the dotted line, it's not been like that, you know? We've never genuinely felt 100 percent that we were allowed to express ourselves in a way that we saw fit. And then suddenly, there it was, as well as that feeling that we won't be blackmailed into being that again. I'd much rather shoot someone than be blackmailed into that again, because it's an impossible situation: you've got nothing, because you give up all the other things in your life, and then to have that given up for you as well.... So that was a real moment for me, personally.
Ed: People in the music industry, or people in entertaiment, they don't trust bands. They think if they give them freedom, that they're gonna go off and make really obscure records.
Thom: Which of course we're gonna do now.
Ed: Which we will, you know...
Thom: We're gonna fuck ourselves up completely now.
Ed: But we should. It's like Neil Young, he went off on ... what's his electronic sort of?
Ed: Yeah, he had to get it out of his system
Thom: You have to be allowed to do that.
Ed: Yeah, you have to be allowed to make mistakes.
Thom: Because otherwise you've been blackmailed into a corner. If you're a painter, and someone would say, 'You can't start doing that' - painters don't get told that, you know? Only fucking people in the music business, and only by people who have a vested interest. But it could all get blown out of the water. I got to the point now where I don't have a problem with it, really. If we want to go off and do that, then that's what we're gonna do, and that's fine, at least we aren't producing the noises of fridges.
RG: Suddenly, people are reacting to your music in a totally different way, embracing Radiohead with a sort of yearning. I think you're giving them something that they're really hungry for, and you just hit it, maybe even by accident.
Thom: I think it will wear off. That sort of thing wears off.
Ed: On [Radiohead's first album] Pablo Honey, and certainly when we came over to America, if there was like a commercial-versus-artistic decision to be made, we would often veer towards the commercial, because we were told, 'America's a different beast; you don't understand it.' So it's like, 'Airight, you know, whatever,' and then we thought, 'We don't feel comfortable with this." This did our heads in, so when it came to The Bends, it's like, 'Okay, I know this might not be culturally correct or whatever, but we've got to do what we feel comfortable with" -
Thom: Otherwise we'll kill ourselves, or kill other people.
Ed: Yeah so it all started again.
RG: People are hungry for that; they're being treated like formula and they don't want the formula. What they want is something honest; you came forward with something honest and they just surged forward.
Thom: I don't think that's utterly true. I mean, You've still got your steroid Pumping four wheel drive -
Ed: But you've got those guys everywhere in the world.
Thom: You've got to be aware that that's what's happening to us at the moment. It's not pure, you know, and that's cool. And when the bubble bursts that's cool, too. 'Cause it will. Bursts on everybody
This sounds enlightened and all, as though Thom, Ed, drummer Phil Selway, multi-instrumental-guitaristand-keyboardist Jonny Greenwood and his bassist brother Colin Greenwood are prepared to have their 12 years as Radiohead, burn out right here and drift off on a Puff of rancid electrical smoke. So long, and thanks for the nervous tics. But the album says otherwise. As loaded as it is with psychotic fictional characters, like the paranoid android or the killer in 'Climbing The Walls" or even the twitchy uncharacterizable narrator of 'Karma Police,' Radiohead are clearly sweating it.
The loose talk about bubbles bursting seems related to the emergence of big picture consciousness. Which has colored OK Computer with bits of nascent but fairly acerbic social critique. The aforementioned 'yuppies networking' seem judged when surrounded by 'the crackle of the pigskin," and the facetiousness of "the vomit/the vomit/god loves his children, yeah." Politicians get a cynical lashing in 'Electioneering": 'riot sheelds./voodoo economiCks./its just business./cattle Prods and the IMF/i trust i can rely on your vote," "No Surprises" says, 'bring down the government. they dont. theydontspeak for US." All of "Fitter Happier" seems a condemnation of the contemporary health-conscious, therapy-driven, hyperconsumer lifestyle, but particularly the lines, 'concerned (but powerless)/an empowered & informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism)," which indicate a caving-in to empty magazine-brand activism. I doubt whether Radiohead could be so unfiltered as to ever be overtly preachy. But the Tibetan Freedom Concert also solidified the importance of the big picture in their lives as artists.
RG: That Tibet show must make you change the way you think about your music. That was a very activist role. Have you ever been involved in any any type of activist event like that before?
Thom: I don't think we had.
Ed: Not musically.
Thom: Regardless of the performance element of it, it is a really good idea, because there's nothing more likely to wind up the Chinese government than being embarassed. That's what they hate more than anything.
RG: When Jiang Zemin came over here that was very evident that he had been shamed.
Thom: Yeah, and it was really mindblowing in the sense that there was like a genuine spirit at the show which I'd never, never, never experienced before. And I don't know whether it was the prayers the monks said or the little cards in the tents saying, Please leave your ego at the gate,' but there was just something going on. I don't cry at shows, I don't get emotional when I go to live shows at the moment. For some reason. And I was crying for a long time, you know, I was an emotional idiot. I just couldn't stop ... there was just something going on. And ultimately that experience gets handed back to the politicians,
RG: I think that's really effective. That's the kind of thing that changes hearts; anybody who was there will remember.
Thom: They will, but the fuckers that we need to get to are the people that are the purchasing power, you know? The corporations. Governments are totally ineffective; anybody who believes that governments are in control of the world. Political framework is a fucking idiot. It's so obvious that people like Clinton, he's powerlesss, man, he's completely fucking powerless.
RG: There was something awbout that Tibetan concert that made people pick up on a sort of spiritual aspect.
Thom: Yeah, even really weird things about it - KRS One starts singing the national anthem or something, he's like blurring the words and there's something about the way he did it, you hear it on tape and it's really spine-chilling, it's really mad. And then when Lee Perry does that thing about goverment at the end it's like, "Fuck!" You know? And there's no one else who gets in front of a camera, except dodgy old pop stars and actors occasionally who are able to actually express a opinion contrary to the party line.
RG: Is it a legitimate role for you? You feel comfortable with that?
Thom: No, it's not. I don't think it's a legitimate role, I think it's fucking ridiculous that we're the only people allowed to do it.
Thom: I think it's a fucking farce, man, because we're not that informed, you have to make such a huge effort. Surely You would think someone who gets paid to be a Politician would be better informed than you. But it's in their interest to keep you uninformed. That's fucked, man. I mean, it's great to talk about records and stuff, but when were at home for three weeks you have the old Kyoto Environmental Conference going on, and the double-think going on there was just fucking mind-blowing, man.
Ed: And then they wonder why there are low turnouts in general elections
RG: Low turnout is a symptom.
Ed: It's indicative of people disillusioned with politics.
Thom: People aren't stupid, but radio programmers and the producers of CNN just genuinely believe that the general public is 100 percent fucking retards, and treat us as such. And in some ways, it sounds wanky, but a lot of the album was about that.
Not being stupid, that is. And not being victim to fears or the music industry or the double-think or The Present. There is a steady, constant plea for salvation in this music, a hope, a yearning for release. More than that, the yearning becomes a promise that there is a salvation for all this urban angst. Radiohead think it's ridiculous to ask this kind of thing from musicians, in the same way it is ridiculous to ask them about political policy, but we ask it anyway, and their only response is the music itself. Which is, of course, the right answer.
A funny thing happened on my way to writing about Radiohead. I began listening compulsivelv to a series of albums, chosen unconsciously and, I thought, at random, which now seem picked because they reflect on this solution that Radiohead are hunting: Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, Pink Floyd's Meddle, Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, and Gang of Four's Entertainment have been jammed in my player for two weeks on constant rotation, and nothing else seems to sound as good. People at Ray Gun finally irritated by these albums will tell you it's true. I think now it's because they are all experiments in which musicians used rock-solid beauty to cobble together a sort of unified field of their particular moment in Western politics, world events, racial identity, rock music sounds, Zeitgeist, gestalt, collective spiritual tenor and whatnot, and it happened to work, it happened to scream "breakthrough." By happy accident. And the only 'salvation' any of us manage to glean from these history lessons is the act of driving through space in the car (or wherever), with friends, listening to those albums and that unity they hold.
Thom: That's what the "I am born again' lyric was about in "Airbag," was me lifting all the things that I simply can't handle day to day, you know I'm utterly obsessed by people dying in car accidents; I'm utterly obsessed by the way that people will worry about smoking or they'll worry about fucking what's in the water or how much cholesterol, yet they'll get in the car everyday and drive to work, and how many people just get killed or paralyzed and everyone just takes it as, "Oh well, you know, you can't think about it.' Well I can't not think about it, it absolutely does my head in, I can't get away from it, and 'Airbag' was a way of putting it into music to make it feel alright. And the, 'I am born again' thing was sort of -- you're gonna die, there's a million different ways to go, and you have to have a sense of humor.
RG: You see, the content of that means a lot. It's revealing a little bit of your fear, but it's also enveloping it in a big solution, even if it's just a musical solution.
Ed: Cool, at least someone gets it.
Thom: But ultimately, what we do is pop music, and I don't mean that in a bad way.
RG: Like Hanson?
Thom: It's songs, and sort of not having a problem with that. It's a good thing; it's sort of throw away and it's sort of not.
Throw away in the sense that Thom can edit out songs that other people would die to write just once in their life. Like 'Let Down," the most straightforward and emotionally devastating song on the album, with that aching, horrible chorus, 'Let down and hanging around/crushed like a bug in the ground.' He wanted to cut it because it was too personal. He's going for something so universal that maybe the rest of us don't even understand it yet.
Ed: Simon Raymonde, from the Cocteau Twins -
Thom: - Ah, he's nice.
Ed: He's a lovely bloke, bass player, I met him and he was saying when he got into the album after about three or four listens, he played 'Let Down" 30 times in a row, and - I'm not kidding - he said, 'I played it all one afternoon," and he said he was in tears a lot of the time.
Thom: This is a track that nearly didn't make the album.
Ed: You genuinely didn't want it on the album.
Thom: Yeah, I was this far away from, yeah.
RG: When you get to the lyric "hysterical and useless," that's it: you've just summed up the total experience.
When you write the album that sums up the total experience, accidentally or not, everyone wants it to keep on happening. A god-awful amount of ink has been wasted on the subject of how Radiohead will stay on top. I mean, the best album of all time? Shit, what now? This subject comes up without my even asking. It is Christmastime, and they are coming off the most intense year of their lives, and the decorations in the Soho Grand are abuzz with family and home and tradition, and the fact that theirs are in flux (if not tatters) makes them suddenly very angry.
Ed: There seems to be a certain tradeoff that maybe we're not entirely comfortable with, like the more successful you become, the less of a human being you become. And there are obviously exceptions that we've seen, like touring with REM, but you can see how on the whole, that is a rule, and to be honest, I don't want to be 50 and a fucking asshole.
Thom: When we did the arena shows, I was starting to get sucked into that, and I was concerned for my mental well-being. I suppose we've had the REM/U2 model, because we're really big fans of those bands, and now we've got to the point where we can follow it blindly or we could get a life and work it out for ourselves. I mean, fuck's sake, the Beatles did Shea Stadium and that was it, you know?
Thom: Because of what the Stones did and all that - they've become this selfperpetuating popcorn and bullshit industry which leaves me not just cold -
Ed: Yeah, no.
Thom: - but positively fucking angry.
Ed: Absolutely, yeah.
Thom: What really upset me when we were doing the shows in Britain was all the other artists who were coming on afterwards, and it makes really fucking depressing reading, 'cause you just go down the list and every single one of them has fucking lost it completely. And if they ever had it, the haven't got it anymore, and the [teleprompters] set up and shit, and you just think, 'Who's fooling who here?'
Ed: People are scared to break up. They think, "Well it's got to this stage; there's so much money involved we would be foolish to do it any other way.' But you don't have to.
Thom: No. I've heard the live albums of the Velvet Underground, and I don't think we've ever felt we have to entertain. They just do an amazing "Pale Blue Eyes," and it's just like, "Fuck, you're out of it,' not saying anything, next song, fucking great.
Ed: Like the Pixies, really.
Thom: I can go out and get a life, I can do something else then who's won, if you do that? They've got the back catalog, what have you got?
RG: In this record these fears are there, bubbling under the surface.
Thom: Definitely lots of fear. Bubbling up? Shit scared. Yep, we got ourselves into this isolated place, but all that stuff was there, and we tried to push it out of the way, you try to lock it in the cupboards or whatever, but you can't get away from it.
RG: So you do feel better now?
Thom: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ed: It's not nearly as bad as all that.
Thom: Yeah, we do tend to go on, you know --
Ed: About everything.
Thom: Actually, we're having the time of our life, and all this has been bullshit.