On the Radio: Did Radiohead predict the future on OK Computer?
IF I’M honest, I still think Radiohead peaked on their second album The Bends. However, this is, if Archive on 4 (Radio 4, Saturday) is to be believed, a minority position. It’s the band’s third album, 1997’s OK Computer, which is seen as the key text when it comes to Radioheadiana. (Is that a word? It is for the purposes of this column.)
Novelist Sarah Hall, who presented the show, was in no doubt about the merits of OK Computer and she was joined by journalist John Harris, fellow novelist Lauren Beukes, Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and Dr Adam Rutherford among others to celebrate its merits. But maybe merit is the wrong word for a mixture of millennial dread, technological fear 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 that we have all lived through since the album’s release; the age 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 last 25 years.
“All great bands are like lightning rods, you know. Whichever way the culture is going they express it just as a matter of instinct,” suggested music journalist turned political commentator John Harris.
“We are all living in OK Computer now,” Hall argued.
The textures of the programme had some of the off-kilter rhythm and energy of 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 flaming, impervious martyr on a pyre,” she said at one point, which reconfigured my own mental vision of the singer.
Hall’s imagery throughout was as vivid, whether recalling listening to the album on her first trip to New York, or how it still affects her now.
“Music is a great recalling device,” she concluded. “But I’m not very good at retreating into memories, grand romantic nostalgias, past times. They seem to collapse whenever I try. I prefer an experiential, sensual now. Radiohead has this exact effect, an amplification of the moment. So, the feeling when listening is a kind of enhancement of life in real time.
“Every time I listen to OK Computer, I’m not reliving that time in my twenties or remembering skyscrapers at sunset. It feels unburdened. Last time I listened to it I was driving through flat, dun-coloured Norfolk farmland which became no less cinematic no less exceptional or atmospheric than New York city through the effect of the music.”
In short, she quite likes it.
Book of the Week on Radio 4 saw another 1990s icon Jarvis Cocker read from his new book Good Pop Bad Pop. The result was a lovely, warm, funny daily slice of radio. On Monday Jarvis told the story of having to go to school wearing lederhosen when he was a kid. “I looked like an Alpine goatherd in them,” he said. “But my mum thought it would be fine to go to school looking l like this.” Unsurprisingly, it didn’t go well.
On Tuesday Great Lives offered up a tribute to another musical legend, the late, mostly great, Tony Wilson, broadcaster, Factory Records supremo and Mancunian cultural catalyst. Paul Morley and Terry Christian made the case for the man. Both recognised that Wilson could be irritating, annoying and egotistical. Both also argued that neither they nor Manchester would be the same without Wilson’s input.
And they did enough to persuade presenter Matthew Paris. “I see now not just his centrality his importance I see a man I would very much like to have met.”
Finally, a word for Time Flies, (Radio 4, Monday), which offered an evocative sound portrait of brothers Roman and Maz Piekarski who have devoted their lives to the world’s largest collection of cuckoo clocks.
The work of Falling Tree Productions, this was a quiet treat. Enhanced by an original soundtrack by Jeremy Warmsley, it offered a word portrait of two eccentrics and, in passing, a reminder of how quickly time passes. Tick, tick, tick …
Listen Out For: Sounds of the 80s, Radio 2, Friday, 8pm
Another mention for Tony Wilson. This week’s Sounds of the 80s marks 40 years since Manchester’s Hacienda club opened. Gary Davies presents.