This week, I’ve been listening to Radiohead‘s 1997 album “OK Computer” to learn from as a songwriting musician. I remember when this album came out and I loved it immediately. This week served not as an introduction, but as an opportunity to re-examine the familiar for something new. As soon as I heard the open guitar line of “Airbag” I knew it was going to be a great week. I love this album. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult to listen to objectively and write about.
Guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood enjoys experimenting with the possibilities of his instruments. Effects pedals alter the sound of the guitar in unusual ways. He also incorporates a variety of unusual playing techniques. I remember being blown away the first time I saw the “Creep” music video. Jonny’s guitar stabs introduced the chorus. His manic strumming launched into a guitar solo that feels much more like he’s trying to save his life.
The song was innovative for Radiohead’s sonic character of their instruments, including vocals. The song itself borrows a lot from The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe” but the sound and performance are wholly unique. Today’s listeners often hear “Creep” as typical 90s alt-rock. Radiohead so quickly evolved far beyond their first album, it’s difficult to realize how strange it sounded when it first came out.
The second track “Paranoid Android” remains one of my favorite Radiohead songs. It opens with a latin-influenced rhythm including a clave and a gentle acoustic guitar playing broken chords. This suggests an atmosphere of elevator and dreams of a 1950s family vacation. Appropriate for the “Please could you stop the noise
I’m trying to get some rest” line. The second verse has the unfriendly, yet catchy, line “When I am king, you will be first against the wall.” After about two minutes, the music takes on a slightly sinister feel thanks to some rhythmic single low notes on the guitar. At 2:40, distorted electric guitar strike as Thom spits, “You don’t remember…” Jonny then plays a great, flourish-free, fuzz guitar solo panned full left. A mixture of time signatures add to the exotic other-worldly feel of the song. And then it moves into a mourning-choir section. Distorted guitars rip back into the song. The Rhythm guitar and drums play the ending rhythm, but the fuzzed out lead guitar soars into high notes drawing the song back into life before letting it end.
The great song “Karma Police” does interesting things with chords in their key. The first part of the song is in G major, then the outro is in B minor. The chord progression for the verses could be i-III-v-VII if in A minor, which would be great. However, being in G major, the chords actually follow an unusual ii-IV-v-I progression.
The chorus could be a I-II-V-IV#7 in the key of C major, which again would be great though weird. But, still in G major, the chorus is actually a IV-V-I-VII7. These unusual progressions are played simply on the piano with a strummed acoustic guitar adding texture to the background. Overall, the song has an ambivalent feeling of stability and fragility, marching and floating.
Thom lifts his voice up during the outro; He sings, “Phew for a minute there, I lost myself.” This matches the peculiar contradiction of a minor key with a triumphant feeling. I love that combination. The opposite happens in the chorus where the chord progressions seem to go from A minor to C major, but the mood drops with an mildly threatening statement of purpose: “This is what you get when you mess with us.”
The blissfully perfect “No Surprises” remains one of my favorite songs. Sonically, it bears some resemblance to The Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” from their debut album. With the slower tempo, use of glockenspiel and guitar over a bassline with little percussion and softly sung vocals. The two verses vollow a I-vi-ii-V-I-iv chord progression. The minor iv adds a sense of longing to the pull for resolution. I love this song. The sound is delightfully pleasant tinged with melancholy.
Throughout the album, obtuse lyrics build emotional images of anxiety and distress. I don’t want to make too much of the comparison, but it bears some relation to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Both albums deal with the difficulty and burden of living in modern society. With Radiohead, the lyrics are much more post-modern. At times, they’ve constructed lyrics from lists and yet others are collections of sentiments. These are pulled together to create an overall sense of meaning, sort of like reading between the lines.
Overall, “OK Computer” continues to be one of my favorite albums. Radiohead make great use of inventive chord progressions. I also appreciate their attention to sonic detail, from use of effects to the choice of instruments. This is true, of course, with all bands. Yet, Radiohead seek out new ways to create strange auditory experiences. They thoughtfully combine these in meaningful ways that suit the songs.