I listen to Radiohead in the dark

Radiohead’s seminal album, OK Computer, is 25 years old. To mark the occasion, Calum Henderson listens to it in a movie theater with the lights off.

I’m in the back of a movie theater and my face is totally covered in masks. A trusty blue disposable covers my mouth and nose, while the free eye mask I was given on arrival tries valiantly to make me less aware of the fact that I’m sitting in the dark with a group of people. ‘strangers and that we are all very attentively listening to “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead.

It’s about Pitchblack Playback, an idea that started in London in 2016 and has since spread around the world. The idea is to go sit in the dark and listen to an entire album from start to finish on a bigger and better sound system than what you have at home, to “hear and feel every nuance ” recording without interruption or distraction. At the Capitol Cinema in Auckland they play a different album every month – in April it was Paul Simon’s Graceland, last year they did Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell.

It was the mental image of everyone silently saying “I’m your little bitch from Venice” in the safety of dark cinema that did it for me. The whole concept seemed really funny in a way that I can’t explain other than to say it’s the same energy as that video of Lorde shutting up the audience. It also really pleased the part of me that sometimes wishes people didn’t sing in the car. When I saw the targeted Facebook ad inviting me to celebrate OK Computer’s 25th anniversary, I knew my number had been called.

This isn’t the first time I’ve listened to OK Computer in the dark. Late one night, at the height of my teenage/Radiohead fan angst phase (a real chicken-or-egg situation), I took my Discman out into the garden and listened to the whole album sitting on a concrete step near the clothesline. It started raining. I did not move. I think I was expecting some sort of transcendental experience, but most of the time I just sat there thinking “I’m listening to Radiohead in the rain”.

Scene from ‘Paranoid Android’ music video / How I imagined I was while listening to Radiohead in the rain

Now, 22 years later, as Thom Yorke catches his breath to deliver the famous “Gucci little piggy squeaky kick” line in “Paranoid Android”, all I can think of is “I listen to Radiohead in the black”.

I wouldn’t say it’s a dream come true, necessarily – me at 15, I would never have dared to dream that big. I figure I’m doing this for him, but I’m also doing it because I’ve always wanted to listen to music on a very expensive sound system to see if I could hear a difference. This version of OK Computer is made up of “24-bit stereo files downmixed to surround sound” (probably better quality than Spotify) and plays through theater speakers (surely better than a UE Boom).

The short answer is that it sounds good but not noticeably better than a mid-priced pair of headphones. When I focus, I sometimes notice more “depth” and “texture” and maybe some songs sound a bit more “3D” than on the Airpods. Basically, it’s like the difference between drinking $10 and $100 bottles of wine — in the end, both taste a lot like wine. (Full disclosure: I’ve never tried a $100 bottle of wine, but that’s what everyone says.)

Maybe I’m finally ready to admit that I’m not and never will be an audiophile. Listening to music with so much intensity makes it impossible to appreciate, like trying to fall asleep when you’re thinking of falling asleep. I take off my eye mask after “Fitter Happier” and illegally open the Notes app on my phone to jot down all the big reveals I’ve had so far.

Fitter Happier best song?“It always seemed like a novelty track, but now I think there is a case to be made. “big lungs”. Probably the technical detail that stands out the most about the big speakers is how long Thom Yorke can sing without breathing. A reminder to never try to do “Exit Music (For A Film)” at karaoke. “I listen to Radiohead in _______”. Words for my tombstone?

The biggest revelation that strikes me about OK Computer is that all the best songs are in the first half. The end of the album is a test of endurance. I remember I couldn’t wait for it to end that night in the garden too, but I attributed that to the fact that I was starting to worry about hypothermia. Now I’ve resigned myself to doing the same thing I do every time I listen to Radiohead these days: unnecessarily ranking albums from best to worst in my head. I put this one in third or fourth.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that I’m in the minority to get anything out of this experience. One online reviewer described a Pitchblack Playback session where they listened to a Muse album in the dark as “a transcendent musical experience like no other”. Another who listened to a Bon Iver album in the dark writes that at one point they were “literally breathing in the music”.

Does everyone in theater transcend without me? They definitely are. I can tell from their completely still and silent figures that they are probably synchronizing their breathing with the unconventional time signatures and experiencing every startling chord change and innovative guitar riff like a psychedelic spirograph of color in the screen of watch over their minds. Mine is just white text endlessly bouncing on a black background: “I listen to Radiohead in the dark.”

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