Paranoid Android: the true meaning of Radiohead song

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The first time I listened to Radiohead’s Paranoid Android and I watched the video on MTV, I was overwhelmed. I had the clear sensation that I was witnessing a true masterpiece; one that would change the history of music.

The song has a direct reference to Marvin the Paranoid Android in the sci-fi saga The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Marvin is a robot who is always depressed because the infinite possibilities within his mind are wasted on repetitive, trivial activities. His sentence is memorable: “Here I am with a brain the size of a planet and they ask me to pick up a piece of paper.”

The album’s name, OK Computer, also comes from a sentence said by another character in the saga: Captain Zaphod Beeblebrox, who shouts: “OK computer, I want full manual control now,” as he descends into his ship.

Okcomputer
Marvin the Paranoid Android – by fudgemallow (Deviantart)

Thom Yorke chooses the most intelligent, depressed character in the history of literature, and sees himself within him: a young boy with sensibilities and complex emotions, who is suffocated by the alienating world around him. That alienation is the origin of many of his behaviours, like showering in a hat and putting shampoo in his eyes to wash away his tears, as he imagines another world. He tries to fly away from reality: it’s his way to fight the world and escape the abyss, where men pollute their souls and sell their bodies.

The only place to escape is within his imagination. The lyric, “When I am King, you will be first against the wall” perfectly illustrates the protagonist beginning to fantasise about revenge in a dreamlike reality – the only place where he can exert power. “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly/ Kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy”: is his condemnation of the materialistic lifestyle that forces you to seek success and money at all costs. It’s an accusation levelled at those who behave brutally, losing all aspects of humanity and empathy because they are  too focused on futile things (like that Little Piggy, who loses his temper because he has a drink spilt on him – a real incident that Yorke saw in a pub).

On one hand, we see the naïve, simple boy together with his friend. On the other, a corrupt and petty world, one full of people who don’t care about anyone. In his imaginary world, the protagonist creates a different, happier reality, to compensate for real life. Then, he keeps escaping to it.

That’s why he imagines an angel who comes to rescue him in a helicopter and plays table tennis with him. As the young man finds peace and salvation in fantasy, the stingy, corrupt politician destroys himself with his own hands. He will, however, find someone who will give him a second chance.

God love his children, yeah

They will allow him to born again, after having atoned for his sins. This is represented also by the purifying rain, which comes down from the sky to wash away his sins.

Rain down, rain down
Come on rain down on me
From a great height
From a great height, height

Musically speaking, there is plenty of note. The percussion at the beginning of the song was created with a cabasa, an instrument of African origin, similar to the maracas. The harmonies within the song are wonderful. There is the continuous presence of non-diatonic chords and unusual progressions, proving that Radiohead’s songs are anything but harmonically obvious. The structure of the song is incredibly complex. Even listening to the lyrics, you realise the sound research and the hard work needed to compose something so articulate and detailed.

Colin Greenwood said: “On Paranoid Android, what we were into was the idea of a DJ Shadow meets The Beatles thing.” Thom Yorke confirmed that the original idea came from the Beatles. Initially, there were three songs, but drawing inspiration from the Beatles’ Happiness Is A Warm Gun, they combined them all together.

Today we can say that they succeeded perfectly.

The entire album is a masterpiece, because it transcends time and date. It anticipates something; and it acknowledges that when we look back, we realise that things chance. Even in music. And over the years, Radiohead have constantly pursued this idea, in this instance to see where and how their technique would take them, mixing rock with electronic music. Years later, Kid A and Amnesiac would be released, proving that electronic music was not only something for DJs. The path that Radiohead took, more than being prophetic, was reassuring. They declared that music would become more digital and the result would not necessarily be plastic. They were right.

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?
What’s that?

When I am king, you will be first against the wall
With your opinion which is of no consequence at all

What’s that?
What’s that?

Ambition makes you look pretty ugly
Kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy

You don’t remember
You don’t remember
Why don’t you remember my name?
Off with his head, man
Off with his head, man
Why don’t you remember my name?
I guess he does

Rain down, rain down
Come on rain down on me
From a great height
From a great height, height

That’s it, sir, you’re leaving, the crackle of pigskin
The dust and the screaming, the yuppies networking
The panic, the vomit, the panic, the vomit
God loves his childrean
God loves his children, yeah

Rating: 4.3/5. From 3 votes.
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