During the week that began on 5 May 1997, Chris Smith MP - freshly awarded a Cabinet post, limousine and gaggle of civil servants - chose to change the name of the ministry. During the Major years, it had been the Department Of National Heritage, a title that conjured up images of cream teas, `collectable' plates and re-enactments of The Battle Of Bosworth. Now, it was to see to `Culture And Communications': millennium monuments, computers for all, a moon rocket in every home. Our Government, so long in thrall to a crapola vision of leather on willow and (you've guessed it) old maids cycling to communion through the morning mist, was actually looking to the future.
All of which begs several questions. Will rock music now fall in with the Cultural Blairvolution? Are the days of Vanity Fair rejoicing about a London where everyone wants to be Michael Caine or Julie Christie now over? Or shall we just leave our copy of `Rubber Soul' on the pink plastic record player we bought from that nostalgia shop in Camden Town, iron those dogtooth hipsters and proceed as usual?
Let's face it: we are in need of a truly modern kind of rock. Not the sort that wraps itself in rubber trousers, affects a laughable air of perviness and buys itself a fuzz-pedal (Placebo: truly, a Dr. Who enthusiast's idea of `futuristic'), not indeed that calculatedly calls in the orchestras and seeks to go conceptual (Mansun: Blake's Seven, at a push) - but one that sounds utterly spontaneous. The idea that modernity will rob you of `soul' has long needed exploiting.
Radiohead, of course, have always lived in close proximity to the appropriate detonator - and if `The Bends' threatened to do the trick, only to be held back by a smattering of trad balladry and the odd outbreak of old-school bluster, then `OK Computer' pulls it off fantastically. Every word sounds achingly sincere, every note spewed from the heart - and yet it roots itself firmly in a world of steel, glass, Random Access Memory and prickly-skinned paranoia.
There is hatred of the upwardly mobile, at least of one plane crash and a silicon-generated voice that describes the idealised modern existence ("Not drinking too much/Going to the gym three times a week/Getting on well with your associate employee contemporaries"). There is an unspeakably brilliant opening track called `Airbag' that purports to describe the emotional epiphany that comes from surviving a car crash: "In the next world war/In a jackknifed juggernaut/I am born again." And there is very little that could ever be described as orthodox pop music.
Tellingly, `Paranoid Android' is both the most out-there thing on offer and the first single, doubtless being ignored by daytime radio programmers as this is written. For six and a half minutes, it rattles around in the most neurotic manner imaginable, ascending into a spittle-flecked tantrum that contains a guitar solo best described as `sneering' (such also are its lyrical sentiments: "The crackle of pig skin/The networking/The vomit/The vomit"). It then stumbles into a soothing passage that suggests the tension has reached some kind of resolution. And then starts flailing around again, just to be difficult.
`Electioneering' conveys a similar kind of spite, only it's mediated through a clattering , splenetic song that drips with bulgy-veined urgency. And that, as far as Radiohead's more noise-centered tendencies go, is largely that. Almost everything else on `OK Computer' is distinctly delicate - not much less startling (with the exception of the fairly textbook weepies `Exit Music' and `Climbing up the Walls', and `The Tourist' which is ace, but sounds like Pink Floyd), but free of the sense of swaggering strength that Radiohead occasionally used to deal in. There is nothing as stirringly direct as the last album's title track, no anthemic `Creep'-ness... not a power chord within earshot.
Most of it seems to be set at around 4am, when daylight hours' stresses are being blearily absorbed into the mind's memory bank, and everything takes on a fairly surreal glow. The chiming hymn to sadness that is `Let Down' is a key example, as are the more expansively epic `Lucky' - originally on the War Child album, but slotted in here so that you barely notice the join - and the beautifully weary `Karma Police', curtailed by what sound like a circuit board falling asleep.
The song most enchantingly roots itself in the wee hours, however is `Uptight' - a celestial, waltz-time song that sees Thom Yorke's ever-present sense of unbelonging send his mind towards the heavens. Literally, as it happens: "I wish they'd swoop[ down in a country lane," he says, "late at night/Take me on board their beautiful ship/Show me the world as I'd love to see it." It's indicative of this album's beguiling prose-as-lyrics approach (nothing rhymes, it seems), and in its own quiet way, the best song here.
It also encapsulates the fact that, for all its experimentation, `OK Computer' is welded to ideas and sounds as huge as anything on `The Bends'. The key difference is its initial air of awkwardness; the fact that, in a world in which most music has become laughably `instant', it needs five or six plays before you even begin to understand it...
...Which is a telling summation of just how mould-breaking most of this album actually is. Leather or willow? Old maids on their way to communion? Radiohead have mastered the sound of plastic on metal and anxious corporate drones sweating their way to work through a Prozac fug - hardly the kind of vision that the aforementioned Mr. Smith is going to endorse, but another bold step away from music's overpopulated second-hand shop. With 30 months till that dateline, is anyone else going to join them?
Soundbite: "A landslide victory"
*In this article they mention
a song called `Uptight'. This is also under the name of `Subterranean Homesick