1997 – now that was a watershed year, wasn’t it? I started keeping a diary on New Year’s Day.I’d just turned sixteen, and while the year ahead pivoted on my GCSE exams, the world outside school seemed on the brink of something magical. I spent most of that spring looking upwards, picking out the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet in the night sky. It was like a trick of the light – kinesis suspended; unchecked metaphors gushed from my Parker fountain pen, blotting the diary pages with a little astral debris of their own. I started getting interested in politics too. Really interested, on a psephological level. All my life, Dad had watched the BBC news with an ashen face, muttering ‘bloody Tories’, and now the old order were about to get their comeuppance. Or that’s how it seemed anyway; I don’t need to tell you what happened next.
Good omens were everywhere; and the music press was excitable too. At sixteen, my favourite reading matter was Q magazine, and the recently established Mojo. Q was a hefty publication back then; the features were longer, the reviews more wide-ranging. At that time, the pages were matt, not gloss, though at the outset of 1997, they radiated anticipation. It was to be a bumper year for albums, apparently. The new Prodigy. A radical departure for Blur. And more breathlessly tipped than any of them, OK Computer, Radiohead’s long-awaited follow-up to 1995’s The Bends. I didn’t own many albums then, and though I’d loved ‘High and dry’ and ‘Street Spirit’, I hadn’t ventured fully into that universe. Perhaps I was worried I would find myself already in it, shivering misanthropically in a dark recess.
That was the problem with Radiohead, you see. It was almost too easy to be a teenager in 1997 and claim your allegiance; to love them and hate yourself. I still know many people who think ‘Creep’ was their peak. The tune is lovely, but the more the years pass, the funnier I find the song overall. It’s a middle-class kid who has decided to flirt with anarchy and forego shampoo for a week. Lumbering between the graceful and the gauche, it doesn’t just gaze at its navel; it spends most of lunch-break picking out the lint. Thank God they satirised it the following year in ‘My Iron Lung’: Radiohead are actually their own best critics, and I defy anyone to say they are earnest, doomy or depressing. When I first heard OK Computer’s taster single, ‘Paranoid Android’, it seemed a triumphantly sour amuse bouche; gnarled and twisted and ugly, yes – but with all those funky 7/8 bars and Gothic groans, I got the sense that Radiohead were revelling in the joy of having made a big mess all over the airwaves that somebody else would have to clear up. The panic, the vomit, as Thom Yorke wails in that astounding climactic sequence, perhaps anticipating initial listener reactions with a sardonic smirk.
I loved it, but £15.99 was a lot of money to me back then, and I wasn’t sure whether to save up my coins for this album that was now attracting five-star reviews and strings of superlatives. In stepped Q magazine to make my mind up for me. I usually found its free CDs disappointing – you look at them now after fifteen years and half of the artists are utterly unfamiliar – but one in particular played a blinder. Mum and Dad were at a dinner party one evening, which meant I could sneak my CD onto Dad’s system and rack up the volume. The twilight dimmed to indigo. I flopped into Dad’s armchair. Hey man, slow down. Slow down.
My first encounter with ‘The Tourist’ is actually a little beyond my powers of description. It’s how I imagine a morphine shot might feel. Or bathing in a hot spring at the top of the world. Or waving goodbye to gravity, furling and unfurling through space (at a thousand feet per second?) I’ve never felt so much like a mere molecule while listening to a piece of popular music. I was just a speck. The outside world was bruised black, but beyond the atmosphere, the heavens were singing. Jonny Greenwood had tuned a mellotron to the music of the spheres. He was riding Hale-Bopp all the way to the great gig in the sky.
To my delight, I discovered that OK Computer itself was an astral sort of record. Thom Yorke arrives in an interstellar burst, back to save the universe. It seemed obvious to me that the ‘beautiful ship’ in ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ was actually Radiohead’s – that they were the aliens ‘making home movies’. And despite the sometimes grotesque lyrics (‘We hope that you choke’, the pig in a cage on antibiotics), the earth they saw from their vantage was frequently generous and luminous. The music betrays the messages. Listen to it again, if you actually can afresh (I know it’s hard for anyone of my vintage), and feel how warm it all sounds. OK Computer can heat the dampest of bedsits: the fibre-optic keyboards on ‘Let Down’, the glockenspiel of ‘No Surprises’, ‘Lucky’s love letter to Dave Gilmour, are all almost unbearably bonny in first light. For me at seventeen, it was perpetual dawn and dusk; the radiance of the sun, forever rising and dying, dying and rising. But my first love never left me. I was always anticipating the quiet track, the one that Radiohead wanted to linger with me beyond the last bar.
‘The Tourist’ is the end of the party, in the best possible way. Sometimes fatigue is gorgeous; the sweet dull ache of limbs after dancing, the feeling of bloated satisfaction after too much wine and conversation. ‘Lucky’ leaves us ‘standing on the edge’ (or else B major); ‘The Tourist’ settles onto that edge (it starts on the same chord) and discovers that it isn’t an edge at all, but a room big enough to accommodate a slow waltz, a room where the embers glow in the grate and the glass yields one last mouthful. It’s worth hyperventilating in order to realise that regular breathing has its own beauty. Fitter happier indeed.
In 1999, I moved to Oxford. In certain lights, it had an ethereal quality; perhaps I willed it to be so, because I couldn’t imagine Radiohead living somewhere entirely earthly. This was even more the case after I bought Kid A, an album I actually listen to more than OK Computer. That one tracked my life as a twenty year-old just as its predecessor seemed perfect for me at seventeen. I could write another piece on ‘The National Anthem’ or ‘Everything in its right place’, though I won’t bore you with my exegeses now (leave a comment if you’d like my thoughts). But something strange happened after Amnesiac. I stalked Thom Yorke down Cornmarket Street and managed to get an autograph; a hieroglyphed curlicue worthy of Tristram Shandy, with a little kiss. This is where my relationship with the Head peaked, before diving down to earth. I discovered that Yorke discussed fridges with his wife, Dr Rachel Owen, outside Boswells; that he queued for Alpha Bar salads on Monday lunchtimes with a Guardian under his arm; that he flicked through art magazines in Borders (once, rather bizarrely, while I was reading a glossy with his photo on the front). Oxford’s a bit like that. You see Alex James at a cashpoint, or Gaz Coombes bouncing his daughter up and down in a sandwich bar. But Thom Yorke was meant to live in his own world, and I initially felt almost affronted that he could exist in mine. What was I expecting – a Radiohead spaceship to crash into the Covered Market?
Still, I think I can forgive him for being human. I now hum ‘The Tourist’ to myself in more mundane contexts; while I’m trying to negotiate a path through crowds of American sightseers and Italian schoolchildren, for example. Perhaps Thom Yorke’s message wasn’t ever as cosmic as I imagined. Perhaps it was a hymn to his city, with its rushing buses and box-ticking visitors. Still, when the caramel stone traps a late evening sunbeam or two, the years rewind, and my jadedness lifts. I can’t help but maintain that 1997 was magical, and no amount of chance encounters with an elfin singer in shades can ultimately dim that. Radiohead resisted the lure of stardom, and remained in the shire. That Tony Blair, on the other hand, turned out to be a bit of a wanker, didn’t he?