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Artistic, Political and Philosphical References in OK Computer

OK Computer: A Sign of the Political and Ideological Times?

OK Computer : reflet du contexte politique et idéologique ?
Jeremy Tranmer

Résumés

La plupart des références à la musique et à la politique des années 1990 se concentrent sur le rôle de la Britpop dans l’écrasante victoire travailliste de 1997. Ceci est peu surprenant puisque les membres de Blur et d’Oasis soutenaient publiquement le parti de Tony Blair. Radiohead s’y est refusé et des chansons telles que « Electioneering » n’exprimaient que désillusion vis-à-vis de la politique politicienne en général. Les thèmes politiques plutôt sombres abordés dans OK Computer semblent donc en décalage avec l’ambiance festive dans laquelle l’album est sorti. Notre postulat est que cette vision des choses est superficielle et reflète une tendance à ne retenir de la politique qu’une définition limitée en se concentrant sur l’activité parlementaire. Dans cette optique, OK Computer peut, au contraire, être vu comme le miroir (voire la source d’inspiration) des changements politiques à l’œuvre parmi la jeunesse.

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1The 1997 general election was particularly significant. Labour won its most comprehensive victory ever in terms of the number of seats it gained in the House of Commons, putting an end to 18 consecutive years of Conservative rule. The election coincided with a period of cultural innovation and a growing sense of national pride. At the heart of this phenomenon was Britpop, an ill-defined musical trend bringing together groups who rejected contemporary tendencies in American music and sought inspiration from British bands from the 1960s. Labour and Britpop interacted since leading members of Blur and Oasis, two of the most commercially successful bands of the decade, engaged in public displays of support for Tony Blair’s New Labour. Although they did not become involved in collective action, Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher clearly nailed their colours to Labour’s mast. This was not, however, the case of other bands. Radiohead refused to support Tony Blair, and songs on the album OK Computer, such as “Electioneering”, appeared to express disillusionment with party politics in general. The dark themes developed on OK Computer, including the impotence of individuals and the threat posed by technology and globalisation, would appear to be completely at odds with the celebratory atmosphere of the time at which the album was released.

2It will be argued that this is in many ways a rather superficial vision, which reflects a tendency to adopt a limited definition of politics and to concentrate solely on parliamentary matters. A more detailed analysis of political trends in the United Kingdom shows that young people of the age group of the members of Radiohead did not vote Labour en masse. However, disengagement from party politics did not necessarily reveal a lack of interest in politics in general among young people. Many became involved in the environmental and alter-globalisation movements which emerged during the 1990s. It will be suggested that the actions of Radiohead and the themes of OK Computer can therefore be seen as being symptoms of political and ideological changes that were taking place among young people in the 1990s. The aim of this article is thus not simply to dissect the musical and/or lyrical content of the songs on the album but to link the themes broached in some of the songs, particularly “Electioneering”, to the political and ideological context of the mid-1990s and to examine the nature of these links. It is therefore important to begin by situating the album in the context of the time, before examining “Electioneering” in greater detail and determining the extent to which it corresponded to the dominant political and cultural trends.

Politics and culture in the 1990s

  • 1 For an overall history of the decade, see Alwyn W. Turner, A Classless Society: Bri (...)
  • 2 The main aim of the ERM was to limit variations in the exchange rates between Europ (...)

3The 1992 general election saw the re-election of the Conservative Party under the leadership of John Major, who had replaced Margaret Thatcher two years earlier. However, the new government quickly lost the confidence of large swathes of the population.1 On September 16th 1992 (or “Black Wednesday”, as it became known), it responded to speculation against the Pound on the currency markets by raising interest rates and spending huge sums in a desperate attempt to maintain the value of Sterling and to remain within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).2 The government was unsuccessful and was obliged to take the UK out of the ERM. It thus lost much of its economic credibility in a few days, or even a few hours. In October 1992, it announced that over half of the country’s remaining coalmines were to be closed and over 30,000 jobs were to be lost. Opposition to the plan went far beyond the labour movement, and protests were held throughout the country, culminating in a mass demonstration in London. The government never recovered from its first few months in power, and public opinion was increasingly hostile to it. The national mood was not helped by a series of other events which occurred in 1992 and 1993. The annual Grand National horse race, a major sporting event that was followed by millions, had to be cancelled after two false starts; a small child (James Bulger) was abducted and killed by two other children in Liverpool, leading to anguished debates about how the country could produce killers of such a young age; and the press carried numerous stories about the marital problems of the Queen’s offspring and revealed, following a fire at Windsor Castle, that the monarch did not pay income tax. The UK seemed to be trapped in a downward political, economic and social spiral.

4Nevertheless, by the mid-1990s, there were signs of change. The economic context was relatively favourable, as the country moved out of the recession of the earlier part of the decade. Steady growth appeared, bringing rising standards of living and falling unemployment. In 1993, unemployment had stood at 13.4%. Yet two years later it had fallen to 10.8%, and in 1997 it went down to 7.4%. While the Conservatives were bogged down in various sleaze scandals (including sex scandals involving ministers and MPs accepting money in exchange for asking questions in the House of Commons) and were divided over the UK’s place in the European Union, the Labour Party was enjoying a new lease of life. In 1994, Tony Blair, who was only 41 at the time, became the new leader of the party. He was intent on modernising the image of Labour and becoming the country’s next prime minister. He changed the party’s constitution, abandoning its commitment to socialism in the form of collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange (Clause IV), and he streamlined the party’s internal structures, giving the leader greater overall control. Blair rebranded the party as New Labour. These changes appeared to pay off electorally. Labour built on its resounding victory in the 1994 European election (when it gained 42% of the votes cast, compared to the Conservatives’ 26.8%), winning a succession of by-elections and consistently leading the Conservatives by over 20 percentage points in opinion polls. It was increasingly certain of winning the next general election, the only doubt concerning the scale of its victory.

  • 3 See John Harris, The Last Party: Britpop, Blair, And The Demise of English Rock, London: Ha (...)

5Cultural changes were also afoot. Regarding popular music, Britpop bands such as Oasis, Blur, Suede and Pulp dominated the charts.3 The UK appeared to be engaging in a nostalgic rerun of the 1960s, as Blur were clearly inspired by the Kinks and Oasis by the Beatles. The press stoked up a geographical and social rivalry between the two bands, which was reminiscent of that between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and the media covered the hedonistic activities of Britpop stars in a 1990s version of Swinging London. Although they were not part of the Britpop scene, the Spice Girls were one of the successful groups of the time. Professing their belief in “Girl Power”, they topped the charts for seven weeks in 1996 with their first single “Wannabe”. Amid a growing sense of national pride, the Union Jack was once again appropriated by musicians, with Noel Gallagher’s famous guitar and Ginger Spice’s eye-catching dress. The success of the so-called Young British Artists movement confirmed that innovative creation was not limited to the field of music. The finals of the 1996 European football championship were held in England. Both England and Scotland were involved, and England reached the semi-finals. The tournament also saw the emergence of the Saint George’s flag as the main symbol of a distinct feeling of Englishness. From 1996, the expression “Cool Britannia” was increasingly used to describe the cultural renaissance that appeared to be taking place amid a resurgent sense of national pride.

  • 4 The close relationship between Britpop and Labour was not lost on the press. See for exampl (...)

6The optimistic, celebratory atmosphere of the times arguably reached its peak in May 1997 when the Labour Party easily won the general election and Tony Blair became the first Labour Prime Minister since the 1970s. Blair had attempted to exploit and appropriate the cultural renaissance mentioned above. As early as 1995, his advisors had met members of Blur and had encouraged them to publicly profess their support for Labour. Blair attempted to associate himself with other successful names in the music business. In 1996, he agreed to take part in the annual Brit awards ceremony and present the award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music to David Bowie. At that year’s Labour Party conference, Blair paraphrased the chorus of the Lightening Seeds’ European championship song “Three Lions” (“Football’s coming home”) to proclaim that “Labour’s coming home”. Blur’s Damon Albarn expressed support for Tony Blair, as did Noel Gallagher of Oasis. During an acceptance speech at the Britpop award ceremony mentioned above, the latter expressed his admiration for Tony Blair, claiming that he was one of the only people who gave youth hope.4 After the election, Gallagher was photographed drinking champagne with Blair at an official reception at 10 Downing Street. The song “Magic Pie” on Oasis’s Be Here Now album (which was released in August 1997), used a direct reference to a line from a speech given the previous year by Tony Blair at the Labour Party conference (“There are but a thousand days preparing for a thousand years”).

OK Computer and “Electioneering”

  • 5 Guillaume Clément, “Activism and Environmentalism in British Rock: the Case of Radi (...)
  • 6 Although the members of the band did admit to being pleased about the Conservatives’ defeat (...)

7How does OK Computer fit into this overall context? The album was released a month after the election of Blair, but had been written and recorded in the final months of John Major’s term in office. At first sight, it would appear to be rather out of synch. There is nothing celebratory or optimistic about any of the tracks on the album. The themes explored in the songs include transport and accidents (“Airbag” and “Lucky”), extraterrestrials (“Subterranean Homesick Alien”), and modern lifestyle ideals based on healthy living and consumerism (“Fitter Happier”). In general terms, the album paints “a bleak picture of British society”.5 Very few of the songs contain overtly political references in their lyrics. In “No Surprises”, the narrator says “Bring down the government / They don’t, they don’t speak for us”, but the absence of anger or determination in Yorke’s voice suggests that it is a half-hearted appeal rather than a call to action and that he is far from convinced that this will actually happen. There are no direct references to Tony Blair (and the group did not express support for him before or after the election),6 but the song “Electioneering”, which has the most aggressive, abrasive music of the album, appears to express disillusionment with conventional party politics in general.

  • 7 Dai Griffiths, OK Computer, London: Continuum Books, 2004, 59.
  • 8 There is also an autobiographical element to these lines. During their American tour in 199 (...)
  • 9 David Cavanagh, “Communication Breakdown”, Uncut, February 2007, <https://citizeninsane.eu/media/uk/uncut/07/pt_2007-02_uncut.htm>, accessed on Augu</https> (...)

8“Electioneering” is the eighth of the twelve tracks on the album. Dai Griffiths situates the track in the central core of the album, linking it to “Karma Police” and “Fitter Happier” which precede it.7 However, the song is lyrically and musically quite different from them. The lyrics state: “I will stop / I will stop at nothing / Say the right things / When electioneering / I trust I can rely on your vote.” Yorke adopts the persona of a cynical politician, and the song refers satirically to would-be representatives and their attempts to manipulate voters in order to be elected.8 Yorke has claimed that this part of the song was about the Conservatives,9 but it has been noted that campaigning by both major parties in the UK underwent a radical change in the mid-1990s, particularly after Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party:

  • 10 David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh (eds.), The British General Election of 1997, London: Macm (...)

There were precedents for most of the innovations in communications, advertising and press relations, but a difference in degree can be so big as to be a difference in kind. It seemed that there was a move to permanent electioneering.10

  • 11 It has been suggested that Yorke’s memories of the protests against Margaret Thatcher’s Pol (...)

9The lyrics also contain the lines: “Riot shields / Voodoo economics / It’s just business / Cattle prods and the IMF.” They refer to such issues as the policing of protests (“riot shields”);11 Ronald Reagan’s laissez-faire economic policies in the 1980s based on the need for a flexible labour market, low taxation and tax incentives for high earners (“voodoo economics”); the invasive nature of capitalism (“It’s just business”); instruments to control animals and humans (“cattle prods”); and the International Monetary Fund (“the IMF”) which had been criticised in the 1980s and 1990s for granting loans to poor countries and making them conditional on their economies being liberalised (often known as “structural adjustment programmes”). The use of the derogatory term “voodoo economics”, suggests that the group were criticising free-market economics and capitalist globalisation. Yorke made this clear in interviews given after the release of the album, also shedding light on how he wrote the lyrics:

  • 12 Jim Irvin, “Thom Yorke tells Jim Irvin how OK Computer was done”, Mojo, July 1997, (...)

Say, on Electioneering, for example. What can you say about the IMF, or politicians? Or people selling arms to African countries, employing slave labour or whatever. What can you say? You just write down “Cattle prods and the IMF” and people who know, know. I can’t express it any clearer than that, I don’t know how to yet, I’m stuck.12

  • 13 Dorian Lynskey, 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, London: Faber and Fa (...)
  • 14 Tim Footman, Radiohead, Welcome to the Machine: OK Computer and the Death of the Cl (...)
  • 15 Songs such as “Give Peace a Chance” and “Power to the People” by John Lennon spring (...)
  • 16 Guillaume Clément, “Activism and Environmentalism in British Rock: the Case of Radiohead”, (...)
  • 17 Tim Footman, Radiohead, Welcome to the Machine: OK Computer and the Death of the Cl (...)

10His comments are quite revealing, suggesting that he had difficulty in expressing political ideas in a clear manner, which explains that the references to politics are rather elliptical in his songs and that the lyrics of “Electioneering” are rather “like a twenty-four-hour news feed with the links missing”.13 What is particularly interesting is his remark that “people who know, know”. In other words, people who are aware of the issues that he is writing about will understand the references and deduce Yorke’s positions. He assumes that his audience is well informed and will draw the appropriate conclusions from his lyrics. Thus, Yorke does not write orthodox protest songs since there is no attempt to formulate a clear message.14 Moreover, he avoids the sloganeering approach adopted by some musicians.15 Guillaume Clément has suggested that the cryptic political references and laconic style present in ‘Electioneering’ “relegate to the background the construction of a more thorough political ideology which might be expected of a fully-fledged protest song”.16 In the case of Thom Yorke, the eclectic nature of his sources of inspiration would probably have prevented him from putting forward a more coherent political and ideological position, even if he had wished to do so. Yorke has admitted that he wrote the song after reading work by Will Hutton, Noam Chomsky and Eric Hobsbawm,17 all of whom where fierce critics of neo-liberalism (although their criticism and the alternatives they outlined were very different since Hutton was a Keynesian, Chomsky an anarchist and Hobsbawm a Marxist).

  • 18 Dave Laing, “Resistance and protest” in John Shepherd, David Horn, Dave Laing, Paul (...)
  • 19 Idem.
  • 20 Tim Footman, Radiohead, Welcome to the Machine: OK Computer and the Death of the Classic Al (...)

11According to Dave Laing, when studying political music, a distinction has to be made between “protest music” and “music of resistance”.18 The former consists of “explicit statements of opposition to the political, economic or social status quo”, while the latter “may be more coded or opaque in its expression of dissidence”.19 If this distinction is followed, it is clear that “Electioneering” has to be seen as protest music. Nevertheless, Radiohead cannot be considered as “a doctrinaire band” in the tradition of groups such as Crass and the Redskins.20 The political stances of both these bands were based on clear ideological positions (anarchism and Trotskyism, respectively) and were expressed in a forthright manner in the lyrics of many of their songs. For example, in “How Does It Feel (To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead)”, Crass openly attacked Margaret Thatcher for her actions during the Falklands War (“You never wanted peace or solution / From the start you lusted after war and destruction / Your blood-soaked reason ruled out other choices / Your mockery gagged more moderate voices”), while in “Keep On Keepin’ On” the Redskins expressed support for striking miners (“We got a keep a keep a stay out / Maybe 5 or even 6 months, yeah / 7, 8, 9, 10 and if it takes a year / We got to last a year”). This is not to suggest that Radiohead’s approach in songs such as “Electioneering” is superior or inferior to that of bands such as Crass or the Redskins but to recognize that different artists have adopted different methods of broaching political issues in their lyrics.

  • 21 This is one of the main themes of Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular (...)
  • 22 James Oldham, “The rise and rise of the rom empire”, New Musical Express, 14 June 1997, (...)
  • 23 Although it could be argued that the IMF imposed a neo-liberal order, one of the main benef (...)
  • 24 Looking back on this period, the band admitted hating Britpop, particularly as they thought (...)

12The meaning of a song is not only conveyed by its lyrics, but also by other factors including the music, the voice of the singer and interaction between the song and the audience.21 In the case of “Electioneering”, the audience is guided by the violent music based on strident guitars, which contrasts sharply with all the other tracks on the album, and the howling of Yorke’s voice. As was noted in the review of the album published in the New Musical Express, the song does not give the same feeling of resignation and impotence present in the other songs, appearing to express resentment and anger. Nevertheless, the author of the review simply states that the song “rages against multinationals”.22 The notion of anger thus appeared to be a central element in the song, but this interpretation corresponds only partly to the elements present in the lyrics (multinationals are not mentioned explicitly), suggesting that Yorke’s approach can potentially create problems of reception.23 None of the themes of “Electioneering” were present in songs recorded by Britpop bands (or by other mainstream groups), and Radiohead broke with the hedonism and anti-intellectualism of bands such as Oasis.24 Moreover, Tony Blair and New Labour had said nothing to suggest that they would implement policies which were different to the neo-liberalism of their predecessors, advocating a “Third Way” between the latter and social democracy. This cultural and political situation created an opportunity for Radiohead to express radical ideas in their work and present an alternative vision of British society.

  • 25 See for example Dorian Lynskey, 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Son (...)
  • 26 The demise of Red Wedge appears to represent the end of a cycle in Daniel Rachel’s (...)

13The impression that the album is at odds with the dominant tendencies of the mid- to late 1990s has been reinforced by accounts of the relationship between music and politics at this time. Most (of the relatively few) accounts dwell on the close nature of this relationship in the 1980s, when artists as diverse as the Specials, Elvis Costello, Crass, the Communards and the Smiths expressed opposition to Margaret Thatcher in their music, in demonstrations and in comments made to the press. Some musicians, led by Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, even created a movement called Red Wedge which supported the Labour Party and campaigned for it in the 1987 election. For some commentators, this relationship came to an end in 1987 when Red Wedge couldn’t prevent Labour from going down to a third successive defeat and many musicians lost interest in politics.25 Others mention 1990, the year that Margaret Thatcher left power.26 In both cases, there is the idea that the rise of the “Madchester” scene, ecstasy and dance music led musicians away from politics and into more hedonistic activities. In the words of John Harris:

  • 27 John Harris, The Last Party: Britpop, Blair, And The Demise of English Rock, op. cit., 153.

The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays were the vanguard of this; though the former group would happily express left-wing opinions, the two bands’ modus operandi was much more bound up with drug consumption, pulling strange faces and sweating over the cut of one’s trousers than bringing down the Tories.27

  • 28 This is one of the basic ideas of Harris’s The Last Party: Britpop, Blair, And The (...)
  • 29 John Harris, The Last Party: Britpop, Blair, And The Demise of English Rock, op. cit., (...)

14The next reference to music and politics concerns Britpop and Tony Blair.28 The rather superficial relationship between Labour and Britpop is compared with the closer relationship between Labour and Red Wedge. The hedonism mentioned in accounts of the late 1980s is still present, since Noel Gallagher was under the influence of drugs when he praised Tony Blair at the Brit Awards.29

  • 30 In fact, there was little need for musicians to criticise Major as the media were increasin (...)
  • 31 Alwyn W. Turner, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, op. cit., 30.
  • 32 See Jeremy Tranmer, “Popular Music and Left-Wing Scottishness”, Etudes Ecossaises, n° 18, 2 (...)
  • 33 Cable Street Beat was the musical wing of Anti-Fascist Action, a militant grouping which so (...)
  • 34 It was only later that Yorke professed his support for the Green Party.
  • 35 For example, Lynskey devotes only two pages to OK Computer in his account of politi (...)

15This approach to music and politics in the 1980s and 1990s has two implications. Firstly, it suggests that little of any significance occurred between 1987/1990 and 1997. While it is true that very few songs criticised John Major30 and that in society as a whole virulent anti-Conservativism was less common than in the previous decade,31 some musicians continued to express an interest in politics and to act accordingly. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many Scottish bands including the Proclaimers, Wet Wet Wet and Texas were involved in opposition to the Poll Tax and in favour of devolution;32 groups such as Chumbawamba participated in protests against the Criminal Justice Act in 1994 (part of which sought to make rave parties illegal); from the late 1980s to the late 90s, Cable Street Beat organised concerts with Oi!-punk and rap bands to protest against the extreme right.33 The second implication, which follows on from the first, is that music and protest which are not focused on parliament and on elections are not deemed to be of interest. This corresponds to the centrality of parliament in dominant narratives of British history, which are present in the media and in academia. Although its membership has changed over the years, parliament is presented as providing an element of continuity and as being the symbolic and physical framework within which politics exists and change takes place. Extra-parliamentary activity is thus downgraded or ignored. On the album OK Computer and in their statements, Radiohead did not support the Labour Party or engage directly with parliamentary politics as such.34 As a result, they are marginalised in many accounts of the period.35 This marginalisation reinforces the idea that the band were going against the grain.

Young people and left-wing politics

  • 36 Turner also noted that Labour polled fewer votes than Major in 1992 and only marginally mor (...)
  • 37 <http://www.poverty.org.uk/35/index.shtml>, accessed on August 16, 2017.
  • 38 David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh (eds.), The British General Election of 1997, op. (...)

16However, the extent to which OK Computer was at variance with the politics and the atmosphere of the mid-1990s is open to debate. An analysis based solely on the outcome of the 1997 general election would suggest that this was the case. It is widely accepted that Labour won a landslide victory. It gained 418 seats in the House of Commons, its best result ever, finishing well ahead of the Conservatives, who gained only 165 seats. Labour’s victory was obviously amplified by the first-past-the-post voting system since it received 43.2% of the votes cast, compared to 30.7% for the Conservatives. Yet it was obviously a clear victory and a huge improvement on its results in the previous general election when it won 229 seats and 30.8% of the vote. Nevertheless, a closer analysis of the results reveals a somewhat different picture. Overall turnout in 1997 was 71.4%. It was the last time that over 70% voted in a general election. Consequently, seen from the perspective of today, turnout seems to have been very high. However, it was over 6 percentage points lower than in 1992 (77.7%).36 It is important to bear in mind the age of the members of Radiohead in 1997 so as to situate the band in relation to the appropriate category of the population. Thom Yorke was 29, while the average age of the members of the band was 28. It is therefore necessary to examine statistics concerning voters aged between 25 and 34. In 1992, 77.3% of this category turned out to vote, but in 1997 the figure declined dramatically to 62.2%. There was thus a fall of over 15 percentage points. For 18-to-24-year-olds, there was a similar fall from 67.3% to 54.1%. A significant, and growing, section of young people simply did not bother to vote. Traditionally, young people vote less than the rest of the population, but more young people than previously stayed at home, even though there was the distinct possibility that they could contribute to changing the government by voting Labour. There was a significant improvement in Labour’s results among young people between 1992 and 1997. In 1992, 37% of 25-to-34-year-olds voted Labour, compared to 49% in 1997, while the figures for 18-to-24-year-olds were 38% in 1992 and 49% in 1997. Consequently, even though Labour was the most popular party among young people, over half of them voted for other parties. If abstention is taken into account, just over 30% of 25-to-34-year-olds entitled to vote backed Labour in 1997 and 26% of 18-to-24-year-olds. The reasons for this are no doubt complex, but it should be borne in mind that, although unemployment fell in the mid-1990s, youth unemployment remained over 15%,37 and the recovery was marked by an increase in flexible and short-time work and a general sense of economic insecurity.38 Young voters may have believed that a Labour government led by Tony Blair would not have led to a change in economic policy and would therefore not have improved their position, explaining their reluctance to vote for him. By not publicly supporting Labour, Radiohead were clearly on the same wavelength as the majority of people of their age group.

  • 39 For a detailed account of the emergence and development of these movements in the 1990s, se (...)
  • 40 In 2003, it merged with other small groups to create the Alliance for Green Social (...)
  • 41 Red-Green Study Group, What On Earth Is To Be Done, Manchester: Red-Green Study Gr (...)
  • 42 Malcolm MacEwen, The Greening of a Red, London: Pluto Press, 1991.

17At the same time, some young people were becoming interested in new issues which were ignored by the mainstream political parties, and this led to the emergence of new political actors.39 Anti-road campaigns appeared in the mid-1990s. In May 1996, 10,000 people took part in the occupation of the M41 in London organised by Reclaim The Streets. Critical Mass regularly organised protests against cars and in favour of cycling. Mad Cow Disease made some young people question productivism in the food industry and become vegetarians. Earth First! campaigned to protect forests in the UK and rainforests elsewhere. The main participants in these activities were radical environmentalists and anarchists. At the same time, sections of the labour movement were beginning to take on board part of their critique of capitalist productivism, particularly following the success of the Green Party in the 1989 European elections (when it gained 15% of the vote) and the twin crisis of communism and social democracy. The Socialist Environment and Resources Association (SERA), which was affiliated to the Labour Party and had been founded as early as 1973, remained active but new groupings began to appear. In April 1992, the Green Socialist Network brought together mainly members of Democratic Left, the organisation which had replaced the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1991, and independent left-wing ecologists.40 The Red-Green Study Group was also created in 1992 to promote research about ecosocialism. Revealingly, the title of its first publication – What On Earth Is To Be Done – is based on a pun on one of Lenin’s most famous pieces of work.41 The previous year, the former Communist Malcolm MacEwen had published his autobiography, The Greening of a Red,42 which traced his growing interest in conservation issues. In 1995, the magazine Red Pepper was created by members of the Socialist Movement, defining itself as an independent radical red and green publication. These changes could also be seen in the field of music. In the song “From Red to Blue” recorded in 1996, Billy Bragg asked: “Should I vote red for my class or green for my children?”

  • 43 Jonathan Githens-Mazer, “Locating agency in collective political behaviour: nationalism, (...)
  • 44 Dorian Lynskey, 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, op. cit., 63 (...)
  • 45 John Street, Music and Politics, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012, 45.

18Bearing these political developments in mind, it would appear that OK Computer and songs such as “Electioneering” were not out of synch with their times. The members of Radiohead were young men who were aware of what was going on in the world around them, and this filtered through into their work. They had a vision of politics that was broader (since it was not limited to parliamentary phenomena) and deeper (as it focused on policies rather than the party that implemented them) than that of many other musicians. The concerns that they were raising really came to the attention of the general public with the appearance of the anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movement after the so-called “Battle of Seattle” at a meeting of the World Trade Organisation in 1999, with the mass protests at summits of the G8 and other international bodies in the early 2000s and with the organisation of social forums in various parts of the world. The lyrics of “Electioneering” do not refer to the victims of political manipulation, of violent policing or of the IMF, nor are they an explicit call to action. However, as mentioned above, anger is clearly present in Yorke’s voice and the music. For Jonathan Githins-Mazer, a sense of injustice and/or moral indignation is one of the three elements necessary for participation in collective action (the other two being a collective identity and the sense that action could have a positive impact).43 “Electioneering” can be seen as a manifestation of the anger that Yorke felt at the time and that led him to engage with activist politics. In June 1997, Radiohead took part in a concert to mobilise support in favour of the independence of Tibet, and Yorke was openly critical of multinationals which he accused of tacitly endorsing the Chinese occupation of the country.44 In 1999, Yorke was present at the protest against the G8 in Cologne. For John Street, musicians become involved in politics in two basic ways: through polemic and/or activism. In the first case, they use their music to express their political opinion, while in the second, they use their status to support causes. “Electioneering” signals a shift for Radiohead in their form of political engagement from polemic towards activism.45

  • 46 John Street, “Rock, pop and politics”, in Simon Frith, Will Straw and John Street (...)
  • 47 Jeremy Tranmer, “Spouting Slogans for the Sandinistas? The Clash and International Solidari (...)
  • 48 The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was a movement committed to social reforms (...)

19Street has also stated that popular music does not merely reflect the times in which it is produced, but it also shapes them.46 Bearing this in mind, it will therefore be argued that through “Electioneering” in particular, Radiohead made a small contribution to shaping events in the late 1990s. In that song, Radiohead exposed their listeners to ideas about neo-liberalism which had previously been expressed mainly in various activist publications with a limited readership. Radiohead was thus bringing them into contact with a significantly larger section of the population. The fact that a commercially and critically successful band that was taken seriously by the media espoused them gave these ideas a certain legitimacy and no doubt encouraged some listeners to find out more about them. It has been noted that some fans of bands which take an interest in politics and express it in their music and activities look closely into the issues raised by them. This can lead them to become actively involved. This was the case of fans of the Clash, for instance.47 Fans have claimed to have been introduced to anti-racism (and left-wing politics, in general) by the Clash’s participation in Rock Against Racism in 1978/1979. Others have noted that the release of the album Sandinista in 1980 led them to find out more about the situation in Nicaragua and to become involved in activities in support of the Sandinista government.48 According to leaders of the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, the organisation was able to use the Clash’s references to Nicaragua when approaching young people. “Electioneering” may thus have led some fans to take a closer interest in the themes mentioned in the song, creating the possibility of interaction with activist circles. In this way, Radiohead had a small role in shaping political developments in the UK in the late 1990s.

20If a purely parliamentary vision of politics is adopted, OK computer could be viewed as being out of kilter, politically speaking. There are no signs of enthusiasm for Tony Blair and New Labour or for the possibility of a change of government. There is in fact the implication that a new government would have no impact on the fundamental issues facing young people. However, the album is an expression of the dissatisfaction with contemporary society felt by many young people and is a product of the changing political and ideological context as well as of the broadening of the political agenda in the mid- to late 1990s. “Electioneering” stands out both musically and thematically. It represents an important step in the political evolution of the members of the band and signals their growing alignment with various social movements which were emerging in British society. It can also be seen as a small part of the prehistory of these movements.

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Notes

1 For an overall history of the decade, see Alwyn W. Turner, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, London: Aurum Press, 2013. See also Jean-Philippe Fons (ed.), Les années John Major, 1990-1997, Toulon: Observatoire de la société britannique/Université de Toulon, 2009, and Richard Power Sayeed, 1997: The Year that Never Happened, London: Zed Books, 2017.

2 The main aim of the ERM was to limit variations in the exchange rates between European currencies with a view to the creation of a single currency.

3 See John Harris, The Last Party: Britpop, Blair, And The Demise of English Rock, London: Harper Perennial, 2004 [2003].

4 The close relationship between Britpop and Labour was not lost on the press. See for example Nicholas Barber, “What’s the story? Mourning Tories!”, Independent, 3 November 1996, <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/whats-the-story-mourning-tories-1350545.html>, accessed on August 17, 2017. The headline of the article is a pun on the title of Oasis’s album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?.

5 Guillaume Clément, “Activism and Environmentalism in British Rock: the Case of Radiohead”, Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique, XXII-3, 2017. <http://rfcb.revues.org/1499>, accessed on July 25, 2017.

6 Although the members of the band did admit to being pleased about the Conservatives’ defeat in the 1997 election. Mark Sutherland, “Return of the Mac”, Melody Maker, 31 May 1997, 47.

7 Dai Griffiths, OK Computer, London: Continuum Books, 2004, 59.

8 There is also an autobiographical element to these lines. During their American tour in 1996, members of the band had felt that they were charming people to promote their music in the same way that politicians deal with voters in order to “sell” the policies of their parties. Mark Sutherland, “Return of the Mac”, op. cit., 47.

9 David Cavanagh, “Communication Breakdown”, Uncut, February 2007, <https://citizeninsane.eu/media/uk/uncut/07/pt_2007-02_uncut.htm>, accessed on August 30, 2017.

10 David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh (eds.), The British General Election of 1997, London: Macmillan Press, 1997, 22.

11 It has been suggested that Yorke’s memories of the protests against Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax in 1990 influenced this line. Phil Rose, Radiohead and the Global Movement for Change: “Pragmatism not Idealism”, London: Fairleigh Press, 2016, 121.

12 Jim Irvin, “Thom Yorke tells Jim Irvin how OK Computer was done”, Mojo, July 1997, <https://citizeninsane.eu/media/uk/mojo/03/pt_1997-07_mojo.htm>, accessed on August 16, 2017.

13 Dorian Lynskey, 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, London: Faber and Faber, 2010, 634.

14 Tim Footman, Radiohead, Welcome to the Machine: OK Computer and the Death of the Classic Album, New Malden: Chrome Dreams, 2007, 145.

15 Songs such as “Give Peace a Chance” and “Power to the People” by John Lennon spring immediately to mind.

16 Guillaume Clément, “Activism and Environmentalism in British Rock: the Case of Radiohead”, op. cit.

17 Tim Footman, Radiohead, Welcome to the Machine: OK Computer and the Death of the Classic Album, op. cit., 94.

18 Dave Laing, “Resistance and protest” in John Shepherd, David Horn, Dave Laing, Paul Oliver and Peter Wicke (eds.), Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, London: Continuum, 2003, 345.

19 Idem.

20 Tim Footman, Radiohead, Welcome to the Machine: OK Computer and the Death of the Classic Album, op. cit., 145.

21 This is one of the main themes of Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, Oxford: OUP, 1996.

22 James Oldham, “The rise and rise of the rom empire”, New Musical Express, 14 June 1997, 54.

23 Although it could be argued that the IMF imposed a neo-liberal order, one of the main beneficiaries of which was multinational companies.

24 Looking back on this period, the band admitted hating Britpop, particularly as they thought it was musically backward-looking and too closely reminiscent of the music of the 1960s. Andy Greene, “Radiohead’s Rhapsody in Gloom: ‘OK Computer’ 20 Years Later”, Rolling Stone, 31 May 2017, <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/exclusive-thom-yorke-and-radiohead-on-ok-computer-w484570>, accessed on September 5, 2017.

25 See for example Dorian Lynskey, 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, op. cit., 523. It has even been suggested by one historian that political music was in decline as early as the mid-1980s. Andy McSmith, No Such Thing as Society: A History of Britain in the 1980s, London: Constable and Robinson, 2011, 175.

26 The demise of Red Wedge appears to represent the end of a cycle in Daniel Rachel’s book of interviews with politically-minded musicians. Daniel Rachel, Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge, London: Picador, 2016.

27 John Harris, The Last Party: Britpop, Blair, And The Demise of English Rock, op. cit., 153.

28 This is one of the basic ideas of Harris’s The Last Party: Britpop, Blair, And The Demise of English Rock.

29 John Harris, The Last Party: Britpop, Blair, And The Demise of English Rock, op. cit., 273.

30 In fact, there was little need for musicians to criticise Major as the media were increasingly hostile to him and Labour had a substantial lead of over 20 points in opinion polls from December 1993 onwards. David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh (eds.), The British General Election of 1997, op. cit., 12. The political situation was thus markedly different to that of the 1980s. The song “John Major – Fuck You” by Oi Polloi is an exception to this rule.

31 Alwyn W. Turner, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, op. cit., 30.

32 See Jeremy Tranmer, “Popular Music and Left-Wing Scottishness”, Etudes Ecossaises, n° 18, 2016, 133-150.

33 Cable Street Beat was the musical wing of Anti-Fascist Action, a militant grouping which sought to confront the extreme right politically, culturally, and physically.

34 It was only later that Yorke professed his support for the Green Party.

35 For example, Lynskey devotes only two pages to OK Computer in his account of political music. Dorian Lynskey, 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, op. cit., 633-635. Turner writes only one small paragraph about the album in a chapter about popular culture. Alwyn W. Turner, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, op. cit., 140.

36 Turner also noted that Labour polled fewer votes than Major in 1992 and only marginally more than Harold Wilson when he lost the 1970 general election. Alwyn W. Turner, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, op. cit., 284.

37 <http://www.poverty.org.uk/35/index.shtml>, accessed on August 16, 2017.

38 David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh (eds.), The British General Election of 1997, op. cit., 14.

39 For a detailed account of the emergence and development of these movements in the 1990s, see Alexandra Plows, “Activist Networks in the UK: Mapping the Build-Up to the Anti-Globalization Movement”, in John Carter and David Morland (eds.), Anti-capitalist Britain, Cheltenham: New Clarion Press, 2004, 95-113, and George McKay, Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties, London: Verso, 1996, 127-158.

40 In 2003, it merged with other small groups to create the Alliance for Green Socialism.

41 Red-Green Study Group, What On Earth Is To Be Done, Manchester: Red-Green Study Group, 1995.

42 Malcolm MacEwen, The Greening of a Red, London: Pluto Press, 1991.

43 Jonathan Githens-Mazer, “Locating agency in collective political behaviour: nationalism, social movements and individual mobilisation”, Politics, vol. 28, n° 1, 2008, 45.

44 Dorian Lynskey, 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, op. cit., 636.

45 John Street, Music and Politics, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012, 45.

46 John Street, “Rock, pop and politics”, in Simon Frith, Will Straw and John Street (eds.), Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, Cambridge: CUP, 2001, 246.

47 Jeremy Tranmer, “Spouting Slogans for the Sandinistas? The Clash and International Solidarity”, in Samuel Cohen and James Peacock (eds.), The Clash Takes on the World: Transnational Perspectives on the Only Band that Matters, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, 147-164.

48 The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was a movement committed to social reforms which led a successful revolution in Nicaragua in 1979. It received support in left-wing circles throughout the world.

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Jeremy Tranmer, « OK Computer: A Sign of the Political and Ideological Times? », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XVII-n°1 | 2019, mis en ligne le 12 novembre 2019, consulté le 14 décembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/10621 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.10621

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Jeremy Tranmer

Jeremy Tranmer is a senior lecturer at the University of Lorraine (France), where he teaches classes about contemporary Britain (politics, history and popular culture). Although his PhD was about British Communism and he has worked on the radical left, he is also interested in the relationship between popular music and the left. He has published articles on punk and Rock Against Racism, as well as on music and opposition to Thatcherism.

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