“The biggest battle I have at the moment is to persuade a lot of people that a lot of the lyrics I write are very funny.”
Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke had never really been known for the quality of his gags. The gruelling yearlong world tour for his group’s third album, OK Computer, in 1997 and ‘98 did little to add to his sense of light-heartedness.
Bandmate Jonny Greenwood gave a little more context to Yorke’s comment.
“I think there’s a lot of humour in our albums to be honest,” he told MTV Japan. “Quite dark, admittedly. But the whole idea of ‘Karma Police’ and certain parts of ‘Paranoid Android’ are patently ridiculous.”
The story at the heart of ‘Paranoid Android’, a three-part epic that shifts restlessly and threateningly over six minutes, was a disturbing event that Yorke witnessed at a bar in LA.
The lyric ‘kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy’ was a reference to a woman who lost the plot when a drink was spilled on her.
“There was a look in this woman’s eyes that I’d never seen before anywhere,” Yorke recounted to Q magazine in 1997. “I couldn’t sleep that night because of it. I tried to imagine that look.”
Bill Hicks – for whom Radiohead’s previous album The Bends was dedicated – would have approved of ‘Paranoid Android’’s smirking and sinister closing lyric of ‘God loves his children, yeah…’ as the song nears its dramatic end.
For a succinct summation of the uneasy emotion, troubled mindset and, yes, humour, of this album, you need look no further than the computer voiced mid-album track ‘Fitter Happier.’
As a description of modern life and how our fixation on having it all turns us into robots, programmed and directed by the insidious advertising machinery and mass media that surrounds us, its offers plenty of moments for a wry chuckle.
‘More productive, comfortable…getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries…no paranoia, careful to all animals (never washing spiders down the plughole)…tyres that grip in the wet (shot of baby strapped in back seat)…still kisses with saliva…fitter, healthier and more productive, a pig in a cage on antibiotics.’
There were periods of genuine enjoyment in the Radiohead camp while making this album. For a record that this group laboured over for more than a year, the thrills came in the more spontaneous moments of creativity.
“The most exciting time for me is when we’ve got what we expect to be an amazing song, but nobody knows what they’re gonna play on it. And that’s the best feeling,” Jonny Greenwood explained on MTV Japan.
“Thom sits down and plays you ‘Exit Music’ just with an acoustic guitar and says, ‘right, well, we’re gonna put this on the album’. I mean, it’s kind of daunting and exciting in equal parts, I think.
“It’s quite a delicate thing knowing what to put on top to make it better – or not to make it worse – and it’s a kick, you know. It’s a part where there isn’t anything, and two days later there suddenly is something concrete and physical. And that’s a big rush, a really big rush.”
“And you can last on that for months,” Yorke quickly added. “You can last on that for months, and months, and months, and months.”
In the face of the instant, lavish acclaim and massive success of OK Computer, the band found themselves on a trajectory that was highly precarious.
Speaking to Richard Kingsmill in 1998, when the Radiohead world tour wound its way to Australia, Thom Yorke sounded like a man who’d taken serious stock of his situation.
“In what we’ve done, fame’s been the most damaging element of it, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “People start talking to you differently on a day to day basis and there’s no positive side to that, at all.
“I mean, that’s a destructive thing and you’re just lucky if you happen to have enough friends who don’t talk to you differently.”
Asked if he could ‘… stand back and laugh’, Yorke replied, “Yeah, because we’re a band. I think if I was on my own or if Johnny was on his own, you can’t. You’d freak, you’d really freak out. And I totally understand when people do now. I totally understand why.”
Reflecting on where they found themselves at the end of the process of making this opus, Yorke could see his group had taken some bold steps forward.
“As a band, it’s sort of like a club and you stick together,” he told MTV Japan. “But there is a point where you actually have to grow up. Doing The Bends and finishing OK Computer, we did quite a lot of growing up. That’s not to say we don’t live in limbo, which we do.”
For an album that’s thematically uncomfortable with the contradictions, horrors and hollowness of modern life, limbo seems like the perfect space in which to experience a more desirable alternate reality, or even just a little respite. Perhaps with a little distance, such as the protagonist in the pristine ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ shows us, we can appreciate the world as a peaceful and harmonious place.
With 20 years now behind it, OK Computer’s songs still exude and evoke strong, contrasting feelings. Mainly a sense of reaching for something that remains so frustratingly out of reach.
It also reminds us that a little well placed humour, no matter how dark, might just make all the difference.