"Paranoid Android" is a song by the English alternative rock band Radiohead, released as the lead single from their third studio album OK Computer (1997) on 26 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. The idea to combine the pieces into a single track was inspired in part by the through-composed structure of The Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun".
"Basically an excuse to weld loads of half-finished songs together, Abbey Road-style. It's Radiohead, pissed and having a party. I wasn't there when it was all stuck together – I'd been sent to sleep it off. What's it all about? The fall of the Roman Empire." – Thom Yorke
Colin Greenwood admitted that the band, in attempting it 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 "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 "f 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".
Inspired by the editing of The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour (described by Colin Greenwood as "brutal"), Radiohead shortened the song to a final six and a half minutes, a process that led to Jonny Greenwood's organ section being replaced by a substantially shorter guitar fade out. However, it took the band a year and a half to learn how to play the final version in live performance.
"Paranoid Android" is a song described as alternative rock, art rock and progressive rock. It has four distinct sections, each played in standard tuning, and a 4/4 time signature, although several three-bar segments in the second section are played in 7/8 timing. The opening segment is played in the key of G minor with a tempo of 84 beats per minute (BPM), and begins with a mid-tempo acoustic guitar backed by shaken percussion before layered with electric guitar and Yorke's vocals. The melody of the opening vocal lines span an octave and a third. The second section is written in the key of A minor and begins about two minutes into the song. Although the second section retains the tempo of the first, it differs rhythmically. Ending the second section is a distorted guitar solo played by Jonny Greenwood, which lasts from 2:43 to 3:33. The third section was written by Jonny Greenwood, and reduces the tempo to 63 BPM. The harmonies form a looped chord progression resembling a Baroque passacaglia, with the tonality split between C minor and D minor. This section uses multi-tracked, choral vocal arrangement and according to Dai Griffiths, a "chord sequence would sound seedy, rather like something by the band Portishead".
The fourth and final section, which begins at 5:35, is a brief instrumental reprise of the second movement that serves as a coda. After a second solo, a brief guitar riff is introduced, which Jonny Greenwood says "was something I had floating around for a while and the song needed a certain burn. It happened to be the right key and the right speed and it fit right in." The song ends, as does the second section, with a short chromatically descending guitar motif.
"Paranoid Android" is categorised by three distinct moods written in what Yorke referred to as three different states of mind. The song's lyrics tie in with a number of themes common in OK Computer, including insanity, violence, slogans, and political objection to capitalism. Yorke's lyrics were based on an unpleasant experience at a Los Angeles bar during which he was surrounded by strangers high on cocaine. In particular, Yorke was frightened by a woman who became violent after someone spilled a drink on her. Yorke characterised the woman as "inhuman", and said "There was a look in this woman's eyes that I'd never seen before anywhere. ... Couldn't sleep that night because of it." The woman inspired the line "kicking squealing Gucci little piggy" in the song's second section. Yorke, referring to the line "With your opinions, which are of no consequence at all", said that "Again, that's just a joke. It's actually the other way around – it's actually my opinion that is of no consequence at all."
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 sought to work on a video for "No Surprises" and 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 to be too literal."
The members of Radiohead, as depicted in the "Paranoid Android" video. The video's protagonist, Robin, is shown at far right.
Like Robin, the "Paranoid Android" video is drawn in a simplistic style that emphasises bold colours and clear, strong lines. It features Robin and his friend Benjamin venturing into the world, running into miserable EU representatives, bullying pub patrons, a prostitute, two kissing leathermen, a drug addict, deranged businessmen, mermaids and an angel who plays table tennis with Robin. The band appears in cameo at a bar, where they are shown drinking while watching a man with a head coming out of his belly dancing on their table. However, in this cameo only the versions of Yorke and Jonny Greenwood resemble themselves; O'Brien said "If you freeze-frame it on the video, the guy with the five strands of hair slicked back, that's Colin. It looks nothing like him." Colin Greenwood said "there was no way that we could appear in it to perform in it because that would be so Spinal Tap" and that having animations that did not resemble the band members allowed the video to be "twisted and colorful which is how the song is anyway". Yorke was ultimately pleased with the video, saying that it "is really about the violence around , which is exactly like the song. Not the same specific violence as in the lyrics, but everything going on around him is deeply troubling and violent, but he's just drinking himself into oblivion. He's there, but he's not there. That's why it works. And that's why it does my head in every time I see it."
While the single did not receive significant radio play in the US, MTV placed its video on high rotation. The version most often shown was edited to remove the mermaids' bare breasts. Greenwood said, "we would've understood if they had a problem with some guy chopping his arms and legs off, but I mean, a woman's breasts! And mermaids as well! It's fucked up." MTV Europe played the video uncut for two weeks because the channel's official censor was ill and unable to work; after that time the channel ran the cut version of the video. A later US version of the video saw the mermaids wear bathing suits, while the uncut version was later compiled along with other Radiohead videos on the DVD and home video release 7 Television Commercials and The Best Of DVD.
Evan Sawdey of PopMatters described the video as "bizarre-yet-fitting", and Melody Maker said it represented a stunning "psycho-cartoon". Adrian Glover of Circus called the animation incredible and the video "really cool". MTV vice president of music Lewis Largent told Spin "You can watch 'Paranoid Android' a hundred times and not figure it all out." File Hashes
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