It’s been nearly two months since quarantine started. Based on the increasing availability of toilet paper and other primary goods in supermarkets nearby, we can rightly assess that the initial hysteria has begun to fade. Sure, “forced isolation” still means being locked up in our houses, forbidden of any social interaction and most outdoor activities – having above all emphasized the importance of a balcony at home – but it does come with its upsides. Whether you’re learning how to play an instrument, conducting experiences in the kitchen, (finally) organizing your email accounts or simply binge watching Netflix’s newest hit, this quarantine has given us the chance and time to do the stuff we normally wouldn’t do – or at least that’s how myself, an optimist by nature and hedonist by choice, decided to look at the situation. I also find myself taking the time to actually to reflect on my life and the world, and trying to answer dreadful questions such as “where do you see yourself in 5 years?”, “do plants die of old age?” or “why do identical twins have different fingerprints?”. I do this not as a pretentious intellectual, but because there’s only so many shows and movies you can watch before you literally feel your brain melting. It’s a funny thing, isolation.
“Isolation” and the possibilities it opens were exactly what Radiohead was seeking in 1996 – the difference being that they did so voluntarily. Coming out of their 1995 tour to promote the critically and commercially acclaimed The Bends, the band was longing for a break from the all stress and tension months on the road can cause. And so, while the rest of the world kept running on full steam, Thom Yorke and his gang head to St. Catherine’s Court, an historic mansion in Bath, to record their follow up record. As guitarist Jonny Greenwood put it in 1998, “the only concept that we had for this album was that we wanted to record it away from the city and that we wanted to record it ourselves”. Radiohead were playing a game that was anything but safe – mind you, with a UK Triple Platinum certification under its belt and 2 million in sales worldwide, doing some sort of “The Bends Pt. II” would have guaranteed success and would be an easy way to take another step on their road to superstardom. But Thom Yorke and his gang wanted more – they wanted to leap. OK Computer is an album that explores rock and roll’s decades long fear of the rise of machines and computers, and is the first time Radiohead truly experiment with electronic and dance music. “The whole Britpop thing made me fucking angry”. And while other bands at the time were still dreaming of the classic English pop music, Yorke decided to make a record that reflected the days they lived in. OK Computer was Radiohead’s way of distancing themselves from the introspective tone of The Bends, and dwell into something new, focused on the outside world.
As with most of Radiohead’s music, it is not an easy listen. Each songs takes its time to unfold the key message that ties it to the overall narrative of OK Computer’s spiritual message. The record opens with Airbag, born from the personal experience of Yorke a decade before the release of OK Computer. Although leaving a car accident physically unharmed, Yorke often talks about the significance of that event, as it sparked his general mistrust in technology, one the core themes explored throughout the entire record. But Airbag is the exception to the rule, one of the few positive allusions to modern-day machinery in the whole album. As Yorke said to Select in a 1997 interview, “every time you have a near accident, instead of just sighing and carrying on, you should pull over, get out of the car and run down the street screaming ‘I’m BACK! I’m ALIVE! My life has started again today!’”. The overall message of Airbag, reincarnation and renewal, also kicks off Radiohead’s own musical reinvention – much like Yorke’s verse “I am born again”, Airbag immediately showcases the more experimental side of Radiohead’s self-produced recording sessions. Influenced by DJ Shadow’s production techniques, instead of recording a normal beat to serve as the drum basis of the song, the band used seconds-long samples from a 15-minute recording session of drummer Phil Selway, which were repackaged in a Macintosh computer before making the final cut.
Fun fact – while on tour for The Bends, Radiohead used to listen to 1978’s radio series Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It is from one of the series’ line, “Okay computer, I want full manual control now”, that they took the name of the record from – as Greenwood put it at the time, the title “started attaching itself and creating all these weird resonances with what we were trying to do”. It is also from this show that Paranoid Android takes its name from, the second song of OK Computer and its lead single. Despite the band’s attempts to downgrade its significance and cultural impact, with bassist player Colin Greenwood describing it as the result of “getting wasted together” and Yorke claiming that the title was picked as a joke, Paranoid Android is an alarming view on modern life, a song about seeing the horror in the world around you and being petrified by it. It is the bleak conclusion of Yorke’s investigation of its surrounding environment, a song of chaos and violence, disgust and insanity. With three distinct sections, Paranoid Android’s composition can be compared to the beautiful genius of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody or The Beatles’ Happiness is a Warm Gun and is anything but dull. Throughout nearly six and a half minutes, it constantly reinvents itself and glues seemingly different songs in a weirdly zen balance – it is so complex that supposedly took 18 months of rehearsals before the band decided they were ready to play Paranoid Android live.
We then move on to Subterranean Homesick Alien, a bluesy-type ballad on which Yorke fantasizes about alien abduction and how he would like to be taken “on board their beautiful ship / show me the world as I’d love to see it”, but ends up a social oddball as no one believed him upon returning to Earth. The song, much like Paranoid Android and the whole recording process of OK Computer, is a reflection of Yorke’s personal desire to analyse society and the world from a distance, and takes a page from Miles Davis’ jazz-rock fusion book, namely 1970’s Bitches Brew. It captures perfectly the longing for a sense of humanity feeling that ties the overall record together.
Exit Music (For a Film) was, as you might have guessed from its title, written as the closing credits song for a film, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeu + Juliet (yes, the one with Leonardo DiCaprio). More than its lyrics, on which the lovers also cannot escape the fate Shakespeare imposed on them centuries ago, its the technical aspects that once again steal the spotlight – with Greenwood’s strummed guitar influenced by Jonny Cash’s At Folsom Prison, and Thom’s voice reverberating in one of the stone staircases of St. Catherine’s Court, the result is a feeling of loneliness and despair, that builds up to a violent climax in a classic Pink Floyd moment, emphasized by Phil’s drumming and Colin’s bassline.
Exit Music (For a Film) serves as the launch pad to Let Down, an exquisitely orchestrated and hauntingly beautiful piece that unfortunately is easily overlooked as it paves the way to Karma Police, one of the greatest anthems of our generation and, together with Paranoid Android, a cornerstone of OK Computer and of Radiohead’s career to come. With its title originating from an inside joke, an expression used by the band on tour whenever someone was being a dick, Karma Police is a complex and multi-layered composition, which transitions from classic rock to orchestrated sections, using digital delay machines and echo effects to achieve the “lost at sea” tone of the track. As Yorke put it at the time, Karma Police is a song “for someone who has to work for a large company. This is a song against bosses. Fuck the middle management!”. It addresses corruption, big corporations and the political system, and the ultimate consequences of bad karma. The music video also perfectly captures this “karmic” situation, as the man being chased by a car ultimately sets fire to the vehicle and achieves its revenge.
Following Karma Police is Fitter Happier, arguably OK Computer’s strangest track. Mind you, when the record was released, the Internet had yet to take off and the exponential rise of technology seemed light years away – hell, Mark Zuckerberg had just turned 13 at the time. Recited by “Fred”, Macintosh’s SimpleText application, it loosely connects slogans from the 1990s, a sort of guide on how to live your life as per the pre-established social and cultural norms of the Western World. Fast forward to 2020 and the robot voice could perfectly be your own smartphone telling you the same thing. Ironically enough, Yorke described the track as “the most upsetting thing I’ve ever written”. If you were born after 1995, you might know this track as The 1975’s rip-off The Man Who Married a Robot, voiced by Siri – more on this on Easy C’s piece. The political system and government’s role are also themes explored in OK Computer, with their ultimate and most direct expression via Electioneering, the album’s most rock heavy track and reminiscent of their debut record Pablo Honey. Despite the show stealing guitars of Greenwood and Ed O’Brian, Selway pounding the drums away and even a fricking cowbell, in the middle of the phenomenal and rock defining package that is OK Computer, Electioneering ends up being (arguably) its most forgettable song.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Climbing Up the Walls as “feeling very anxious or frustrated”, a feeling that Radiohead were perfectly able to capture in their track. If there is a song in OK Computer that can be described as “scary”, this is it – perhaps the result of recording the track on the library of the mansion (yes, they recorded all over the place), the gothic tone of Climbing Up the Walls is further accentuated by a phenomenal string section, 16 different violins which play quarter-tones apart from each other in a beautifully orchestrated chaos. Few songs are able to transmit such a sense of despair and unsettledness as Climbing Up the Walls, which as it progresses only gets stranger and darker. It is a personal favourite that my fellow snob El Mascarado would describe as the textbook sound of Radiohead – although the fool says this as a criticism.
No Surprises, arguably one of Radiohead’s most famous tracks, follows and drastically changes the mood. Making the most of Yorke’s melancholic voice, it became an instant classic and stadium-friendly anthem, a bedtime lullaby of sorts that hides a far darker message, the ultimate realization of how the monotony of everyday life is bringing us down. In it, Yorke laments the gloomy setting of the contemporary world, “a job that slowly kills you”, “bruises that won’t heal” and “a handshake of carbon monoxide”. It is an interesting reflection, the one Thom presents us with – what’s worse? Literal death or death in the sense of lacking the surprises and alarms that make life… well, life?
Another track heavily Influenced by Pink Floyd, Lucky tells the story of an air crash survivor that becomes a superhero. The sombre and dark song, recorded as part of the 1995 record Help: A Charity Album for the Children of Bosnia, ended up making its way into OK Computer as the themes it addresses – technology, transportation and self-glorification – were very much in line with the message the record aims to deliver and, similarly to Airbag, it also addresses the feeling of renewal and newly-founded belief near-death experiences can bring upon those who live them.
The Tourist, a sort of musical anti-climax when compared to all the complexity and multi-layered production of the previous 11 tracks, is the perfect closer to OK Computer despite its apparent simplicity. It is the ultimate metaphor and message of OK Computer, disguised as critique to tourists when visiting a new place, trying to fit all attractions under a tight and busy schedule without really soaking anything, something that most of mankind, according to Yorke’s vision, spends their entire lives doing.
OK Computer is a huge leap forward when compared to its predecessor – a much more mature record, with superb song writing, production and artwork. On the back of Paranoid Android, Karma Police and No Surprises, it sold millions and propelled Radiohead to superstardom, all while amassing awards and critical acclamation. Since its release, it has become known as one of the ultimate musical critiques of globalisation and consumerism, and is widely regarded as one of the last great rock and roll records. Despite the noticeable influence of past artists and heroes such as The Beatles, Queen, Pink Floyd, Sonic Youth or Pixies, OK Computer is a Radiohead record from beginning to end – if most tracks could be individually discussed for best rock songs of the 1990s, the whole OK Computer package is certainly a strong contender for best rock album of all time. Perhaps most interestingly, it is a record that hasn’t aged at all, with a message as important nowadays as it was at the time of its release. To some extent, Radiohead prophesized the social and political end of the road mankind was embarking on 20 years ago, the feeling of isolation and unhappiness the evolution of technology can sometimes lead to. They did so by taking one step back and isolating themselves from all the modern day craze – and perhaps we should all take this opportunity to do the same.