You’ve already heard the childbirth story; it’s only right that there’s a pregnancy story to go with it. At the end of May 1997, with Zoe four months pregnant, we took our last couples vacation “for a while”. I have no idea how we chose to go to Cornwall, but it was a part of the country we didn’t know, and didn’t involve anything more stressful than driving for the best part of a day to get there, so we headed southwest, listening to whatever music we had brought with us, and occasionally tuning in to the BBC to catch up with sport or news.
Pretty much the same sort of thing we did in my parents’ car on our way south from Aberdeen twenty years before, although FM radio, and the in-car CD player meant that we could actually hear things for most of the journey.
Also, we didn’t have to listen to Waggoners’ Walk and The Archers on the way…
So it is that this album, which marked a turning point for me in the way I thought about music, will forever be linked in my mind to Penzance.
One of the CDs I had brought with me was a cover disk from the latest issue of Q magazine, which featured – what with it being 1997 – various modern artists hailed as the best new music of 1997, but most of which didn’t detain me much – I just looked it up, and only Stereophonics, Eels and Erykah Badu stand out as music I was interested enough to check out further, although I must have spent some time trying to like the track by Three Colours Red, as the band is named after my favourite film.
OK, one of my favourite films – I couldn’t pin that down any more than I can pin down my favourite album.
If I remember correctly (and I so often don’t, so take this with a grain of salt), I was becoming somewhat disillusioned with what passed as ‘new’ by 1997. Don’t get me wrong, it was a terrific year for albums, and I still own several which were never going to make this list on account of OK Computer being better than all of them put together, but there was something different about how I was reacting to new music. Maybe this was it; the moment I’d been dreading, when my musical tastes finally ‘grew up’, and I no longer had any interest in what was new and young. I mean, I enjoyed Oasis and Blur and Pulp and so on, but I wasn’t startled and moved by it the way I was every couple of weeks in the late 1970s. I was also about to become a parent, and deal with all those responsibilities. Maybe it was time for me to move on from this whole ‘pop’ music lark.
So it was with some significant surprise that I heard Paranoid Android on Radio 1 one weekday lunchtime as we drove around Penzance.
Almost all of the music I hear for the first time while driving passes me by – it can often be a day or two later that I find myself wondering just what that was, and how to find it again. For years, I bought new albums on cassette, and ‘listened’ to them in the car as I hurtled around the Scottish Highlands. This is not the optimal listening experience, and I still to this day can find myself humming along to a melody I know well, only to discover, on listening to it through headphones, that the sound is actually much more complex and rewarding than I’d assumed for all these years.
Also, a great many lyrics make much more sense once you’ve heard them properly.
So, when I talk about ‘significant surprise’ up there, I’m actually talking “hang on, I’m going to pull over to the side of the road and turn the engine off so I can listen properly” surprise.
It’s not quite true to say I had never heard anything like it – a look back through this list will reveal a number of multi-part epics, for example – but it’s true to say that I recognised something on that first listen which I had only really encountered once before.
If you’ve noticed that one of the albums which didn’t make the list was Queen’s A Night at the Opera, here it comes:
In the late autumn of 1975, I heard a song on the radio which changed my life. I can vividly remember the experience of that first encounter with Bohemian Rhapsody; the way time seemed to stand still as I tried to find some sort of context for what I was listening to. I knew Queen, owned a copy of Sheer Heart Attack, but nothing had prepared me for this – whatever it was. It dropped into my brain as if beamed there from an unimaginable future. I thought I knew how pop music worked before I heard it, and afterward, I accepted that I knew nothing about anything, and pop music could be whatever it wanted to be.
In the late spring of 1997, I heard a song on the radio which changed my life. I can vividly remember the experience of that first encounter with Paranoid Android; the way time seemed to stand still as I tried to find some sort of context for what I was listening to. I knew Radiohead, owned a copy of The Bends, but nothing had prepared me for this – whatever it was. It dropped into my brain as if beamed there from an unimaginable future. I thought I knew how pop music worked before I heard it, and afterward, I accepted that I knew nothing about anything, and pop music could be whatever it wanted to be.
Maybe rock and pop music really was over, and this was the dying howl of a format which was about to be replaced with something new, but – easy to say from 25 years down the road – maybe it wasn’t. Maybe Radiohead knew something which the rest of us hadn’t yet figured out. Maybe there was undiscovered life out there.
I bought the album on release, pored over the inscrutable sleeve design, analysed it to death with my work colleagues, looked it up on the internet – a thing you could do now, with the Radiohead site in 1997 being a very early indicator of how this internet thing might work in the future.
In particular, I watched the electrifying performance of much of this album live from the mudbath of the Glastonbury Festival. OK, it was beamed into my warm, dry living room, but it’s an extraordinary performance which cemented this album as one of my favourites, a position which it has not shifted from even slightly in the intervening 25 years.
Honestly, I’ve tried to avoid bandying around words like ‘masterpiece’ during this process – everyone should make their own minds up, and what sounds perfect to me may not land at all for someone else. But – and I have said this before about a very small handful of albums – it is, I think, objectively a masterpiece. Even if you don’t like it, there’s an undeniable sense of greatness and history about it. It is, of course, just a dozen rock songs, but it’s also a cultural artefact in the way that Sgt. Pepper and Dark Side of the Moon are.
So this isn’t a ‘re-discover’ kind of re-listen. It’s me listening to an album I know intimately and trying to find some way of explaining why it works the way it does. My hope for this is that I can have it make some kind of sense.
I’m listening to my vinyl reissue copy. This is an album intended to be heard on CD; it’s CD length, and was mixed and mastered accordingly. However, the sumptuous vinyl reissue is a thing of genuine beauty, and reveals so much more about what the art direction was aiming at than the tiny CD version does, and displays the lyrics in the way they were surely meant to be seen, crossing out and all.
It begins with Airbag – a song which almost immediately acquired an eerie resonance with the death of Princess Diana. The latter half of 1997 was a strange place, soundtracked by this dystopian album which seemed not only tuned to the times we were living in, but actually to be anticipating and predicting them. Unlike the next album – we’re coming to that – it leads in with a sound not so different from the familiar one from The Bends, but with added menace and a growing sense of everything – even the guitar solo – being slightly off-kilter. For a catchy song, it’s surprisingly unsettling.
Then the album reveals what it’s all about as Paranoid Android bleeps its way into existence. The only thing I’d add to what I said earlier is that, having listened to it hundreds, if not thousands, of times in the intervening 25 years, it never fails to grip me, to have me air drumming or air guitaring along; never once have I thought that I’ve heard it enough, and I’ll skip along to the next track. It’s one of a very small number of songs which never pales, never loses its ability to engage. If it’s playing anywhere within earshot, I’m listening to the end.
Following that seems like a tall order, but Radiohead simply invoke Bob Dylan and plough right on with Subterranean Homesick Alien. It’s a lyric which works just as well as prose; in fact, reading it out of context, it’s not at all obvious where the line breaks are; how it would fit to any rhythm, but of course, as soon as you hear it, it all makes sense. Well, as much sense as a song about wishing for an alien abduction can make. I often think of The Man Who Fell to Earth when listening to it; I can’t tell if that’s my interpretation, or something I read somewhere, and the joy of this album is that it doesn’t matter – each song says the things it says to each listener independently, then we move on together.
In this case, to flip the record over. You know, this really works as four sides of vinyl; each triptych (or near-tryptich as we’ll see) has it own internal logic, which I perhaps hadn’t noticed before. Side two – side ‘meeny’ – is the singalong heart of the thing, closest in spirit to The Bends but entirely new and of its own time.
Exit Music (for a film) is delicate and heartbreaking. And then you see the film in question – Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet – and it takes on a whole other layer of meaning. It’s not even slightly Shakespearean, but it is entirely Shakespearean. No, I know that doesn’t make sense, except that it does.
You know what it reminds me of? Stairway to Heaven. No, it doesn’t sound anything like it. It’s partly the drumming, and partly that sense of a band just doing what they want and accidentally making a perfect song.
Again, the difficult task of following something so perfect is made to sound easy, as Let Down may be the most perfectly balanced song on the album, full of carefully curated soundscapes aligned with a despairing lyric which seems to sum up the prevailing sense at the time of false dawns and being out of control.
A quarter of a century on, it doesn’t feel any better, but Let Down at least reassures us that we’re not the only ones.
And – as that wasn’t enough – the side is completed by the staggering Karma Police, a hit in anyone’s hands, but given the Radiohead treatment, a menacing and almost dreamy statement of intent. I also think that the chorus stands as a plain introduction to the experimentalism and eclectic sprawl of the next two albums:
“This is what you get when you mess with us”.
Also, bonus points for the use of the word ‘phew’. I think it serves to remind you that this is a song; that all of this is artifice, perhaps pulls the listener back a little from the immersion in the way the Brecht always tried to remind the audience that they were watching a play.
Yeah, Brecht. It’s that kind of album.
Exactly here, I’m going to complain (and it’s my only complaint) about how the seamless transition to Fitter, Happier is somewhat diminished in effect my me having to get up and go change records over.
And now I’m going to defend Fitter, Happier. If this album has a manifesto, it’s right here. Here is the modern world; the way we’re all being encouraged to live, in a grey dystopian uniformity which might as well be declaimed by an artificial voice, such is the lack of humanity, underlined by the disturbing imagery id dissolves into at the end. The only way out of this disturbing vision is to rebel.
Which brings us to Electioneering, where we learn that rebelling through the ballot box is pointless. The portrait of the venal, soulless politician was probably a little more cutting when it came out; now it just seems a banal truism.
See what I mean about prescience?
What comes next seems an inevitable response – the descent into the horror film which is Climbing up the Walls. The tempo may drop, but the energy levels don’t – the song pulsates with menace and despair, and for the first time, the printed lyrics – so far, shaky and disjointed, but correct – wander off into a whole other world, where the unspoken threat of the sung version is made explicit. It’s genuinely creepy and – again – unsettling. Music should give you pause as much as it should entertain you, I think.
No Surprises belongs on this side thematically, with its rallying cry to bring down the government, and perhaps it’s here also to help us to transition to the final movement. I feel it would work just as well as the first track on side four, which is where I mentally placed it earlier (I’m not going back to edit the ‘triptych’ comment, though), but here it is, lowering our blood pressure and reassuring us that – well, it’s not really reassuring us of anything more than the fact that there’s not much you can do about any of this, so perhaps just sit back and enjoy the harmonies and the pretty melody, and try not to think about it…
Lucky takes us back to the themes of the first side – this time, instead of a car, we’re in in an aircrash, but the mood is perhaps a little more optimistic. The song was written before the rest of the album, and released as part of a charity album. It doesn’t, therefore, quite match the tone of the others lyrically, but it also serves as a way to head out of the album with a sense of quiet optimism, in spite of what we’ve been hearing.
That sense is underlined by the gently loping The Tourist, which appears to offer some kind of sheepish apology for all that has gone before (“Sometimes I get overcharged, that’s when you see sparks”). It brings things to a close with a surprising calmness, the drumming (uniformly excellent on the whole album) and the vocal harmonies helping us to find our way back to reality, and it ends with a single chime which seems to announce that something has just happened, but now it’s time to move on.
I can honestly say, that in the years since first hearing it, I have never felt the need to move on. I have had a mixed relationship with some of Radiohead’s later work, but this album has never lost any of its power, any of its energy, or its ability to shock, surprise and provoke. I do think I have albums I love more, but not many. Hardly any, in truth.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
In the unlikely event that you’re new to Radiohead, I’d recommend chronological order. Of the early albums, The Bends is closest to this in sound and intent (and at least one member of this household might cite it as her favourite Radiohead album if pressed), while if you can handle the extraordinary shift into Everything in its Right Place at the beginning of the next album, Kid A, you’ll be fine. I think the standard answer here is In Rainbows, but there is much to recommend on all of them; Radiohead are a band who have never rested on their laurels, and always look to do something different. Not always successfully, to be sure, but so few bands keep pushing the envelope and they should be celebrated for that.
Compilations to consider?
There’s a Best Of album, because record companies are a thing, but no. Buy the albums; the shift in styles between them is too much for a compilation album to deal with.
The only live album is more than 20 years old, and I’m not sure it does the live show justice.
A couple of the Glastonbury 1997 performances are on YouTube, and give the general idea, although the whole set really needs to be seen in one sitting, but I don’t think that’s available commercially, although it did appear on the BBC a few years back, so someone you know (cough) might have a copy.
Aside from that, and generally encouraging you to seek out the video albums featuring all those disturbing and highly creative videos, I can only urge you all to check out the astonishing Amanda Palmer playing… Look, the album is called Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele. You should listen to it.