Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 265
Wed. Dec 18, 2013
“No Surprises (acoustic/live at Electric Lady Studios)”
Thom Yorke & Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead
of here ♫”
I always thought that “No Surprises” should’ve been the theme song of 1999’s American Beauty. The lyrics and mood of Radiohead’s song match Sam Mendes film and especially Kevin Spacey’s main character Lester Burnham’s impressions of his own disappointed life. Lester has the ideal life, living in the suburbs with his wife and daughter, car, house, money but he’s miserable. It’s as if Mendes and Thom Yorke were in their own ways united in trying to show the world that there’s more to life than just money, possessions and social status. I always saw Beauty and “No Surprises” as the soundtrack for the loss of the antiquated notion of the modern American Dream.
I was actually stunned to discover, according to Thom Yorke, “No Surprises” was the first song Radiohead recorded for OK Computer. Radiohead’s front-man told Mojo Magazine, “We’d brought all this gear, put it all together and it was literally the first time everything was plugged in. We pressed the button, the red light came on and that was ‘No Surprises’. The take on the album is exactly how we played it, bar for a few small fixings. But we did six different versions of it afterwards, ‘that bass-line’s not quite right’ and this, that and the other—being anal. We went back to the first take in the end, because we’d discovered during recording that it’s about catching the moment, and fuck whether there’s no mistakes or not.”
According to Radiohead’s guitarist Ed O’Brien, the band were attempting to capture a child like innocence on “No Surprises” backing track as he explained to Melody Maker in 1997, “It was meant to be like a nursery rhyme. Strangely, it was the very first song we did for the album. Didn’t exactly set the tone, did it? If it had been the first single it wouldn’t have been a very true representation of the album. It’s a bit like Louie Armstrong’s ‘Wonderful World’.” You can hear it with Jonny’s guitar riff, it’s very childlike, dreamy and ultra cinematic. That’s why I was so surprised, no pun intended, that director Sam Mendes didn’t contact Radiohead to use “No Surprises” for his 1999 film. If you think about it, this OK Computer track completely matches the themes of alienated disappointed in American Beauty.
Matching the nursery rhyme vibe, O’Brien also shared another inspiration to the sound of “No Surprises” when Ed revealed Guitar World in 1998, “We do try to be diverse. The guitar sound on ‘No Surprises’ was supposed to harken back to [the Beach Boys’] Pet Sounds.” Thom himself was trying to channel the Motown legend and author of such hits as “What’s Going’ On” as the Radiohead singer shared with Humo Magazine in 1997, “We wanted it to have the atmosphere of Marvin Gaye.”
OK Computer was the album where Yorke’s lyrics were the star and “No Surprises” was no exception. According to Mirit Eliraz’s book Band Together: Internal Dynamics of U2, R.E.M, Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, “[the band] were “completely floored” when Yorke first played them the words to “No Surprises […] his bandmates, they proudly extol his gifts, particularly as a wordsmith, O’Brien referred to [Thom Yorke] as “the finest British lyricist of our generation.”
“No Surprises” is a lullaby lesson to the new generation to follow the dream occupation and craft that you love. My favorite version is this 2003 rendition that Thom and Jonny performed at Electric Lady Studios. This version is a stripped down more intimate one and sounds as if Thom is whispering his advice like lyrics in your ears. I can’t help but think of Kevin Spacey’s character when I hear, “our generation’s finest British lyricist” Thom Yorke sing, in my favorite part of this 2003 version, “Get me out of here!” It’s as if Radiohead singer is externalizing a lyrical barbaric yawp of everything Spacey’s American Beauty character and every living person in his same situation can’t ever do, admit that the choices he made trying to fulfill this antiquated notion of the modern American dream has left him emotionally bankrupt.
I would love to believe Thom was thinking about a Lester Burnham kind of character when he wrote this OK Computer track that Yorke once described as “No Surprises is someone who’s trying hard to keep it together but can’t.” Why work at a job that slowly kills you, every minute of every day? I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, in fact, I guarantee it’s going to be hard to follow your dream job. Most of the people in your life, family, friends and lovers will tell you you’re crazy and to give up, just like they have. The only true amigos are the ones who support you in whatever endeavored path you choose to follow. The question you are going to have to ask yourself is how are you going to define happiness— with money, love or a craft that will explore your voice and leave your literary legacy with the world?
The morale to both American Beauty and Radiohead’s “No Surprises” is don’t ever settle for any one, any job or anything. Love and thrive in the occupation/craft you were born to do, love a mortal beloved/lover who’s enthralled with your passion and love while appreciating every moment of the life you actually deserve to experience. Whatever path you follow, remember Thom’s lyrical advise but most of all— choose wisely, and whatever you do don’t end up like Lester Burnham, a man who gave in to this false American Dream that possessions would ended up with a dismal life in suburbia of discontent. Here endeth the lesson.