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Music

How hitchhikers and yuppies inspired Radiohead song 'Paranoid Android'

Radiohead’s OK Computer was released in 1997 and it remains one of the definitive albums of the ’90s. A blend of rock and electronica, these days, the record is best regarded as the bridge between the outwardly guitar-oriented early days of Pablo Honey and The Bends and what was to come with records such as Kid A and Amnesiac

Fusing pioneering music with cutting social commentary on the spread of technology and neoliberal economics, the LP is one of the most comprehensive albums ever released. Due to its pertinence, OK Computer was a crossover hit and has remained one of the band’s finest. 

Whilst the record is stellar from start to finish, featuring cuts such as ‘Karma Police’, ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’ and ‘No Surprises’, the highlight has to be track two, ‘Paranoid Android’. A rock epic clocking in at over six minutes, it showcases every side of Radiohead’s artistry at that point, and it will come as no surprise to hear that the band were inspired by constantly locomoting ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ from The Beatles‘ Abbey Road, in the way that they merged two contrasting pieces of music together for the song.

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Another classic track that inspired it was Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and, due to its consistently shifting dynamics, it would eventually be labelled as “The ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of the ’90s”, something that the band would unfailingly shrug off due to their uncompromising modesty.

Whilst we could wax lyrical about the music of ‘Paranoid Android’ for hours, it is also notable for another reason: frontman Thom Yorke’s lyrics. As is fitting for a song that is comprised of juxtapositions, his lyrics were inspired by two completely contrasting things.

The first came when Yorke was at a bar in Los Angeles when has sat next to a group of friends who were high on cocaine. One of the women in the group had accidentally been covered in a person’s drink and she proceeded to fly into a rage of “inhuman” proportions. “There was a look in this woman’s eyes that I’d never seen before anywhere,” he explained to Q. “Couldn’t sleep that night because of it.”

Even though Yorke parodied the woman with the timeless line “kicking squealing Gucci little piggy”, he wanted to do something more with his experience than simply criticise her. He used this experience as a means of viewing society as a whole. He took out his anger on us as a collective, not just the woman, as her actions were indicative of where we find ourselves in modern times; hence the sarcasm of “God loves his children, yeah”. 

For the title, Yorke chose ‘Paranoid Android’ as both a reference to Marvin the original Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams’ space romp The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and to take a sarcastic pop at how the public viewed him. The title “was chosen as a joke,” he said to Jam. “It was like, ‘Oh, I’m so depressed.’ And I just thought, that’s great. That’s how people would like me to be.”

An incredibly layered song, there’s no wonder that ‘Paranoid Android’ is one of Radiohead‘s most talked about cuts. Listen to ‘Paranoid Android’ below.

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