OK Computer: Did Radiohead predict the future?
If I’m being honest, I still think Radiohead peaked on their second album The Bends. However, it is, if Archive on 4 (Radio 4, Saturday) is to believe, a minority position. It is the band’s third album, 1997’s OK Computer, which is considered the key text for Radioheadiana. (Is that a word? That’s for the purposes of this column.)
Novelist Sarah Hall, who presented the show, had no doubts about the merits of OK Computer and she was joined by journalist John Harris, fellow novelist Lauren Beukes, Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham and Dr Adam Rutherford, among others, to celebrate his merits. But maybe merit isn’t the right word for a mix of millennial dread, technological awe and wonder, and political cynicism, all of which are addressed on the album.
The consensus among Hall’s guests was that in 1997 Radiohead had seen the terrible future, the future we’ve all experienced since the release of the album; the era of Putin and Trump and social media. In short, Thom Yorke and the rest of the band were modern Cassandras, predicting the miseries and horrors of the past 25 years.
“All great bands are like lightning rods, you know. Whatever direction the culture takes, they just express it out of instinct,” suggested music journalist-turned-political commentator John Harris.
“We all live in OK Computer now,” Hall explained.
The program’s textures had some of the rhythm and energy off its subject matter, but Hall was by far its strongest asset. “Thom Yorke has a voice with a timbre somewhere between an angel of death and a fiery, impervious martyr at the stake,” she said at one point, which reconfigured my own mental view of the singer.
Hall’s imagery was equally vivid whether she remembers listening to the album on her first trip to New York or how it still affects her today.
“Music is a great reminder tool,” she concluded. “But I’m not very good at withdrawing into memories, great romantic nostalgia, past times. They seem to crumble every time I try. I prefer an experience, sensual now. Radiohead has this precise effect, an amplification of the moment. Thus, the listening sensation is a kind of real-time life enhancement.
“Every time I listen to OK Computer, I don’t relive that era of my twenties or remember skyscrapers at sunset. He feels relieved. Last time I listened to it, I was driving through flat, brown-colored farmland in Norfolk that has become no less cinematic, no less outstanding or atmospheric than New York City through the effect of the music .
In short, she likes it.
book of the week on Radio 4, another 1990s icon, Jarvis Cocker, read an excerpt from his new book Good Pop Bad Pop. The result was a nice, warm and fun slice of daily radio. On Monday, Jarvis told the story of having to go to school in lederhosen as a child. “I looked like an alpine goatherd in them,” he said. “But my mom thought it would be nice to go to school looking like that.” Unsurprisingly, it didn’t go well.
Tuesday great lives paid tribute to another musical legend, the late, mostly brilliant Tony Wilson, broadcaster, Factory Records supremo and Mancunian cultural catalyst. Paul Morley and Terry Christian defended the man. Both acknowledged that Wilson could be irritating, annoying and selfish. Both have also argued that neither they nor Manchester would be the same without Wilson’s contribution.
And they did enough to convince presenter Matthew Paris. “I now see not only his centrality, his importance, I see a man that I would have very much liked to meet.”
Finally, a word for time passes(Radio 4, Monday), which offered an evocative sound portrait of brothers Roman and Maz Piekarski who have devoted their lives to the largest collection of cuckoo clocks in the world.
The work of Falling Tree Productions was a quiet treat. Enhanced with an original soundtrack by Jeremy Warmsley, it offered a verbal portrait of two eccentrics and, in passing, a reminder of how quickly time flies. Tick, tick, tick…
Listen: Sounds of the 80s, Radio 2, Friday, 8:00 p.m.
Another mention for Tony Wilson. This week, Sounds of the 80s marks 40 years since the opening of the Hacienda club in Manchester. Gary Davies presents.