“Paranoid Android” is our favourite song from our favourite Radiohead album OK Computer (1997) on 26th May 1997. The darkly humorous lyrics were written primarily by singer Thom Yorke following an unpleasant experience in a Los Angeles bar. The song is more than six minutes long and contains four distinct sections. “Paranoid Android” takes its name from Marvin the Paranoid Android of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.
Released as the lead single from OK Computer, “Paranoid Android” charted at number three on the UK Singles Chart. It was well received by music critics. The track has appeared regularly on lists of the best songs of all time, including Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Its animated music video, directed by Magnus Carlsson, was placed on heavy rotation on MTV, although the network censored portions containing nudity in the US. At the 1998 Brit Awards, the song was nominated for Best British Single. Since its release, the track has been covered by numerous artists working in a variety of musical genres. The song was included in the 2008 Radiohead: The Best Of collection.
Radiohead fused together parts from three different songs, each written by a different member of the band. Colin Greenwood admitted that the band, in attempting to make the disparate elements work together, “felt like irresponsible schoolboys who were doing this … naughty thing, ‘cause nobody does a six-and-a-half-minute song with all these changes. It’s ridiculous”. The song was at first intended to be humorous, and took its title from Marvin the Paranoid Android in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of books. Yorke said the title “was chosen as a joke. It was like, ‘Oh, I’m so depressed.’ And I just thought, that’s great. That’s how people would like me to be. And that was the end of writing about anything personal in the song. The rest of the song is not personal at all.”
In an early interview, Colin Greenwood described it as “just a joke, a laugh, getting wasted together over a couple of evenings and putting some different pieces together”. The band used Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the work of the Pixies as reference points while writing; yet Ed O’Brien denies they wrote “a ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for the nineties”, and Jonny Greenwood considers it too tense and simple to rival Queen’s song.
“Paranoid Android” was recorded in actress Jane Seymour’s 15th century mansion near the village of St Catherine, near Bath, Somerset. The first edit was over 14 minutes long and included a long organ interlude performed by Jonny Greenwood. Radiohead played this extended version during a tour with Alanis Morissette in September 1996. “When we started playing it live, it was completely hilarious,” recalled O’Brien. “There was a rave down section and a Hammond organ outro, and we’d be pissing ourselves while we played. We’d bring out the glockenspiel and it would be really, really funny.” Before the song’s first live performance, Yorke told audiences that “If you can have sex to this one, you’re fucking weird.” He also sarcastically referred to the version of the song played during the tour as “a Pink Floyd cover”.
Remarking on the band’s goals for the “Paranoid Android” music video, Yorke said that, “When it came time to make the video for that song, we had lots of people saying, ‘Yeah, great, we can have another video like Street Spirit, all moody and black and dark’. Well, no. We had really good fun doing this song, so the video should make you laugh. I mean, it should be sick, too.”
Magnus Carlsson, Swedish creator of the animated series Robin, was commissioned by the band to make the video. Radiohead were fans of the show, and connected with the Robin character; Jonny Greenwood described him as “affectionate” and “vulnerable”, while Yorke admitted that he found Robin “quite the vulnerable character, but he’s also violently cynical and quite tough and would always get up again.” At first Carlsson was uncertain as to how to approach “Paranoid Android”. Eventually he devised a scenario to the band’s liking after he locked himself in his office for over 12 hours to stare out of the window, while listening to the song on repeat while jotting down visual ideas. As Carlsson did not have access to the lyrics at the time, the concept for the video was based entirely on the song’s sound. According to Yorke, the band “deliberately didn’t send Magnus the lyrics” because they “didn’t want [the video] to be too literal.”
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