Radiohead: The Re-emergence of Progressive Rock in the 1990’s (by Aniel Caban)

Radiohead was a source of inspiration for Spherists long before Paranoid Android was programmed on our first shuffle concert.  Violist Aniel Caban takes a closer look at Radiohead and the musical complexities of Paranoid Android.

Aniel3-webRadiohead is arguably one of the most important and groundbreaking bands in recent history. Their ability to remain relevant, along with their longevity as a band, has often drawn comparisons to the likes of U2. Furthermore, several critics and fans alike have gone as far as comparing their musical and artistic evolution to artists at far ends of the musical spectrum such as The Beatles and classical music composer Ludwig van Beethoven.

1997’s album OK Computer was especially significant to the band, as well as to rock music in general, because of its revolutionary techniques that resembled the 1970’s progressive rock movement. This album, in turn, spawned the band’s next two highly experimental follow-ups, 2000’s Kid A and 2001’s Amnesiac, which consolidated the band’s status as one of the foremost and creative bands of the 1990’s, as well as being considered re-interpreters and revivalists of progressive rock.

“Paranoid Android” is one of the most important tracks on OK Computer because it truly establishes the main themes and general mood throughout the album. Like many of OK Computer’s songs, it chronicles a story about a self-alienated man trying to find his place in the world who ultimately gets disappointed with the events that he encounters on his journey. This song is by far the longest track on the album. Standing at 6 minutes and 23 seconds, a rarity in 1997, it is the first indicator of the band’s incorporation of prog rock sounds and styles. It is important to note, even though “Paranoid Android” is not as long as 1970’s prog rock songs, which would run as long as 20 minutes in length, it can still be considered progressive if one takes into account what the musical trends of the mid-nineties were: mainly pre-packaged bubblegum pop like The Spice Girls, techno-based euro-pop like the Venga Boys, and “power-chord” cocaine-binging rock bands like Oasis, all of whom were recording 2-3 minute songs in order to be radio-friendly acts.

OK Computer

Another important characteristic of “Paranoid Android” is that it is structured as a multi-part epic song in the model of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” It also bears resemblance to The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” another famous “epic” song, which like “Paranoid Android”, is the longest track on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Just like the aforementioned classic songs, its overall musical structure resembles a loose ABA form, or ternary form in the tradition of classical music.  However, Radiohead’s multi-part epic follows the classical form to a greater extent than its counterparts, with the first A section resembling classical sonata form to great detail. This section particularly showcases the band’s outstanding musical abilities and their prog influences because, unexpectedly, they choose to move away from the ever-constant 4/4 meter of the first 2 minutes of the song to an interplaying meter change from 4/4 to 7/8 respectively. Layered on top of this intense rhythmic interchange is Jonny Greenwood’s extended virtuoso guitar solo, an element rarely employed throughout this album, which in some respect might represent a tribute to the “sub-category” of progressive rock where virtuoso passages were overwhelmingly characteristic of this style.

Immediately after the A section’s conclusion, a slow ballad-like song is heard, which marks the beginning of the B section. This slower part is similar to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Day in the Life” in that it almost gives the impression that a new song has begun. However, all three songs correspondingly utilize lyrics as the essential tool to give cohesion to the complex and seemingly different songs.

The newly introduced ballad-like B section resembles a baroque hymn, where, after a few bars of instrumental introduction, two very simple voices begin to sing the melody and bass of a chorale. It sounds almost ethereal in nature.  Subsequently, it begins to get more complex with the addition of two successive voices until finally the four-part harmony reaches its climax, settling for a few bars in the dominant chord of E Major, which might suggest that the end of the song could be in sight. But immediately the A section returns very abruptly back in the key of A minor which might represent the resistance and in many ways, their resignation that they are powerless in their attempt to “change” the way society operates.

It is important to note, “Paranoid Android” does not conclude with an expected tonic chord. Instead it finishes on a dominant-based chord which leads directly into the album’s third track, “Subterranean Homesick Alien”. This overlapping between the two songs contributes to the element of musical and lyrical cohesion found throughout the album.

Radiohead was the first progressive rock band of the 1990s that represented a newer and younger generation of innovative musicians.  OK Computer solidified Radiohead’s place in history as one of the most important and transcendental bands of the ’90s, a distinction that continues to the present day.