by: Chris Thompson
Twenty years after its release, Radiohead’s seminal album OK Computer, with its experimental sound and prophetic visions, continues to strike a resonance with our modern times...
Twenty years ago, legendary rockers Radiohead released an album that to this day still sounds as innovative and pertinent as when it was first released in the United States on June 1st, 1997. That album, OK Computer, has been widely praised as a timeless work of art, a musical compilation comprising twelve influential and genre-shifting tracks that, looking back, seem almost prophetic in nature. Considering the melancholic complexion of OK Computer twenty years after its release, one has to wonder if Thom Yorke and company didn’t have access to a crystal ball, as its an album that depicts an emotionless world overwhelmed by widespread consumerism, and overshadowed by political turmoil and social narcissism, creating a vibe that sadly, feels uncannily familiar to our current times.
When released, OK Computer received widespread critical acclaim, despite its record label “EMI” and its sundry distributors finding the album to feel “uncommercial,” which was, in part, the very definition of what Radiohead was aiming for with their third album. However, despite such criticism and lowered expectations, OK Computer went on to debut at number one on the UK Albums Chart and number twenty one on the Billboard 200, the English alt rockers top American entry up to that point. In subsequent years, OK Computer has seen its popularity, relevance and influence grow to almost legendary proportions, and to this day, it’s hard to find a person who hasn’t felt the potency, acumen or downright panicky angst that songs like “Paranoid Android,” “Lucky,” “Karma Police,” or “No Surprises” incite.
Upon listening to OK Computer, the stylistic fragments of their previous albums Pablo Honey and The Bends, albums that precipitated Radiohead’s rise in popularity, appear to be removed. Gone is the musical polish that produced such pop radio-friendly singles as “High and Dry,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” or the commercially successful mega-single “Creep.” In its place are twelve of the most uncannily appealing songs ever fashioned, songs that repeatedly lob into the listeners mindset chaotic images of riot police, technology, death, globalism, greed, tormented lives, extraterrestrials, and the folly of modern life. Radiohead made an intentional choice to distance OK Computer’s style and sound from their previous, introspective and guitar-heavy albums, and provided a DIY-electronica feel to their third album, replete with programmed drums, electronic keyboards, and instrumental samplings. This all-around embracing of modern technology in OK Computer’s execution would serve to define the future of Radiohead’s sound for years to come.
From the initial, thunderclap grind of guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s guitar on OK Computer’s opening track, “Airbag,” introduced by lead singer Thom Yorke’s apocalyptic lyrics “The next world war / Jackknifed juggernaut / I am born again,” to the closing, ghostly feel of the album’s final track, “The Tourist,” where Yorke’s weary and hollow voice pleads “Hey man, slow down / Slow down / Idiot, slow down / Slow down,” the listener is treated to a sonic tour de force, a musical journey into the depths of a world run amok. It’s a realm filled with senselessness and uncertainty and a complete lack of a guarantee that any of it is going to work out. According to Yorke, the inspiration for the nucleus of OK Computer was found in the Miles Davis album Bitches Brew, an avant garde jazz album that continued Davis’s experimentation with electronic music and that went on to became an early progenitor of the jazz rock genre. Yorke described Bitches Brew as possessing an “incredibly dense and terrifying sound,” and what he found inspiring about the album was its concept of “…building something up and watching it fall apart, that’s the beauty of it. It was at the core of what we were trying to do with OK Computer.”
But it’s not just the musical prowess or far-gazing vision of Miles Davis that sets the stage for OK Computer. In the album’s opening track, “Airbag,” a song that Thom Yorke states was inspired by a traumatic car accident he experienced in 1987, there’s a conscious attempt to imitate acclaimed producer and performer DJ Shadow. “Airbag” is defined by an electronic drum beat recorded from several seconds of Radiohead’s Philip Selway’s drumming. The drum beat cycles throughout the song, mixing with a bass line that erratically starts and stops while ultimately stumbling into a percussive sound effect at the songs apex that approximates the moving of a vinyl record back and forth (scratching). There’s a juxtaposition of guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s guitar atop the song, as if the old Radiohead is in a tug of war with the new, and Greenwood’s real guitar battles heroically with the electronically produced soundscapes flourishing just below. Due to their inexperience in the digital realm, Radiohead had to make guesses in their efforts to emulate DJ Shadow’s extraordinary talents in pulling off “Airbag,” but the final result is both a powerful beginning to OK Computer and a worthy example of the sort of nouveau technical innovations Radiohead had in store for the album.
Another song which draws heavily on outside influences on OK Computer is “Paranoid Android,” a song that to this day is one of Radiohead’s longer studio tracks1. “Paranoid Android” takes its name from Douglas Adam’s comedy scifi series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One of its characters, Marvin the Paranoid Android, is a robot suffering from boredom and severe depression because he rarely gets to use the massive brain his creators provided him with. Taking cues for its song structure from The Beatles use of through-composed songwriting in songs like “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” “Paranoid Android” was an attempt by Radiohead to fuse together parts from three different songs, each written by a different band member. The dissimilar sections of “Paranoid Android” unfold in different keys and there are changes in the beats per minute and tempo’s across the song as well. Greenwood provides a distorted guitar solo to end the song’s second section and there exists a repeating choral vocal arrangement in the third part with the songs fourth part functioning as an instrumental coda, reprising “Paranoid Android’s” mid-tempo acoustic opening. It took Radiohead well over a year to learn how to play the song in a live setting due its complex changes across its four disparate parts and before Radiohead’s first live performance of “Paranoid Android,” Yorke told the assembled audience that “[i]f you can have sex to this one, you’re fucking weird.” With dark lyrics that tie in nicely with OK Computer’s themes of anti-consumerism, violence and insanity, “Paranoid Android” is a song that seemingly possesses various states of mind, with its mixture of acoustic and electronic contributions, lofty and multi-tiered wailings and enterprising ideals coming together to create one of the more unforgettable and ambitious works of musical art recently undertaken.
With “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” Radiohead offers its best attempt to channel the mood that Miles Davis forged so deftly with Bitches Brew, yet place it squarely on Mars. Sung from the perspective of a narrator who has fantasies about being abducted by extraterrestrials, Yorke found inspiration in the song from his experiences as a schoolchild, where he had exercises in writing Martian Poetry. A short-lived movement in Britain in the 70s and 80s, Martian Poetry was a writing style where one describes mundane and everyday things, except in a strange and humorous way, as if it were written by an alien who would not understand their purpose. The song’s title pays homage to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and quite possibly is a nod to the poetic and surreal nature to the Dylan song. But what is most curious is that “Subterranean Homesick Alien” is not defined by the humorous poetry of a visiting Martian, but by the lamenting of a human who’s become tired of his Earth-bound status (“I live in a town where I can’t smell a thing / You watch your feet for cracks in the pavement”). Wishing to be abducted in order to gain some new perspective on his life (“Show me the world as I’d love to see it”) the song, and its soaring electronic keyboards that seem to reach towards the heavens, plays well on the feelings of estrangement and isolation that OK Computer convincingly conveys.
In an album like OK Computer, so thoroughly dotted with classics, it’s easy to overlook “Let Down,” a hauntingly beautiful and simplistic offering that is an exploration of all the empty spaces and distances we travel in our lives. According to Yorke, “it’s about that feeling that you get when you’re in transit but you’re not in control of it – you just go past thousands of places and thousands of people and you’re completely removed from it.” It’s a song about the journey we take from one place to the next. From sadness to happiness. From home to work and back again. And from birth to death (“Starting and then stopping / Taking off and landing / The emptiest of feelings”). We are all moving through space, collecting all these experiences while we surrender to the process of transit yet it all just seems so empty to Radiohead. In a modern world where increasingly so much of our lives unfold digitally, once-removed from the reality of the actual experience, the parallels between the fears and anxieties that Yorke was singing about twenty years ago and what we consider commonplace today are eerily similar. And while “Let Down” is not as experimental as other songs on OK Computer, its straightforwardness, unflinching honesty and splendid composition provides a comforting emotional lull on the album, even if that lull is effused with a skepticism that our emotions hold any value at all.
“Karma Police,” easily one of the more identifiable Radiohead songs, was the second single released from OK Computer. Radiohead used The Beatles “Sexy Sadie” as a root example for “Karma Police,” and its influence is apparent in some of the songs vocal and piano cues. However, upon listening it is immediately evident that the song is miles apart from The Beatles in both feeling and mood. A commercial success in its own right, “Karma Police’s” title and lyrics arose out of a joke among band members, wherein they would threaten to call the “Karma Police” on each other if they ever did anything bad. The song however, feels like a schizophrenic attack, with the joke that inspired its existence entirely forgotten and a serious yet mystical tone replacing its jovial beginnings. With a major shift in its melody and structure part of the way through threatening to unnerve even the most steadfast of listeners, “Karma Police” is the kind of quintessential Radiohead song its fans have come to love and expect. In the first “act” of “Karma Police,” Yorke sings “This is what you’ll get when you mess with us” before the songs second “act” segues into the mystifying bleating of “For a minute there, I lost myself,” repeatedly sung as the songs climax approaches. There’s a threateningly palpable give and take to the song, as if its first part functions as the “cause” and the second part as the “effect,” with the net consequence of the entire affair a nosedive into uncertainty as the song follows a long and distorted low frequency descent into silence.
“Lucky,” inspired by the atrocities and violence of the 90s Bosnian War, finds parallels in the current turmoil in Syria and the Middle East, while “Electioneering” is one of Radiohead’s heaviest rock songs to date. The song was inspired in part by Noam Chomsky’s seminal mass media critiquing book, “Manufacturing Consent,” and it functions as an overtly cynical and heavily political song. Its influential verse “Riot shields, voodoo economics / It’s just business, cattle prods and the I.M.F/ I trust I can rely on your vote” would be as apropos on the street of any modern city protesting globalization, income inequality and its politicians and political institutions bowing down to the highest bidder as it was when it was released in 1997.
“No Surprises,” Radiohead’s third and final single from OK Computer is a deeply affecting song about someone who’s trying to keep it together but finding that they can’t. There’s an inviting, childlike guitar sound to the song which draws the listener in with promises of a warm and safe place to linger, but the songs lyrics are anything but comforting and suggest a creeping paranoia. “A heart that’s full up like a landfill / A job that slowly kills you / Bruises that won’t heal” Yorke’s alluringly monotone voice sings to open the song. “I’ll take a quiet life / A handshake of carbon monoxide” Yorke sings later, as if suggesting that the merciful release of a suicide brought on by carbon monoxide poisoning is warranted. “No Surprises” song could easily be a parable for our current times, as individuals find themselves struggling to overcome the perils and uncertainty of modernity amid a rapidly expanding and evolving world with fewer and fewer options for success.
There are many more songs on OK Computer that are deserving of further exploration, and to get to them all in this article would just be an exercise in furthering its intended point, that OK Computer is one of the greatest albums of all time. I entreat those of you who have never heard OK Computer to give the album a listen, as its message rings just as true today as it did twenty years ago in June. Perhaps what is most prophetic about Radiohead’s OK Computer is the sage advice to be found in the second verse of “No Surprises.” “You look so tired and unhappy” Thom Yorke sings, with the songs calm and gentle mood acting out in sharp contrast to its stinging lyrics. “Bring down the government,” Yorke continues, “They don’t, they don’t speak for us.” It’s those lyrics in particular that highlight Radiohead’s far-seeing eye and their ability to consistency convey the underlying emotional and political themes most pressing in our society. In describing Radiohead’s inspiration for OK Computer, Thom Yorke spoke of “building something up and watching it fall apart.” As a race we’ve been building things for a long time, but maybe there’s something to be said for letting it all fall apart. Who knows, it might just be the only way for us as a people to rise again. And maybe in another twenty years, Radiohead will have the answers that we seek.
- The song is an impressive six minutes and thirty eight seconds long! [↩]