I came of CD-buying age (and, slightly before that, cassette tape-buying age) during the era of the quickly meaningless “Alternative” craze. Here was a time when underground and indie bands were getting signed by the boot-loads, all (according to now-established rock-n-roll lore) due to the punky genius of one Kurt Cobain.
I was into Kurt, of course. “Nevermind,” I’m happy to say, was one of my first three CD purchases (alongside Pearl Jam’s “Ten,” unsurprisingly, and, slightly more surprising, whatever the first Presidents of the United States of America album was). I considered, in early high school, dyeing my hair, letting it grow and stopping washing it. I did not do this, but I considered it. This was really the extent of my teenage rebelliousness.
At that time, you could be into stuff like Nirvana and Soundgarden (RIP, Chris Cornell) and the like and consider yourself “alternative.” But that stuff had become the most mainstream music around (perhaps after hip-hop, at the time). Naive and sheltered as I was in my small-town upbringing, I thought myself punky and artistic, like Kurt, for listening to his band and others like them. This was a lot easier to believe growing up in a small town in the ’90s. The internet was a pretty rudimentary place back then, and we didn’t have a record store in Iowa Falls (I think there was a used CD store, but not, you know, a record store, a “High Fidelity” sorta place). As for radio, I remember hearing a lot of White Snake. We did, at one point, get access to an alternative station, as everyone did at the time, ours called 107-dot-5 (107.5, the Dot!). No college station, though. You had to head all the way down to Iowa City for that (or, I guess, Ames … but not really).
So, to really find true underground, indie music … I didn’t really have an option.
That’s why I started getting SPIN magazine. This, teenage me decided, would help me truly become underground. Yes, SPIN magazine. Don’t laugh too hard. I did the best I could.
And it was in the pages of SPIN that I first heard of a little band that would never make the mainstream, that would forever labor in obscurity, and they were called Radiohead. It was a little review of their new album, called “OK Computer.” I remember it being not even a full page, maybe just a sidebar. This could be the fog of time, but I can picture it pretty clearly. Radiohead was not a big deal at the time. “Creep,” of course, had been all over the radio (107-dot-5 played the hell out of it, I’m sure). I’d never really heard “The Bends,” so this review was my introduction to the band. The description of a bunch of introverted, literary, college-educated weirdos who made strange, sci-fi-inflected pop opera referencing Kafka and “The X-Files” somehow appealed to me, a nerdy, writerly teenager. Strange, that.
Both “The Bends” and “OK Computer,” which I got as soon as I could after that, quickly became among my favorite albums. For a long time, “Karma Police” was my clear favorite song, with the sequence of it preceded by “Let Down” qualifying is among the most powerful musical experiences I’ve had.
But, as frequently happens with music that affected you powerfully in your teenage years, “OK Computer” dropped off my playlist. I think I just listened to it too much, and it was linked too strongly with a particular time period for me. I have no desire to go hang out in my high school lunch room, or get turned down by some 17-year-old for the prom, so why would I want to listen to my emotional soundtrack for that period?
This weekend, I listened to the entire album straight through for the first time, perhaps, since high school. Apparently, there’s this thing called “Classic Album Sundays,” where music journalists and other rock nerds get together and discuss classic albums before listening to them on high-end audio equipment. This Sunday, the Chicago franchise spun “OK Computer” at Saturday Audio Exchange.
I don’t know if it was the audio equipment — better than anything I’d ever listened to Radiohead, or anyone else, on — or the caffeine (they served free coffee, no alcohol), or the experience of listening intently with a couple rooms full of people, but it was like the album hadn’t aged. Or I had de-aged. That is to say, it FELT as powerful as it did way back in 1997. That sequence in the middle of the album, with the operatic endings of “Let Down” and “Karma Police” back to back, left me shocked.
I don’t think this would happen with other old music. Were I to listen to “Nevermind” again, for example, I think it would be fun, but not revelatory. In fact, I know that for a long time now, I’ve not really been able to connect to that music I once loved. It’s too teenage. It’s, to be honest, a little embarrassing.
I expected my re-experience of “OK Computer” to be that way, too, at least a little embarrassing. But it disentangles itself from the adolescent schmaltz of teenagehood a lot better than other stuff from the era. Is it the comparative complexity? Somewhat. Particularly listening on that high-fi sound system, you hear things you missed in past listens, as many of the event’s attendees said. Radiohead stuffs in layered sonic elements like “30 Rock” stuffs in jokes (another piece of popular art that rewards multiple returns).
But the themes and the imagery of “OK Computer” are very contemporary, too, despite the passage of two decades: dystopian political visions, sci-fi modern existence, Kafka-esque anxiety. That album’s still able to take the ugly things of the surrounding world, and aestheticize them beautifully.
The anniversary re-issue comes soon. At this point, calling Radiohead, for years the biggest band in rock (if there even is such a thing anymore) “alternative” is pretty hilarious. But at least I can say this: For as big and bloated a brand as they’ve become, at least Radiohead earned it. They’ve recorded some stunning stuff.