Pragmatism not idealism

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keeping in contact with old friends

It was twenty years ago today, went one of the contenders for greatest album ever. It was twenty years ago today since I and my friend Nathan made the eager after-school trip to MVC in the Brooks Centre in Winchester to buy Radiohead’s brand new album, OK Computer. It was a sunny day, and we took our purchases to the Abbey Grounds to look through the booklet, read the lyrics, admire the artwork, while we both waited for our buses to take us off to our separate, far-flung villages. We were 15 (perhaps Nathan was 14) and just at that age when music becomes the most important thing you can imagine. We’d played our tapes of Different Class and The Great Escape to death, we’d moved from What’s The Story (Morning Glory) through Cast, Sleeper, and everything else Steve Lamacq recommended on the Evening Session, and finally graduated to The Bends. That’s still a nearly perfect album. It soars and swirls, and fills your headphones with jarring dissonance and melancholy, all at once, like nothing I’d ever heard before. I was astounded by the voice of what I thought was the female singer, before learning about Thom Yorke and trotting off to get my hair cut accordingly like his (it wasn’t even close). When Lamacq trailed ‘Paranoid Android’ it was a proper did-you-hear-that at school the next day.

fond but not in love

I didn’t even have a CD player at the time. I had to listen to OK Computer on our new computer (just bought – a whole gigabyte of hard drive!), but did so rapt. It was instantly – and through thick and thin, probably still is – the greatest album I’d ever heard. I’m old enough to pick holes in it now, but they’re all technicalities and don’t matter; it plays in my heart as much as my ears. It is still the benchmark that I measure myself against – if I forget how old I am (not as far-fetched as I’d like to think), I remember that I was 15 in 1997, therefore…

an empowered and informed member of society

I was old enough to follow what was going on in 1997. This was just six weeks after a monumental general election: Tony Blair swept out the old and brought in the new, which, as I understood it, included Brian Cox, Noel Gallagher, and Peter Mandelson. I’m old enough now to understand that what was swept out and what was kept wasn’t quite as dramatic as it seemed at the time. The “third way” seemed bright and new, certainly more exciting than the old grey men the Tories wheeled out. Blair retained an economic formula which privileged money-making at the top end, but his twist was to use the benefit to introduce a swathe of very Labour social programmes. This is fine, so far as it went, but I think, I think, that it’s the heart of some of our modern malaise. I don’t mean any sweeping accusations of Blairites and blue Labour and all that here; I think it’s something Radiohead inadvertently captured on OK Computer.

comfortable not drinking too much

You could call this album new psychedelia, or bedsit prog, or in Paul Morley’s somewhat splenetic review, you could even call it “electric wind.” It doesn’t really matter. You can dig for themes and come up with transport obsessions, suicidal nihilism, it doesn’t really matter. Like all of Radiohead’s albums (at least since their first) it is what it is to you, the listener; non-prescriptive and oblique, as easy to interpret as its collage artwork. For me, now, it probably says something different to what it said 20 years ago. It speaks to my resigned pessimism, my apathy with the modern world; perhaps, to tie it into my research, my critique of everyday life.

concerned but powerless

Tesco Stourbridge (stourbridge.com)

When I was 15, “Fitter Happier” was a kind of novelty to break up the two halves of the record. The older I get (older now than Thom Yorke when he made the album) the more I see that its centrality is not accidental. It’s a near-musique concrète of modern life, with all its mundanities and absurdities, its “regular exercise at the gym three days a week,” its “baby smiling in back seat sleeping well no bad dreams no paranoia,” its “Sunday ring road supermarket.” “Fitter happier” is what happens, or what is supposed to happen when we get old. We’re supposed to grow out of zombie films and appreciate the simple charms of a rom-com. We’re supposed to have babies and talk about them over lattes. We’re supposed to go to the gym, because modern life is too busy (at least full up) with work, travel, preparing dinner in our fitted kitchen, bed, work again, to exercise in any other way (and besides we’re still supposed to look right). We’re supposed to vote with “pragmatism not idealism” because idealism just leads to disappointment; much better to take a middle way, a third way between the old alternatives, if you like.

tyres that grip in the wet

If OK Computer is about anything to me, it’s that: it’s about the aliens looking down at “all these weird creatures who lock up their spirits.” This is the expectation of modern life that Lefebvre critiqued throughout his work, and which was taken to the next level by his students, particularly Guy Debord and those who ruled the streets for a few moments in May 1968. I think the band captured a process about to become institutionalised. Aspiration in life was a wonderful thing, a centrepiece of New Labour thinking, but aspiration to what? Perhaps the representative objects of the last twenty years are those things which have conglomerated into the bland third way: where once a coffee shop might have been bad or it might have been great, now there are Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero, and you can pretend there’s a difference between them but in reality you know what you’re going to get – mediocre but safe, risk-free. Choice is between whether you like your carpets blue or green, not choice. The same applies everywhere – we all trundle off on a Sunday to our ring road supermarket now, perhaps trailing through that archetypal architecture of the early 21st century, the steel-framed barns of an edge-of-town shopping village. Choice? Sure! Choice between Halfords, Toys’r’us, Carpetright, PC World, Homebase…

will not cry in public

I don’t know if last week’s election is going to change this. It was certainly a choice – there were genuine alternatives on the table between voting for the status quo or risking a new world. I don’t imagine it will change the risk-averse consumer that has become the basic economic unit of this country, not immediately anyway. Perhaps we need the moments of festival that Lefebvre and then the Situationists proposed; clanging differences that pull us out of an endless cycle into mundanity. Perhaps we need to look higher, and more angrily. Perhaps (HT here) we need to think big: in the week of a human tragedy created by a government which favours the bland dominance of the rich, we need to echo the words of “No Surprises,” to bring down the government, they don’t speak for us. 

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One Response to Pragmatism not idealism

  1. Great article, as ever, Simon. Particularly so as it includes a lot about music, which you may recall is a life long passion of mine. I have to be honest and say that I never really “got” Radiohead, same as I never “got” The Smiths but I think that’s down to my age….a generational thing. We had our music, subsequent generations find their own. On that subject I read another interesting blog this week by a guy named Robin Valk. Back in the 70’s Robin used to do a Rock Show on BRMB and he used to have what he called a “Review Crew” who used to go to gigs and come back into his studio to record a review. I was one of these. Free ticket to the gig and an album of your choice…..wonderful. Got to see the Pistols, Stranglers, Bowie amongst others. Here is a link:
    http://radiotogo.blogspot.co.uk/

    Best wishes

    Steve Preston

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