OK Computer

Feats of Strength: Radiohead

Nearly twenty years after its initial release, Radiohead’s OK Computer has been endlessly praised and analyzed.  Critics and fans alike have not only pored over every note and probed the meaning of every lyric, but they have also made sure that everyone else knows of their discoveries and efforts.  Not only is this kind of behavior ripe for mockery, but it begs for the album itself to be taken down a peg, with ClickHole delivering perhaps the perfect take with their “oral history” of the album’s creation.

Though discussions about the album have become ubiquitous over the years, and as a result it may have lost its spell on some fans, I still feel an intense personal connection with OK Computer.  Not only do I enjoy revisiting all of my favorite parts that have been more-or-less implanted into my brain after hundreds of spins, but with each listen I am still discovering previously unheard details lurking beneath the surface.  Each member of Radiohead makes several memorable contributions to the album, from the group’s three-headed guitar attack, to Phil Selway’s inventive drum fills and steady beat, to Colin Greenwood’s melodic and thumping bass.  Colin’s basslines are often overlooked, but he usually performs parts that are significant for a song’s success.

“Exit Music (For A Film)” was indeed written for a film, and though the fact that it was inspired by the ending of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet may cause some people to roll their eyes,* the movie ended up inspiring two of Radiohead’s best songs (the other being the menacing and magnificent “Talk Show Host”).  It begins with Thom Yorke alone on his acoustic guitar and singing sweetly to his “Juliet”, with a ghostly artificial choir joining in for the “chorus,” which provides not only a haunting effect but also the slightest touch of bombast.  The song returns to a solo Yorke for the next verse, before Selway’s expertly-produced fill kicks the song into the next gear, as the rest of the band, including Colin’s distorted fuzz bass, joins in for the bridge and outro.

Usually, the bass tone is treated as a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing by most bands.  Guitarists will trade out guitars for each song to get a specific and precise tone, but many bands just stick the bassist with one bass, and even then the bassist rarely even does anything as simple as adjusting a knob or two to get a different sound; whatever specific sound the group arrived at for their first practice probably will cover the bassist for the rest of his/her career.  So when a bassist does something like stomping on a fuzz box to add some effects to the bassline, it tends to get noticed by most listeners.  However, because the tone can be so distinctive, it is probably best to use an effect like distortion only sparingly so as to not overdose on the sound.

In “Exit Music”, Colin’s use of a distorted bass fits perfectly.  It serves as an excellent counterpart to Ed O’Brien’s ethereal, high-pitched guitar melody, grounding the song by rumbling around in the muck.  Colin also executes a brilliant transition from a straight-ahead chug in his initial part to a big, swinging triplet counter-melody during the song’s explosive climax.  It is a glorious moment that remains mesmerizing to this day.  Colin has used the fuzz bass to great effect in later songs, like the hypnotic riff in “The National Anthem” as well as the delirious “Myxomatosis”, but in my opinion “Exit Music” is still the best use of that specific tone.

*They have been showing Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby on HBO a lot lately, and even though I expected from the previews to see that Baz truly did not understand the novel, it was amazing to see in the forty-five minutes or so that I watched how a director can make so many incredibly poor decisions.  Just everything from the acting, sets, dialogue, etc.–complete trash.

Stop Caring About The Grammys

The Grammy Awards are a good idea in theory.  We like to recognize artistic merits in a variety of disciplines, and we feel good when we come together and come up with some sort of consensus decision as to what is “the best.”  The Academy Awards have worked pretty well for film over the years, and the Emmy Awards (despite never giving an award to the greatest television show ever) have done an adequate job as well, so why shouldn’t it be the same for music?  And yet, pretty much from the very beginning, the Grammys have always been garbage.

I remember the moment when I completely lost faith in the Grammys, and it should be noted that this happened when I was in middle school, because that is when any hopes and dreams you may have had about the music industry recognizing artistic merit should die, and you can then readjust your expectations accordingly.  It was when Radiohead’s ground-breaking, landmark album OK Computer lost out to probably Bob Dylan’s tenth-best effort (Time Out Of Mind) that I decided it was probably for the best that I stop giving a shit about this particular award.  I probably should have seen the signs from the previous year, when Beck’s Odelay and the Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness lost out to Celine Dion, but at that point I didn’t have the same investment in either of those albums that I did in OK Computer.  Even at that age, I knew that with that album I could divide my history of listening to music as pre-OK Computer and post-OK Computer, and no matter how good an album Time Out Of Mind may be, it wouldn’t be remembered in the same way.  If you want to view the award as an acknowledgment of the greatness of Highway 61 RevisitedBlonde on BlondeNashville SkylineThe Freewheelin’ Bob DylanJohn Wesley HardingThe Times They Are A-Changin’, and Blood on the Tracks, that’s fine, but that’s the only way to defend it.

It was then that my cynicism fully set in and I finally understood the rants of many alternative artists about the quality of the Grammys.  Here’s how I can best sum it up: “How many Grammy Awards did London Calling win?  That should tell you exactly how much attention you should pay to the Grammys.”  This is an album universally recognized as one of the greatest of all time, one that ends up atop best-of-the-decade lists for two different decades (because of its UK ’79/US ’80 release date), and it received exactly zero Grammys.  In fact, The Clash won precisely one Grammy in the course of their career, an award in 2002 for “Best Long Form Music Video” for the documentary The Clash: Westway to the World, long after the band had stopped making music.  And to top it off, the Grammys had the gall to put together a supergroup performance of “London Calling” to honor the life of Joe Strummer when he died, as if the Recording Academy gave a damn about the group at all when they were around.*

Consider this: Exile on Main Street… Loveless… NevermindIn the Aeroplane Over the SeaAre You Experienced?Who’s NextRemain in LightWilly and the Po’ BoysUnknown PleasuresFear of a Black PlanetThe Velvet Underground & NicoHunky DoryDoolittle…not a single one of these albums received a nomination.  And not only could I list dozens more examples, but I could point to a ridiculous number of artists who never won a Grammy of any kind.

Part of the issue may be with the nature of the Grammys themselves.  The sheer number of albums that are produced dwarf the number of films that are released or television shows that end up on the air, so the mere act of getting thousands of academy members to listen to the same records is enough of a challenge on its own.  Then consider the wide variety of musical genres that exist, and contrast that with the simple comedy/drama divide that characterizes film and TV–it’s even tougher to build any sort of consensus when you take this into account.  And then there is the simple nature of voting, which anyone with a background in political theory can point to as a potential stumbling block.  All of these issues make the Grammy Awards an exercise in futility, and yet for some reason people still get up in arms with the results every year.

Was Morning Phase the best album of the year?  According to us, probably not, though if one considers it in comparison with the other nominees, we agree with the decision.  Though it’s not Beck’s best (which is a nearly-impossible hurdle to clear, considering his incredibly consistent output and the Odelay/Mutations/Sea Change triumverate), if you judge it on its own merits, Morning Phase is a great album filled with gorgeous musical moments and poignant lyrics that will be remembered for years.  But let’s consider that if the Grammys were actually interested in honoring the best of the year in music, then they would have had to invite Death From Above 1979 and have them perform, and despite the fact that they’re only two guys they would have melted the faces off of everyone in the audience with their blistering performance, and then no one would be able to work on Monday.

So really, the fact that the Grammy Awards don’t recognize the best music of the year is more of a public service than anything.  Just don’t get up in arms when they make the “wrong” decision.  They were doomed from the start.

*This is not to disparage any of the performers that participated, all of whom I assume had a great amount of respect for Joe Strummer and The Clash.