Ned Ludd’s Radiohead

IOK Computer by Radioheadn the year 1811, a man named Ned Ludd sent intimidating letters to various textile employers in Nottingham, Great Britain. The complaint? Machines were taking over too many tasks typically handled by craftsmen. The workers were uniting, and they were not happy. With their income at stake, they feared that the increasing industrialization of British factories foreshadowed an end to their livelihood. Incensed, they took matters into their own hands and destroyed many of the new shearing frames that the textile employers had purchased to increase output. The uprising, led by "king" Ned Ludd, gathered a following over the next five years and the angered workers came to be known as "Luddites." Eventually they were lionized as the counter-revolutionaries of the Industrial Age, and their moniker applied to anyone who resists technology’s advance.

Fast-forward about 186 years. It’s July 1, 1997, and Radiohead, an English band many critics wrote off as a one-hit-wonder (cf. “Creep”), is releasing its third album titled OK Computer. The band’s first album was a critical dud. It had a few solid songs and a big grunge hit, but no coherent voice. At that point in their careers, band members clearly didn’t know who they were musically or what they wanted to say. Things started to change with the release of their well-crafted second album, The Bends. Scoring an alternative radio hit with the sing-along single “High and Dry,” The Bends put Radiohead on the map. No longer in jeopardy of a flash and burn, their new music was original, technically brilliant and quickly gathering an underground following. Widespread critical success continued to elude the band, however, until they released OK Computer.

OK Computer is a sprawling work that departs dramatically from Radiohead’s previous two albums. Lyrically and sonically it feels disconnected from the times. The musical structures are often atonal and dissonant, with clicks and buzzes, loops, samples and computerized voices all thrown in to make the listener feel not quite at home in the musical space. The arrangements seem literally infected with neurasthenia. One surmises that if post-modern man breaking down made a sound, OK Computer would be it.

Critics and fans weren’t initially sure what to make of the album. It garnered comparisons to works like Pink Floyd’s psychedelic album Dark Side of the Moon, but fundamentally it was different. This was not an album for the drug culture. The musical experimentation on OK Computer served a larger point. Many interviewers asked if it was a concept album. The band refused to define it. To them they just made the best third album they could make. Like all good work, it flowed naturally out of what they were feeling and thinking at the time. Critics and fans took note.

What makes OK Computer such a groundbreaking album on all levels is that it’s infected with Luddism—not textile worker angst, but human and ethical alienation in the computer age. From the first track on, the album takes ironic jabs at technology by tongue-in-cheek embracing it and impersonating its sounds. In doing so it speaks volumes about the excesses of modern technology and how our inventions tend to threaten our essential humanity. The album has a visceral quality that imbues the listener with the feelings of a person crumbling beneath the weight of too much input and too many demands. The monotony of airplanes taking off and landing, tramworks, motorways, antibiotics, airbags, treadmills, fridges buzzing, detuned radios, carbon monoxide, landfills, everything is here for the loathing. The subtext: this stuff is killing who we are. This is why Radiohead’s work strikes a chord. The band taps into something distinctly unique to the post-modern condition. More importantly, they are trying to eek meaning out of what it is to live in the computer age, with all its chaos and requirements of the human psyche. How does one say yes to the computer age and not lose what is meaningful about being human? Throughout the album, the narrator ponders this question. His fears are palpable as he continually bemoans his plight and begs for relief, for something human:

Please could you stop the noise, I’m trying to get some rest
From all the unborn chicken voices in my head
What’s that...? (I may be paranoid, but not an android)
What’s that...? (I may be paranoid, but not an android)….
—"Paranoid Android"

Shell smashed, juices flowing
wings twitch, legs are going,
don’t get sentimental, it always ends up drivel.
One day, I’m gonna grow wings,
a chemical reaction,
hysterical and useless
hysterical and
let down and hanging around,
crushed like a bug in the ground….

—"Let Down"

The documentary filmmaker Grant Gee extends the album’s sense of paranoia and disconnectedness in his film about the band, Meeting People is Easy. The film chronicles the promotional tour for the album in a very unconventional way. Not only the substance, but the actual form of the movie put the viewer into an emotional state that borders on a breakdown. At one point we are treated to a litany of sound bites for radio stations. “Hi, this is Thom Yorke of Radiohead and you’re listening to KKJE.” “Hi this is Thom Yorke of Radiohead and you’re listening to KQRX.” Over and over again for 10 minutes, different cities, same messages, and you literally watch the band members falling apart under the monotony and repetitive meaninglessness of it all. By the end of the film you feel yourself falling apart, you just want it all bloody finished. You want to be left alone. You need space to reconnect to what makes you human, and what makes life valuable, and you suspect that it has nothing to do with technology.

Neil Postman wrote a book in 1985 called Amusing Ourselves to Death. The premise of the work is that television, with its truncated sound-byte format, can shrivel public discourse to the point at which it destroys what it means to be truly human. He says we are controlled by what brings us pleasure and the quickest form of satisfaction, a point bolstered by his analysis that George Orwell had it partially wrong when he wrote 1984. According to Postman, “Big Brother,” Orwell’s famous threat of oppression from outside, never really materialized, and we all congratulated ourselves. But what we missed is the threat from inside that Aldous Huxley warned us about in his futuristic novel Brave New World. Postman sheds light on this distinction when he explains Huxley’s point.

People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared is those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book for there would be no one who wanted to read one... Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with the equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy." (Postman)

When Thom Yorke sings the lyric, “kicking and squealing, Gucci little piggy” in the song “Paranoid Android,” I wonder if he has read Postman. For Yorke, the disconnected human is a pig in a cage of its own making, captivated by the triviality of Gucci status. This paranoia and loathing isn’t something to come, it’s already upon us, and Thom Yorke is like a psychosomatic lightning rod for its expression. It’s little wonder then that the tour shirts for OK Computer bore the simple phrase, “You Are a Target Market.” It was as if the band were trying to say, “Wake up, this is happening, whether you know it or not.”

In a sense, this makes Radiohead the musical prophets of our potential demise as a culture. They stand in line with the best of the cultural critics like Orwell, Huxley and Postman. In this day and age, our lives are in danger of being controlled and dictated by our pleasures, by marketing departments, by technology that doesn’t give us time to think and reflect. Most people are not conscious of what is happening to them in the computer age, but many can resonate deeply with the work of Radiohead at an unconscious level. It’s not too far a stretch to think of the band’s music as a form of going to church and Thom Yorke as akin to a reluctant preacher… but is anyone really listening?

The paranoia expressed by the work of Radiohead is not limited to a secular world-view. The questions the band’s work brings to the surface are fundamental questions for spiritually minded human beings as well. As people of faith, we would be wise to take note of the ways in which technology, mass marketing and the lightning fast pace of our culture tend toward the deterioration of the human spirit. When approaching advances in technology and science, we ought to stop and ask ourselves what type of end these sorts of means may bring about. As we rapidly turn into a culture that takes in whatever is being fed to us through the technology we use, we should not forget to engage those advances critically through the eyes of faith. Now more than ever, it is increasingly important for us to follow the Biblical maxim, “Be still and know that I am God.” Only time will tell how the human spirit responds to the siren-call of the Computer Age. We owe a debt to the work of Radiohead, and others, for showing us that blindly embracing the age can often lead to an evisceration of the spiritual life, and for that warning, we should be grateful.

George Orwell once said that, “at a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” The members of Radiohead, by virtue of their art, are revolutionaries. The band may not be Luddites in the 19th Century sense of the word, but they could be unwitting prophets sounding a wake-up call to a culture in peril. To quote another famous Briton,

As the Liberty lads o'er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!….Lord Byron

Copyright ©2005 Christopher Stratton

OK Computer by Radiohead
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