This year sees the twentieth anniversary of Radiohead’s celebrated album OK Computer and their much celebrated performance at Glastonbury Festival. With the band soon set to take the (Pyramid) Stage again our self-confessed Radiohead fan Simon Tucker revisits the lauded work.
It’s raining. Of course it is. It never seems to stop these days. Odd bursts of sun break through for a day or two before the isles get plunged back into the grips of winter-like conditions. Article 50 has been triggered. No one knowing exactly what this will mean. The right-wing media are smacking their lips and discourse courses through every part of the UK. It also happens to be twenty years since an Oxford band of middle-class musicians went from celebrated to exalted with the release of their third album. That band are Radiohead. The album OK Computer and it’s as if this was weirdly predicted. The conditions, the politics, the fractured nature of life with social media and computers replacing human interaction and the art of conversation (fitter/happier/more productive). The band were not to know that this would be the case (their just musicians after all) but there is something so current, so precise, and so on-point about an album that nearly broke its creators as they described the break from a perceived reality and the falseness of a music scene that had become bloated, snow covered, and gurning ridiculous. Let’s face it, the Britpop dream was over, (Oasis were to provide the bloated full stop with Be Here Now) and Radiohead delivered the fatal, final blow.
Maybe it was an easy target. Britpop had lit up the country for a few years, fueled by cocaine, a return to classic songwriting, the optimism of New Labour (who won a landslide election to gain a second term the year of this albums release) yet by 1997 the ugly truth had started to reveal itself. It was the year Princess Diana became a victim of paparazzi intrusion, with the thirst for images ending up driving her to death. Hale-Bop gets close to Earth and the Heavens Gate cult decide to try and catch it resulting in a horrible loss of life. Musically, U2 had gone ‘Pop’. Reef and Texas were the type of bands getting number one albums. Blur had turned away from the British and drew in influence from over the pond (WOO HOO!) and the Spice Girls were spicing up the lives of many young fans with their debut album. Let’s face it though, Radiohead were not the first band to dip into the murky or downbeat. The early ninteties had seen Bristol birth a new sound with bands sounding different yet sharing an ethos and outlook. Dance culture was twisting into newer and more exciting shapes. Hip-Hop was bringing us street culture via the raw grime of the Wu Tang Clan and the kaleidoscopic textures of DJ Shadow (who would have an influence on OK Computer’s opening song Airbag). What Radiohead managed to do was to pull all of this into one majestic and exploratory new, make it massive, make it sell and make it to the top of the Pyramid where amongst the rain and the mud they delivered a set that still gets talked about to this day.
After the relative success of the bands previous album The Bends the band wanted to change direction (a habit they would continue throughout their career to the chagrin of many and the delight of many more). On the new album there will be a shift away from the straightforward emotional narrative to a more abstract and multi-layered palette. Some songs strayed into first person storytelling (Subterranean Homesick Alien, based on a story Yorke wrote in his school days, being the best case in point) but for the most part it is slogans and one-liners that stick in the memory. The “kicking screaming Gucci little piggy”, or the “smile of a local man who has the loneliest feeling”. These phrases painted better pictures than if the band dictated to you as a listener a story, a tale, an emotion. It helped you fill in your own colours, relate it to your own life. You may never have been to Japan but you will witness it crystal clearly when Yorke mentions a “neon sign, scrolling up and down”. Make no mistake, a lot of this album contains bleak outlooks (parodied to wonderful effect in Father Ted where the depressed priest finally gets well only for the bus driver to put on Exit Music (For A Film) as he leaves Craggy Island sending back into a depressed state) and vicious put downs but there is certainly hope than beats deep down at its core. It is there in ‘Lucky’ (actually recorded in 1995 for the War Child album). Our protagonist may have just nearly died but the fact he has survived means it is going to be a “glorious day” and his luck “could change”.
The theme of motor travel and the risks that it carries is a main theme of the album. Opener Airbag talks about a lucky escape from a car crash, No Surprises talks of a “handshake of carbon monoxide” and closer The Tourist pleads “hey man, slow down”. The fact that the band had been touring the world and the aforementioned crash that Yorke was in it is no surprise(s) really that this would be a consistent theme of the album yet it is one that also fits with the general world at the time (and especially now twenty years later) where everything was indeed speeding up. This can also be seen in the artwork that surrounded the album with its airplane safety messages etc. Life was starting to be lived at a faster and faster pace. Everything had to and has to be done now now now with no one taking stock of the situation and with people making critical decisions without the patience or desire to take a breath and think about the bigger picture. Slow down indeed.
NOT DRINKING TOO MUCH
Radiohead have always proudly displayed their political beliefs supporting the Free Tibet movement, the aforementioned War Child amongst others and there is no denying the influence of the political situation at the time had on the album. Electioneering sneers at you with Yorke playing the creepy candidate wanting your vote only if you “go backwards” just so “we meet”. Within Lucky, Yorke delivers one of his most powerful lyrics when he states “the head of state has called for me by name/but I don’t have time for him”. This apparent dig at Blair and his desperation to be snapped greeting the cream of the British music scene when he was first elected (a trap a few fell for) says more about Yorke’s disdain and distrust for the then PM then any long verse ever could.
REGULAR EXERCISE AT THE GYM
Musically, OK Computer saw the band swerve from the more Americanised sound of their previous album and into more European territory. The band, with the help of producer Nigel Godrich working with the band for the very first time, were creating a more multi-faceted sound that was British in its eccentricities but more in line with the stark UK take on Euro pop that Bowie had visited on Low or Roxy Music had on For Your Pleasure (the guitar sound on the former’s Be My Wife seems to be resurrected throughout). There are constant shifts and nuances that only revealed themselves after multiple listens. After the buzz-saw guitar that opens Airbag to the shimmering dread and sheet/white noise of Climbing Up the Walls you get a fully realised, complete work that doesn’t sound British (they would finally make a purely British sounding album on last years A Moon Shaped Pool) yet shares a lineage with so many other albums created by musicians from the UK who were looking elsewhere for their inspiration. The whole album shimmers and grooves with tiny flickers of instrumentation appearing and disappearing underneath the main riffs. It’s dreamlike/nightmarish, lullaby-like to bad-trip fear.
THREE DAYS A WEEK
Then there was Paranoid Android…..
Radio wouldn’t play it they said. It’s too long they said. The video is too disturbing they said. They, as always, were wrong. From the opening morse code beeps through the various stages of its running length, Paranoid Android became an anthem for the times. A snarling beast one minute, a blissed out plea for baptism the next, Paranoid Android was as perfect a song as you could imagine. As shocking as punk, as epic as prog, as emotional as folk. It had (and still has) it all and when Yorke sings “rain down on me” you could be forgiven for thinking he had seen that stage, that festival, that crowd….history being made.
GETTING ON BETTER WITH YOUR ASSOCIATE EMPLOYEE CONTEMPORARIES
The tour that the band embarked on nearly destroyed the band and was captured vividly in Grant Gee’s documentary Meeting People Is Easy. The effect this album had on them would hang around a long time after and would be one of the main reasons for their turn into the cold depths of Kid A.
So twenty years on does it hold up? o. As long as people are feeling disenfranchised, alone, concerned and in need of hope it will be there. There’s talk of the band leaning heavily on it in June at Worthy Farm and why shouldn’t they(EDIT: Last night the band started their tour in Miami and did indeed include songs from the album including Climbing Up The Walls and The Tourist). They may have played a few of the songs from the album over the years but to include even more would show how well these songs hold up. It is that moment in a bands career where everything aligns and they cement their identity.
EATING WELL, NO MORE MICROWAVE DINNERS AND SATURATED FATS
Is it their best album? That’s for you to decide. Personally, I think the best was still to come (you can argue about this in the comments section but keep it respectful). It is where the lyrical themes, atmospherics, and thirst for experimentation first appeared in the bands catalogue making it a vital piece in the puzzle.
For many this remains the bands crowning achievement. The last hurrah for the verse/chorus/melody people seem to oh so crave (if you don’t find it on their other albums you’re not really listening though). Its influence will continue as long as there are disenfranchised young people looking for something that speaks to them and makes sense of a thousand miles per hour lifestyle.
However you feel about it, there is one thing that cannot be denied. OK Computer was the right album for the right time and maybe that time is now.