The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #233: Karma Police by Radiohead (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #233: Karma Police by Radiohead.

“Karma Police” was the second song released from my most favourite album ever, “OK Computer”. I like this song very much and if I was merely making this list up on my own for my own personal pleasure, “Karma Police” would definitely have made that cut, too.

As is the case with many songs that resonate with me, what I like about “Karma Police” starts with the writing and with the story being told. First of all, we start with the philosophical notion of “Karma” as a life force that brings balance into the world and into our own lives. If we misbehave, “Karma” will ensure that we are bitten in the end. It is thought of as a cosmic energy that ensures no good deed goes unrewarded and no bad deed goes unpunished. In the band, the term “Karma Police” was often tossed out from one band member to another if anyone started getting frustrated with another member and began acting out. “Behave or else the karma police will come for you.”

More specifically, this song deals with Capitalism and the mind-numbing, tedium of finding yourself in a cubicle in an office being yelled at by middle-managers or else, on a never-ending assembly line, packaging widgets for sale in order to generate revenue than never seems to find its way into your pocket. While many songs have been written about being frustrated with our bosses (like, “Take This Job and Shove It” by Johnny Paycheck or “Working 9 to 5″ by Dolly Parton”), for my money, none describe the irritatingly annoying presence of Company men better than lead singer/songwriter, Thom Yorke who writes and condescendlingly sings:

“Karma Police

Arrest this man

He talks in Maths

He buzzes like a fridge

He’s like a de-tuned radio.

Karma Police

Arrest this girl

Her Hitler hair-do

Is making me feel ill

And we have crashed her party.”

Have you ever stopped and listened to your fridge buzzing? Or, how annoying it is when your radio is slightly off setting? Take that visceral feeling of annoyance and apply it to the environment of a work place that no one likes to be at nor did they aspire to be there in the first place and, you have a song that not only makes you think but, as well, makes you feel the revulsion, too.

I think that “Karma Police” is written very cleverly but, it also employs a musical technique that was, at the time, quite unheard of and one that changed the way “Radiohead” created their music going forward. “OK Computer” was “Radiohead’s third album. By the time it was completed and the band went on tour, they were all chafing at the constraints they felt they were performing under when it came to how their songs were viewed and how music was able to be recorded. Not unlike The Beatles, around the time that “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” came out and forever changed who they were in the public’s eye and how they approached the craft of song writing and producing their work, “Karma Police” changed Radiohead and gave their fans (like me) a sneak peak at how they would approach all of their music in the future. At the end of the song, the band stops playing and the song descends into a cabal of noise. This “noise” was created after all of the instruments had been played and all of the recordings done. It was created using techinques such as distortion and feedback and sound loops and so on. It was all done electronically/digitally on computers. The use of digital technology on “Karma Police” was Radiohead’s way of experimenting with new ways to change how sounds could be used in a song. By employing digital recording techniques, Radiohead expanded the range of sound possibilities which, moving forward, helped them to create some of the most innovative music being played live today. In addition, the “noise” at the end of the song is a further layer of sensory stimulation added to a song that works so hard and so well to get you feeling uncomfortable and annoyed with being where you are.

The official music video for this song won awards as “Video of the Year” for the minimalistic storyline involved and the hopeless, helpless feeling it invokes in the viewer as we watch what happenes to the characters involved in the mysterious scene depicted on screen. But, for me, I have always loved Radiohead when they are performing live and “Karma Police” is no exception. So, for the videos accompanying this post, I will share a live performance first and then, I will post the “official” “award-winning” video for your listening and viewing pleasure, too.

In either case, enjoy…sort of.

The link to the video for the live version of the song, “Karma Police” by Radiohead, can be found here.

The link to the video for the official version of the song, “Karma Police” by Radiohead, can be found here. ***PS: The actor in this video actually burned his fingertips by holding the matches which were really aflame.

The link to the official website for Radiohead, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for playing the most innovative music of all-time. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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