I Wish It Was The 90s, I Wish We Could Be Happy

On an early-Radiohead listening binge, initially prompted by Tasmin Archer’s “Sleeping Satellite” (1992) coming up in conversation, and suddenly wondering whether Archer’s “Don’t blame the sleeping satellite” pre-dated Yorke’s “blame it on the satellite / that beams me home” in “Black star” (The Bends, 1995). As it evidently does, it’s possible to imagine the Radiohead song as a retort to Archer’s enduringly lovely hit, Yorke snarling to himself “I’ll blame whatever I bloody well like”.

In a way, “I’ll blame whatever I bloody well like” could be Radiohead’s unofficial motto. Music critics have been writing for years about how the band’s music expresses the feelings of disconnection, isolation and anomie induced by contemporary society, without for the most part being too curious about what lies at the root of such feelings: it might be “capitalism”, “technology” or “ecological collapse”, all of which are definitely happening, but somewhat nebulously and on time-scales which resist the narrative devices of conventional songcraft. Where Radiohead’s lyrics address themselves to particulars, they are more often personal; often intensely, cryptically so. Larger actors such as “the IMF” are angrily gestured towards without really being indicted with any specificity. A sort of general unease with the general state of things is Radiohead’s version of the numinous: we could call it “transcendental miserabilism” (to coin a phrase), or “the ornery sublime”.

This is especially true of “Street Spirit”, a defining anthem of the era I’ve been listening back over, which conjures up a doomed normality — “streets of houses” — engulfing as it is itself engulfed by a disaster unthinkable from within its own frame of reference. What is actually wrong with this picture? No cognitive mapping is available which can represent it; we’re left with a mysteriously sweeping commination of “all these things” which are, ominously, moving “into position”. GYBE’s “we are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is slowly bleeding to death” (1997) resonantly expresses the general sense of withering in confinement, watching the life drain out of the systems that are supposed to sustain you.

James Bridle’s New Dark Age, (which I reviewed a while back) is very much a Radiohead fan’s sort of book, conjuring a broad sense of systemic collapse and yoking this to a personal feeling of dislocation, a looming apprehension that (as Bridle puts it) something is wrong on the internet. I think the way Bridle describes sufferers of mysterious complaints such as Morgellons Disease as reproducing within their proprioceptive mapping of their own bodies a sense of global invasion by technology — “fibers” under the skin standing in for fibre-optic cable threading through the surface of the planet — aptly describes the way Thom Yorke bodies forth a personal apprehension of the sweep and scope of global technocapitalism by means of physical jitters and vocal tics. Later Radiohead — beginning perhaps with Kid A’s Idioteque (2000) — mobilises those same jitters and tics as a form of resistance, turning involuntary nervous spasm into angular jiving, stimming into signifying, helpless shuddering into bodily self-assertion.

Jayson Greene’s Pitchfork review of the OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017 re-release_ draws out a sonic connection which makes a strange sort of sense, between Thom Yorke and James Bond:

The ghost of Bond followed them once they decamped from their self-built studio Canned Applause to set up shop in a 16th-century Bath mansion owned by Jane Seymour—she played a Bond girl in Live and Let Die. And it has followed them ever since: It’s worth remembering that Radiohead were tapped to write a Bond theme for Spectre, and obliged, only to have their offering vetoed. The lyric “Kill me Sarah/Kill me again/With love” (“Lucky”) feels tailor-made for a suggestive title sequence full of undulating silhouettes. Many songs on the original OK Computer feel written for a desk-drone, earthbound version of England’s most famous fictional spy, the sort of soul who whistles “bring down the government, they don’t speak for us” while dutifully hitting “Zoom” on government surveillance footage.

To this we need only add that Lucky (1997)’s “The head of state has called for me by name / But I don’t have time for him” is a scenario from the end of a Bond movie — it became a running gag, in fact, that the PM would call to congratulate Bond while he was celebrating his triumph by engaging in sexual congress with that movie’s Bond Girl. One of the ways Radiohead’s music of the 90s distinguishes itself from contemporary Britrock is the near-total absence of any sort of laddish swagger or sexist smirk; and yet. Bond appears here as a sort of obscene absent father, ironically identified with: a figure of potency, excitement, and intrigue; a well-travelled citizen of the world, representing an imperial mastery of culture and a boundless capacity for personal, heroically masculinised violence. “This is what you get / when you mess with us”, indeed. The anxiety besetting OK Computer is the anxiety of belonging to a world without Bond, a (wait for it) bond-less world in which the symbolic function of this obscene father is no longer available to make sense of it all. Thom Yorke’s attachment to Bond comes from much the same place as Alan Partridge’s (“stop getting Bond wrong!”): the “anxiety” of 90s Radiohead is fundamentally nostalgic, structured by the loss (which cannot be consciously mourned) of a particular source of reassurance.