Everything IS In Its Right Place ~ A Study Of Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’
(The Citrus Report. 2010)
“Basically ‘Paranoid Android’ is just about chaos, chaos, utter fucking chaos.”
~ Thom Yorke explaining Radiohead’s eccentric and indestructible lead single off their third album, ‘OK Computer’. ~
W H E R E R A D I O H E A D B E G I N S
It was on the brink of breaking through to adolescence, I discovered Radiohead and realised just how much I was changing both physically and emotionally. Besides the acne overtaking my body and my moods swinging from left to right, my taste in music was finally beginning to expand into places I never thought I would venture. For years, I was trapped in a cage of neglecting anything that wasn’t in the ‘Top Ten Songs of the week’ or off some mindless pop compilation CD. This all changed in 2009 when I was in a music store in Brisbane and bought a CD that would revolutionize everything I knew about music forever.
The CD was “Triple J’s Hottest 100 Of All Time” and was in conjunction with celebrating 20 years of the Australian radio station’s annual countdown of a hundred of the “best tracks” from the past year. However, this time around listeners had the chance to vote for their personal top ten favourites from the past two decades which sent voting polls into a frenzy. Taking out the top spot was no-other than, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a clear contender from the very beginning and following close behind was the song that would me change forever, Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”.
Listening to Radiohead for the first time was like encountering an alien. You didn’t know if it was going to blow your brains out with a laser or greet you peacefully, but at the same time you were glad you met it in the first place. Fortunately for me, the song did all three perfectly. It was like an unstoppable missile was about to be launched directly into my ears as I heard the four soft ‘beeps’ before I was smacked in the face with the entrancing, yet effortless, acoustic guitar playing and choirboy-like vocals of Thom Yorke with guitarist Johnny Greenwood, providing a creepy and eerie lead underneath. It was very hard not to feel unsatisfied with the six-minute epic; as it went from strength to strength with layers of electronics, fuzzing guitars, twisted lyrics and space-like sounds that shook up the perfect recipe for Radiohead’s third album, OK Computer. The album went on to sell over 4.5 million units and its legacy still stands tall within the grasses of progressive-rock to this very day. This essay will explore the unique story behind Radiohead’s Paranoid Android and why it has become an important landmark in music history.
I M A Y B E P A R A N O I D B U T N O A N D R O I D
(Green Plastic. 2010)
It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly 16 years since British alternatives, Radiohead, released their entrancing and so-called “landmark” third album, OK Computer. It was the band’s first self-produced effort under the watchful eye of Nigel Godrich and saw a great change in the quintet’s sound. After nearly a year of writing and recording in England’s historic mansion, St. Catherine’s Court, the album was discharged to the world and met with global recognition and acclaim. Despite mixed opinions, fans, critics and music magazines were frothing from the mouth as the album introduced the band’s love for experimental music and took a huge step away from the guitar/Britpop-driven works of their previous album, The Bends. The online retailer, Amazon.com, agreed with this stating: “OK Computer heads out into the cold deep space of prog-rock and comes back with stuff that makes mere pop earthlings like Stereophonics tremble” (Forbes, George. 2009). The record also emphasised themes like the need for cultural and political reform such as consumerism and social alienation.
“Paranoid Android” is the 2nd track off OK Computer and was easily conceived as the band’s most challenging piece so far. The song ties in closely with the themes presented in OK Computer such as violence, insanity, slogans and capitalism. The track takes it unprecedented name from the overly depressive alien, Marvin the Paranoid Android, a fictional character in Douglas Adams comical science novel: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Adams, who passed away in 2001, was known for knotting comedic writing with his personal outlook on the bizarre and torture behavior of humanity; particularly concerning religion, the superstition over science and disregard for the environment (Footman. 2007). Surprisingly, he was also responsible for the albums title as well, but the origin for Radiohead’s six-minute extravaganzas does not lie within the hands of Douglas Adams 1979 space adventure, but rather in the care of Liverpool favourites, The Beatles and British rock band, Queen.
The inspiration for the structure and idea of Paranoid Android came predominately from both The Beatles “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. The epicness and darkness of Queen’s power ballad and the acid trippin’ words and structure of Lennon’s piece helped shape the sound and idea for Paranoid Android. In an interview with MTV, Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood expressed his personal insight to how the band saw the potential of writing Paranoid Android after hearing both of these incredible songs:
“…well there’s a song anyway where they take lots of different bits and stick it together…and we thought we’d have a bash at that ourselves…and um, and then Paranoid Android is kind of a result of that. So we kinda recorded different bits and just stuck it together randomly and it um, worked out quite nicely really”.
(Radiohead Interview For OK Computer Release ’97, 2009)
The idea paid off and within 18 months of perfecting and rehearsing, the British quintet had created a song that would lay out the pavers for their future sound, but more importantly it would carry on a great legacy in the alternative and prog-rock genre.
K I C K I N G S Q U E A L I N G G U C C I L I T T L E P I G G I E
The problem that many critics, music commentators and journalists encounter with Paranoid Android is the lyrical meaning behind or the sonic narrative of the song. In musical terms, ‘Sonic Narrative’ is the story being told in the song. However in this case, there’s a lot of different forms of sonic narrative which all posses valid points about Paranoid Android. The most dominant theme that sings straight from the lungs of the track is the discontent of the 1997 general election. OK Computer was released in the follow up to the election and many music critics perceived that the album was a voice of disgust and skepticism towards the new government.
“When I am king you will be first against the wall. With your opinion which is of no consequence at all.” is snarled by Yorke in the second verse, which could indicate a lust for retaliation and destruction to the government for once and for all. This is also reflected at 2:45 when the song explodes and can be seen as a way of captivating Yorke’s loss of patience and been clearly fed up with someone or something. Other evidence such as the line: “Off with his head man! Off with his head man!” could easily be portrayed as a medieval-like protest for change, freedom or hope just like in the movie Braveheart.
The political and culture themes are also traced back into the artwork of the album. There is a picture of two stick figures shaking hands that is repeated twice on different sleeves. Yorke states that the stick figures represented exploitation and explained:
“Someone’s being sold something they don’t really want, and someone’s being friendly because they’re trying to sell something. That’s what it means to me.”
Thom Yorke was also inspired by certain events that occurred one night in a Los Angeles bar where he encountered a cocaine-fuelled female who was becoming increasingly violent and vulgar over duration of the night. The repulsive female sprung the idea of the line: “Kicking and squealing gucci little piggy”. Yorke explained what the ‘Gucci piggy’ meant to him and commented on his uncomfortable experience:
“…inhuman… you do often see demons in people’s eyes. They’re like fucking devils…. Everyone was trying to get something out of me. I felt like my own self was collapsing in the presence of it.”
Despite the cultural, humanity and political themes roaring from the song, the band pleas that Paranoid Android was only just for ‘fun’ and far from a universal hymn of woe. Guitarist Ed O’Brien recalls coming into rehearsal and trying to play the song live, which resulted in a laugh fest and had the band “pissing…[themselves]…as…[they]…played” (NME.com. 2011). However, does this question the bands authenticity as a whole and corrupt their image? Both the bands previous efforts (The Bends + Pablo Honey) have focused on similar themes like OK Computer such as their song Creep, that saw Yorke’s alienation and solitude expressed through a gritty and powerful ballad, which appealed to millions of hopeless adolescents. In saying this, is OK Computer not only a step up in the band’s sound, but also a change from their previous solemn musicianship? This can be linked to Armenian American rockers System Of A Down’s song ‘Chop Suey!’ which depicts the abhorrent side of suicide whilst conveying direct quotes from bible. While the song does transmit much sadness and grief it is named after a Chinese takeaway dish, a favourite in America. With this in mind, does naming a song about self-destruction, after a form of Chinese cuisine completely strip a band of its authentic musicianship?
You be the judge.
F I N A L B E L L Y A C H E
I remember that distinct moment I heard Paranoid Android. Talking computers, fizzing and fuzzing guitars, swirling melodies and weeping vocals. It was truly a wonderful moment in my life and something I will treasure for years to come. Not only did Radiohead change me, but they changed the entire face of progressive-rock and alternative genre. Radiohead proved that despite their great step forward in sound, the places they gathered their information from and their ‘joke’ song could accomplish remarkable things. The album defiantly shaped the course of alternative music history and will forever remain an important aspect to not only this genre but to all music in any shape or form.
(Apollo Danger. 2013)
Harrison McCormack, 2013.
B I B L I O G R A P H Y
Apollo Danger, 2013. “Radiohead – OK Computer: 20 Things Might Not Know” Image. Accessed 21 April, 2013. http://apollodanger.com/post/41644951961/radioheads-ok-computer-20-things-you-might-not
BBC.co, 2013. “Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy: Guide” Accessed 28 April, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/hitchhikers/guide/marvin.shtml
The Beatles – Happiness Is A Warm Gun. 2008. Youtube Video. Accessed 23 March, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTU2Y0VFH0E
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NME.com. 2011. “150 Best Tracks Of The Past 15 Years | #1 Radiohead – Paranoid Android | NME.COM” Accessed 1 May, 2013. http://www.nme.com/list/150-best-tracks-of-the-past-15-years/248648/article/248787
Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody. 2008 Youtube Video. Accessed 23 March, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ9rUzIMcZQ
Radiohead – Creep. 2008. Youtube Video. Accessed 3 May, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFkzRNyygfk
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They Will Never Take Our Freedom – Braveheart. 2011. Youtube Video. Accessed 3 May, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gr_OpFxCx-A
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