There’s a kind of alchemy which happens when you’re finishing high school and going out into the world, when you’ve got time to engage in mass culture and enough money to go places and begin exploring things. Somewhere around getting your first job you start to properly join the commodity society we’ve created. I’m probably familiar with ten or twenty times more music from the dying years of the 90s than the music of today. Oasis, Robbie Williams, the Verve, Cornershop, Space, Greenday, the Offspring, Portishead, Aqua, the Prodigy, Third Eye Blind, the Dandy Warhols… these are musicians who’ve never quite made it out of the rotation. Maybe they’re still around, maybe not – even if they are, I can’t imagine loving a new Portishead album more than their debut, because of nearly twenty years of “All Mine”‘s shifting meaning as my understanding of relationships changes, and no modern single is going to have the chance to supplant “Santa Monica” as a go-to song about moving on after a relationship breaks up. This whole exercise for the last 10 days has been trying to conjure the music that is important to me, but you can forget all that because there’s really just one album at the tippity-top of the pile and handily, it’s the same album for everyone roughly my age. Everyone about my age owns a copy of Radiohead’s OK Computer.
I was actually something of a latecomer to the album. For whatever reason, I don’t remember any Radiohead being in the rotation on any radio stations I listened to as school was wrapping up and university beckoning. MTV was a popular choice for TV in the halls of residence I lived in for my first year of university, and that’s how I met “The Ballad of Tom Jones” and “A Brimful of Asha” etc. I remember watching the amazing “Pop-up Video”, which played all kinds of music with captions and that’s how I met 4 Non-Blondes and Matchbox 20. It wasn’t until my third year of university that I was introduced to Radiohead by a friend’s sort-of band “She’s Pretty Electra”.
She’s Pretty Electra’s front-man was one of those fascinating people who exuded endless competence in a diverse range of things while being inimitable and hence inevitably cool. Unconventional without being unconnectable, a Bohemian at heart studying engineering, and one hell of a nice guy. The most remarkable thing about this particular friend though, was how he made the people around him feel not just like people he liked, but members of something like a community.
My girlfriend at the time played bass in the band, and there was a kind of roving third and fourth membership playing alternate guitar. It was my first and probably still my most substantial contact with someone actually creating music from scratch, of trying to, in the manner of your very early 20s, be authentic. He wrote songs that recycled lecture material – I recall one song about the volume and methods of solid fill waste. The band recorded what amounts to an EP by going through all kinds of crazy hoops to borrow a 4-track device from someone, but my copy has long since been lost in moves and life changes. It was not their original music that’s had the biggest impact on me however, but their rather stark cover of “Karma Police”. Somehow Radiohead’s masterpiece fitted perfectly with the thematic concerns of a band that sang about engineering technical things. A bit of universal culture exploding the idea of true originality as a necessary aspiration and inevitable myth.
He gave me perhaps the most thoughtful gift I’ve ever received – a calendar tailored specifically to me, with contributions from the wide circle of engineering students he’d recruited into his indoor cricket team, “Shear Force”. I’ve never felt more a part of a community, even as the community splintered into different geographical locations upon graduation, and even as my girlfriend and I split up and I realised that all along I’d been “+1”, the boyfriend everyone’s more-or-less okay with but with whom they are only connected at a remove. I don’t mind – and I didn’t really mind at the time, and perhaps more than anything else, that’s what makes you into the attachment rather than a core member of any community. Nevertheless, when a few months after the break-up “She’s Pretty Electra” became a couple, it was a moment of profound ambivalence, where there’s no way to decide between conflicting emotions.
15 years later it’s hard not to think it all worked out for the best. Finishing university was as big a dislocation in my life as I think it’s possible to get. Mistakes were made, lessons were learned, and the kind of experiences I had as a result of this musical interlude have made me a wiser and perhaps better person. OK Computer has come to symbolise that period in my life. It’s a beautiful album, musically diverse and challenging. It’s complex, and not easy to interpret. It promises that if you could just decode the elliptical messages, there’s wisdom there – but it’s always tantalisingly hard to pin down, for me anyway. It’s an album of a band in transition from the relatively accessible music they’d produced beforehand into the more challenging music of Kid A. Not juvenilia, but perhaps not a true mature work either. Somehow or another, I joined the zeitgeist of people my age in loving this album and imprinting it with a unique and personal significance that is different in particulars, but in form just the same as everyone else between 35 and 40.