Category: music

What’s so great about David Crosby’s ‘If Only I Could Remember My Name’?

By Daniel Margrain

In ‘Revolution Blues’ from his 1974 album, ‘On The Beach’, Neil Young famously spews vitriol on the fake tinsel town celebrity life-styles of the wealthy residents of Laurel Canyon many of whom lionized the killer, Charles Manson:

 “Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars, but I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars,” sang Young.

Forming part of his ‘Ditch trilogy’ this was Young at his most angriest and bitter. It’s probably the Canadian artists greatest song from one of his best albums that reflected his disillusionment with the idealism of the hippies as the realism of the 1970s began to take hold.

Three years earlier, one of Young’s contemporaries, former Byrds member and long-time collaborator, David Crosby, released a far more cerebral, but no less brilliant take on the pessimism of the age. Indeed, with ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’, Crosby manages to evoke the resigned naturalist idyll of the Bay Area as a catharsis.

Among the seminal musician’s of the period who worked alongside Crosby on the album included Kaukonen, Slick, Casady and Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, Garcia, Leisha, Kreutzmann and Hart of Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash.

The creative influence of these brilliant musician’s is tangible, but the sound created is nevertheless ‘neutral’ and not comparable to any other kind in the bay area during the period when it was recorded.

Deeply philosophical and existential, the music and vocals exude a sadness and poignancy. Crosby appears to be lamenting a world lost in the mists of time while simultaneously yearning for spiritual redemption as if attempting to communicate with mirages or ghosts while in a trance.

This is arguably best expressed by the slow progression in the opening ‘Music Is Love’, which consists of a single verse (‘everyone says that music is love’) which is endlessly repeated by Crosby and choir in a mantra like way.

‘Laughing’ is one long note as if suspended between earth and heaven before returning to a resonating echo before it gradually fades into the silence of ‘What Are Their Names’. Possibly the weakest track on the album, the whispered tinkling guitar and harp strings of ‘Traction In The Rain’, evokes crystalline waterfalls.

‘Song With No Words’ is like an intense opera evocative of a subdued and poignant prayer in which the singing soars in a sublime flight. With the closing hallucinatory ‘I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here’, a cry of joy and despair is exuded which is a kind of corrective to the ambiguous dream and mystical states that preceded it.

The album which has influenced greatly contemporary musicians of the likes of Julia Holter and Julianna Barwick, is a tonal, harmonic and semi-baroque masterpiece akin to an impressionist painting. In the canon of rock music, it remains, nearly half a century since its release, one of the most absorbing and moving experiences in the history of the genre.

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My tribute to Mark E Smith

By Daniel Margrain

  • CAKE POLICE: WHY <b>MARK</b> <b>E</b>. <b>SMITH</b> IS COOLER THAN KURT COBAIN

Yesterday (January 24, 2018) the music world lost one of it’s most prolific, inimitable, distinctive and impenetrable characters. I first saw The Fall at Totnes Civic Hall in 1981. It was one of the greatest gigs I have ever seen – the best stay with you. Uncompromising to the last, the bands front man, Mark E Smith, was a much maligned and misunderstood artist and poet who maintained an aura that exuded menace combined with a characteristic dry and dark acerbic wit.

The Fall created a musical language that echoed the anti-conformism of the punks but was far more radical and authentic rooted in England’s northern suburban streets and smoke-filled pubs. The bands raw sound, and Smiths maniacal, unorthodox delivery and scowling on-stage presence, was indicative of the alienation felt by suburban youth of the period.

The Fall re-invented the anti-establishment language of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band for a post-industrial generation of music fans who had grown up with the likes of Roxy Music, Lou Reed and the Stooges. Unlike many of their respective contemporaries, both Beefheart and Smith were genuine outsiders.

Whereas the musical aesthetic of the former closely resembled the marginal aspects of Freak Culture, The Fall faithfully expressed the anxieties of the punks. Both had a desecrating vision of the world, and both were not averse to intellectualism. Smith’s adoption of the famous Albert Camus novel, for example, was a deliberate invocation to something more profound than just music intended for estranged kids.

Smith emphasized that the underlying philosophy of the groups music was far closer to the aesthetic of the garage bands of the 1960s than it was to the simplistic profanity of the ’70s punks. Mark E Smith’s art can essentially be construed as a cryptic game imbued with pathos and humour but at the same time, darkly sinister.

Audience and band members alike were rarely able to relax during a Fall performance. As with Zappa and Beefheart – his key mentors – Smith had a clear artistic vision that required a musical discipline and devotion to the craft necessary to pull off the level of sustained musical repetition often associated with The Fall.

A self-confessed non-musician, Smith would sometimes berate his band when he felt the vision slipping. He knew what he wanted musically, and artistically, and pushed the band hard because he felt he had a certain responsibility to the public. He almost certainly wasn’t the kind of pathological dictator many have claimed.

Luke Turner on Twitter put it well when he said, “Smith didn’t rule The Fall, he wasn’t the dictator of cliché. He saw it as an entity outside of himself, of which he was the curator, the caretaker, the hip priest.”

Smith’s ability to play tricks on the public and his band is what kept both on their toes. His playful characteristic cackle and biting wit often underpinned a more serious side. He seemed to have an incredible ability to be able to tap into the psyche of people and displayed an innate sense of when he felt they were going too far, reining them in with apparent consummate ease. He appeared to understand what passes for human nature more than most people. If he hadn’t succeeded as a “musician”, Smith could of been a professional street hustler.

Indeed, the sound of the early Fall has more in common with the rambling street lo-fi music of David Peel than it does with any of the music trends of the period. Smith’s often deadpan and ironic lyrics were delivered in a manner that merged Iggy Pop with William Burroughs. The result was often primitive and tribal, but also Swiftian in terms of its intellectual endeavor.

The real critical successes of this early period, were the albums ‘Live at the Witch Trials’ (1979), the humorous singles, ‘Totally Wired’ (1980), ‘Elastic Man’ (1981) and the EP ‘Slates’ (1981). It was slightly later when the band first grabbed my attention.

The groups third session for the John Peel show – recorded on September 16, 1980 (first broadcast on the 24 September 1980) – was when the band really began to leave their mark. With the classic line up of Smith on vocals, Marc Riley (guitar), Craig Scanlon (guitar), Steve Hanley (bass) and Paul Hanley (drums), the band excelled with rockabilly infused tracks like ‘New Puritan’ and ‘New Face in Hell’.

But it wasn’t until March 21, 1983 that Smith and the group would produce their tour de force session for Peel – a cacophonous tribal rock masterpiece. The seminal ‘Smile’ from the session, later to appear on ‘Perverted By Language’ (1983), was performed live on Channel 4s ‘Tube’ show and to this day remains one of the greatest  performances by any British group seen on TV.

Other outstanding works include ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ (1982) and ‘This Nations Saving Grace’ (1985). The latter contains the muscular ‘Gut of the Quantifier’, the voodoobilly infused ‘Cruisers Creek’ and ‘Spoilt Victorian Child’. Of the bands later works, ‘The Real New Fall LP’ (2003) and ‘Your Future, Our Clutter’ (2010) stand out. The latter contains three Fall classics – ‘OFYC Showcase’, ‘Cowboy George’ and ‘YFOC Slippy Floor’.

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Review of Fiende Fatale live at The Horn, St. Albans

By Daniel Margrain

In Steven Shea’s 2013 cult horror-adventure parody, Fiende Fatale, an assortment of DNA-cloned monsters and weirdos reconfigured from the carcasses of vampires, zombies, demons and others, find themselves confronting government and terrorist forces in a dystopian world devoid of meaning whose citizens are out of control.

As well as working at the level of a spoof, the short film mainly succeeds as a metaphor for a world spiraling ever-deeper, both spiritually and figuratively, into decay. With the enemy as much internalized as a result of the tactics of divide and rule, and brute force increasingly becoming the norm, the urban proletariat see violence as their only form of salvation against the tyranny of government – a kind of subterranean ‘fight club’ for lost souls.

The dark and claustrophobic venue, ‘The Horn’ in St. Albans fits neatly into this cinematic narrative. When headline band, Fiende Fatale, took to the venues small stage last Saturday evening, against a backdrop of the ever-present sight of ghouls, vampires and zombies in the run up to Halloween, the scene was set perfectly.

From two songs in, it was clear that the band are not easy to pigeon-hole. This is a testament to their creative and musical flair. Attending the same school, the north London ensemble have clearly imbued a multitude of influences – Lou Reed, Stooges, Sex Pistols, Roxy Music – among them.

The groups defining aesthetic is nevertheless one that is reminiscent of the art-rock and post-punk scenes of the early 1970s and early 1980s respectively. Indeed, the manner with which the group merge these influences seamlessly into their work is extremely impressive.

From the opening chords, the bands music, to this critics ears, doesn’t sound derivative, contrived or forced but rather discombobulating which is a mark of their distinctive musicality and artistic creative impulses.

Underneath the clever and often witty lyrics given free expressive reign by lead singer and guitarist, Matthew Magee – whose intensity is equal to Ian Curtis, and whose theatrics are reminiscent of Dave Vanian – is a band that musically, as a unit, are as tight as The Fall without Mark E Smith.

All the while, guitarist, Rolph Edwards regularly skews the formal structure of the groups sound to the point of cacophonous informality rooted in Captain Beefheart and the post-punk of say, the Gang of Four, while Alex Wright’s meaty bass and Dom Bowmans manic but disciplined drumming ensures that the spine of the sound remains intact.

Unfortunately my close friend and me had to leave during the bands rendition of the catchy ‘My Own Worst Enemy’ in order to catch the last train back to London so we missed all of the set. My one criticism is that the group do perhaps veer at times too much towards pop for my taste, but regardless they are talented musician’s who are keeping the spirit of rock and roll very much alive.

Fiende Fatale play The Fiddler’s Elbow, Camden, Thursday, 30th November.

 

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Tom Petty

By Daniel Margrain

It wasn’t cool to like Tom Petty in the late 1970s. British music critics couldn’t quite pigeonhole him and his band, the Heartbreakers. Among the others of his peers they couldn’t put into a box who emerged from the cultural wasteland of the mid -1970s and who made a name for themselves this side of the Atlantic, included The Patti Smith Group and The Pretenders.

As was the case with these artists, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers transcended the narrow confines of the punk and new wave movements from which the likes of The Ramones, Sex Pistols and Clash belonged. Thus Petty and his band were to punk and the new wave what Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band were to the Delta Blues. For a start, Petty was a far more accomplished musician than many of his more fashionable peers. His music struck the balance between harmony and melody that was simultaneously catchy, visceral and solemn. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers were a class act.

The group provided the bridge between the formulaic hard rock radio friendly groups of the 1970s, the West Coast Hippy vibe of The Buffalo Springfield, the quintessential American roots music of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the US pop-rock of the new wave. Many of the bands – The Cars, The Knack and The Runaways etc – that emerged out of the latter scene were invariably inferior musicians who produced weak songs.

By contrast, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers stood out among many of their contemporaries. Unlike the British punks, they were not sloppy but serious musicians who crafted their songs in such a way as to exude emotion and intensity whilst also managing to marry the spirit and attitude of somebody like a ‘Highway 61 Revisted- era Bob Dylan.

Tom Petty was at heart a folk-rock musician – a great songwriter – who produced a succession of brilliant melodies. But he was also an artist who wore his heart on his sleeve and he expressed his angst with a quirky sense of genuine raw emotion. Like Patti Smith and David Byrne, when Petty had something to say, you had better listen. A visceral punk aesthetic was nearly always below the surface of the folk-rock rhythm of the The Heartbreakers music.

The groups first three albums – the debut, ‘Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ (1976), ‘You’re Gonna Get It’ (1978) and ‘Damn The Torpedoes’ (1979) – were masterpieces that have stood the test of time. With the former, Petty is respectful, not only of the music and traditions that influenced him, but seemed determined to want to educate a generation of young punks that a dehumanizing attitude on its own is essentially an exercise in futility if its devoid of authenticity.

Bruce Springsteen, another artist of the period who bridged many genres from different eras, also preached a similar message. Petty, Springsteen and Patti Smith were there to remind those who would care to listen that alienation is rooted in something more profound than merely the slogan. Neil Young understands this too, so does Bob Dylan and so did Lou Reed.

While in a song like ‘American Girl’, Petty deliberately played on crude US stereotypes with humour and pathos, on others like ‘Breakdown’, ‘Luna’ and ‘Fooled Again’, he paints an atmosphere much darker that’s a cross between the work of the band, Television and the ruminations of Neil Young at his most cerebral and psychedelic. The punks at the time didn’t get the message but they, not Petty, were the ones who were the losers.

Petty’s follow-up, ‘You’re Gonna Get It’, maintains the winning formula of the first and is perhaps even smarter than its predecessor. Although the electric jingle-jangle style of the Byrds and the visceral garage-blues of say, The Yardbirds,  is evident throughout the record, there is enough modern variation on established themes and originality in the terms of the delivery of the message for the group to avoid being labelled as mere imitators of their heroes.

At the time of the release of ‘Damn The Torpedoes’, Petty was riding a wave of popularity and artistic credibility that was comparable to Springsteen’s which further alienated the punks. Petty’s third masterpiece was an illustration of how he was able to transcend the claim by some that he was a one trick pony.

With songs that are a series of powerful melodramas, particularly ‘Refugee’, his work took on an aura of sophistication that was both classic-sounding and elegantly produced. Still grounded in the sixties, the songs are nevertheless modernist masterpieces – delicate, serene and dreamy. Petty was to produce a succession of other great albums – Southern Accents (1985) and Full Moon Fever (1989) among them, but they couldn’t quite match the supreme quality of his earlier works.

One of Petty’s most memorable and intimate live shows was when he and his band performed at the Bridge School in 1994. It was the last time the original lineup played together. ‘Freefallin’ from Full Moon River is arguably the greatest live version of the song ever performed. The group delivered a particularly delicate and emotional rendering of the song. The lyrics, “I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’
Gonna leave this world for awhile” have of course, taken on an added poignancy since Petty’s death.

Petty wasn’t an innovator but an impeccable craftsman, who like Springsteen, Young and Dylan, chronicled the internal struggles of what it is to be human in a way that the punks could not. I never got to see Tom Petty live and was annoyed to have missed his concert at Hyde Park in the summer. Sadly, their won’t be another opportunity. I’m gutted at the news of his passing.

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Correcting Tyranny

By Daniel Margrain

Recently, the Independent reported on the curious story of a group of Satanic worshippers who unveiled a statue of the Knights Templar goat-man called Baphomet in Arkansas. It was not so much the face value story that caught my attention but the statement made by Satanic Arkansas co-founder, Ivy Forrester: “If you’re going to have one religious monument up then it should be open to others. If you don’t agree with that then let’s just not have any at all,” said Forrester.

Equal religious status

On the surface, the demand by Satanists that they have equal religious status with Christians, appears absurd. But is it?  Under the 1st and 14th amendments to the United States Constitution it is possible, using freedom of religion provisions, to obtain equal recognition for any proposed “religion” upon the payment of a nominal fee. A few US states have offered ordination by mail or on-line of The Church of the Latter-Day Dude and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a result of their adherents’ willingness to stump up the requisite cash.

These, and other parody religions have also sought the same reasonable accommodation legally afforded to mainstream established religions that Forrester argues is equally applicable to Satanism. The 1st and 14th amendments to the US constitution ensure that legally no distinction can be made between the rights of citizens to have their faith in belief systems recognized (or ridiculed) under the right to freedom of expression, irrespective of the form the said ‘religion’ takes.

The critical demands placed upon belief systems and critiques of their evidence-based deficiencies apply equally to the Church of the Latter-Day Dude. Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and mainstream established religions. All are afforded equal status under US law and all are open to scrutiny, ridicule and parody on an equal basis.

The problem is that established organised religions consider themselves to be absolved from ridicule in the way that the likes of the Church of the Latter-Day Dude and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster do not. The implication is that established religious belief systems are more credible than non-established ‘joke’ religions. But neither are fact based.

So why should a distinction be made between them in terms of one group being immune from criticism, ridicule and parody and the other open to these kinds of critiques? Why does one group make demands in law to be taken seriously despite the unsubstantiated claims that are made and the other remain open to be parodied and ridiculed on the basis of these unsubstantiated claims? Surely, the notion that all belief systems should be open to criticism and/or parody and ridicule whether established or not, should be regarded as a welcome development in free and democratic societies?

Those who formed the Church of the Latter-Day Dude and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are using the right to freedom of expression under the US Constitution to augment their right to parody other belief systems in the same way that they would expect others, including those who adhere to more established irrational beliefs, to ridicule them. Satirists and others who form spoof religious groups as vehicles for exercising their right to freedom of speech, actively embrace their right to be both offended and to offend the belief systems of others unhindered.

The United States is leading the way in inadvertently exposing the absurdity of organised religious dogma in all it’s forms. The freedom of satirists to be able to self-reflect on the ‘faiths’ they have themselves created in order to expose the absurdity of long established religious dogmas is central to healthy democracies. Nevertheless, it still remains the case that there are limits set by many European state legislatures as to how far down the road its citizens are allowed to go in lampooning organised religion.

Life of Brian & the Satanic Verses

One of my earliest memories of having my right to be offended and to offend curtailed was when, in their infinite wisdom, Torbay Borough Council and thirty-eight others throughout the UK decided to ban the Monty Python religious comedy satire, The Life of Brian, from cinema’s on the basis that it was deemed by a small minority to have been “blasphemous”.

Incredibly, the ban in Torbay remained in place until 2008 lasting 29 years. More significantly, the film was shunned by the BBC and ITV, who declined to broadcast it for fear of offending Christians in the UK. Blasphemy was restrained – or its circulation effectively curtailed – not by the force of law “but by the internalization of this law.

Almost a decade after the The Life of Brian controversy, orthodox religion was again the catalyst behind the attempt to censor art. The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel, first published in 1988, was inspired in part by the life of Muhammad. As with his previous books, Rushdie used magical realism and relied on contemporary events and people to create his characters.  

Many Muslims accused Rushdie of blasphemy and subsequently engaged in a number of book burning exercises throughout the UK. In mid-February 1989, following a violent riot against the book in Pakistan, the Ayatollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran and a Shi’a Muslim scholar, issued a fatwa against Rushdie and his publishers.

Disgraced British parliamentarian, Keith Vaz, who led a march through Leicester shortly after he was elected in 1989, rallied behind India’s decision to ban the book by calling for the same in the UK. To date, with police protection, Rushdie has escaped direct physical harm. However, forty-one others associated with his book have either been murdered or have suffered violent attacks leading to serious, and in some cases, life threatening injuries.

Hebdo, Diedonne & Corbyn

Islamic fundamentalism was again to play a part in regards to its opposition to the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. The publication, which featured cartoons, reports, polemics, and irreverent jokes, was the target of two terrorist attacks, in 2011 and 2015 in response to a number of controversial cartoons it published of the prophet. In the second of these attacks, 12 people were killed, including the magazines publishing director and several other prominent cartoonists.

Meanwhile, in France, public officials, Jewish groups and others have attempted to censor the satirist, political activist and comedian Diedonne M’bala M’bala, for his outspoken criticisms of the Israeli state. More recently the pro-Israel Lobby in the UK have attempted to gag pro-Palestinian activists that include Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. In both cases, the aim of the Lobby is to curtail the freedom of speech of all voices critical of the ethnic cleansing policies of an apartheid state using contrived anti-Semitism allegations as their justification.

The great musician and satirist, Frank Zappa, believed rightly, that no barrier, however “offensive”, should be placed in the way of freedom of expression. Zappa’s targets were everything and everybody from religion, politicians and corporations through to “Catholic girls”, “Jewish princesses”, “valley girls”, black people, white people and ideologies of all kinds. He showed no mercy for the human condition and regularly exposed hypocrisy at every turn. This is the spirit of freedom and openness that we should all aspire to but which religious dogmas and political ideologies often try to suppress.

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Sam Shepard & the Holy Modal Rounders

By Daniel Margrain

On July 27, 2017, the world lost a prestigious talent. The US actor, playwright and musician. Sam Shepard, had written at least 55 plays, acted in more than 50 films and had more than a dozen roles on television. His play Buried Child, won him the Pulitzer prize for drama in 1979.

As a key figure in helping to rejuvenate American theatre in the 1960s, Shepard is perhaps best known for Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) where he received a best supporting actor nomination, and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978).

What first drew my attention to Shepard was not so much his acting, as great as that was, but his writing, particularly the screenplay he had part-penned for the Wim Wender’s film Paris Texas (1984), a fascinating metaphysical study of self-discovery and disillusionment.

Ry Cooder’s haunting score and the superlative performances from a terrific ensemble cast, provided the space for Shepard’s hallucinatory words to breath. In my view the interplay between Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski in the following scene is one of cinemas finest moments.

The above scene has Shepard’s underlying naturalistic and suspended sense of trauma, mystery and grief written all over it. These ghostly and introspective themes, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett, haunt Shepard’s work.

Probably less well known was that Shepard collaborated with John Cale and Bob Dylan, notably his part-penning of “Brownsville Girl,” from the latter’s 1986 album “Knocked Out Loaded”. But arguably his most creatively fertile inroad into music was as a drummer with The Holy Modal Rounders, one of the most obscure and underrated groups of the 1960s.

The band also comprised Peter Stampfel on vocals and electric fiddle, Steve Weber on guitar and vocals and Lee Crabtree on piano and organ. Probably best known for their beautiful expression of freedom, “If you want to be a bird” that was included in the Easy Rider (1969) road movie soundtrack, the band were one of the most distinctive and original sounding artists of the time.

Their inventive deconstruction of US country-folk traditions and blithe send-up of musical Americana, was even more eccentric and anarchic in terms of its execution in their masterpiece, Indian War Whoop (1967).

While mining the Americana tradition, the group introduced wild and zany virtuoso turns on acoustic guitar, banjo and violin. “If you want to be a bird” was one of their later relatively conventional sounding records highlighting the vocal dexterity of Stampfel and Weber in addition to the haunting piano of Crabtree.

Dissonant and chaotic, with a cutting political edge that underscored a deliberate lack of respect for the vocal harmony tradition, the groups Fug’s style acid-folk had a devoted live following across the United States.

“Soldiers Joy” from Indian War Whoop is a masterpiece of irreverent and maniacal abandon. Stampfel’s electric fiddle is a political weapon in his hands. Country-folk traditions are fused with epileptic-sounding psychedelic marching band music with Shepard’s brilliant, frenetic drumming driving the madness along nicely.

Hardly any of the mainstream obituaries mentioned Shepard’s contribution to one of America’s greatest bands, and the few that did only mentioned it in passing.

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The twentieth anniversary of Radiohead’s ‘Ok Computer’. But is it any good?

By Daniel Margrain

Image result for pics of ok computer

I stopped reading the New Musical Express (NME) not long after writers of the caliber of Julie Burchill, Steven Wells, Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray stopped writing for it. Anton Corbijn’s stunning and memorable monochrome photography added to the mix of art, politics and music that made the paper special. For many people my age, the post-punk and new wave era, corresponded to a golden age in rock music and rock music journalism.

The NME seemed to have more credibility than its main rivals, the Melody Maker and Sounds. It’s music journalism was acerbic, if at times irreverent and pretentious, but as teenager and twenty-something I couldn’t do without my weekly fix.

Indicative of a great deal of what continues to pass for rock music journalism in Britain, it’s flaws were that it was probably too colloquial in its outlook, disproportionately praising UK bands at the expense of those in the USA.

The emergence of the stupefying Brit-pop scene in the early 1990s marked a nadir for the paper. The genres iconography was as reactionary as the music was derivative and bombastic. The paper’s content began to reflect this superficiality. Among the ubiquitous genre of Britpop artists to emerge during this period were the British band, Radiohead, who unlike many of their contemporaries, the NME were largely indifferent to.

Proving to be more of a critical and commercial success outside Britain than in it during the early 1990s, it wasn’t until the release of their third album, OK Computer in 1997 that the group received widespread critical acclaim. The album initiated a stylistic shift toward a more atmospheric and melancholic sound of rock music whose abstract lyrics touched on themes of urban living, alienation, technology and modernity.

The music journalist at the NME whose words I paid close attention to more than any other during my youth, Nick Kent, wrote in Mojo about Ok Computer:

“Others may end up selling more, but in 20 years time I’m betting [the album] will be seen as the key record of 1997, the one to take rock forward instead of artfully revamping images and song structures from an earlier era.”

Twenty years since Kent wrote his piece, it’s perhaps worth considering whether his enthusiasm for the album is justified? I listened to it again for the first time for many years yesterday (July 19, 2017). My indifference to the work hasn’t changed.

The recording opens with Airbag, a kind of meticulously crafted and structured post-modern form of psychedelia updated for a generation unfamiliar with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Musically, the piece is rather dull, a theme that sets the tone for much of the album.

Paranoid Android is marked by the shift towards early Roxy-Music-esque prog-rock, hard rock and Gothic and blues elements that invoke a curious merging of Van der Graaf Generator and the Rolling Stones Beggar’s Banquet. Although its a slight departure from the opening track, it’s no less boring.

The self-confessed attempts by the group to emulate the disturbing atmosphere of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew in Subterranean Homesick Alien fails to capture the dense and chaotic magma of that piece, but instead is closer to the relatively conventional jazz of Herbie Hancock sprinkled with the transcendentalism of Pink Floyd.

The Romeo and Juliet-inspired Exit Music (For a Film) illustrates quite a clever use of vocal, acoustic guitar, mournful choir, electronics, renaissance-sounding mellotron and distorted trip-hop bass that is quite effective in its way, but hardly innovative. Nevertheless, this solemn requiem is one of the few successful and interesting moments on the album.

Let Down is basically a trance track featuring a subtle use of electronica that overlays some of the bands David Crosby-ian influences from their second album, The Bends. With a melodic chord progression reminiscent of the Beatles Sexy Sadie, the albums sixth track, Karma Police (inspired by Sgt Pepper), includes a pleasant Elton John-style romantic piano motif that eventually dissipates into a black hole of effects. Again, not a bad piece, but it’s not something I would necessarily have any desire to hear again either.

Fitter Happier is a short throwaway piece of sampled musique concrete, while Electioneering is heavy rock reminiscent of the groups debut, Pablo Honey. The next track, Climbing Up the Walls, is layered with a string section, ambient noise and repetitive, metallic percussion, while the renaissance-infused mournful hymn of the Beach Boys-inspired No Surprises, whose use of glockenspiel in the refrain reminiscent of a music box, is probably the best known cut on the album.

The penultimate apocalyptic, orchestral and choral, Lucky, is as languid and overblown a piece as the worst excesses of Pink Floyd. The album closes with The Tourist, a meandering waltz for the blues.

The album has its moments but there is simply a lack of quality in the structure of the songs and too much of it is filler. The melodramatic dirges and vocals are too hard to take after a while, especially during a single sitting. Ultimately, there is not enough interest to justify its length.

Production values can only sustain interest up to a point before the limitations of what lies underneath are exposed. This was true of Sgt Pepper and Dark Side as it is with Ok Computer.

Ultimately, Radiohead’s “art” in Ok Computer, like David Bowie’s, is the personification of artifice. As one independent critic, Piero Scaruffi, argued:

“[Ok Computer] embodies the quintessence of artificial art, raising futility to paradigm, focusing on the phenomenon rather than the content…of concentrating on ‘sound’ to the expense of “music”.

The leading creative force of the band, Thom Yorke, openly admitted in an interview in Mojo that the appropriation of other artists ideas – The Beatles, REM, Beach Boys, P J Harvey, Can and others – acted as the catalyst and provided the inspiration that culminated in the creation of the records “sound”.

There is nothing wrong in artists admitting  influences and sources. On the contrary, it is an admirable position to take. But as influential as the work of peers might be to an artist, it doesn’t necessarily follow that great art emerges from these influences. OK Computer, whose whole is not, in my view, greater than the sum of its parts, is a case in point.

That the album is regarded by many critics to be the best of the last 25 years; is included in many of the ‘best of’ lists including Rolling Stone and is even ranked by some to be the best rock album of all-time, is in my view, a gross overstatement of the albums artistic historical significance.

According to Tim Footman:

“Not since 1967, with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, had so many major critics agreed immediately, not only on an album’s merits, but on its long-term significance, and its ability to encapsulate a particular point in history.”

This kind of a simplified critique arguably says more about how corporate music journalism operates and the limited parameters it sets, than it does about genuine creative and artistic worth of pieces of music.

The “artistic merits” of Ok Computer relate to the extent to which the public and critics alike buy into the illusion that its production excesses are art and that these excesses don’t detract from the mediocre quality of the content.

The concept of style over substance embodied in pop and rock music can be traced back to the Beatles Sgt Pepper album in 1967 where the role of producer, George Martin (the fifth Beatle), was widely regarded as being at least an equal, if not a more important figure, than the musicians.

It’s no coincidence that Thom Yorke (who outlined how important producer Nigel Godrich, characterised as Radiohead’s “sixth member”, was to Ok Computer), cited Sgt Pepper, particularly, A Day In the Life, as a major influence on him. It also explains why Tim Footman cited above, holds both Sgt Pepper and Ok Computer in equally high esteem. 

Radiohead upped the ante. But beneath the artifice there really isn’t much substance to their “art” and precious little for critics to write about the groups songs or the competency of the musicians who perform them.

The fact that twenty years on from the release of Ok Computer, not a single corporate critic has alluded to the fact that the album is a masterpiece of “faux avantegarde”, as Piero Scaruffi put it, or that the group who made it are one of the most hyped and overrated bands probably since U2, is a reflection of the lack of good quality independent music journalism in this country and abroad,

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