Tag Archives: OK Computer

OK Computer is 20, part 1

On the whole, I try not to put myself into this blog too much. If you’re reading it, I decided at the outset, you’re reading it because a particular song interests you and you want to find out more about it, not the guy writing about it.

But all responses to art are necessarily subjective. I can try to tell you why a piece of music makes me feel the way it does when I hear it, but I can’t guarantee you’ll feel the same way about it as I do when you hear it. The weaker pieces on this blog are hamstrung by my attempt to present an objective front on music I’m heavily invested in personally, and saying nothing about how and why the music really matters to me as a result.

I just can’t do that with the record we’re going to talk about today. It played too big a role in my life as a music listener, fan and musician.

Which is a long way of saying that we’re going to talk about Radiohead’s OK Computer, which turns 20 in May.

I also can’t take my jumbled-up thoughts and turn them into one coherent post. It would verge on book-length, and take several months to finish. Instead, I’ll do a few posts on little aspects of it that interest me, for as long as I can find things to say.

*

When OK Computer came out, I was fifteen, already a fan of the band, and I was waiting for it. Paranoid Android had been released and was a pretty sizable hit single, and like many, I’d gone from being slightly bemused by it to loving it and wanting more. When it did arrive, OK Computer demonstrated a fair few changes from the group’s Bends-era sound, and while I hesitate to use the word progression – much was lost as well as gained – the record is more arrangementally complicated than The Bends.

Most obviously, the band dialled back the heavy guitars even more than they had on The Bends. There are notable distorted parts on Airbag, Paranoid Android, Electioneering, Climbing Up the Walls, Lucky and The Tourist, but most of that is lead guitar; there’s almost nothing in the way of the multitracked distorted rhythm parts that were the foundation of the band’s early sound and of ’90s rock more generally. This more than anything else made OK Computer sound forward-thinking in 1997 – in place of wind-tunnel guitars, there were several complementary, counterpoint parts. It was now possible to pick out which of the guitarists was playing what at any one moment.

The band’s new arrangement techniques are established on the album’s first song, Airbag. Jonny Greenwood plays the distorted bass string riff, Ed O’Brien plays the high-register melody, and Thom Yorke strums the chords. Colin Greenwood doesn’t start playing until well into the first verse, and Phil Selway’s drums are distorted and possibly cut up.* Even more than they had on The Bends, the band members were listening intently to each other, creating space for each other, taking pains to respond to each other without obscuring or overlapping.

This didn’t end up being the group’s permanent MO, as tracks where all three guitarists all played guitar at the same time became rarer in the Radiohead canon starting from Kid A. But it was clearly an important step in the band’s development, one that I remember reading Ed O’Brien talk about excitedly and at length in a Total Guitar interview at the time. It had been a lesson hard learned over the course of the preceding four years and a lot of recordings, some of which sound pretty unimpressive today.

We’ll come back to this more in our discussion of particular songs. But for now I’ll leave you with a picture of Jonny Greenwood playing his Starcaster with a violin bow. Had we all violin bows and Starcasters, perhaps we’d do the same.

Jonny.jpg

*Some of the effects on the album, such as the distorted drums, sound the far side of banal now, in a world where even the most basic DAW has a plug-in that, when applied, can do a passable version of the Airbag drum sound. It’s only fair to keep in mind that OK Computer is an endlessly emulated and referred-to ur-text for a lot of this stuff.

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 1: Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was by Radiohead

Many neophyte bass players assume that because the primary job of their instrument is to provide low end, they have to play each root note in the lowest possible octave. Depending on the type of music the young bassist plays, it may be years before they begin to realise the musical effects that can be achieved through other approaches.

Familiarity with the work of Colin Greenwood might help to flatten this learning curve. During Radiohead’s glory days of The Bends through to Kid A (OK, not everyone’s going to agree that this was when the band were at their best, but it’s my blog so that’s what we’re going with), Colin was the band’s oft-overlooked secret weapon. Thom Yorke’s voice and Jonny Greenwood’s endlessly inventive lead guitar got most of the critical plaudits, but Colin’s playing on those three albums function as a sustained masterclass in what can be done by the bass player within a, more or less, traditional rock band setting.

He’s so eclectic and adaptable that there doesn’t appear to be any one feel or sound that constitutes the Colin Greenwood style. On Airbag he’s ultra-minimal, not playing a note until 30 seconds in, long after Phil Selway has started drumming. On Exit Music, his bass is a brutally distorted noise that pushes its way in unexpectedly and then dominates the song’s final minute and a half. Bones sees him uncharacteristically swaggering, somewhere between Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Slade’s Jim Lea. How to Disappear Completely is free-ranging, scalar, essentially a walking line. Colin Greenwood is about being whatever the song needs, and he has the ears, the chops and the imagination to transform himself on almost a song by song basis. The young player can learn half a dozen invaluable new techniques from the songs on any single Radiohead album.

Possibly my favourite Colin Greenwood part is one I’ve mentioned here once before, Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was, from The Bends. Bullet Proof is one of the softest pieces on the album, a narcotised wisp of a song, with ambient noises running all the way through it, apparently improvised by Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood without listening to the backing track on headphones (this may be overstated since a lot of the noises are specifically tonal, unless producer John Leckie got the scissors out).

Colin plays up in the bass guitar’s second octave, using the A string at the 12th fret to play the root of the A minor chord and going up from there to play C, B and D notes at the 10th, 9th and 12th frets of the D string. The notes are mainly held and allowed to ring. The combination of a high register and thick tone (contributed to by playing the notes on a lower, fatter string at a higher fret) gives the song a feeling of weightlessness yet allows Greenwood to carry the verses almost single-handedly. His restraint is admirable, and lasts until the final chorus, when he allows himself a few more expansive melodic ornamentations. Even so, Bullet Proof is an object lesson in how the position in which you decide to play a note and the tone you use are just as important as the choice of note itself, and shows just how valuable Colin’s contributions are, even on songs when the bass guitar plays a low-key supporting role.

No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos, part 2

It occurs to me that from the title of these posts, people might think I don’t like Hendrix or Steve Vai. Far from it. I like Hendrix plenty, and I don’t dislike Steve Vai although I wouldn’t want to listen to the majority of his music. I have less than no time for Clappo though)

2) The Tourist – Radiohead (solo by Jonny Greenwood)
If you played guitar in the late nineties, you worshipped at the altar of Jonny Greenwood. Radiohead were one of those bands that transcended tribal boundaries. Metal kids liked them. Grunge kids liked them. Punkers liked them well enough too. It seemed like everyone who was into rock music, and certainly everyone who played it, liked them.

For guitar players, the interplay between the group’s three guitarists (Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Thom Yorke) was one of the chief reasons. The other was Greenwood’s furious lead guitar, which was in the tradition of such post-punker players as Keith Levene, John McGeoch, Johnny Marr, J Mascis and Robin Guthrie, and eschewed fast scalar runs and blues licks for textures, noise, dissonance, modal melodies and sheer squonkiness. True, he made use of oblique bends and octave chords – which in lead guitar terms were popularised by Hendrix and Wes Montgomery respectively – so he wasn’t inventing a new grammar of lead guitar out of whole cloth. But he was adventurous, dissonant, unconventional, angular and popular. There are hundreds of thousands of people my age who learned the Complete Works of Greenwood as 16-year-olds. Levene and McGeoch were great players, but in comparison, they are unknowns.

My favourite piece of Greenwood guitar comes at the end of The Tourist, the closing track on OK Computer, when his raging guitar solo shatters the uneasy calm of the song’s previous three and a half minutes. It’s a moment as raw and exciting as his infamous muted grunts just before the chorus of Creep. It’s often said by folks who dislike fast guitar playing that if you can’t sing along to it, then it’s not a good solo. You couldn’t sing along to the solo on The Tourist. It’s not without melody, but the importance it places on tunefulness is way below that which it places on noise, on jaggedness, on impurity of form (remember that The Tourist mixes up bars of 12/8 and 9/8, so the song’s very form resists the deployment of easy riffs and phrases). It’s like some sort of unstoppable eruption.

For a generation of guitar-playing kids, the solo on The Tourist was just the final piece of awe-inspiring guitar playing on an album full of them. And not that Radiohead haven’t made good music since, but the disappearance of Jonny Greenwood the guitar hero is a continuing source of regret to many of us.

jonny

Hurray for Jonny!

How I Made My Millions – Radiohead (repost)

Really early on in the life of this blog I wrote this, which seems like it naturally belongs with my other posts on the technicalities and aesthetics of lo-fi.

Every school-age Radiohead fan knows that Thom Yorke recorded this ‘No Surprises’ B-side at home on a four-track while his partner chopped vegetables and did the washing up. Home recording, for musicians, is a commonplace idea, and more and more people seem aware that in the contemporary music industry, a lot of records are home-made or semi-home-made. But imagine what it was like back in the Jurassic era (OK, the mid-1990s): I’d been playing guitar for, I don’t know, a year or so when I read a round-up of six or eight portastudios in a guitar magazine. While even £300 for a basic Tascam 414 model was way beyond my means at 14 or 15, it was the first time I realised that a musician could make some sort of recording at home. I’d come across the term ‘lo-fi’ in a book, but I had no idea what ‘lo-fi’ sounded like, or how it was achieved. This new knowledge, that recording had been somehow democratised, came to me with the force of a revelation. As my musical tastes and knowledge widened, to include such artists as Elliott Smith and Lou Barlow, I developed a definite taste for the lo-fi.

There’s a scene in the film Ray where Ray Charles and Margie Hendricks spontaneously write and perform ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ while in the middle of a furious argument. It’s the single most risible incident in a film that stretches credibility much too far much too often. But maybe that scene is true to the way non-musicians imagine that songwriters work. Maybe it isn’t that big a stretch for a general audience to believe that songs do burst fully formed into life like that. If so, perhaps what Radiohead fans treasure about this recording is that sense that they’re hearing Yorke play the song for the first time; perhaps they imagine they are hearing the moment of creation, not a moment several hours into the process when the writer has pulled the words and chords and notes into shape and taken the time to set up a microphone to record an early version of their new work. The four-track demo suggests an authentic, unproduced creative moment, when in fact a four-track recording no more spontaneously happens than a pencil sketch for an oil painting spontaneously happens. It still takes time and preparation to put a sketch down on paper, however rough the sketch.

Thinking back to my adolescence, I did believe that lo-fi records were somehow more authentic – and morally purer – than high-budget, mainstream records. Certainly the lack of production options inherent in working in a DIY setting back then ensured that self-recorded songs, almost without exception, had simple arrangements and that little mistakes stayed in unless the musician could play a whole take flawlessly. So I can’t mock a Radiohead fan who feels that in How I Made My Millions they have the opportunity of being a fly on the wall during Thom Yorke’s creative process, because as a 16-year-old I believed something very similar myself.

But for sure it does take a skilful and single-minded musician to drag his or her music through the modern production process without it losing something vital. Records that still contain the initial spark of inspiration are rarer nowadays, at all levels of the music industry, as some of the tools of hi-fi recording (or at least mid-fi recording) have become more widely available. In January 1998 ‘How I Made My Millions’ gave younger Radiohead fans a taste of the vibrancy and spark that is more readily perceptible in records in the fifties, sixties and early seventies than in the rest of Radiohead’s oeuvre, and which they perhaps hadn’t heard before, and that likely explains its status as one of the most beloved of Radiohead B-sides.

Image

Thom Yorke says, ‘Keep your hands off of my stack!’