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CLASSIC ’90s: Radiohead – ‘OK Computer’

Influenced: Mogwai, Mansun, Blur, The Beta Band, Sparklehorse, Grandaddy, Björk, Sigur Rós, Doves, Coldplay, Muse, Elbow, Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, Bright Eyes, The Killers, Broken Social Scene, Foals, Yeasayer, Everything Everything, Bombay Bicycle Club, Alt-J

Influenced by: The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, King Crimson, Can, Miles Davis, Pink Floyd, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, R.E.M., My Bloody Valentine, Aphex Twin, Autechre, Björk, DJ Shadow

As the horrors of the last couple of years have unfolded like a slow-motion car crash via 24-hour rolling news coverage, and as the twin forces of automation and the gig economy have ravaged Western job security, many have reappraised Radiohead’s 1997 epic OK Computer and imbued it with extra political and social significance, on top of its obvious importance as a musical masterpiece.

IMPACT

Thom Yorke’s lyrical content seemed to evoke premonitions of life how it came to be lived in the West in the 21st century, depictions that have become more uncannily and eerily accurate as time passes. Yorke’s near-future is one of vacuous consumerism, social alienation and democracy manipulated by hidden special interests and aided by technological dependency and mass entertainment. OK Computer sense of unease and anxiety seemed to presage the 2017 of distant, disconnected politicians, unaccountable corporate power and the rictus neo-liberalism of Tony Blair and David Cameron. Yorke’s ability to detect these creeping trends in contemporary society, let alone express them in such a humanistic tone without coming across as earnest or sloganeering, spoke to a ferocious and sensitive intellect behind the compositional skill.

However, both now and at the time, Radiohead were keen to emphasise that OK Computer was NOT intended to be a concept album. It is not filled with the kind of hubristic, ‘I Told You So’ hectoring that so often hobbles records that address grand political ideas, and neither do its tracks scan as counter-cultural ‘anthems’ or protest songs. Yorke’s lyrics are impressionistic, with broken prose style creating lyric pieces moving and meaningful both in and of themselves and as part of the overall song and OK Computer as a whole. Many credibly point to the terrifying, sub-two-minute interlude ‘Fitter Happier’, consisting of nothing more than a sinister piano atmosphere and an emotionless ‘Fred’ Mackintosh computer voice, as being the thematic core that ties OK Computer together.

Another key to its appeal is that, despite the unmistakable sense of pre-millennial tension and dread that enfuses the album, the outlook isn’t all bleak. As much as OK Computer is wary about technology and mankind’s ability to cope with its rapid advances, it is hardly the rantings of some Luddite, irrational phobic. Rather, Yorke’s lyrics are as meditative and humanistic as they are anxious and alienated. While the onward rush of technology is frightening, the only way to cope is to embrace it, albeit cautiously. It’s even there in the album’s title – if you surround it with quotation marks, “OK Computer” looks like a Siri command we use with our smartphones.

But the real, tangible significance of OK Computer is musical. Having fuelled the sense of celebration that descended upon the British music scene in the early ‘90s, Britpop was on its last legs by 1997, the good times evaporated in a blizzard of cocaine and superficiality. The Oasis / lad-rock paradigm had come to govern pretty much everything in 1996, and guitar music was in dire need of fresh energy. 1997 was characterised by sonic masterpieces that rejected Britpop’s simplistic, revivalist template – Spiritualized’s epic Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, Primal Scream’s noisy yet ambient Vanishing Point, even The Verve’s comparatively populist Urban Hymns, all pointed to a future for British guitar music. However, OK Computer was the most intricate and intense record to reflect this trend.

So, what was it about OK Computer, so imposing and monolithic on the surface, that has kept fans and critics returning to it with such glowing admiration so often in the last two decades?

PROLOGUE

To understand why OK Computer sounded like it did, Radiohead’s own past needs to be considered as well as the circumstances in which it gestated in its creators’ minds. ‘Creep’, a Gen-X alternative rock anthem, had rocketed Radiohead to global fame pretty much overnight in late 1992, but that exposure brought its own pressures and the band soon regarded their signature hit as a creative albatross. 1995’s The Bends was conceived of as a means to escape the suffocating expectations set by ‘Creep’ and its accompanying album Pablo Honey by pretty much any means possible, and the new record was regarded as a total triumph, in both artistic and commercial terms.

While success in Britain came quickly, America was initially harder to penetrate for Radiohead, where they were still best known for ‘Creep’. The Bends earned them a support slot on Alanis Morissette’s massively successful Jagged Little Pill tour around North America, something which allowed Radiohead to expose a different side of themselves to a receptive audience but also do so in an environment in which less pressure was upon them.

READ MORE: Radiohead – The Bends [20th anniversary feature]

Recorded firstly in a mobile studio called Canned Applause in Oxfordshire, and then in a 15th century mansion called St. Catherine’s Court near Bath owned by actress Jane Seymour, with the help of producer Nigel Godrich (who has produced every subsequent Radiohead album) the band worked slowly but steadily from the summer of 1996 until March 1997. Except for ‘Lucky’, which was recorded in a day in September 1995 for the Help! charity album for War Child, all 12 of OK Computer’s tracks were completed here, either created in the studio entirely or fleshed out from ideas they had already tested on the road.

When OK Computer was delivered to EMI, the label initially revised its sales projections downwards, deeming the album to be too uncommercial and difficult to market, at least in the same way that they had been able to sell The Bends, a more conventional alternative rock effort. Faced with the six-minute, multi-segmented epic ‘Paranoid Android’ as its lead single, one can see why they might expect the public to be flummoxed. EMI had expected Radiohead to turn in a ‘big crossover album’ in the vein of The Joshua Tree featuring commercial radio hits, and what they seemed to have gotten was more like In The Court Of The Crimson King.

However, EMI could hardly have been more wrong. OK Computer has, to date, sold more than 4.5 million copies around the world. On top of its huge commercial success, it received absolutely breathless reviews and topped several year-end charts in 1997, many end-of-decade lists for the 1990s and, even more significantly, quite a few of those lists that occasionally appear claiming to identify the greatest albums ever. In 2005, it won a publicly voted Channel 4 special that counted down the 100 greatest records of all time, and has twice finished on top of Q magazine’s similar lists. Hardly any other artist, before or since, has genuinely threatened The Beatles’ supremacy at the top of those lists.

SUBSTANCE

While there is no underlying narrative and it isn’t therefore strictly a ‘concept album’, there are definite themes that run through OK Computer, including mass transport, technology, social isolation and alienation, the accelerating pace of modern Western life, globalisation and anti-capitalism. Yorke explained to Melody Maker at the time: “On this album, the outside world became all there was… I’m just taking Polaroids of things around me moving too fast.”

Sitting right in the centre of the album, ‘Fitter Happier’ is correctly regarded as the closest thing to a thematic core to OK Computer, a terrifying word-cloud of seeming non-sequiturs. Lyric fragments like “now self-employed / concerned but powerless / an empowered and informed member of society” operate like a dichotomy between the illusion offered by systems of political accountability and information dispersion networks, and the ‘fake news’ reality one encounters when trying to effect genuine within that system. Existential angst has never been as jolting and panic-inducing as the couplet “slower and more calculated / no chance of escape” – the idea that the career, the mortgage, the car and the family might just be social constructs, ideas sold on the basis that they will set us free but actually enslave us, and stop us from questioning and engaging with the wider world. ‘Fitter Happier’ is the closest that Radiohead come to browbeating with their agenda on OK Computer, and virtually everywhere else they hint and suggest at similar themes without stating them explicitly.

That sense of deliberate understatement is replicated in the unsettlingly vague artwork. Teaming up with Stanley Donwood (who, like Godrich, has worked with the band ever since), the front of OK Computer is a collage of computer-generated images and hand-drawn objects, which continued into the booklet inserted inside the CD cover. As symbols and images by themselves, what is present on the front cover doesn’t mean anything, but coupled with Yorke’s similarly fragmented lyrics it tied the entire package together and communicated it unconsciously to the listener. Yorke told Select in 1997 about the artwork’s resonance: “Someone’s being sold something they don’t really want, and someone’s being friendly because they’re trying to sell something… it’s quite sad, and quite funny as well… it was all the things that I hadn’t said in the songs.”

Musically, OK Computer is loosely constructed from two different types of dynamic. Distorted, guitar-heavy songs that flirt with the boundaries of progressive rock (‘Airbag’, ‘Karma Police’, ‘Electioneering’), and slower, quieter and more reflective tracks (‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’; ‘Let Down’; ‘No Surprises’; ‘Lucky’; ‘The Tourist’). One gets the sense that Radiohead’s other resident musical genius, guitarist Jonny Greenwood, is finding his own identity on this album. The magnificent ‘Paranoid Android’ seems to fuse both approaches together in a remarkable six-minute track that eschews verse-chorus-verse structures for something comparable to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ as it lurches chaotically from one musical sequence to another. The metallic ambience of ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ and the chilling ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ are two of the most emotionally arresting moments on the record and don’t fall into either category.

Musically a synthesis of Nirvana’s ‘Generation X’ cynicism, which the teenage complaint-rock of ‘Creep’ and The Bends had already established in Radiohead’s career, coupled with Pink Floyd’s sense of widescreen drama, which was a new approach for the band. It both seemed to epitomise the idea of the art-rock album but also subtly undermined and subverted it, recorded at one of the last periods that a guitar band could both advance the state of the art of their genre and achieve commercial viability at the same time.

LEGACY

OK Computer seems to have been one of the very last of the guitar-based, major label art-rock epics, a tradition dating back three decades to Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the point at which, in the ‘60s, the long-playing album became seen as a worthy artistic pursuit in and of itself. The late nineties was one of the last times in which the vocabulary of rock still completely dominated the music press, before the innovations of electronica and hip-hop became increasingly centre-stage and all-out pop enjoyed a massive resurgence in the following decade. The internet was still in its infancy, and the rise of P2P file-sharing and iTunes would mean that albums would increasingly be enjoyed on a piecemeal basis by the public at large.

Indeed, it’s incredibly hard to think of an album similar to OK Computer that has enjoyed anything like the critical and commercial success that it enjoyed, never mind one as forward thinking and indescribably futuristic. The Strokes and The White Stripes thrived on revivalism; Arcade Fire’s twin masterpieces Funeral and The Suburbs grew much more by word of mouth and weren’t backed by massive ad campaigns. Perhaps, in the world of streaming, algorithms and the instant access, the public at large had lost the attention span for an album like OK Computer to succeed.

However, as the world marks its 20th anniversary, OK Computer may seem more like the end of history for a certain kind of album, it can simultaneously be recognised as the start of a new era; not the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning. The idea of the album itself is still alive and well long after everybody assumed it would have demised, and great albums with coherent, overarching themes in the tradition of ‘the concept album’ continue to be released, albeit far less frequently.

READ MORE: Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool [review]

Far from killing it, Radiohead have done more than most to keep it going. The slow-burning triumph of Kid A three years later, which was pored over in internet forums and consumed in a very different way, represented the new lifeblood for the album itself, as well as acting as Radiohead’s artistic escape hatch from the worldwide fame and scrutiny that OK Computer had brought them.

OK Computer’s abstract lyrics, range of eclectic influences and dense, textured sounds shaped the future for Radiohead’s own future, even if the likes of Kid A, Amnesiac and A Moon Shaped Pool have rarely hinted at the precise template laid down here. 2003’s Hail To The Thief, a flawed but deeply interesting album, is as close as Yorke and co. have come to repeating the same political themes as OK Computer.

Coupled with a hugely memorable headline performance at 1997’s Glastonbury Festival, which is still regarded as one of the very best headline sets in history, and arriving a little over a month after the album’s release and, coincidentally, also after the triumph and optimism of New Labour’s victory had started to fade into an ‘ever feel like you’ve been cheated’ malaise, OK Computer arrived at a peculiarly appropriate time in history, like Banquo’s ghost at the feast.

Just how prescient Thom Yorke’s lyrics were in describing Western society as it is experience in 2017 is up for debate, but what can’t be denied is its musical influence. Anybody who has sought to make expansive, arena-filling indie rock, most obviously Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who even sounds like Thom Yorke, owes a debt to Radiohead’s nineties output, as has any band who has infused the rock template with intelligence and non-guitar-based styles, ranging from The Beta Band to Alt-J. Any album which has been reviewed by journalists who use the word ‘dystopian’ has been influenced by it, such as Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs or Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump.

Quite rightly, OK Computer is remembered as one of the CD era’s finest achievements, if not one of the greatest albums ever released. As the world continues in its current direction of cynical demagoguery and terrifying insecurity, it is hard to see a point at which it will not be relevant.

Listen to OK Computer here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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