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Radiohead’s OK Computer – 20 years on

Radiohead’s OK Computer – 20 years on

Radiohead stand and sit behind Thom Yorke as he does a flying kick to camera

On Friday evening at half nine, Radiohead will take to Glastonbury’s hallowed Pyramid Stage in front of thousands of adoring fans to again headline the world’s most famous festival. But how have the band managed to stay so relevant? The MALESTROM’s resident music writer Jessica Hart reflects on Radiohead’s impact on the industry and how their seminal album OK Computer stands up 20 years on from it’s original release.

With an enduring disregard for the trending media, Radiohead are a rare breed of band who continue to change their position, artistically speaking, time and time again, and now with nine albums under their belt, they have not only managed to successfully reinvent their sound with every release but also consistently produce music of the highest calibre.

Radiohead comprise some of the most notable talent around, musicians whose success is not just limited to the band, each member having established themselves in their own right through various individual projects, for example Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo release ‘The Eraser’, and his collaborative project Atoms For Peace, with, amongst others, Red Hot Chili Pepper’s bassist Flea.

Also Jonny Greenwood’s highly acclaimed orchestral work and film score composition, most significantly 2007’s ‘There Will Be Blood’ and 2011’s ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’.

In the build-up to this year’s Glastonbury festival, there is a great deal of anticipation surrounding Radiohead’s return to Worthy Farm for Friday night’s set; this will be Radiohead’s third time headlining the Pyramid Stage.

Picture of Thom Yorke in France, October 1997. He wears a fur coat and looks slightly off camera to the left
Thom Yorke (1997) Picture credit: Tom Sheehan

This year also marks the twentieth anniversary of what is arguably one of the most significant albums of the 90’s ‘Ok Computer’. It would not be an exaggeration to describe the album as a game changer, not only for Radiohead, but for the entire landscape of the music mainstream.

The industry at that time was dominated by Britpop, most notably Oasis and the eagerly anticipated release of ‘Be Here Now’. Noel himself stated that ‘Be Here Now’ was going to be the best album of all time, let alone 1997. Comments he would later retract. Noel, of course, did not know what Radiohead had up their sleeve.

These were gentlemen that would quietly go about their business, spend their time in a recording studio rather than on a front page of a tabloid newspaper.

Radiohead – Picture Credit Danny Clinch

‘Ok Computer’ was a far departure from ‘The Bends’, made quite apparent with its first single ‘Paranoid Android’, whose non-standard song structure, visceral guitar licks and changing time signature was like a breath of fresh air to the ears of a particular youth who craved something a bit more substantial than what the Britpop scene had to offer, a scene once vibrant had arguably grown formulaic.

The abrasive and darker tones of Computer spoke to an audience who were eager to hear something that reflected the changing times, as we swiftly moved towards a new millennium and with it the birth of the technological era.

Themes of social alienation are present throughout the album, most clearly illustrated in ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, whose lyrics speak of an overwhelming sense of being disconnected from society;

“I’d tell all my friends but they’d never believe me,

They’d think that I’d 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”

Perhaps the song which most distinguishes itself from the rest of the album, some might even describe as being out of place, is ‘Fitter Happier’. For me this track encompasses Thom Yorke’s profound cynicism towards the society from which he feels so disengaged. Lyrically it is darkly ironic, a list of platitudes, like a checklist on how to become a fulfilled and well-functioning member of society.

It quickly descends into a helpless and apathetic monologue of an individual who feels trapped within the society he is dearly trying to come to terms with. The track has always struck me as Yorke’s own take on John Hodge’s ‘Choose Life’, made famous by Danny Boyle’s landmark film ‘Trainspotting’.

“Not drinking too much,

Regular exercise at the gym,

Three days a week,

Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries”

The second, and most successful single to be taken from the album, was ‘Karma Police’, followed by ‘No Surprises’ with its unforgettable video featuring Thom Yorke inside a water tank as the water slowly rises around his head, the metaphorical drowning painfully reflected in the woeful resignation of the lyrics;

“A heart that’s full up like a landfill,

A job that slowly kills you,

Bruises that won’t heal”

This song is perhaps a good example of why Radiohead gained a reputation for producing “depressing” music, indeed it would be fair to describe ‘Ok Computer’ as an emotionally hefty experience, sadness being the word that most comes to mind. I guess one person’s depressing is another’s beautiful.

Picture credit: Danny Clinch

Musically the album set them apart from their peers, experimenting with their instruments in such a way as to create an entirely new sonic architecture, a perfect example of this is found in album opener ‘Airbag’ where the baseline not only provides the foundation for the music, but also creates a counter-rhythm, like an electronic pulse, complementing the drum-beat and becoming increasingly fluent as the song progresses.

In order to mark the album’s twentieth anniversary, ‘Ok Computer’ has been remastered and reissued with the addition of previously unreleased tracks ‘OKNOTOK’, set for release later this month.

Needless to say, this album is as relevant to people today as it was twenty years ago, both on a personal level and as a wider social comment.

The sense of digital anxiety encapsulated in the album’s title is more pertinent now that it ever has been in an age where the vast majority of us spend most of our conscious lives interacting with life through a screen. Oh the irony.

Buy the newly mastered ‘Ok Computer OKNOTOK 1997 – 2017’ HERE

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