Sean stretched his hand above his bed, humming to himself as he searched the wooden shelf for the CD case with the blue and white spine. Treating it with the type of care that I never seemed to be able to muster, he carefully unfurled its inner paper sleeve, handing it to Conor, then gently gripped the edges of the disc to release “OK Computer”. Admiring its artwork, he flipped it over, causing shards of reflected light to splinter the room where the five of us were huddled on his single bed. He pressed a button on his black Sony triple CD Hi-Fi and its tray whirred around twice, landing on the Disc Three slot. I could see the cover art of the Bends in Disc Two but was unable to make out what was in Disc One. Delicately propelling the CD by its sides –never touching its shiny underbelly- into the empty slot, he clicked PLAY and so began my first encounter with “Airbag”. . .
Bathed in a late summer’s haze of red and orange light, Radiohead took to the stage 20 years after the release of “OK Computer” at Open’er Festival 2017 in Gdansk. Watching them perform to the reserved Polish crowd, it struck me that Thom Yorke’s jolty robotic dancing was oddly redolent of Bez from the Happy Mondays. Granted, Yorke did not move with the manic fluidity that double-dropping a couple of doves undoubtedly gave the Mancunian, yet both seemed to feel the music on a refreshingly visceral level. The Mondays, serendipitous enough to be a young guitar band breaking through just as acid house took root in the British music scene, were hailed as the Madchester crossover band – but I always saw the Stone Roses as true carriers of that mantle. “Fools Gold” and “One Love” were for a long time the perfect exponents of this new hybrid. I have written before about how the Roses did not cut it live, struggling to incorporate their electronic and guitar sounds on stage. Radiohead prove that such fusion can work live, flitting in and out of each genre seamlessly at Gdansk. They are not an all-time great live band in the vein of, say, Queen or Springsteen but can make ambitious tracks like “Paranoid Android” sound great live.
Radiohead are The Beatles of this generation. The fab four remain the finest pop band ever. Oasis were touted as the temporary heirs to their crown before “Be Here Now” flopped. To be on the level of The Beatles, a band needs to embody a change in society, to genuinely progress whilst retaining their distinctive sound – something that rules out Oasis. Listen to “Please Please Me” and then “Abbey Road” (their finest hour, to this listener’s ears) and you hear a band experimenting with new sounds while taking their fans with them. “OK Computer” is not the best Radiohead record, just as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, released fifty years ago, was not the finest Beatles record. Like ‘Peppers, “OK Computer” was pivotal in the way it changed their goals, direction and sound. In Radiohead’s case this meant them embracing electronic music. “Kid A”, the LP on which they made their giant leap forward, remains one of the bravest records ever released by a mainstream band at the peak of their powers. Instead of treading the same path, they took a risk and dared their fans to embrace the change. Listen to “OK Computer” and “Kid A” back to back and you realise how momentous the shift was. They would perfect the blend on their “In Rainbows” LP, symbolically released on a pay-as-you-like basis, and a perfect mix between both camps, displaying a dizzying array of electronic and guitar-based music meshed together by a band completely at ease with themselves and at the absolute zenith of their powers.
I am uncomfortable judging musicians on their morals. We are imperfect by design. If you go through any music collection and do a little digging on the members of each group you will learn that they have committed some immoral acts. If you own rap music, does it follow that you legitimise misogyny? As Bell Hooks has sagely pointed out, rap music exists because there is a market for it. We as consumers demand music that is immoral so we need to change ourselves instead of judging the ethics of the rappers. The question is whether we can separate the artist from the Art?
If pushed, I would say that we cannot separate them: any time that I separate the artist from their Art, copious examples of egregious behaviour by artists spring to mind and I become uncomfortable enjoying the work of said artist. I am agnostic on the matter, yet I do not believe that the statement “The artist can be separate from their Art” can be proved, so I err on the side that the theory is unprovable. The trouble is that we must either decidedly not judge any artists, meaning we consciously separate them even knowing that it is not a sound move, or we hold each artist to the same ethical standard.
This brings me to Radiohead and their non-conformity with the Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement to compel the Israeli State to cease its military occupation of Palestinian territory. I am in favour of BDS but with reservations. The big drawback, as with any sanctions, is that it targets citizens who disagree with their government’s stance. There are many Israelis who are against the subjugation of the Palestinian people. Is it fair to target them? Unquestionably, I support Palestine’s right to self-determination. The only real question, then, is whether BDS is the right tactic to employ to achieve this goal? As Chomsky has pointed out, the Israeli support from the United States is the real reason it can continue to occupy the Palestinian territory, therefore maybe the focus should be on the USA. That is a valid criticism, yet what better strategy can I support that will help to end the brutality? There is no alternative at the moment. Furthermore, it is of paramount importance to listen to the Palestinian people in those territories so if they believe that BDS is the way to go, then I think we should support them. However, I am open to being wrong. When Radiohead played in Israel in 2017, I disagreed with them and would not have played there in the same circumstances. That Israel were complicit in cutting the electricity to the Palestinians at the same time they played made it all the more painful. What recourse do the Palestinian people have? If BDS stymies the Israeli war machine in any way, then that is all well and good. If the only way we can help is to support BDS, then count me in.
That said, I respect Radiohead’s right to disagree with BDS. If they want to play in Israel, that is their right and I will not condemn them for doing it. This new-fangled rush to judge in modern society, enhanced by social media, saw Ken Loach become unstuck when he wrote an article condemning Radiohead before it was pointed out to him that his latest film “I, Daniel Blake” was playing at cinemas in Israel at the time. Thankfully he has subsequently stated that the profits of “I, Daniel Blake” will go to help the Palestinian people. However, would this have happened had it not been pointed out to him? It proves that if you relentlessly judge people, you open yourself up to being relentlessly judged. This charge can also be levelled at Radiohead. When a piece of Art is political or moral then the artist has introduced their morality into the equation and I believe that we can say it is fair, in this instance, to assess the Art in this regard. Radiohead’s music is inherently political and Yorke’s lyrics reflect this, “Karma police arrest this man / this girl . . . her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill”. It rankled when Radiohead played Israel just as it rankled when Loach proselytised about Palestine while his movie was playing there. Radiohead’s reaction to the whole saga has been disappointing. Thom Yorke even allegedly gave the finger to a fan in Glasgow for waving a Palestinian flag. Would it not have been more sensible to pen an article explaining the rationale behind their decision? The statement they made was vague and insufficient. However, if I hold Radiohead to this standard, then I need to hold all artists that I admire in a similar regard. I’m a Nick Cave fan but he is about to embark on a tour of Israel. Do I stop buying his records? Do I look back at Bez’s pill-popping days and decide that he was supporting violent gangsters through his drug use? Where do I draw the line?
Closing the apartment door behind me on the way to work, I zipped up my jacket and reached for my iPhone, blearily swiping into Spotify as a gust of cold air hit. I adjusted my AKG black headphones to protect my ears from the cold and thumbed RA into the white search box. Radiohead popped up on my screen and I selected, scrolled to Albums, then to “OK Computer” and tapped “Airbag”. Its tough imposing riff, similar in style to that of “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, blasted out. The science fiction theme on Airbag presupposed the band’s futurism. “I wish that they’d swoop down in a county lane …take me on board their beautiful ship” sings Yorke. Sonically, “Paranoid Android” was a more revealing glimpse of the direction that they were headed in, anchored by its giant guitars before drifting off into dreamy “Bohemian Rhapsody”-esque territory, the schizophrenic split symbolic of the break they were about to make. “Admission makes you look pretty ugly… bam bam bam bam bamba bamba bamba bamba bamba baba bam” – the rhythm had me jerking my head side to side in Yorke fashion on the way to work. I have always been a fan of the murky trip hop underwater drums on “Climbing Up the Walls”. “No Surprises” foresaw “Kid A” with its synth and xylophones, while the driving rhythms on “The Tourist” serve as a reminder that their signature guitar sound was still their anchor at this stage. “Pack…before your father hears us” has echoes of “She’s leaving home” from “Peppers”. Radiohead have always had the jangle in them and “Let down”, still my favourite twenty years on, makes me smile on my journey. It is Greenwood at his most melodic and Yorke at his expansive best, wailing angelically about being “hysterical” and having a “chemical reaction”.
“OK Computer” is a seminal moment in Radiohead’s career. They are the band of this generation. Just do not expect that they are “back to save the universe”. Admittedly, it is difficult not to judge Radiohead’s politics when Yorke opines that he wants to “Bring down the government, they don’t speak for us” on “OK Computer”. However, should you feel the need to judge them on their politics, then hold all the artists in your collection to the same standard. I will be liberal and give them the benefit of the doubt about playing Israel despite disagreeing with their decision to do it. The word “liberal”, like so many others in the political lexicon, is now devoid of meaning. To me, the definition of liberal is being open to different points of view and ideas, to being challenged, to exploring new concepts and being wrong about them. I need to be able to concurrently hold conflicting opinions: as Yorke sings, “There are two colours in my head”. I struggled with that lyric after hearing it at first, but it is an important one. I am wrong all the time. In fact, I love being wrong and learning from the process. If you think you are right and believe you have good politics, it is highly likely that you live in a vain echo chamber. In an era when people seem to be obsessing about being right all the time, we need to accept that we, like the musicians that we want to idolise, are fundamentally flawed and wrong all the time. As soon as we begin to lionise musicians, or any human beings, we will be “let down and hanging around”. It would be nice if Radiohead supported BDS. They do not. Does that invalidate the Art that they have created? Not for me.