Radiohead – Reflecting on the 25th Anniversary of “OK Computer” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Radiohead – Reflecting on the 25th Anniversary of “OK Computer”

The Album First Came Out on May 21, 1997

Jun 02, 2022 Bookmark and Share

Radiohead’s third studio album served not only to usurp its predecessors, but to alter our understanding of modern music as well. Equal parts accessible alt and innovative art rock, the groundbreaking OK Computer climbed international charts and captivated a generation of disillusioned youths seeking to document their sociocultural loss of identity and steep slide into Baudrillard-esque hyperreality. What Radiohead, coming off the success of 1995’s The Bends, did was define a new era of cultural malaise—the restructuring of the workers’ collective consciousness through increased technological advancement, into somnolent states of removal at the whim of scheming representatives, and the relegation of a populace plugged into alternate planes of reality. The bleak dystopian vision of OK Computer shook audiences back in 1997, but has grown increasingly and uncomfortably familiar to millennials and Gen Z, now preparing to inherit a fevered meta-earth left behind by their parents and grandparents. Within OK Computer, there exists a contentment informed by the knowledge that what occurs around us is not unfathomable, but was in fact predicted long ago.

Whether or not Radiohead intended to redefine popular culture may be subject to debate, but in releasing OK Computer, the group created a powerful homage to an over-medicated, hyper-individualistic society, speaking on the modern world’s behalf as few had done. The festering sociopathy within our culture spawns the numerous characters who populate OK Computer’s decaying landscape, from prima donna paranoiacs and adrenaline junkies, to overconfident politicians, doomed adolescent lovers, predatory home invaders, glum conspiracy theorists, and aimless wanderers at the hearts of neon-lit global metropolises, surrounded by nonsensical blinking signs and symbols.

Opening track “Airbag,” a ghostly account of regeneration through automotive destruction, is aptly underscored by a mournful techno-inflected drone and frontman Thom Yorke’s icy vocal delivery: “In the next world war/In a jackknifed juggernaut/I am born again.” Themes of heroism, consumerism, and fate are explored here, as Yorke, whose most recent incarnation has been speeding in a “fast German car,” confesses: “I’m amazed that I survived/An airbag saved my life.” Yorke walks away, alive and reflective, on his passage toward post-humanity, a universal savior of the roaring super highways. The notion of a high-speed existence in a technologically advanced society imparted on “Airbag” is expanded throughout OK Computer’s remainder, each track seeming to investigate a different facet of modern existence.

The subsequent “Paranoid Android” remains one of its decade’s definitive tracks and the group’s most successful homage to Pink Floyd, as well as its own personal “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Shifting the struggle to within, the track’s deluded narrator—a grotesque composite of various cocaine-addled voices chattering around Yorke in a Los Angeles bar—experiences many manic shifts in mood, from agitation (“Please could you stop the noise?/I’m trying to get some rest/From all the unborn chicken voices/In my head”) to hyper-aggressive entitlement (“You don’t remember my name/Off with his head, man, off with his head, man/Why don’t you remember my name?”) to complete resignation to delusions of grandeur (“Rain down, come on rain down on me/From a great height”). Lyrically, Yorke had intended the track as a parody of late-capitalist culture’s rampant consumerism, depicting a relevant setting in which personhood gradually dissolves and opportunistic forces line their pockets in an attempt to preserve whatever semblance of identity might be offered to the desperate populace: name brands as new flesh, myths of self a new faith.

In contrast, the protagonist of the perpetually stunning “Subterranean Homesick Alien” seeks neither conformity nor entitlement, but removal. “Up above aliens hover,” he assures us, “making home movies for the folks back home.” The protagonist admittedly wastes away in flyover country, where “you can’t smell a thing.” His potential either wasted or never realized at all, the narrator loses himself to dreams of extraterrestrial liberation, his obsession with such conspiracies alienating him from his friends, who “never believe” him, and think that he’s “finally lost it completely.” Still, he continues his search, confiding: “I wish that they’d swoop down in a country lane/Late at night when I’m driving/Take me on board their beautiful ship/Show me the world as I’d love to see it.” The final line speaks volumes about the nature of reality on OK Computer, as individual perception is frequently altered with each track, the pursuit of escape and/or tranquility coloring its populace’s sociopolitical prejudices. Conspiracy theories, when perpetuated throughout a media-centric hyperreal culture, offer comfort to a despondent populace—a means of controlling the narrative while never confronting evidence to the contrary. Like the sentimentality of “Subterranean Homesick Alien’s” protagonist, it remains a mixture of fear, disillusionment, a denial of personal failure, and the seductive pull of nostalgia—whether for a world once extant or one which only existed via the folklore of entertainment—driving these low-brow cultural fascinations, and, ultimately the merger of politics and superstition. This track stands among Radiohead’s major creative achievements, as relevant today as it was a quarter-century ago.

Still, there are moments of piercing humanity to be found here, as on haunting teenage love ballad “Exit Music (For a Film)”—the film in question being Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, for which the song was initially written—on which its disenfranchised protagonists prepare for departure in the predawn shade, mouthing the track’s key line: “We hope that you choke.” The melancholic despondency of “Let Down,” one of OK Computer’s most underrated tracks, turns its eye toward those imprisoned by the spell of industrial monotony, surrounded by perpetual automation and the blurred motion of the daily grind: “The emptiest of feelings/Disappointed people, clinging on to bottles/And when it comes it’s so, so disappointing.” Here, the group successfully crafts a tenderly downtrodden alt pop gem, which successfully reflects the sensation of working-class alienation felt within the constant hustle and bustle of the vast global village, Yorke advising, “Don’t get sentimental/It always ends up drivel.” There is, however, a glimmer of hope to be glimpsed within his subsequent declaration: “One day I am gonna grow wings/A chemical reaction/Hysterical and useless,” suggesting a sort of intellectual transcendence, some drive toward virtue. “Let Down” remains an especially gorgeous entry, and one of Radiohead’s more quiet achievements which, nonetheless, deserves the time and consideration lent to more prominent cuts.

Returning to the album’s grim political landscape, the sinisterly prophetic “Karma Police” explores the increasingly relevant theme of authoritarian censorship within the united surveillance states, the track’s frantic protagonist reporting his neighbors for various perceived indiscretions: “Karma Police, arrest this man/He talks in maths, he buzzes like a fridge” and “Karma Police, arrest this girl/Her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill.” Eventually, the narrator finds the tables turned, as the system comes to consume him, pleading: “Karma Police, I’ve given all I can/It’s not enough, I’ve given all I can.” Of course, moments of lucidity emerge occasionally, with the distraught confession, “For a minute there/I lost myself” offering a shred of clarity, although its serene energy is still overpowered by the State’s ominous declaration: “This is what you’ll get/When you mess with us”—a now-chilling sentiment, jarringly removed from within the realm of Orwellian fiction and reflected in the current national discourse.

Something of a spiritual addendum, the eerie “Fitter Happier” reinforces “Karma Police’s” rigidly engineered morality, Yorke’s robotic voice offering instructions for the virtuously “empowered and informed member of society,” such as “Eating well/No more microwaved dinners and saturated fats,” “No paranoia,” and “No killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants.” “The ability to laugh at weakness” is also stressed here, before the enlightened student takes their final form: “A pig in a cage on antibiotics.” Rounding out the album’s political commentary, jangle rocker “Electioneering,” the groups’ reflection on England’s poll tax riots of 1990, finds a charismatic candidate appealing to his constituents, vowing to “stop at nothing” and “say the right things,” concluding, “I trust I can rely on your vote.” With his trademark tone of detachment, Yorke sings, “When I go forwards/You go backwards/And somewhere we will meet,” summing up the social catastrophe the semi-democratic electoral process has become, ringing perhaps even more true today than it did 25 years ago.

“Climbing Up the Walls” departs from the album’s majority, exploring instead the psyche of an apparently violent assailant who describes himself as “the keys to the lock in your house/That keeps your toys in the basement.” One may feel the hairs on the back of one’s neck prick as Yorke, voice muffled against the metallic chirp of mechanical insects and diseased orchestral lilts, sings, “Do not cry or hit the alarm/You know we’re friends till we die.” Elaborating upon the song’s meaning, Yorke once explained: “This is about the unspeakable. Literally skull-crushing. I used to work in a mental hospital around the time that Care In the Community [England’s effort to deinstitutionalize its psychiatric patients] 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…. It was hailing violently when we recorded this. It seemed to add to the mood.” The track, a nightmare of suffocating horror, retains Radiohead’s classical fixations, borrowing its string arrangements from those of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, such articulate intricacy complementing the primal fear laced throughout Yorke’s lyrics, as he sings, “Fifteen blows to the back of your head/Fifteen blows to your mind,” before concluding, “So lock the kids up safe tonight/Shut the eyes in the cupboard/I’ve got the smell of a local man/Who’s got the loneliest feeling.” Though possibly an unpopular opinion, “Climbing Up the Walls” may rank among an already crowded list of Radiohead’s greatest songs, as few by any popular artist are as atmospheric or emotionally distressing, the group convincingly embodying a pathological psyche as few have—no easy artistic feat.

OK Computer’s finest moment arrives in the form of Brian Wilson homage “No Surprises,” which returns the group to the melancholic tranquility of 1995’s piercingly beautiful “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees,” albeit far more complex and bearing the sound of a wearier band, as evidenced in its opening line: “A heart that’s full up like a landfill/A job that slowly kills you/Bruises that won’t heal.” With an opening nicked from The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “No Surprises” carries beneath its deceptively shimmering surface the same sense of wistful sorrow as the ’60s art pop monument. As though concluding the album’s great political and ideological struggle, Yorke resolves: “You look so tired, unhappy/Bring down the government/They don’t, they don’t speak for us”—perhaps one of the greatest lines in rock. The subsequent “Lucky”—recorded in 1995, prior to the rest of the album, and serving as a predecessor to the sounds explored on OK Computer—and closing track “The Tourist” return the album to its general tone of ultramodern removal, Yorke ending the the latter with an advisory: “Hey man, slow down, slow down/Idiot, slow down, slow down.”

A work of high art both politically conscious and viciously rebellious, OK Computer, in all its cultural significance, launched Radiohead to superstardom, marking its continued stylistic shift, which would culminate in the group’s ultimate masterpiece Kid A three years later. It is here, however, that Radiohead explored its music’s most pressing themes, frequently referenced, though seldom articulated with such eloquence on subsequent releases. Radiohead’s breadth of education—musical, technical, political, cultural, literary—is no more astounding than on OK Computer, as the group explores deeper themes merely touched upon by its contemporaries. The album remains a significant release, its intent as crucial as its music is pleasing. In many ways, Radiohead successfully predicted the coming storm as the 20th century arrived at its conclusion, Thom Yorke’s thoughtful lyrics and the group’s increasingly progressive post-rock sound rendering it, truly, the band of the future.

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