He Talks In Maths: OK Computer at 25

The third Radiohead LP remains a masterful testament to the band’s inventive experimentation and skilled songcraft

 

OK Computer poster (Image: Capitol-EMI)

While U2 was exploring new directions on their way to getting trapped inside a lemon onstage, Radiohead seemed poised to take their spot as standard bearers of anthemic rock with 1995’s stellar The Bends.

It turned out that Radiohead had no interest in the position and preferred its own experimentation, but they didn’t dive into the deep end first.

Their first step in where they were going would be OK Computer, released 25 years ago this past Saturday.

Radiohead had built on the promise of their debut Pablo Honey with The Bends, accomplishing it by fending off interference from their label-EMI.

Back cover of OK Computer (Image: EMI)

The Bends’ commercial success left EMI taking a more hands-off approach, reducing one source of stress.

The experience of recording it also led to a key change that Radiohead would stick with to this day. The band got along really well with engineer Nigel Godrich, who engineered The Bends (and produced the track “Black Star” while producer John Leckie was away at a wedding). When it came time for the follow-up, they chose Godrich, who’s produced every Radiohead album since, in addition to working on a number of frontman Thom Yorke’s other projects.

OK Computer was put together in two locations, both in relative isolation. They started in their rehearsal space, Canned Applause in Oxfordshire. After they’d finished the last of their Bends touring, they resumed at St. Catherine’s Court, an opulent manor house that owner Jane Seymour (the past Bond Girl actor known for Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman at the time) rented out for the periods she wasn’t living there. The surroundings were certainly nicer than the farm shed that was Canned Applause and parts of it had been made suitable for recording (The Cure’s Wild Mood Swings had been recorded in part there not long before). Its location allowed the band — singer Yorke, guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway — to live and work there over two separate three-week periods with outside distractions kept to a minimum.

There was a definite carryover from the Bends, which was not an album that screamed “SuperHappyFunTime”, with its feelings of isolation and detachment and its somewhat dystopian moments. The tour behind that album, while satisfying musically, definitely deepened the band’s discomfort with demands of being successful, of getting all too acquainted with how the sausage was made, so to speak.

 

VIDEO: Radiohead Meeting People Is Easy

The experiences of touring life definitely led to feelings of dissatisfaction and malaise, at least to a degree. They informed Yorke and the band in a way that led to OK Computer getting compared to Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

But that comparison wasn’t exactly a perfect fit. Pink Floyd, by the point of The Wall’s creation, was an older, more established band that was in an extended period of falling apart. Roger Waters, still impacted by the death of his father in World War II and the loss of still-living friend and bandmate Syd Barrett, channeled that and his own displeasure with what the band’s live experiences had become into the theatrical tale of a rock star who descends into fascism and madness.

Radiohead, however, were all still in their 20s, making their third album, not their 11th. They were much more cohesive and the album itself stuck to its themes and wasn’t wed to a specific plot.

Yorke also turned OK Computer into something more relatable than “Oh, sudden fame is hard” by tapping into what was going to be amplified in a social media age that wasn’t far away.

AOL trial discs were still being distributed in print magazines. It was a time where dial-up was still the most prevalent Internet connection, but the seeds of the disconnecting connections we know weren’t far off. Throw in the demands of conformity, particularly in thrall to capitalism often left unfettered, and you have an atmosphere ripe for prescience in the hands of the right band.

The lines connecting The Bends and OK Computer could have been even clearer, had the band not trimmed some of the sessions’ 20 songs. These include the lovely “I Promise”, the arena-ready “Lift” and the riff rocker “Palo Alto”, all of which were included on a deluxe reissue called OKNOTOK 1997 2017.

 

VIDEO: Radiohead “Paranoid Android”

First single “Paranoid Android” may have taken its name from Marvin in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but the mood is more anxious, as if you’re surrounded by people who make you uncomfortable rather than fearing others who might not even exist. It took a bit of time for it to come together, as it was built from three different songs, all with varying tempos. It originally clocked in at over 11 minutes and didn’t have an ending.

Jonny Greenwood told Rolling Stone in 2017, “It originally had a Hammond organ solo that goes on forever. It’s hard to listen to without clutching the sofa for support.”

The key became the idea to shift into the more intense second section, accentuated by Yorke’s idea of teasing that shift, but starting it acoustically first for a short moment before it all kicks in. Godrich was able to stitch the various sections, with their differing keys and time signatures, into a cohesive whole.

Feel was as important as the lyrics. “Karma Police” is vague enough, its haunting, almost weary quality belying its origins as an inside joke within the band whenever one of them behaved badly (“The Karma Police is gonna get you”). The sins in the corporate seem to be talking too much and saying nothing or being too controlling and full of themselves before it turns into a push/pull where “I’ve given all I can” earns the threat of “this is what you get when you mess with us”, drawing the “for a minute there, I lost myself” response. It all dissolves into most un-Bendslike wordless vocals, samples and loops. 

 

VIDEO: Radiohead “Karma Police”

For all its experimental artiness, OK Computer is, unlike future Radiohead, the sound of a band not shying away from guitar rock. 

Even with its drum loop and sound effects, opener “Airbag” (about feeling more alive after a disastrous experience, inspired in part by an auto accident Yorke survived years earlier) is still driven by guitar, be it the verse riffing or the atmospheric soloing. 

The intense guitars put across the message of “Electioneering” as much as the lyrics, sort of a less verbose but no less pointedly pissed off version of R.E.M.’s “Ignoreland.”

Likewise, while Radiohead were decidedly not a Britpop band, they had moments in them that the Britpop acts of the day would kill for, more on The Bends, but even still on OK Computer. “Let Down” is gorgeous, packed with production details. Thankfully, Yorke’s voice didn’t wind up as emotionless as he wanted it because the song’s strength is the tension between its poppy beauty and the sense of detachment, loss of control and rebuke of sentimentality. 

 

AUDIO: Radiohead “Exit Music (For A Film)”

“Exit Music (For a Film)” plays like it could have been The Bends’ album closer. The 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet had stuck with Yorke, then the band were approached by director Baz Luhrmann to do a song for his 1996 version, given footage of a couple of scenes, including the ending.

Yorke didn’t attempt Tarantino-style revisionism. In the end, the couple die as tragically and pointlessly as ever. But he allows them the accusatory angry voice at those who drove them to it (“We hope you choke”).

Most of the way, it’s acoustic (inspired by Johnny Cash’s prison records), before choral vocals and background noise (suggesting happier times) appear. Then it explodes into a sadly furious rage before the softer denouement of those angry last words, sung progressively quieter.

“Subterranean Homesick Alien” began when Yorke was writing for The Bends, but it was meant for OK Computer. It harkens back to a childhood writing assignment (“What if you’re an alien and you land in Oxford…”), but the adult Yorke inverts it.

The protagonist is trapped in the same conformist modern existence (“I live in a town where you can’t smell a thing/You watch your feet for cracks in the pavement”) wishing for the aliens to come and take him, not to their world, but to be able to see his own as he wishes it could be. For all their dour reputation, it’s a hopeful song in its way. Even if he dismisses his fantasy, feeling those around him wouldn’t believe him about the beauty around them as much as the alien abduction, the last words show he hasn’t given up.

If “Exit Music” was initially written for a movie, “Climbing Up the Walls” could have been, although perhaps for “Falling Down” instead of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Yorke had touched on this kind of evil before. The Bends track “Sulk” had been inspired by a mass shooter who murdered 16 people in Hungerford, England in 1987 (an act that, unlike in other countries, prompted meaningful gun control legislation).

 

VIDEO: Radiohead Live in Belfort 1997

qIn “Climbing Up The Walls”, there’s no specific inspiration, just the implication that the protagonist is not far from being “one of those people nobody suspected” who snaps. 

For Yorke’s part, the song is as much about people who are vulnerable to being harmed because they don’t get the help they need as much as it is those who cause harm for others.

The clincher for OK Computer as one of the ’90s classic albums is its closing trio of songs.

“No Surprises” is more political than Yorke intended, as it was written from a personal, empathetic perspective towards those in need of help who are overlooked, even when they spend their lives “doing the right thing.”

Yorke (who really hits every mood on the album perfectly) sings it in a lovely croon, given more of a lullaby-like quality thanks to Godrich’s idea of having the band play faster instrumentally, then slow that part down underneath the vocal recorded at the intended tempo.

The band tried to come back to it at St. Catharine’s Court, but realized the first take recorded at Canned Applause best conveyed what they wanted.

It’s as humane as it is disquieting (and with a perfectly suited and uncomfortable to shoot video to match).

“Lucky” was the first track finished, as it dated back to 1995’s Help Album — a charity release to help children affected by the war in Bosnia.

The idea was for contributing acts to record their songs on the same day, have the songs mixed the next and the album released by the end of that week. The quick turnaround meant most acts chose covers, but Radiohead, never adept at covers even in its early days (by their own admission), chose to go with a new song they’d played, built around an oddly metallic screech O’Brien made during a soundcheck on tour in Japan.

The song could either be a more direct iteration of the themes on “Airbag” or a relationship metaphor (by this point on the album, being in an aircrash or in danger in a lake seems about right for love when you’re wishing for aliens to take you away).

The mellotron choir gives it a disquieting atmosphere. There’s a big soaring chorus leading into a brief, but blistering solo at the end. It may not have extended instrumental passages, but it is the one moment where the Pink Floyd comparisons are earned.

Radiohead OK Computer, Capitol-EMI 1997

Radiohead loved the final result, but it didn’t do well as a single. Still, as they were putting together OK Computer, they knew it was too good, both as a song and a thematic fit, to leave off. As with “No Surprises,” they tinkered with it before deciding what they already had was the best.

It could have wound up closing the album, if not for Jonny Greenwood coming up with an idea just before they finished up at St. Catharine’s. It begins as a slow waltz, inspired by a day in France where Greenwood couldn’t help but notice how quickly tourists were moving to get from place to place.

Radiohead themselves were no strangers to that feeling, having seen America, but not really as they traveled from tour date to tour date by bus.

From there, Yorke extrapolated the idea to how so many go through their lives in a world where the trip from modern to postmodern was about to become shorter. Those lives run throughout OK Computer, including Yorke’s own. That emotional chorus of “Hey man, slow down, slow down/Idiot, slow down, slow down” is directed inward.

Greenwood himself was reportedly surprised it made the final running order, but it’s a perfect closer, an apt summation for an album that thematically resonates as freshly in 2022 as it did when it was released. It also was the button to put on Radiohead as a band to that point.

Response was quite positive, critically and commercially. The album remains the biggest seller of their careers. It could have been an albatross that Radiohead could have spent years trying to top. Instead they never tried at all. 

Having taken their initial phase as far as they could, Radiohead either expanded or retreated (or perhaps both), depending on one’s point of view. Their flirtations with electronic music in the samples and loops on OK Computer turned into a full-on embrace of electronic music led by Yorke, during the sessions that produced 2000’s Kid A and 2001’s Amnesiac.

As Yorke, who had the other members of the band playing catchup in the Amnesiac/Kid A sessions,  told Rolling Stone, “They didn’t really know what to contribute, which I completely understood. But I just knew we weren’t going to repeat OK Computer. We’ve never been able to repeat anything.”

From that point, they explored here and tweaked there. They’ve settled into status as a classic arena band for people who were teens and twentysomethings in the ’90s, albeit a band whose albums are much more than the afterthoughts they’ve been for other arena acts of their age bracket.

These days, Radiohead itself feels like a bit of an afterthought for the band members themselves, at least for the moment. They’ve only released one album in the last decade — 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool.  It should be noted that they haven’t exactly turned into the JD Salingers of rock. however.

Jonny Greenwood has become a respected film composer, nominated twice for Academy Awards in the last six years — for his scores for Phantom Thread and Power of the Dog.

O’Brien put out a solid solo album under his EOB moniker in 2020. Selway’s also done solo albums and film scoring.

Yorke’s been the most prolific, combining solo albums, film scoring (2018’s Suspiria reboot/reimagining) and the group Atoms for Peace (which also included the likes of Flea and Godrich). Earlier this month, The Smile — Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and drummer Tom Skinner from Sons of Kemet — put out the well-received debut A Light for Attracting Attention.

 

VIDEO: The Smile “Thin Thing”

For all of the exploration and deservedly respected work they’ve produced in the quarter-century since, OK Computer remains atop Radiohead’s canon.

Prescient? Absolutely. But it wouldn’t resonate with that prescience if it weren’t for the songs themselves.

The album remains a masterful permanent record of the moment in time where the band’s inventive experimentation merged perfectly with their skilled, united playing and songcraft full of the right creative decisions.

 

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