By Daniel Margrain
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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