Radiohead’s Paranoid Android: fight this world through your imagination

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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 to witness a true masterpiece, that would mark 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 always and constantly depressed, because of the infinite possibilities of his mind, unnecessarily employed in repetitive and 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..”

Also the name OK Computer, given to the album, resumes a sentence said by another character in the saga: it’s Captain Zaphod Beeblebrox that, descending in his spacecraft, shouts: “OK computer, I want full manual control now.

Okcomputer
Marvin the Paranoid Android – by fudgemallow (Deviantart)

Thom Yorke chooses the most intelligent depressed character in the history of literature, identifying himself in him: a young boy with a strong sensibility and empathic emotions that must necessarily be suffocated by the ailenating world around him. That alienation is the origin of many of his behaviours, like taking the shower with an hat and using shampoo in his eyes to wash away his tears, imagining 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 soul and sell their body.

The only place where to escape is imagination. The verse “When I am King, you will be first against the wall” perfectly represents the protagonist who begins to fantasize about revenge in a dreamlike reality, the only place where he can exert power. “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly/ Kicking and squealing Gucci little piggy”: it’s the way he condemns the materialistic lifestyle that forces you to seek success and money at all costs. An accusation to those who behave brutally, losing all aspects of humanity and empathy because too focused on futile things (like that Little Piggy, who loses his temper because they poured a drink on him, a real episode that Yorke saw in a pub).

On one hand we see the naïve, simple boy together with his friend, on the other hand a corrupt and petty world, the world of those who don’t care about anyone. In his imaginary world, the protagonist creates a different, happier reality, to compensate real life and keep going within it.

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

God love his children, yeah

They will allow him to born again, after having expiated his sins. Espiation 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 a little curiosity to note. The percussion at the beginning of the song was obtained with a cabasa, an instrument of African origins similar to the maracas. The harmony of the song is 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 really complex. Even listening to the lyrics, you realize the sound research and the hard work needed to compose something so articulate and full of details.

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 comes 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 can describe an age of passage. That moment anticipated by many of us, that afterwards led us to admit, looking back, that nothing would have been as before. Even in music. And Radiohead in all these years have perpetuously pursued this direction, to see where and how the technique would be able to mix up with electronic music. Years later Kid A and Amnesiac will be released, proving that electronic music was not only something for DJs.

The path that Radiohead drew, more than prophetic, was reassuring. They said quietly and gradually that music will be 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

.

Dario Giardi loves music, photography and writing. He is the author of “Trip among the notes. The Secrets of Musical Theory and Harmony”. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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