It is now more than 4 years since Radiohead first hit the Top 10 with the anthemic 'Creep'... Most of their singles since have been mini-classics in their own right including 'Karma Police' which was a No. 8 smash in late August '97 from the album OK Computer.Sometimes you can remember the first time you ever heard a song. I know that I can remember making my regular weekly visit to Andy's Records in Lancaster in the summer of 1997 and hearing them play then-current single 'Paranoid Android' in the shop; as the track ended I realised that they were playing the whole album the week before it was released; it was a pretty rare treat to hear a whole album before it came out in those days so I made sure to find plenty of things to look at for the next three-quarters of an hour. Although many of the subtleties of OK Computer were lost on me in the bustle of the shop, I do particularly remember noticing that there was a song that sounded a little bit like 'Dark Night' by Gorky's Zygotic Mynci on there, though that song was recent enough that the similarity could only be coincidental.
Like many of my fellow students, I bought the album the following week and that Gorky's soundalike turned out to be 'Karma Police', the song that ends Side One on the cassette and Side Two of the vinyl versions. Weeks later it became the album's second single and the band's third consecutive Top 10 hit, although its week at 8 was in the unbroadcast chart so few will have heard it announced as such. The title was apparently an intra-band in-joke (evidence that they have more of a sense of humour than is sometimes recognised) but the finished song is somewhat darker in hue, a song calling for vengeance. The frequent refrain "This is what you'll get when you mess with us" suggests it might be coming too, and the fact that we don't know exactly who's making that threat only accentuates it. Musically the track is outstanding, starting with a brilliantly engineered combination of piano and acoustic guitar (really, one of the best-sounding tracks I've ever heard) with the ominous rattle of the drums hinting at the breakdown to come as the rhythms break up and the vocal gets stuck on the repeated line "For a minute there I lost myself" and the reverb increases before the distorted guitar sample overwhelms the entire track until we're lost in an electronic stutter. On the album version, you can actually hear the click of the sampler being turned off at the end (reminiscent of a life-support machine being shut down, perhaps?) although this has been trimmed from the edit here. It's one of the most fascinating sound pictures ever painted in pop, but what makes this part of Radiohead's career so appealing is that they are able to combine that with a song that has a strong melody and a real human soul behind it. That makes it all the more involving than some of their later work which can be a little too coldly experimental.
Of course, this song is so widely acknowledged as a classic that you probably already know or disagree, so it's almost superfluous to write this post. But I recommend you check out the Gorky's track as well, since it's my only excuse to mention them in this context.
Also appearing on: Now 26, 32, 33, 37, 39, 49
Available on: OK Computer