June 2017 sees the 20th anniversary of OK Computer, rightly held up as one of the greatest rock records not only of the 1990s, but of all time. With themes of social atomisation and disconnection and of unaccountable, invisible power in politics, Radiohead seemed to take the temperature of Western civilisation as the age of globalisation and the internet began to encroach.
As the ‘information superhighway’ opened out and social media evolved at the end of the noughties, suddenly Radiohead’s anxieties on OK Computer seemed relevant all over again. We were more connected than ever before, yet curiously, we were lonelier; shopping could be brought to your door, but that came at the cost of community; consumer culture tells us the customer is always right, yet as citizens, we’re more powerless than ever.
Over its 12 tracks, there is the sense of a struggle between mankind’s accelerating ability to invent new technology and its capacity to cope with the revolutionary nature of those inventions as they became widespread in society, with Yorke constantly wishing for an escape hatch from this feeling of uneasiness.
As a companion piece to our 20th anniversary piece on OK Computer, below is a track-by-track listening guide for this massively significant record. Open up the album on Spotify here and give it a listen!
READ MORE: Radiohead’s OK Computer at 20 years old
From the very start, the listener is made aware that OK Computer will be a more ambitious work than The Bends. Immediately, ‘Airbag’s use of sampling and the computer-constructed atmospherics that enshroud the reverberating guitars signal that Radiohead intend to diverge from the majority of concurrent mid-‘90s rock. Inspired by DJ Shadow’s groundbreaking Endtroducing… album, the percussion was built through seconds-long samples of Phil Selway’s drumming being cut-up and painstakingly re-arranged, and built on a dub-inspired stop/start bassline, ‘Airbag’ was so refreshingly different to the reductive nostalgia of Britpop.
Thom Yorke’s elliptical lyrical connections between automobile accidents and concepts of reincarnation (“in the neon sign / scrolling up and down / I am born again”) were inspired by J.G. Ballard’s Crash, a magazine article titled ‘An Airbag Saved My Life’ and The Tibetan Book Of The Dead. Specifically, it’s about the uneasy illusion of safety offered by modern transport.
In ‘Airbag’, the central paradox of the album is set up – at the same as the musicians and producers around him take delight in exploring the possibilities of technology, Yorke himself is worried by the long-term implications of it. ‘Real’ guitars stand off against the processed, looped beats and ricocheting studio effects. 20 years later, it’s arguably the most enduring moment on an album whose political and societal relevance is still obvious.
02) ‘Paranoid Android’
A strong contender for the greatest song of the 1990s, OK Computer’s thrillingly uncompromising lead single ‘Paranoid Android’ is probably worthy of an entire feature all to itself. A six-and-a-half-minute multi-segmented epic in the vein of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, this bloodcurdling masterpiece whose title referenced the depressed robot Marvin from Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy unexpectedly became Radiohead’s biggest hit ever when it hit no.3 in the UK charts ahead of the release of its parent album.
Yorke’s lyrics were inspired by the group’s unhappy experiences in America, particularly a disturbing episode he witnessed in a chic Los Angeles bar were “everyone was out of their minds on coke”. He told Q magazine at the time: “The ‘kicking squealing Gucci little piggy’ was inhuman – someone spilled a drink over her and she turned into this fiend.” The image fragments of “the dust and screaming / the yuppies networking” and “unborn chicken voices in my head” set the tone while leaving the listener to guess at the psychological terror and dystopian themes that lie underneath. Magnus Carlsson’s oblique yet deeply unsettling animated video reinforced this idea.
In lesser hands, ‘Paranoid Android’ would have been pretentious and obnoxious, but the care with which it is constructed and the brilliance of the musicianship lie at the heart of its magnificence. Lurching from atonal guitar onslaughts to haunting acoustic refrains (the ‘rain down’ section) to synthetic experimentation, the underlying, uneasy feeling of being fundamentally out of place in society remains the same throughout the song. The ambition and execution is simply stunning – not many bands can fit this many disparate parts onto one canvas and make it hold together, let alone result in something as almost symphonic as ‘Paranoid Android’, and it’s this song that explains the widespread, long-lasting devotion to Radiohead among their fans to this day.
03) ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’
With the unenviable task of following arguably the greatest alternative rock track of all time, ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ serves a functional task of releasing the angst like a pressure valve after the claustrophobia and chaos of ‘Paranoid Android’. Sparser and slightly lighter in tone, its keyboards were designed to mimic the jazz-rock fusion of Miles Davis’ seminal Bitches Brew, with the title itself nodding to Bob Dylan, and it makes for a moment of shimmering, spectral beauty that’s about as restful as OK Computer gets.
Yorke’s isolated narrator sings about wishing to be abducted by aliens, speculating that, upon returning to Earth, his friends would not believe his story and he would remain a social misfit. It was also inspired by the British literary sub-movement known as ‘Martian poetry’, which humorously re-contextualises mundane aspects of human life from an alien perspective – “all these weird creatures who lock up their spirits / drill holes in themselves and live for their secrets”. Thematically, it chimes with Yorke’s desire to step outside of the human race and analyse it from distance.
04) ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’
Radiohead’s career is full of starkly sombre moments, but few individual tracks are either as stark or as sombre as ‘Exit Music’. An escape fantasy that starts in the inky dead of night and winds up projected onto the widest of screens, it feels like an intensely humanised re-write of the Romeo & Juliet story that inspired the song, the two starcross’d lovers this time seemingly planning a suicide pact. “I couldn’t understand why, the morning after they shagged, they didn’t just run away,” Yorke explained. “It’s a song for two people who should run away before all the bad stuff starts.”
In a manner reminiscent of classic Pink Floyd albums, after several minutes of gradual build-up, Selway’s drums eventually kick and Radiohead explode to the song’s zenith, as Yorke yells in a brief moment of resolution “now, we are one, in everlasting peace!”, amid a heavenly choir of mechanical pyrotechnics. Shortly afterwards, however, he collapses with the sobbing refrain “We hope that you choke”, repeated until it’s barely a whisper. If it doesn’t leave you with goosebumps, there’s something missing from your soul.
05) ‘Let Down’
Probably the most conventional moment on OK Computer in terms of structure – it follows a pretty standard verse-chorus-verse pattern – ‘Let Down’ nevertheless gets right to the heart of the record, and is the firm favourite of many a Radiohead fan. Beginning with twinkling guitar from Jonny Greenwood and building up into a Phil Spector-inspired ‘wall of sound’, the mood throughout is ambiguous – it’s not exactly sad, but it’s certainly not happy either.
“Transport / Motorways and tramlines / Starting and then stopping / Taking off for nowhere” – they’re small observations but Yorke seems to drive at the central themes of atomisation and technology with ‘Let Down’. It’s a glorious and beautiful track in musical terms but also exquisitely poignant, leaving the listener aware of his own insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Yorke said it was “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.”
But there’s a deeper meaning to ‘Let Down’ – his lyric fragments “disappointed people clinging onto bottles” and “when it comes it’s so, so disappointing” speak to a malaise in society and a sense of anti-climax about ideas that are sold to us, through societal norms or through explicit advertising. As consumerist culture fuses with the human psyche, we’re unable to distinguish reality from artifice. “Sentimentality is being emotional for the sake of it,” Yorke said. “We’re bombarded with sentiment, people emoting. That’s the Let Down. Feeling every emotion is fake. Or rather every emotion is on the same plane whether it’s a car advert or a pop song.”
06) ‘Karma Police’
Another one of the more conventional moments on OK Computer, receiving heavy radio airplay (!) when tapped for the album’s second single in August 1997, ‘Karma Police’ provides a moment of comparative musical stability on an album whose outer edges are often verging on progressive rock. After all, an album can’t just be constructed from expansive epics – it needs to touch back down to earth occasionally. Reaching no.8 in the UK charts, it has proved to be one of Radiohead’s most enduring hits.
Backed by a cryptic and image-laden video directed by the legendary Jonathan Glazer (who had previously been responsible for The Bends’ video ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ two years before), the meaning behind the song is rather more convoluted than the song’s relatively straightforward structure, a mixture of Beatles and Floyd, would suggest. Full of girls with “Hitler hair-dos” and men “buzzing like a fridge”, it would appear that something very sinister and Orwellian is being hinted at.
In fact, ‘Karma Police’ simply originated from one of the band’s in-jokes – Jonny Greenwood said “whenever someone was behaving in a particularly shitty way, we’d say ‘The karma police will catch up with him sooner or later’.”
07) ‘Fitter Happier’
Kicking off side two of the album with a brief composition of musique concrѐte lasting just under two minutes, ‘Fitter Happier’ may just look like a short interlude in proceedings, but many Radiohead fans correctly point out that it actually represents its thematic core. OK Computer is not a concept album by any stretch of the imagination, but as a ‘concept track’, ‘Fitter Happier’ is the only moment that links up with the rest of its constituent parts.
It is, after all, lyric snippets from this track that adorn the popular official poster for OK Computer that has adorned many a disaffected college kid’s dorm wall. While its words are spoken by the Macintosh computer’s synthesised voice ‘Fred’, the track itself is a representation of Yorke is railing against on OK Computer: technology, conformity, creeping fascism, emotional emptiness, pragmatism over idealism… essentially, the invisible, unseen power structures in Western society. Surprisingly, he wrote it in just 10 minutes after a period of writer’s block, realising instantly he had created “the most upsetting thing I’ve ever written”.
To call ‘Fitter Happier’ a bit of a downer would be an understatement. Seeming non-sequiturs and streams of received imagery like “Sundays ring road supermarket” and “slower and more calculated / no chance of escape”, once they accumulate, send a shiver up your spine as Radiohead offer the possibility that the dream that society sells us – the mortgage on the suburban house, the soulless job, the wife and two kids – might just exist to enslave us rather than free us: that we are actually told what we want. Essentially, it’s same trick that Talking Heads pulled on their 1980 masterpiece ‘Once In A Lifetime’, but to do it in this fashion takes tremendous courage, as it would have completely de-railed OK Computer if it hadn’t worked.
The most explicitly political track on OK Computer, ‘Electioneering’ is also one of the heaviest rock tracks that Radiohead have ever made. It scans initially as a much more intense and histrionic take on the grunge-influenced music of their 1993 debut Pablo Honey, with Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien’s raucous guitars stealing the show, though Phil Selway beating the shit out of his drums and a cowbell is pretty entertaining too.
For ‘Electioneering’, Yorke was inspired by political thinker Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent and by his memories of the Poll Tax Riots in the ‘80s. It references spin doctors and the illusion of democracy, of two parties representing virtually identical versions of the same vision for the organisation of society, and eerily reflecting the neo-liberal political settlement of the post-Cold War world (“cattle prods and the IMF” is its most memorable lyric). Yorke described it “a preacher ranting in front of a bank of microphones”.
However, it also has another layer, reflecting Radiohead’s disillusionment with the hot-house process of touring and promotion, and all the superficial glad-handing and false, mutual sycophancy it often requires.
09) ‘Climbing Up The Walls’
A great psychological unravelling of a track that seems to address a deep-seated sense of paranoia about suffocating, proximate doom, ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ is a great illustration of the way Radiohead seem to be able to communicate the same concepts in very different ways on OK Computer. On ‘Paranoid Android’ they’re oblique and cryptic about the dystopia they sense; on ‘Electioneering’ they’re angry; on ‘No Surprises’ and ‘Let Down’ they’re merely resigned.
But here, that feeling is all-encompassing and terrifyingly immediate, the unconscious fear bubbling to the surface in a panic attack. At first, creeping and stalking from its origins in ambient noise and an unsettling, ominous machine-like and metallic percussion, then growing in intensity as Yorke talks about “shutting the eyes in the cupboard”, before a bloodcurdling finale. The atonal screed of the track’s climax, actually the work of a string section directed by Jonny Greenwood, was inspired by modern classical composer Krzystof Penderecki. It sounds so totally different to anything else being produced by British rock acts in 1997, and for many ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ is OK Computer’s highlight.
“This is about the unspeakable. Literally skull-crushing,” Yorke explained to the New York Times about the track’s motivation. “I used to work in a mental hospital around the time that Care in the Community started, and we all just knew what was going to happen. And it’s one of the scariest things to happen in this country, because a lot of them weren’t just harmless.”
10) ‘No Surprises’
Selected for the album’s final single in January 1998, reaching an impressive no.4 in the UK, ‘No Surprises’ is one of OK Computer’s most famous songs. Backed with an incredible video directed by Grant Gee, in which Yorke is seen singing the lyrics inside sealed a glass helmet that at one point fills up with water for over a minute – an inexplicably moving sequence – the song’s distinctive glockenspiel melody made it one of the most recognisable Radiohead hits yet.
The unsettling juxtaposition between the morbid, dissatisfied lyrics and the gentle, calming music brings the tension, with the narrator seemingly worn down by a life spent in compromise and regret (“a heart that’s full up like a landfill / a job that slowly kills you”). Occasionally this frustration telescopes outwards (“bring down the government / they don’t speak for us”), but it’s for the most part an extremely introverted moment.
Identifying the innocent, child-like simplicity of its hook, Yorke described ‘No Surprises’ as a “fucked-up nursery rhyme” that “stems from my unhealthy obsession of what to do with plastic boxes and plastic bottles… All this stuff is getting buried, the debris of our lives. It doesn’t rot, it just stays there.”
The show-stopping penultimate track from OK Computer actually pre-dates the rest of the album by the best part of two years. ‘Lucky’ was first recorded for The Help Album in just five hours for charity compilation for War Child in September 1995, and was released as a single in December that year without much fanfare, causing it to languish at no.51 in the UK. The organisers of the album later said that Radiohead were the one band that actually attempted to “capture the sombre terror of the conflict” in Bosnia, for which it was to raise funds.
Colin Greenwood’s rich bassline provides the ambience and emotional gravity, while Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood’s soaring guitars and soloing lend some of its Pink Floyd-ian widescreen cinematics. Yorke’s lyrics were condensed down from pages’ worth of notes, and were originally very politically explicit, but the finished lyrics depict a man surviving an aeroplane crash, and the inexplicable elation that near-death experiences often elicit in those who experience them.
‘Lucky’ works like such a charm because it’s easily the most understandable and universal moment on the record, despite its cryptic coding. Its message is, at heart, humanistic and hopeful, with simple sentiments like “I feel my love could change” rubbing up against faintly subversive sentiments like “the head of state has called for me by name / but I don’t have time for him”. Over the years, ‘Lucky’ has become a firm fan favourite at live shows, where its mysterious power is fully on display.
12) ‘The Tourist’
After the multi-layered complexity that characterises so much of OK Computer’s previous 11 tracks, many have remarked that ‘The Tourist’ feels like something of an anti-climax. A somnambulent, drowsy and extremely sparse prog-rock ballad that crawls along at a pace well below stately, Yorke draws his vocal part out and savours every single syllable. That simplicity doesn’t seem to sit well with the claustrophobia and symphonic arrangements on OK Computer, but this sense of calmness and resolution actually ends up concluding such an anxious and paranoid album perfectly.
Inspired by watching American tourist hectically bustling around Paris trying to see everything in as short a time as possible and not really taking anything in, the whole thing seems like an out-of-body experience, with Yorke being barked at by dogs like a ghost. The singer said of the choice to put ‘The Tourist’ last: “a lot of the album was about background noise and everything moving too fast and not being able to keep up. It was really obvious to have ‘The Tourist’ as the last song.”
Tags: 20 years old, 20th anniversary, classic album, Colin Greenwood, Ed Biggs, Ed O'Brien, Jonny Greenwood, listener's guide, OK Computer, Phil Selway, Radiohead, Thom Yorke, track by track guide
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Hey Ed, a wonderful overview of a modern(ish) masterpiece. Can’t believe its 20 years old.
Thank you so much!
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