Radiohead have been firmly planted on the musical landscape for some time now, and are known for constantly evolving their style of dark paranoia into a succinct art form. Electronic beeps and wailing reverbed vocal sighs have become their major remit for the last decade or so, however in 1997, Radiohead were an out-and-out Indie Rock five piece.
OK Computer was released in the midst of the Britpop explosion that was coming to a fever pitch in 1997, along with Be Here Now, Urban Hymns, and Marchin’ Already. The album was different to the established summery feel of most of the year’s chart-topping albums, seeming to capture post-millennial angst years before it actually happened.
Released off the back of 1995’s moody R.E.M-inspired Pop Rock album The Bends, OK Computer is an altogether more mature offering. The self-aware mumblings backdropped with inoffensive guitar that characterised Radiohead’s initial output gave way to frank realism and uplifting walls of melody. This is significant because it seems that this is the first record they had the confidence to do what they wanted. And they did it well.
Jonny Greenwood’s minor guitar plod kick starts the riff-heavy Airbag to open up the album. Two simple guitar lines creep into view and the tinny drum track (based entirely on a 3 second sample of Phil Selway’s drumming) eases the action along. Thom Yorke’s vocal delivery on this and the majority of the album is apathetic and uplifting all at once. When delivering the chorus hook, “In an interstellar burst/I am back to save the universe,” it sounds heavily sarcastic. The blips and beeps at the end of the track accompanied with Jonny Greenwood’s jerky guitar dubs set this apart from their earlier work, and echo themes used later on in OK Computer. There was a lot of post-production done on the mix that makes this feel more like a cohesive album as opposed to a collection of songs.
Paranoid Android is one of the more experimental cuts from Radiohead’s back catalogue. The song has several movements, Thom Yorke has stated that he wanted to write a song akin to Happiness Is A Warm Gun. Starting with a standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus section, the steady pace makes way abruptly for rough powerchord stabs and Yorke shouting “You don’t remember, you don’t remember!/Why don’t you remember my name?/Off with his head man, off with his head!” After this the songs bursts into a simple aggressive guitar solo from Jonny Greenwood before dropping into a sullen acoustic progression, with vocal walls contributed by Yorke and rhythm guitarist Ed O’Brien. This is an anti-singalong, the words simply command “Rain down, rain down/Come on rain down on me, from a great height.” The song ends abruptly with a frankly insane guitar solo from Greenwood.
It’s hard to say what this song is about. The famous line, “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly/Kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy” is a reference to a time when Yorke was at a bar, and accidentally spilled a drink on a girl’s dress. He was shocked at her reaction. Other people have likened the song to the fall of the Roman empire, and also a stab at critics of the band, “When I am king, you will be first against the wall/With your opinion which is of no consequence at all.”
Whatever the meaning, the lyrical content is classic Yorke, mainly cryptic with a couple of alarmingly lucid lines thrown in. Yorke also often employs lyrical collages to describe a general feeling or situation, and a great example of this can be found in the breakdown verse, “That’s it sir, you’re leaving/The crackle of pig skin/The dust and the screaming/The yuppies networking.” All this somehow comes together and creates a 6 minute panic attack that is still one of Radiohead’s finest moments, if not their best.
The other singles lifted from this album are all well known in the musical landscape, piano ballad Karma Police is possibly their most popular and famous song. It maintains a conventional structure, yet still has that edgy paranoia that Radiohead are celebrated for. Yorke laments, “Karma Police, I’ve given all I can/It’s not enough, I’ve given all I can/But we’re still on the payroll.” The epic outro with Yorke’s wailing repeated cry, “For a minute there/I lost myself” is a high point of OK Computer, and is the mid-album zenith.
No Surprises is a cleaner, calmer song than most on OK Computer. The glockenspiel melody hook is something that you could play to a child to help them sleep. This is not to say that there is no edge. The lyrics are a lethargic ballad, telling the story of someone who has accepted the ennui of their existence and states, “This is my final fake/My final bellyache/With no alarms and no surprises, please.” This song reflects the general feel of the album, the rage at the modern consumerist world, dulled almost to nothing by years of disappointment and failure. Being trapped is a recurring theme on OK Computer. If you listen closely on the final chorus of No Surprises you can hear the backing vocals requesting “Get me out of here.”
This is the first record that Radiohead collaborated with long time producer Nigel Godrich. Godrich adds his own veneer to the sound, his signature can he heard on this and all later Radiohead albums. The production is crisp, with superb direction. The drums sit sweetly in the mid range, while the guitars soar on top of everything apart from Yorke’s lead vocals. The bass unobtrusively sits quietly in the lower reaches of the frequency spectrum. Simply put, this album sounds loud and clear. You can hear everything.
There are some profoundly uplifting cuts on OK Computer, Let Down is positively brimming with happiness. Yorke intersperses optimistic lyrics with dark edginess, sometimes in the same line: “One day I am gonna grow wings/A chemical reaction/Hysterical and useless/Hysterical and let down and hanging around/Crushed like a bug in the ground.” Subterranean Homesick Alien tells of Yorke’s desire to be abducted by aliens who are confused and entertained by humanity: “and up above, aliens hover/making home movies for the folks back home/Of all these weird creatures who lock up their spirits/drill holes in themselves/and live for their secrets.” Yorke observes that if he was abducted by aliens then people would think he was mad: “I’d tell all my friends, but they wouldn’t believe me/They’d think that I’ve finally lost it completely/I’d show them the stars, and the meaning of life/They’d shut me away/But I’d be alright/They’re just uptight.” Lucky has a similar feel, Jonny Greenwood’s soaring guitar solos throughout back Yorke’s buoyant delivery, “It’s gonna be a glorious day/I feel my luck could change/Pull me out of the aircrash/Pull me out of the lake/’Cos I’m your superhero/Leave you standing on the edge.” All of this comes together to form a bright, chirpy soundscape.
The uplifting sections are counterpointed by several dark compositions, Exit Music (For A Film) is a bleak acoustic ballad about a young couple escaping to freedom. The pace is deathly slow, and there’s no percussion until it breaks into a harsh coda with Colin Greenwood’s bass fuzzing through the rest of the mix. The song ends quietly with Yorke repeating “We hope that you choke.” Climbing Up The Walls has a similar dark feel to it. It’s a song about feeling trapped, about the fear of someone coming to hurt you, and it’s about feeling unsafe and slowly going mad. The string sections in the chorus provide an epic sinister backdrop to Yorke’s drawl, “Either way you turn, I’ll be there/Open up your skull, I’ll be there/Climbing up the walls.” Climbing Up The Walls reflects a consistent theme of OK Computer, that being the fear of harming yourself, of being your own worst enemy.
OK Computer is not all gold, however. Electioneering may as well be an outtake of My Iron Lung, itself one of the more disposable songs on The Bends. The political slant doesn’t really work here, the polemic feels ham-fisted and far too direct in terms of the rest of the album. Yorke is at his best when lyrically obtuse or vague, and this song is one of the only direct cut lyrics-wise on OK Computer. The Tourist also sits at a lower level of quality. The pace meanders prettily along and the choruses are strong but The Tourist achieves nothing new after the soaring emotional punch of Lucky, the penultimate track. If OK Computer ended on Lucky then that would suffice. Fitter Happier is the only other obvious blip. The lyrics are biting and consistently hopeless, summing up the overall feel of OK Computer with lines such as “Calm, fitter, healthier/A pig in a cage/On antibiotics,” but there is not enough in the way of music on this track to call this a song. One thing Fitter Happier does introduce us to is the standard Radiohead mid-album bridging track. Radiohead always have 1/2 a song on an album; (see: Feral, Treefingers, Faust Arp, etc) Fitter Happier was the first.
OK Computer is a record depressed with the drudgery of day-to-day existence, and tired of the empty promises and serial let downs of the 90’s. The themes present a bleak, terrifying world with no way out. In spite of this, OK Computer is consistently uplifting and cathartic, the music flows through many ups and downs, from the dark experimental suite Paranoid Android, through floaty guitar trills atop a story of alien abduction in Subterranean Homesick Alien, the moody acoustic depression of Exit Music (For A Film) and the horrific scream at the end of Climbing Up The Walls, OK Computer storms the ramparts of the modern world with a duality of cosmic guitar melodies and stark lyrics. This record was important for Radiohead as it gave them huge commercial success and also started to flesh them out as the band they are known for today. 15 years on from the release of the album that some say killed Britpop, OK Computer is still relevant and vital for any complete record collection.
My rating: 9.8
Download: Paranoid Android, Karma Police, Airbag, Let Down, No Surprises, Climbing Up The Walls