Everything in its Right Place: A Rift Roundtable on Radiohead
The Rift talks about the band, their music, and the memories of growing up in the Radiohead age.
It was almost twenty five years ago that Radiohead’s first album came out. Since then, the band has traversed an incredible trajectory of music, growth, and influence.
I can’t say for certain where I first heard Radiohead, but I think the first song I paid attention to was “Karma Police.” I remember watching the video at a friend’s house (I didn’t have cable, no MTV), during my latter years of high school. The video begins as a bizarre dream sequence, a car with no driver, an empty perspective—a camera (no body) pans around the interior of a Chrysler New Yorker and then off to the hood of the car. Headlights illuminate a stark and desolate stretch that materializes in a fog. Off in the distance a white dot grows, and you realize it’s a man running for his life, and the car bears down on him relentlessly. The driver turns to the backseat, and sitting there, a dull and walleyed Thom Yorke mouths the words “This is what you get…When you mess with us.” The car pursues the man, and he falls and braces for impact, lying on the ground. The car backs off as if to gather enough speed to mow the man down, but it’s leaking gas, and the man strikes a match (the matchbook displays a fetus), lighting a band of flame that in turn pursues the car in reverse. Flames engulf the car. The song ends in a sort of gritty devolving distortion, the sound of a guttering flame.
I remember that video. I hadn't noticed the fetus in the matchbook. That's an interesting detail; my immediate thought after you mentioned that was the gas leak as a kind of umbilical chord. There is something nightmare-ish about that video and it really portrays this surrealism that exists in the album.
On the track that directly follows "Karma Police," “Fitter, Happier,” a computer generated voice—imagine the voice of Stephen Hawking communing with his computer—lists a series of directives: “Fitter, happier, more productive, comfortable, not drinking too much, regular exercise at the gym three days a week, getting along better with your associate employee contemporaries, at ease…” It goes on to catalogue the compiled advice of self-help gurus, psychologists, and corporate employee mandates—the profile of a doublespeak exemplary citizen. Someone who regularly washes their car, who shoos insects rather than kills, who gives to charity, who cowers before the edifice of the machine. Detached, passionless, dosed to docility—“A pig in a cage on antibiotics.” This song, if it can be called a song, is haunting, disturbing, an ironic sketch of the dystopic future we already live in.
For me, it started with the gradual shift from the pre-teen ennui to the emotional and hormonal freak show of adolescence. At seventeen, I worked at an old folks’ home and learned very quickly where we’re all headed: a brittle hunched body wheeled into the dining room, drooling all day in front of the television, lamenting about the time when I too could bend down to pick things up off the ground, meanwhile a handsome male nurse changes my diaper. Aside from these useful observations I was filled with general rage: In my young day to day life this was all being manifested in social isolation and ineptitude while being incoherently collected in a little black journal. It was around this time that I first heard Radiohead.
It is through music that people connect to the undertow. I used to record songs off the radio into cassette tapes (that's how one got free music back in the day). Listening for new songs felt like the only way I could connect to the outside world. Music can do that, especially when you can’t relate to anything else because you’re too young to articulate feelings into politics or ideas or even conversations. Music could situate you somewhere, when otherwise you’d be merely floating, aimlessly wandering the vast tepid waters of society. That’s what Radiohead did: they made sense: they captured the fear, the paranoia, the wonderment, displacement and rebellion of the shifting world.
Music is a means to tap into the zeitgeist. It can have an “I was there” quality. And if the music captures something true, it’ll hit the vein that carries the sick blood of history and it’ll insert you into it.
Radiohead translated the present into a language so exceptionally visceral. Yet, a melody could be forever linked to an entire era of your life, represented by that time you and your friend came upon a burning house after smoking too much pot and listening to Ok Computer. How you stood there watching it go down in flames, fire fighters running to and fro, the hose like a dragon in the moonlight, the smoke rising into the night sky, neighbors standing out on the sidewalk, and the woman who screeched up to the front driveway in her scrubs and began to cry and how you realized that everything is impermanent. All you could hear in your head was the piano and chorus of "Karma Police. " And all of those things that went through your young mind and all of those emotions and impressions get locked into that music and when you are old and being wheeled into the dining room that album will fire off those distant synapses and you will say:
Yeah. I was there.
Ryan Johann Perry:
It was them on Saturday Night Live, and I was young. It was new music - not precipitated by the standard Single/Music Video/Magazine ad promos - “The National Anthem.” I was a telemarketer and I would walk home. My world was in heavily saturated VHS disks, Cassette disks demagnetized, and this SNL performance was not Memorex. I was not sure how to react. The words were unintelligible, the music repetitive and distant, flaring out into horns mimicking a traffic jam.
Some years later...
Radiohead occurred (to me). Bugler rolling papers stuffed with forests, Mickey's 40 ouncers poured in Polar Pop cups, drunk through a straw. I would toss the last few ounces to the concrete to the ghosts. Teenage life is endless waiting, hypersensitive and emotional at high speeds and HD. The visions in OK Computer made manifest in less than a decade, the ought decade was slowing to a crawl. From the media saturation and stasis of third-rate ABBA pop bands occupied by young girls and boys, and the rise of reality television, came Amnesiac.
Like Stephen Hawking (nothing against Hawking, I’m just envisioning him slumped over, expressing himself through a computer), the machine becomes an extension of our being. We are conditioned to work, formed to the structure, fitted to the cubicle/cage. As the song, and the album itself suggests, or warns against, our participation is illusory, the best we can hope for—no authenticity here—is to stay out of trouble, not draw attention, and that happiness—comfort is achieved through conformity.
This was what drew me to Radiohead. The interrogation of the mass produced, standardized, consumer driven, prepackaged, soul-grinding world. Within a few years, I’d totally bought in. I had all their albums. Each morning, my alarm blared Kid A’s “Everything in its Right Place.” I was conditioned to wake by that song, and when I woke, I looked up to a poster of Thom Yorke giving me the finger, droopy lidded, with a snarling grimace. Quietly, at work and school I rejected truths, and doubted, resisted even while going along with it all, going through the motions.
Radiohead's music certainly felt like it was rejecting much of the artificial aspects of society. Their albums were never mere compilations of singles. Much of the band’s permanence lies in the strength of their albums as coherent complete pieces.
Anyway, Ok Computer appeared to have caught the wind of the ghost horses of history racing into the next century.
The album’s employment of electronic sounds would really mark the band’s maturity into something far more transcendent. I wouldn’t hear Ok Computer until about 2003, when I turned seventeen, yet the album seemed particularly appropriate for the time, with its themes of disconnection, and paranoia, and even its awareness and distrust of authority.
There are emotional traces of the band’s direction in their previous album. The Bends was their Rubber Soul, the boundary before the band began to shift into it signature stage. The album touched on ideas of a separation with reality, or at least an awareness that perceives a very real distance between the world and the self. To come unhinged from your surroundings and live in a sort of personal exile.
We’re too young to fall asleep
To cynical to speak
We are losing it, can’t you tell?
This machine will not communicate these thoughts and the strain I am under….
These themes would re-emerge in their following albums, but do so much more profoundly and with an atmospheric precision that evoked the electronic, disparate, voices occurring all at once in the modern age. The voices that tell you to be “fitter, happier, more productive.” In Ok Computer, all of those emotions were present, this time laced with darker tones, a sonic violence, and lyrical surrealism.
Arrest this man he talks in maths
he buzzes like a fridge
he’s like a detuned radio…
In high school I worked at a golf course, and I remember listening to “Idioteque” while driving the picker—yes, the cart equipped with baskets to pick up golf balls, a moving target. If Ok Computer articulates modern despair and alienation through lyric, Kid A does so through song, building from Kafkaesque absurdity to the aftermath, destruction after the Bomb. Grainy, stuttering electronic beats, sizzling snares, shocked through with chirps and laser shots, a wrenching specter in the background like the sound of rust, Yorke’s voice snaking and quivering as a lamentation, “Idioteque” plays as the music of a fallout shelter or a ship going under. Every once in a while, on trips chugging up and down the driving range, I’d be thunderstruck by a golf ball, thunking off the windshield or rattling the cage of the picker and scaring me half to death. “These sons of bitches,” I’d think of the golfers taking aim up range. Like all entitled American youth, I’d placed myself among the oppressed, and felt I’d been slighted my birthright, American Dream, something authentic—whatever. You know youth, generally angry and stubbornly contrary, doubting every explanation, wanting something real, thinking they’re it. I saw the golfers who I worked for as the fitter-happier-productive drones and myself, laughably, as some sort of subversive. When hit, I’d wheel the picker around and run roughshod back to the tee terrace, envisioning a massacre, “Idioteque” as war cry: think Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now. I’m the driver of the Chrysler New Yorker ready to mow down some fools, muttering to myself, “I’ll laugh until my head comes off,” staring them down—I have feelings, you conformists, muttering, “Here I’m allowed, everything all of the time.”
Jon, Wagner in Apocalypse Now, Amnesiac as you drive home through suburbs, they are conducting something. If you make that drive the long way home, you can see the Leviathan is outlined by highways.
Amnesiac, hands down, was the one that revealed through the music, the zeitgeist. It was a “Where were you when it happened?” without a location, a “Kodak moment” with new technology, it was “Who the Fuck do you think you are?” without mirrors/reflections.
Recently “Karma Police” came on the radio and its four minute length was saturated with years and years, tracing Radiohead’s parallels with me up to this very moment. You look back and it loops back through the places you were, back to the moment right after you met them. Memories always double back to the present, because some are attached to music that has grown with me. Plants and humans only have one path. Back then it changed, since then it has changed (the album Amnesiac). Funny thing is, so have I, so there is no gravity to understand any of this, we are moving forward. It is relativity with moving parts. Their albums are frozen, the difference between my relationship with them then and now is quite literally a map of time.
Ryan, it's true. When one of their songs comes on the radio, when you are not expecting it, it's almost like going back on this map of time and finding yourself from years ago standing right there listening. A band like Radiohead certainly adheres to your young bones and they grow as you grow. Radiohead gave you the courage to say things like "You and Whose Army?" When the truth was that perhaps you weren't' as subversive as you thought, that maybe you too were part of the "fitter, happier" crew, or maybe just too young. In Kid A however, I feel there is a self-awareness of that and even a kind of laughing at the self.
That there, that’s not me.
I go where I please.
I’m not here, this isn’t happening.
These albums are the difference between Thom Yorke’s voice being melodically pleasing, soft and yearning, to the Thom Yorke whose voice was almost a conduit for the modern condition, a howling, lamenting, often ambiguous, difficult to decipher yet unrelentingly honest and vulnerable.
Ok Computer was the first full album of Radiohead that I listened to and therefore it contained what would be the first high of a Radiohead trip that would last for years. No one ever forgets their first high. This is when you feel your senses slowly augmenting, picking up strange signals and suddenly seeing things in greater detail, with a richer, much more expanded view. This is when the veil first starts to disintegrate, music is rebellion. Then you realize this life is all a mistake, you are not supposed to be here…
this isn’t happening,
you’re living in a fantasy world
Or yesterday you woke up sucking a lemon
Cut the kids in half
It is those first highs that teach you to look at your surroundings differently, to notice detail and color and the connection between all things. It is in those first highs that you learn to let go, that you are reminded of the beautiful and the sublime and all the rest being absolute and completely irrelevant to what really matters.
Mari, the first high is a great way of looking at it, that first “Radiohead” moment. The interesting thing about the first high is that it does not only show you how to ‘let go’, the first high lets you go, getting lost in between the second and infinity. This, to me, is “Life in a Glass House”. It feels longer than life, but like our individual lives it is 4 minutes. 0.0000121685 of the human half life. If you listen to it on repeat. It is a short song. Clarinets and trumpets are losing their minds. It builds so slowly, but without the ABABCB it feels like watching something grow. “Well of course I'd like to sit and chat/Well, of course I'd like to stay and chew the fat.”