The defining track of Radiohead’s 1997 studio offering OK Computer, ‘Paranoid Android’ has also come to define the band’s sad-boy image. Blending introspective lyrics, cerebral production, and Thom Yorke’s iconic falsetto vocals, it’s the song that seems to look out onto the world with quivering anxiety. If songs were people, this one would undoubtedly be a blanket-bound agoraphobic.
‘Paranoid Android’ was written after a particularly harrowing encounter in an LA bar when Radiohead were in American recording OK Computer. Following the release of their breakout single ‘Creep’ and the subsequent success of The Bends, Yorke found himself the lead singer of one of the most famous bands on the planet. They’d even managed to break America, something Oasis – despite declaring themselves “the best band in the world” on numerous occasions – never managed to achieve.
But where Liam Gallagher loved being the centre of attention, Yorke did everything in his power to avoid the limelight. So when he went out for some celebratory drinks after a particularly fruitful recording session, he tried his best to keep his head down. Alas, he quickly found himself surrounded by obsessive fans and sickly A&R personnel, all of whom were looking for something to gain from the Radiohead frontman. “The people I saw that night were just like demons from another planet,” he later recalled. “Everyone was trying to get something out of me. 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.”
The experience left a bitter taste in Yorke’s mouth. Perhaps the superficiality of fame was starting to weigh on his mind, or perhaps he was beginning to miss the tranquil solitude of anonymity. Whatever the reason, he managed to transform those feelings into one of the most blissful recordings on OK Computer, destroying the creative block that had plagued the band for such a long time: “We’d been rehearsing the song for months,” Yorke continued. “But the lyrics came to me at five o’clock that morning. I was trying to sleep when I literally heard these voices that wouldn’t leave me alone. They were the voices of the people I’d heard in the bar. It turned out to be a notorious, coke-fiend place, but I didn’t know that. Basically, it’s just about chaos, chaos, utter fucking chaos.”
In the below clip of Radiohead performing the track on Later with Jools Holland in 1997, the virtuosity of Yorke, the Greenwood brothers, Selway and O’Brien shines through with astonishing brightness. Truly, this is a performance in which everything is in its right place. Make sure you check out the full video below.