June 16, 2017 | by Ryan Bray
The modern world is one where cars are capable of parking themselves and everyone carries miniature phones/televisions/computers in their pockets. We talk to our TV remotes and order food online. Although all of this is incredibly convenient, it’s also kind of boring and devoid of mystery.
We're living in the futuristic world we used to dream about, but 20 years ago we could only conjure up our best guesses as to what the future held. That uncertainty stirred up a lot of different emotions in people. Some wondered whether the 2000s would live up to the cartoonish fantasies paraded out in movies like Blade Runner. Others dreaded the unknown. Those polarizing views played themselves out through a lot of different cultural mediums, including the music of the time.
People have been entertaining fantasies of the future as a far-off construct for decades. But many felt the time was coming for the dream to crash headfirst into reality as the ‘90s began to give way to the 2000s. June 16, 1997 saw the release of two records that captured starkly different visions of what the 2000s had in store for the world. Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space sounds like a parade marching in from the not-so-distant future, while Radiohead's OK Computer saw the bleakness of a world bogged down by technology and rampant consumerism. One record, musically speaking, delivered on a feeling of possibility the future promised, while the other served up a plate of cold dystopia.
Jason Pierce was working out his futuristic musical vision well before Ladies and Gentlemen, and even before the formation of Spiritualized. With Spacemen 3, Pierce helped pioneer the subgenre of space rock, pushing the shoegazey, bohemian cool of bands like the Velvet Underground and Jesus and Mary Chain outward into more ambient, psychedelic territory. By the time he formed Spiritualized in 1990, however, Pierce was ready to take his sound to a more ornate, almost theatric level. Ladies and Gentlemen, the band's third record, is Pierce's grand achievement of that vision. Offsetting Pierce's druggy, love-scorn lyrics with a playground of sounds including chamber pop, Brit-pop, blues, soul, noise rock, and psychedelia, the record bursts at the seams with creative chutzpah. With no real use or reverence for genre labels, listening to Ladies and Gentlemen 20 years ago was like peering through a window and witnessing how shapeshifting music would become in the decades to follow.
There's a mysterious but fascinating mood to Ladies and Gentlemen that makes it sound like something from beyond. On the record's title track, Pierce uses a choir, overlapping verses, and plenty of echo to make the idea of drifting off into the expanse feel almost dreamlike. In Spiritualized's world, the future isn't a dark, foreboding place, but rather a blissful fantasy. It's all in the details, from the guitar lines on "I Think I'm in Love" that arch off into the void like shooting stars, or the almost gospel-like testimonial "Come Together." But lest you thought all the record has to offer is escapist whimsy, Ladies and Gentlemen is still at its heart very much a rock ‘n’ roll record. Horns, guitars, loopy synthesizers, and Damon Reece's crashing drums all fight for listeners' ears on "No God Only Religion." Other moments offer little more than pure cacophony. On "The Individual," Pierce unleashes a torrent of loud, angry guitars that clashes wonderfully against the record's more serene, orchestral moments. Musically, Ladies and Gentlemen is Pierce having his Brian Wilson moment, like sounds are his plaything and he's been locked in the toy store overnight.
The music on Ladies and Gentlemen radiated musical ambition, and that go-for-broke approach spoke to the innovative promise many envisioned the future to hold. But Spiritualized's gusto was counterbalanced by Radiohead's growing feelings of cynicism toward mankind. The band's prior record, The Bends, left them with an incredibly high bar to clear. The band not only cleared that bar, but they did so by largely abandoning the melodic guitar pop they had up to that point built their budding reputation on. OK Computer marks the point in the Radiohead timeline where the clouds roll in and the temperature drops. It still sits squarely in guitar rock territory, but it's a sharper, weirder, and more angular affair, flirting with the electronica sounds that would eventually become part of Radiohead's core processing. Be it singles "Paranoid Android" and "Karma Police," or deeper cuts like "Climbing Up the Walls" or "Lucky," there's an inescapable feeling of dread and confusion saturating the record's every pore. OK Computer is Radiohead's meticulously crafted picture of a world on the verge of a nervous breakdown. No band during the ‘90s worked so deliberately to make a sophisticated, thinking-person's rock record. Undoubtedly, Radiohead outdid themselves as this record stands the test of time.
That OK Computer somehow managed to make intricate, complicated art rock a huge commercial success is a story in and of itself. (Legend has it that Capitol Records originally rejected the record for being too difficult to market.) But Thom Yorke's lyrics are the icing on the miserablist cake. With his signature falsetto, he sounds like a crazed man desperate to escape the futuristic horror show the band has created on record. The lyrics, meanwhile, feel more eerily accurate and spot on with every passing year. Pick any track, and you're bound to pluck out a line that feels tailored to today's wickedly out of control times.
Pack and get dressed before your father hears us, Yorke sings on "Exit Music (For a Film)." Before all hell breaks loose.
How about Trump-era authoritarianism?
This is what you'll get when you mess with us, goes the anthemic refrain from "Karma Police."
Better yet, give a listen to "Fitter Happier," which drones on in an emotionless, computerized voice about the endless stresses people endure in a world that moves too fast for them to catch up. A great rock band, sure. But OK Computer also proved Radiohead to be pretty remarkable cultural forecasters. It's hardly a warm and fuzzy listen (even if a lot of the tracks are beautiful in a melancholy way), but the record's hard-baked truth more than makes up for its lack of warmth.
Eventually, the year 2000 came and went. Y2K didn't send the world into a tailspin, and a lot of our pre-millenial worries were left unvalidated. And yet, so many of the thoughts, feelings, and ideas Spiritualized and Radiohead left us with in 1997 still ring true today. The 2000s have thus far been a grab bag of mind boggling innovation and cultural chaos. Spiritualized and Radiohead in 1997 were working from opposite ends of the spectrum, but together they saw what the rest of us could only speculate.