I remember the first time I heard a track from Radiohead’s 1997 tour de force, OK Computer. It was senior year at Saratoga Springs High School, and I was in AP English class, taught by Mr. Brandt, who had assigned the big year-end presentation: You had to pick your favorite song, research and analyze it and present it to the class. (The class would first listen to the song, and then you’d give your speech.) Despite the fact that I wore plaid shirts and listened mostly to punk and grunge rock, the song I chose was James Taylor’s 1970 folk-rock tearjerker, “Fire and Rain.” As a cellist, I think I was going through a big bowed-bass phase, and that’s what drew me to the track. Plus, I’ve always enjoyed sad songs more than happy ones.
Something to note up front before I get to that big moment: I was probably one of the earliest, biggest Radiohead fans of my friend group. I know, I know; everybody says that. But it’s true. I’d bought their debut album, Pablo Honey, like everybody else had, because of that violent ker-crunch of guitar before the chorus in “Creep,” but ended up liking everything else on the album way better. (Still do.) Especially, “Thinking About You,” “Stop Whispering” and “I Can’t.” I even bought an imported single (and later the $40 Japanese import CD in England) that included unreleased tracks and B-sides such as “Pop Is Dead,” which still has one of my favorite mid-song guitar riffs in it. (You’ll know it when you hear it.) When follow-up The Bends was released a few years later, I enjoyed it with as much gusto as the debut, and the album grew on me immensely throughout the years (The fade-in “Black Star” is still my go-to track).
But then OK Computer was released, and all bets were off. I didn’t run out to Strawberries to buy it. I can’t remember hearing any of the singles on the radio either. And well, at that point, my parents had finally gotten us kids cable, but MTV/TRL Live sure as hell wasn’t going near it. All I knew was what I’d heard in the hallways and read in Rolling Stone magazine. I think I was sort of scared of (possibly) hating it.
And then that fateful day in AP English class. This kid named Pete, who was ultra-smart and -confident and loved all of these obscure (at the time) Brit pop bands, such as the Stone Roses, Blur and Pulp, chose the song “Paranoid Android” as his song to analyze. I don’t remember what he said about it, but all I can remember thinking was that it sounded ghastly. This wasn’t my Radiohead! How could they do this to me? I guess my 18-year-old ears, which were more attuned to two-minute punk songs, just weren’t ready to hear it.
Fast-forward to 2000, and I’m a stranger in a strange land—an American studying abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland, and I’m having an in-depth, decades-spanning rock music discussion with my British friend, Nick (a.k.a. “Brit Nick”), and we get to talking about The Question. As in, What is the greatest rock album ever produced? I can’t remember how that morphed into which one’s the better album, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon or Radiohead’s OK Computer, but Brit Nick was adamant that the former was not even close to as good as the latter, and he was willing to bet his life (and probably more than a few pints of Guinness Extra Cold) on it. I, of course, was arguing for the majesty of Dark Side. It had been a staple on classic rock radio in Upstate New York, and I’d listened to it a thousand times. It was, like, the concept album to end all concept albums. And plus, it supposedly synched up with portions of The Wizard of Oz! Also, remember that this was just three year after OK Computer had been out on the streets compared to Dark Side, which had been out since ’73 and was revered and set aside by most respectable rock critics as one of—if not the—greatest album(s) of all time. By that point, I was still not entirely an OK convert, though a few songs on the album had snuck into my consciousness: “Let Down” and “No Surprises.” But I left that conversation bewildered: “Wow. Brit Nick really believes this album is that good? Maybe I should give it a second chance.”
Two years later, in the aftermath of September 11th, I found myself once again living abroad, this time in Madrid, Spain, teaching Spanish businesspeople English for the year. These were the days before I had an iPod, so I packed half of my suitcase full of jewel cases. One that I brought on a whim was OK Computer. I still had a weird relationship with it, but it was slowly starting to take hold. That year in Madrid, during which my Discman finally bit the dust, I think I listened to that album more than any other one in my collection. I’m still not sure if it had to do with my location or post-9/11 state of mind or some less tangible thing, but I finally saw eye-to-eye with Brit Nick: OK Computer was a far superior album to Dark Side. There was so much to love about it, and it was always something I digested in a single sitting, whether it be on a park bench or the Metro or my local tapería. It was the perfect album to enjoy alone, because there was so much going on with it, and you needed to turn your brain off to listen to it. I felt like I had cheated my 18-year-old self. This was how music should sound. How had I been so shortsighted?
These days, OK Computer has long since been hailed as the Second Coming of concept rock music and put on so many best-of lists, it’s impossible to count them all. It’s even gotten a repackaged, 20th anniversary reissue, with all of the B-sides and outtakes that I would’ve had to search far and wide for and spend hundreds of dollars on to listen to back in the ’90s. I can hear the entire honking thing on Spotify, too, front to back, and every which way, as I’m doing right now. I’ve read an actual book on the album, and it sits among my top most-listened-to albums in the stacks of my now mostly virtual record collection. I learned how to play most of the songs on my acoustic and electric guitars, and have even written about Radiohead myself. But never this album.
While Radiohead, a band that’s difficult to catch live because of mere-seconds show sell-outs and geographical issues, will likely not be making the trek across the Atlantic to the Capital Region anytime this century (hey, you never know), you can find the next best thing at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Saturday, October 27. That’ll come courtesy of the Portland Cello Project (PCP), a revolving cast of cellists and other classical musicians and vocalists, which will be playing Radiohead’s OK Computer front to back, as part of a two-set night of music. The PCP’s Artistic Director Douglas Jenkins tells me that the night the group’ll be in Troy, the lineup will feature six cellos, a French horn player, trumpeter, two drummers and a bassist, along with guest vocalist, Patti King, a multi-instrumentalist, who plays keyboards, violin and sings in Portland-based indie rock band The Shins (I spent an entire day in Brooklyn with the original four-piece for my first major feature in American Songwriter magazine; the first album I owned of theirs, Chutes Too Narrow, I bought in Downtown Saratoga). “She’s wonderful,” says Jenkins. “We’re really lucky to have her every time she can do this with us.” As noted, this isn’t her first turn with the PCP. King’s been performing with them since 2014, when the group recorded and toured in support of their take on Beck’s Song Reader. Some of the players in this tour’s variation of the PCP will be virtuosic cellist Diane Chaplin, who’s played with the renowned Colorado Quartet; and West Coast jazz cellist Skip vonKuske.
The PCP is no stranger to the Radiohead canon: In 2012, when OK Computer turned 15, the group played a similar run of shows, but with a men’s choir sitting in for Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke. They also linked up with The City of Tomorrow woodwind quintet, who had just won the prestigious Fischoff Competition, to round things out. The PCP’s Jenkins, who wrote all the arrangements for the ’12 performances, says that the way the songs are played has been constantly evolving since then, and that some of the songs have even been absorbed into the group’s always ballooning catalog. And how does King factor in? As the vocalist notes, she and the group perform most of the songs together, with the exception of “Paranoid Android” and “Electioneering,” which are played as instrumentals. “[For] the song ‘No Surprises,’ one of the drummers who’s on tour with us, Tyrone Hendrix, is singing that song and playing drums, and I move over to glockenspiel.” The track that gives the PCP the most trouble, night after night? “Hands down, it’s ‘Let Down’; that’s been the most difficult track [to arrange],” says Jenkins. “I think we just like it so much that we don’t want to mess it up. It’s gone through the most evolutions.” In fact, at one recent tour stop, King started crying during the song, because it filled her with so many emotions. “There’s just something about that last verse that gets me every time,” says King. All tears aside, the crowd favorite seems to always be track No.4, “Exit Music (For A Film).” “I play guitar on that song, and it’s too low for me to sing in Thom Yorke’s range, [so] instead of changing the key, I just sing it an octave higher and adjust the melody,” says King. “After every show, everyone’s like, Man, ‘Exit Music’ tonight…it was so good.”
If you’re worried about this being another staid classical music concert experience, with the older gentleman next to you slowly nodding off and his wife shushing you periodically, you’ll be happy to learn that Jenkins has heard “a lot of screaming and yelling and happiness” from the audience on this tour. (Hopefully, no one will yell “Free Bird”…at least until the encore.) And the PCP will be playing two full sets of music: the first, a smattering of the more than 1000 pieces in their repertoire, which could include songs by Pantera, Taylor Swift, Elliott Smith or Kanye West (Jenkins likens this to the “opening band”). Then, they plow through OK Computer.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see “Radiohead” in Troy. Tickets can still be purchased for the show here.