Participants (résumé)

Steven Caldwell Brown

‘It Was Twenty Years Ago Today’: Is OK Computer a Concept Album?

The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is often cited as a concept album, even the first concept album. Yet, there is widespread disagreement about both claims. Released thirty years later, Radiohead’s lauded third album OK Computer is also often thought of as a concept album – despite the band insisting that it is not. This invites analysis on what constitutes a concept album, the focus of this paper. Does OK Computer have to be a concept album to be a good album? Letts (2005) identifies three types of concept album: narrative; thematic; and resistant. Though demonstrating elements of the narrative concept album, both musically and lyrically, the case is made that OK Computer can be more convincingly thought of as a resistant concept album – if at all. Put another way, the concept is unclear, and it’s down to the listener to ‘fill gaps’ should they be so inclined. This paper discusses ways in which those gaps can be filled, namely by focusing on the lyrics and artwork, including in the singles and associated ‘b-sides’ from the album and from the 1998 tour documentary Meeting People is Easy, rather than the music itself. In terms of lyrics, a strong emphasis has been noted concerning the human body (Greif, 2009; Griffiths, 2004), and in this paper specialist computer assisted textual analysis software is used to interpret the mood of the lyrics in the album, objectively. The lyrical moods are quantitatively compared with the previous album, The Bends, and subsequent album, Kid A as a way of establishing if the lyrics of OK Computer address specific themes or are merely the continuing focal point of principal songwriter and lyricist Thom Yorke, often simplified as concerning alienation (Lampert, 2009)and anxiety (Hesselink, 2013). In terms of artwork, Hainge (2005) finds that the artwork from OK Computer conveys how humans insulate themselves from the technological world by having faith in it, and in this paper this proposition is extended by discussing a potential concept which ties together Kid A and Amnesiac, via foundations established in OK Computer. The album is conceptualised as a ‘CD album’, a product of its time, and a departure point for the band whose musical progression since has been matched by unconventional business practices (Osborn, 2011), briefly discussed in relation to the authors Doctoral research into illegal downloading practices.

Dr. Steven Caldwell Brown is a Music Psychologist with interest in the cultural and commercial impact of the digital revolution on contemporary music listening practices. His research has been published in a variety of academic journals including Psychomusicology, Convergence, and Musicae Scientiae. He is currently working on his first book, a co-edited text titled ‘Digital Piracy: A Global, Multidisciplinary Account’. He was recently interviewed for the ongoing BBC documentary series ‘People’s History of Pop’ in relation to the impact OK Computer (the focal point of a forthcoming episode on the 1990’s) and his Radiohead memorabilia collection. Steven lives in Glasgow, Scotland, and is based at The University of Strathclyde.



Michel Delville

Radiohead et le rock progressif : histoire d’un malentendu

Au cours du dernier quart de siècle, Au cours du dernier quart de siècle, de nombreux commentateurs ont tenté de rapprocher la musique de Radiohead (d’un point de vue formel, thématique et/ou sociologique) de différents courants et mouvances tels que l’indie rock, le psychédélisme, le jazz rock,  le post-rock, le trip-hop ou encore le space rock. Parmi les critiques qui ont souligné - avec une prudence justifiée - les liens qui unissent Radiohead et le rock progressif, certains ont mis en avant certaines similitudes formelles et structurelles entre « Paranoid Android » et le « I Know What I Like » de Genesis, « A Plague of Lighthouse-Keepers » du Van der Graaf Generator ou encore de la « Bohemian Rhapsody » de Queen.

D’autres ont comparé l’imagerie et la thématique de OK Computer au Wish You Were Here de Pink Floyd[1]. Quant à Christophe Pirenne, il affirme dans un entretien accordé en 2007 que : « s’il y a une nouvelle vague dans le rock progressif, c’est surtout vis à vis de tentatives marginales ou expérimentales. Avec des groupes qui ne se considèrent pas comme progressifs eux-mêmes mais qui en ont pourtant la démarche comme Radiohead »[2]. Or, si le rock progressif a exercé une quelconque influence sur Radiohead c’est précisément au travers de tendances elles-mêmes marginales de la galaxie prog telles que la scène de Canterbury[3] ou encore le krautrock[4], des courants situés aux antipodes de ce que Jonny Greenwood a décrit comme une des « grandes erreurs » de l’histoire du rock, à savoir la tentative « désespérée » de fusionner les modèles de la musique classique et du rock que constitue selon lui l’essence du prog symphonique.

Au travers de quelques lectures rapprochées, le but de cette intervention est d’apporter quelques éléments de réponse à la question de savoir ce qui pourrait constituer la « démarche » progressive évoquée par Christophe Pirenne, au-delà des malentendus produits par la question des genres et sous-genres constitués et en pleine conscience des dangers de succomber au « démon de l’analogie » dénoncé par Mallarmé dans son célèbre poème en prose.

Michel Delville enseigne la littérature anglaise et la littérature comparée à l’Université de Liège, où il dirige le Centre Interdisciplinaire de Poétique Appliquée. Il est l’auteur ou le co-auteur d’une centaine d’articles scientifiques et d’une trentaine d’ouvrages portant principalement sur les relations entre la littérature, la musique et les arts visuels. Parmi ses publications les plus récentes, on peut citer The American Prose Poem (University Press of Florida, 1998), J.G. Ballard (Northcote House, 1998), Hamlet & Co (Presses Universitaires de Liège ; avec Pierre Michel, 2003), Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and the Secret History of Maximalism (Salt Publishing, avec Andrew Norris ; 2005), Food, Poetics and Aesthetics of Consumption : Eating the Avant-Garde (Routledge 2008), Crossroads Poetics: Text, Image, Music, Film, & Beyond (Litteraria Pragensia, 2013), Radiohead: OK Computer (Densité, 2015), Undoing Art (Quodlibet, 2016; avec Mary Ann Caws) et The Political Aesthetics of Hunger and Disgust (Routledge, 2017). En tant que guitariste, Michel Delville a également tourné et enregistré avec de nombreux musiciens issus des scènes rock et jazz dont Dave Liebman, Chris Cutler, Elton Dean, Harry Beckett et Dagmar Krause.



François Hugonnier

“aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaambition makes you look pretty ugly”: Mass consumption and computer-generated art in Radiohead’s Ok Computer

Ok Computer marks the beginning of a major shift in Radiohead’s career. This record questions the conditions of its making by subverting representative frames, be they musical, linguistic or artistic. It uses paradox in order to assimilate the mass consumption and technological progress it both abhors and embodies—digests, as it were. The context dictates a new direction: in a landscape of sedated consumer robots, the band embraces the digital era and fuses pop-rock songs with electronic distortion. A man-machine relationship is developed as both a socio-political metaphor and a straightforward report, including the use of computers in the crafting of their art. Their artistic vision, conveyed through ironic playfulness, is deployed in the artworks, lyrics, booklets, credits and music videos accompanying the album’s release. In spite of its irony, Ok Computer cannot escape the commercial and technological mutations it scrutinizes: it is therefore acknowledging, in a performative way, the computer’s win over the band’s scope and music. Conversely, the acknowledgment of digitalization paves the way for its subversion.

Notwithstanding its pragmatic political messages, Ok Computer is above all a piece exploring new means of artistic expression at the dawn of the “digital [...] age”. By forewarning digital addiction and alienation, the lyrics, sounds and pictures address socio-political and technological mutations as well as artistic ones. Remaining true and groundbreaking when selling millions of records entails a rethinking of the medium: the musical composition and the use of language, signs, guitar effects, microphone and track saturation, new recording and marketing techniques are to be assessed in order to fully comprehend Radiohead’s revolutionary approach to music-making.

As a contemporary poetry scholar, I would like to venture into an in-depth decoding of the cryptic artwork and lyrics by insisting on their crucial lay out. Starting with the collages and palimpsests found in the booklet, the general feel we get is that of a piece describing, as well as being the victim of, a multi-layered encoding of data. The lyrics form an asyntactical flow of unstable letters that paradoxically cannot quite resist formatting. Visually, the fragmented lyrics seem to draw, or be drawn as, computer-generated figures, echoing Donwood and Yorke’s artwork and “Fitter Happier”’s Macintosh voice. The unstable syllables and blanks, the stammering letters, word-clusters, binary codes, icons, symbols (“inno$ent”), serial numbers (“1421421**airbag”; “karma police**??id6890”) and typing signs (“■”; “>”) call for a poetic and semiotic assessment of this intermedia piece. The recasting of capital letters and the use of numbers representing the serial namelessness of contemporary identity, or else the use of a language randomly generated by the machine, as if the produce of the system itself, are some of the hypotheses that will be put to the test in this talk.

Works Cited
Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 1979. London: Macmillan, 2009. Print.
Andrews, Bruce and Charles Bernstein. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. Print.
Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Iain H. Grant (trans.). London: Sage, 1993. Print.
Chomsky, Noam. The Chomsky Reader. New York: Pantheon Book, 1987. Print.

Pink Floyd. Wish You Were Here. EMI, 1975. Vinyl.

Radiohead. The Bends. Parlophone, 1995. CD.

——, Ok Computer. Parlophone/XL Recordings LTD, 1997. CD/Vinyl.

——, Airbag / How am I Driving? (1426148550 This mini album is aimed at the USA), Warner Chapell LTD/EMI, 1998. CD/Cassette.

——, Kid A, Parlophone, 2000. CD.

——, 7 Television Commercials. EMI Records, LTD, 2003. DVD.

François HUGONNIER est professeur agrégé d’anglais et maître de conférences à l’université d’Angers. Sa thèse de doctorat porte sur les interdits de la représentation dans les œuvres de Paul Auster et Jerome Rothenberg. Il est l’auteur de nombreux articles sur la poésie américaine et la littérature post-11 septembre. Sa monographie Archiving the Excesses of the Real, portant sur Falling Man de Don DeLillo, est parue en 2016 aux Presses Universitaires de Paris Ouest, Nanterre. Auteur-compositeur-interprète au sein du groupe de rock NOVELS, il se consacre également à l’étude des musiques actuelles.



Phil Rose

Socio-Technical Conflict, Negative Affect, and Radiohead's OK Computer

The edifying power of Radiohead’s work provides a fine example of popular music’s utility as applied knowledge, both in terms of recognizing the problematic characteristics of contemporary technological society, and in the governance of our own interpersonal behaviour. Take the well-known ‘Paranoid Android’ from Ok Computer, a song that alludes to Douglas Adams’ science-fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979). There, Marvin the paranoid android is a melancholic misanthrope who displays an “utter contempt and horror of all things human”. But the song was apparently likewise inspired by a bad experience the group’s creative leader had one night early in his career at a Los Angeles bar: “Everyone was trying to get something out of me”, Thom Yorke is quoted as saying. “I felt like my own self was collapsing in the presence of it, but I also felt completely, utterly part of it, like it was all going to come crashing down any minute”. Particularly horrified by an ‘especially vicious lady who had a drink spilt over her dress and whose face contorted in venom at the culprit’, we are never informed of Yorke’s reaction to this situation. But an interviewer commented to him how there is so much anger on Ok Computer, and Yorke’s reply reinforces the idea that he likely became caught up in a situation of mimetic viciousness: “It's responding to incredibly hostile moments. Responding in kind. Which I am wont to do”.

To explore these dynamics, I will probe how the group’s work functions as a 'counter-environment' to socio-technical conflict -- specifically what Neil Postman (1992) denotes Technopoly -- and I will also discuss the use of Silvan Tomkins’ Affect-Script theory as an effective tool for musical analysis. Tomkins goes beyond the consideration of affect as merely the biological basis of emotion to consider its biopsychosocial contextualization in the various affect-laden ‘scenes’ of which people inevitably become a part. With regard to understanding individuals, the scene – along with the relationships between scenes – is for Tomkins the basic unit of analysis. In the negotiation of such scenes Tomkins delves into how people invoke various ‘scripts’, or sets of rules that they develop in the service of ordering the various scenes in which they find themselves. Here then, I shall outline these concepts and demonstrate how an understanding of them can help illuminate the problems addressed in this classic text.

Phil Rose (PhD) currently teaches at Canada's McMaster University. He serves as a board member of the Tomkins Institute, and is immediate Past President of the Media Ecology Association. Author of articles and book chapters on a number of different topics, his own books include Roger Waters and Pink Floyd: The Concept Albums (2015), Radiohead and the Global Movement for Change: 'Pragmatism Not Idealism' (2016), and the forthcoming edited volume Confronting Technopoly: Charting a Course Towards Human Survival (2017). He has also been contracted to write a second book on Radiohead for Rowman & Littlefield's 'Tempo' popular music series.



Jeremy Tranmer

OK Computer: A Sign of the Political Times?

Most references to music and politics in the 1990s focus on the role of Britpop in Labour’s landslide victory in the 1997 general election. This is hardly surprising since members of Blur and Oasis, two of the most commercially successful bands of the decade, engaged in public displays of support for Tony Blair’s New Labour. Although they did not become involved in collective action and did not attempt to create a movement like Red Wedge, which had backed Labour ten years previously, Damon Albarn and Noel Gallacher clearly nailed their colours to Labour’s mast. However, other bands were far more ambivalent. Radiohead refused to support Tony Blair, and songs such as ‘Electioneering’ expressed disillusionment with party politics in general. The dark political themes developed on OK Computer therefore seemed at odds with the celebratory atmosphere of the period in which the album was released.   

It will be argued that this is in many ways a rather superficial vision, which reflects a tendency to adopt a limited definition of politics and to concentrate solely on parliamentary phenomena. A more detailed analysis of political trends in the United Kingdom shows that a significantly smaller percentage of young people voted Labour in 1997 than in the previous general election in 1992 and that abstention was high. However, disengagement from party politics did not necessarily reveal a lack of interest in politics in general among young people. Many became involved in the environmental and/or alter-globalisation movement which emerged in the late 1990s. Radiohead and OK Computer can therefore be seen as reflecting (and even shaping) political changes that were taking place among young people.

Jeremy Tranmer is a senior lecturer at the University of Lorraine, where he teaches classes about contemporary Britain (politics, history and popular culture). Although his PhD was about British Communism and he has worked on the radical left, he is also interested in the relationship between popular music and the left. He has published articles on punk and Rock Against Racism, as well as on music and opposition to Thatcherism.



Nathan Wiseman-Trowse

‘One Day I am Gonna Grow Wings’:  Radiohead’s Abject Transcendence

Whilst OK Computer did much to affirm Radiohead’s status as a band operating on the spectrum of progressive rock, its status as a concept album is more difficult to defend.  However, the order of tracks on the album was much-deliberated over, and it is the transition of one song (‘Exit Music (For a Film)’) into another (‘Let Down’) that is the focus of this paper.  Personally, the shift from the former to the latter is one of the most arresting moments on the album, and in this juxtaposition of songs can be found an ambivalent attitude to the fleshly and the transcendent.

‘Exit Music (For a Film)’, composed initially for the closing credits of Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996) suggests an alternate ending for the doomed lovers, running away to find peace from the familial politics that forbids their love.  Yet the song also suggests a death pact and suicide as a form of vengeance on those left behind.  This baleful and bitter ending segues via ambient sound into the shifting arpeggiated intro to ‘Let Down’, a musical change of tone that suggests some form of redemption even as the lyrics paint a more complicated picture.  Echoes of Ballard and Kafka conflate the human body with both modes of transport and fragile insect physiognomy. 

Whilst both songs seem to interrelate music and lyric in sometimes oppositional ways, the theme of transcendence unifies both tracks.  The almost choral ending to ‘Exit Music’, its hint of ‘ever-lasting peace’ and ‘Let Down’s assurance of transformation out of the crushed insect body (‘one day I am gonna grow wings’ suggests a means of escape from the material.  The insect as a transitional body, abject and destroyed, becomes a site of flight from the symbolic order, ‘hysterical and useless’ perhaps, but revolutionary and sublime in new and perhaps more meaningful ways.  Similarly the death pact becomes a means of transcending the symbolic order, leaving those behind to choke on their ‘rules and wisdom’. 

The ambivalence of both the music and lyrics for both tracks starts to make more sense as the songs develop a recognition of a post-mortal / pre-Oedipal state of bliss linked to the destroyed body.  In the blown-out brains and the crushed carapace lies the promise of a more radical form of (non)existence.  It is in that moment of jouissance that OK Computer offers its final alternative to the perils of alienating modernity.

Dr Nathan Wiseman-Trowse is Associate Professor in Popular Music at the University of Northampton where he teaches on the BA Popular Music and MA Modern English Studies degrees.  Nathan has published two monographs, Nick Drake:  Dreaming England (2013) and Performing Class in British Popular Music (2008).  He has also published work on the music of Nick Cave, the artistic practices of Bill Drummond and the writing of Alan Moore.  He is currently working on developing U:Pop, the first international undergraduate Popular Music Studies research network.


[1] Tim Footman, Radiohead : Welcome to the Machine (2007)

[2] « Christophe Pirenne se met à table » :

[3] Aymeric Leroy, Rock Progressif (2010).

[4] Can figure parmi les influences principales citées par Yorke dans un article du Melody Maker daté de 2003, et l’influence du krautrock continuera à hanter des compositions ultérieures telles que « The National Anthem » (Kid A), ou encore « 15 Step » (In Rainbows). Quant au « Dollars and Cents » d’Amnesiac, il s’agit d’un edit issu d’une improvisation de onze minutes tentant de reproduire le « chop-chop-chop » (Yorke) rythmique du jeu de basse de Czukay.

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