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Why Radiohead’s OK Computer is a Masterpiece 20 Years Later

Why Radiohead’s OK Computer is a Masterpiece 20 Years Later

Released in May of 1997 Radiohead’s OK Computer was considered an instant classic. Soon after its release, it would be described as one the of best albums of the ‘90s, and later it would be broadly appreciated as one of the greatest rock albums of all time. Back in March of this year, the US Library of Congress caught up with the game and archived the album as “…culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

Released into a cultural atmosphere of Brit-Pop buoyancy, where boys and girls with guitars and sometimes floppy hair concerned themselves with usually local concerns, OK Computer is a dislocating experience. This is an album that handles topics of fractured humanity, political abrasion, and asymmetric psychological ambitions.

Thom Yorke No Surprises

Radiohead, the crunchy guitar band from Oxford, UK, had released two previous albums: Pablo Honey, with that song “Creep” allowed both mature audiences and pre-emo teens the opportunity to chant expletives that were “…so fucking special…” And The Bends, with tracks like the radio friendly, but edge-retaining “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees” launched the band in a trajectory toward stadiums and a stamping cultural footprint. Nothing would prepare audiences, or Capitol Records execs (who had reduced the number of preorder CDs for US distribution, on account of the album being uncommercial) for what would happen with this third dispatch.

Initial recordings of the album were made in a small studio, (Canned Laughter) in a small town in Oxfordshire. Close to band members homes, and somewhat domestic in feel, the location afforded the luxury of familiarity, though guitarist Johnny Greenwood would remark on the lack of dining and bathroom facilities as impeding the band’s concentration, and Thom Yorke suggested the proximity to people’s family and ‘everyday life’ was distracting. Having removed themselves from any deadlines to deliver the album, the band recorded, developed and faltered from one track to another. Drummer, Phil Selway, discussed the stresses of those early recording sessions, “…jumping from song to song… when we started to run out of ideas, we’d move on to a new song … the stupid thing was that we were nearly finished when we’d move on…”

This album handles fractured humanity, political abrasion, and asymmetric psychological ambitions.

At the request of their label, the band took a break from recording to embark on a 13-date tour of the USA. It was during that time that Baz Luhrmann commissioned the band to record a track for his upcoming film Romeo & Juliet. “Exit Music (For a Film)” was written in response to the final 30 minutes of the movie. Thom Yorke stated that seeing Clare Danes as Juliet hold a Colt 45 to her head sparked the composition, and that the tune helped with the direction of the rest of the album. Passion, death, duplicity, and conflict bubbled beneath the surface of everything.

Returning to England to wrap up the recording with a refined compass, location shifted, and so did focus of the tunes. Whilst working in St. Catherine’s Court–a rural 16th Century mansion–the band recorded more live, one-take material. Yorke layed down the majority of his vocal tracks in only one attempt. He’d said that forcing or manipulating the performances would feel a bit weird. His approach was rewarded with some of the finest vocal recordings of his career.

If you ever need to step away from the commonplace vocals of the alt-rock universe just check out “Karma Police” and the deliberate phrasing of “This is what you’ll get, this is what you’ll get, this is what you’ll get if you mess with us.” The key to Yorke’s performance isn’t as much what he does, but what he doesn’t do. The simple refrain is as beautiful as it is ominous, and has the partially lit effect that’s mirrored in the accompanying video. Whatever is about to happen is unavoidable, and utterly encompassing. Magical stuff.

Regular collaborator Nigel Godrich joined the band, stating that the production of OK Computer was a democratic process, with everyone having equal input (Though Yorke may have been somewhat louder than others). Sonically there’s an off-color tint, as if someone screwed purposefully with the color-balance on an old TV. Guitars are filtered to sound like synths, synths are learned and performances polished. There are moments of exquisite cacophony. In “Paranoid Android” screeching guitars are thrown against a wall of sound to produce one of the most ambitious tracks on the album.

OK Computer

Adding to the sense of other-worldliness is the track “Fitter Happier”. With sampled noises and a set of lyrics that were being ‘spoken’ by Mac’s SimpleText application, the song pulls the sequence of tracks to one side and delivers a disturbing checklist of the 1990s. The narrator is propped up by Prozac, Viagra, and a cocktail of socially prescribed normalcy and travels a step beyond the Stepford Wives of conformity. Yorke stated at the time that it’s the most disturbing thing he’d ever written. He’s probably right, he usually is.

Yorke stated at the time that “Fitter Happier” was the most disturbing thing he’d ever written.

The beauty of this album, when measured against other albums issued by other artists at the time, is that it sounds like nothing else in the landscape. Whilst it is most definitely a British album, retaining a peculiar sense of tradition, it possesses industrial tones and elements of electronica. However, it’s still guitar-driven beneath all the (new to Radiohead) keyboards and synths. Lyrically it advances Yorke’s penmanship from internal referencing and self-doubt toward the depiction of a world where everything is uncertain; even at it’s most beautiful this remains a volatile universe. The claustrophobically beautiful “No Surprises” could well be the lyrical cornerstone of the album, whilst “Paranoid Android” best represents the rock dressing. Both tunes, of course, delivered wonderfully contrasting videos that somehow unify the vision as a hole.

When compared to previous albums–even Kid A–and every other following release that would herald Radiohead as pioneers, it is OK Computer that captures the longing, intelligence, and artistry of the band. It’s here; across this sequence of tracks that Radiohead emerged, not only from the constraints of their highly demanding fan base, but also from a genre whose boundaries they defied.

Images: Parlophone Records

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