You know you’re a cultural noob when the Librarian of Congress is hipper than you are.
I mean, I thought I was updating my cool quotient last year when, as part of my work as an A&E writer in Western Michigan, I got into Moby by accident and String Cheese Incident on purpose – while doing a preview of Electric Forest.
Neither are new to The Forest, but they were new to me when I caught them live last year. Moby’s EDM set took a little work – and a little, shall we say, ambiance – to get into, while the SCI set took me back to my Deadhead days. (Both stories for another day and different post.)
But all my updated coolness façade crumbled this week when Radiohead’s 1997 release “OK Computer” was selected for induction into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. The album, according to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, was recognized for its “cultural, artistic and/or historical significance to American society and the nation’s audio legacy.”
Not that it matters to me, nor probably to you, Radiohead was joined on the registry list, now 425 recordings deep, by the likes of Joan Baez’ self-titled first solo album, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 1955 “Sixteen Tons” and “Sesame Street: All-Time Platinum Favorites” – believe me, it just gets stranger from there. Another registry addition, 1967’s self-title debut release by The Doors, was on my cassette player back in the ‘70s; I just don’t usually admit it.
As far as “OK Computer” is concerned, the Library of Congress’s getting into Radiohead before me forced me to face the reality of my noob-ness even though my wife and I last year cut the cable and I started getting into Radiohead audio and video on Hulu. I caught some of the tunes off of “OK Computer” via YouTube and thought: “Wow. How could I have missed this stuff back at the turn of the new millennium?” And then I remembered – Oh, ya, I was deep into such safe choices as U2, REM and Phish, and experimenting with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana. (Ya, I know. All a little dated now when compared to, say Radiohead; but I still love and often play “Achtung Baby” and “Automatic For the People”!)
Anyway, as part of the Library of Congress induction of “OK Computer”, the music was described in an official press release as “an information-age dystopia characterized by psychopaths, corrupt politicians, ill-behaved consumers, tyrannical robots, airline disasters, car crashes and failed safety protocols. For the album, the band had mostly stripped away such alt-rock signposts as personalized lyrics, sinus-clearing guitars and thunderous bass and drums. The ghosts of the Pixies and Nirvana have been decisively exorcised. The presence of fin de siècle electronic dance music, jazz, 20th-century classical and dub are all palpable. While these bold moves risked alienating the band’s sizable audience, they paid off with more than a decade of critical praise including two scholarly philosophical works on the band. The band used guitars — both searing and angelic — mellotrons, laptops, samples, fat synth lines, machine-like drums and drum machines to produce a dense topology of sound, music and public service announcements that incorporates various influences including Miles Davis, Krzysztof Penderecki, Lee Scratch Perry, Steve Reich, the Beach Boys, DJ Shadow, William S. Burroughs, and the Beatles. The album has endured as a statement and a cautionary tale for the digital age.”
Oh, I wish I had written that. And, more importantly, I wish I had the plumb job to write stuff like that for the Library of Congress because the Librarian of Congress, the aforementioned Mr. Billington DID NOT write that.
My own opinion of “OK Computer”, which I shall keep short as not to show any more of my weaknesses, is that there are several great songs – “Paranoid Android” and “No Surprises” leading the way but also including “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, “Let Down” and “Climbing up the Walls”. I would say the only song I don’t like is the lead track “Air Bag” – probably tracked there to scare off people like me – and I simply think “Fitter Happier” is just plain strange.
And while Radiohead will not be playing at Electric Forest 2015, nor anywhere else in the foreseeable future, I am still hoping to that Motion Potion – a San Francisco-based DJ (aka MoPo; aka Robbie Kowal) known for playing some great Radiohead sets – will give us taste of what they must have been like live this June as part of his scheduled sets in the EF Silent Disco.
Of course, considering I just heard of MoPo about five minutes before I wrote this, I will still be a noob.
K.D. Norris/March, 25, 2015