Monday, May 23, 2011

This Is Really Happening: Vol. 3- OK COMPUTER

For those in the nosebleed seats, Radiohead announced they are performing The King of Limbs live on the BBC July 1. This will be the first time we have seen any of the songs from their eighth album performed by the entire band (Thom played several solo while on his Atoms for Peace tour last year). As Limbs itself is quite the abstract album- this is exciting news to see how Radiohead will breathe life into these eight tracks. One of the most enjoyable things about the band can be the way in which their live shows transcend a studio recording which usually is already transcendent on it’s own. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the driving bass line for the live version of Hail to the Thief’s “The Gloaming”- they actually had the audacity to open several shows with this in 2003. For myself, the song instantly went from being an experimental bridge piece to an album favorite.

In honor of the live unveiling of The King of Limbs, I will be running a weekly (hopefully) column breaking down the seven previous LP’s and the quintessential live band performance of each song followed by a brief explanatory write-up. The rules I have given myself are pretty lenient- every album can only have 2 songs from the same live show (if this weren’t the case- the Astoria concert would dominate Pablo Honey and a large portion of The Bends). Bear in mind- when I say “quintessential”, I am shooting for the best rendition, but a meaningful performance sometimes will reign paramount. If it comes to pass that some rarer songs cannot be found, a favorable B-side live version will take it's place. This is obviously opinionated so comments are readily encouraged. So are you ready? Here we go.

Airbag- 1997, Eurockeennes

"In the next world war... in a jack-knifed juggernaut, I am born again."

And we’re off. “Airbag”, like “Planet Telex” before it, acts as a silent pillar to the collection of music that follows it. Removed from the context of OK Computer, it’s amazing how dynamic the song works on it’s own. It speaks to the strength of the album that Radiohead are content to use it as merely a prologue- when it is overly worthy of it’s own showcase. For proof- look no further than the clip above.

Paranoid Android- 2003, Glastonbury

"Can you please stop the noise? I'm trying to get some rest."

Not much more can be said about Radiohead’s three-part opus that spirals OK Computer into the nether-regions of an Orwellian fever dream. Equal parts Dystopian ballad, messy stadium rock, and choral chanting- “Paranoid Android” is schizo-rock at it’s most transcendent. The 2003 Glastonbury version is especially spectacular- here we see the band fiercely committed to the song’s madcap tendencies.

Subterranean Homesick Alien- 1997, Hammerstein Ballroom

"The breath of the morning... I keep forgetting..."

Boasting some of the band’s more poetic lyrics, “Alien” found itself an unlucky outcast when it came to live performances. This is a real shame because, in many ways, this song encapsulates the essence of the album. A gentle Floydian tune with elements of Sergio Leone (!) – “Alien” chronicles the plight of a social outsider on lonely planet Earth, desperate to be rescued by an alien mother ship. One of Computer’s more obvious nods to Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”- the story that lyrically unfolds is riveting. It feels like an entire universe comfortably lives inside this song.

Exit Music (For a Film)- 2009, Prague

"Wake... from your sleep..."

Along with “Talk Show Host”, “Exit Music (For a Film)" first made it’s presence known in 1996’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet… as exit music for that film. "Exit Music" is a four-minute slow burn- an elongated swell of anxiety, protest, and resentment with one of Radiohead’s more rousing climaxes. Its intimate progression lends itself to being a crowd-pleasing live favorite. The edited, high quality fan footage from their recent show in Prague captures the excitement of the crowd as the ballad build’s to its crescendo.

Let Down- 1998, San Francisco

"Transport, motorways, and tramlines..."

Did Radiohead forget they wrote something as elegiac as “Let Down”? Did the song sleep with their wives? I can think of no other reason why this tune has been actively ignored on the live circuit for almost fifteen years. Regardless, “Let Down” is a gutwrenching affair of immense beauty. Seriously, go listen to it now. At least, “Alien” has company on the setlist of Greatest Songs Radiohead Never Touches Live (hmmmm… now that would be a good post).

Karma Police- 2009, Reading Festival

"Karma police, arrest this man..."

Radiohead’s music often lends itself to being an openly communal experience- but never more openly than when they play “Karma Police” live. “Police” is a rousing acoustic anthem, reminiscent of The Beatles’ “Sexy Sadie”, which finishes up the album’s first half. Relative to Computer, “Police” also reveals the band at their most direct, sterile, and antagonistic. It also has one of the greatest bridges of any rock and roll song. Ever.

Fitter. Happier.

"Fitter. Healthier. More productive."

This cynical two-minute mantra utilizes a voice synthesizer a’la Stephen Hawking to disperse fragmented advice for a captive, unseen audience. Oddly, this mechanized diatribe feels resolutely human- perhaps not in tone, but in the Futurist inspirational speech it strives to be. “Fitter. Happier” is also notable for indicating the man/machine union that is heavily the focus on Kid A. This isn’t music in the traditional sense- although the distant sound of a piano lurks in the background- “Fitter. Happier” was used primarily as an opener or segue-way during the 1997 Computer tour, and promptly never heard from again.

Electioneering- 1997, The Tonight Show

"I will stop. I will stop at nothing..."

Although, widely and unfairly regarded as the black sheep of OK Computer, “Electioneering” is a galvanizing rockout- complete with cowbell. Initially criticized for it’s abrupt tonal shift from the rest of the album, “Electioneering” has aged extraordinarily well- it would fit in perfectly tucked into the middle of Hail to the Thief. It’s a lively track that is eventually smothered and forgotten by the Dystopian blanket which immediately follows it. Strangely, Radiohead chose to play this song live when promoting OK Computer on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. I have always found this decision odd and I feel it speaks volumes regarding the band’s disposition toward the song. They obviously had a lot of faith in it. Greenwood is also in rare form here.

Climbing Up the Walls- 2003, Glastonbury

"I am the key to the lock in your house..."

“Climbing Up the Walls” sounds like an approaching monster when heard through headphones. When performed live- it is too late, the monster is already here. It celebrates the absence of all that is gentle and delicate via the embrace of a cacophony of painful noise. Electronic chirps and distortions ebb and flow over a slow, heavy percussion that sounds like Selway is beating an aluminum sheet. Thom’s soaring wail echoes over all of this, then we see the light in the horror.

No Surprises- 2003, Montreaux Jazz Festival

"A heart that's full up like a landfill..."

Prominently featuring Jonny Greenwood on a xylophone to capture a jarring sense of Rockwellian perspective, "No Surprises" is a lullaby/funeral dirge. Similar in theme and tone to The Bends’ “Street Spirit”- "No Surprises" is not quite as direct with it’s somber, bleak intentions. The listener is helplessly lulled into a false sense of security while being subliminally infused with lyrical messages regarding impending death and social suffocation. The yin to “Climbing Up the Walls”’ yang- it is a tremendously heavy song to sound so light.

Lucky- 1997, Prague

"I'm on a roll. I'm on a roll... this time..."

“Lucky” embodies man breaking free of “Fitter. Happier”’s synthesized mantra to discover true inspiration for one’s self. A live favorite- and rightly so- this performance captures the essential nature of Radiohead’s masterpiece. We have been rescued from the abyss and the next stop is the unknown.

The Tourist- 2003, Hammerstein Ballroom

"It barks at no one else but me..."

It’s difficult watching this one live and remaining unmoved. “The Tourist” is a great example of how OK Computer may be the most high-concept stadium rock album ever. Computer’s final track acts as both rock anthem and group hymn- the song everyone wants to hear because they’ve already felt it. Radiohead does not it play often- but when they do, it generates an immediate response. It’s quite the profound, emotional powerhouse.

B-Side Substitutes
Pearly*- 1997, Atlanta

"How'd you get your teeth so pearly?"

OK Computer is littered with standout B-sides. In the end, I chose “Pearly*” to stand in for “Fitter. Happier” simply due to the unbearable tension leading up to Greenwood’s final guitar solo. The song purposefully herks and jerks it’s way through a couple of stanzas before Thom lets loose with one of his more haunting howls. Then all hell breaks loose.

And there you have it. Next up- Kid A. Until then.


  1. Karma Police is definitely the live sing-a-long (I can't seem to think of any others that rally the crowd like it); it will be interesting to see in Give Up the Ghost takes on a similar live profile

  2. Pondering how TKOL will translate live is an interesting discussion. For example- will Thom portray Lotus Flower the same way he did in the video? Because that could get redundant in a hurry.