Happy 20th Anniversary to Radiohead’s third studio album OK Computer, originally released May 21, 1997 (Japan), June 16, 1997 (UK) and July 1, 1997 (US).
Accompanied by the sonic backdrop of the surging dance-pop one hit wonder “Things Can Only Get Better” by D:ream, the UK voted in a Labour government for the first time in nearly 20 years in May of 1997. Having struggled under the yolk of a callous Tory government, the nation bathed in euphoria and saw a new dawn, a chance to step blinking into the light of optimism and hope.
The tidal surge of popular opinion had been accompanied by a buoyant musical scene. Britpop (for all its faults) had birthed an invigorated genre, dance culture thrived and grew from strength to strength, and all was seemingly well in the world.
Radiohead released their third album OK Computer in May 1997, initially in Japan, and in the UK the following month. After their first two albums (1993’s Pablo Honey and 1995’s acclaimed The Bends) had wallowed somewhat in the mire of misery, surely they too would be swept up in the moment? Surely there would be sunshine after the storm?
Well, not so much actually.
Of course it shouldn’t have (and didn’t) come as a shock to anyone who had bought the aforementioned albums. After all, the band had specialized in a particular brand of vital, riveting misery. There was precious little silver lining to a Radiohead cloud. The clouds this time around though were of a different kind. Where The Bends was intensely personal, OK Computer was a banshee wail of dismay at the complete and utter shittiness of modern life.
Squirrelled away (after a couple of choked starts) in a rural mansion near Bath, the band set about reconciling a disparate set of references and influences to create a cohesive album of the very highest quality. In an interview with Q magazine, Yorke claimed Miles Davis’ epochal, monumental Bitches Brew (1970) as the primary influence. Drawn to the inherent danger and ominous foreboding of Davis’ masterpiece, the band wanted to create their own shocking soundtrack to a modern world beset by globalization, ruthlessly efficient technology, and the creeping insinuation that it was all too much to bear.
Once again, like its precursors, OK Computer was fueled by the angry, angular guitar work of a frenetic Johnny Greenwood and the witheringly pointed delivery and lyrics of Thom Yorke. But this time, there was a broader palette on offer as the band began their metamorphosis to a more electronic entity. It was this change that meant EMI balked at what was offered, downgrading sales predictions and hopes for the album. In truth, it’s not hard to see why. In “Paranoid Android,” they encountered a song comprised of three movements littered with embittered, spewed lyrics, juxtaposed with jaggedly succinct guitar lines and a morosely angelic host. It hardly screams “record sales.”
However, it was that obtuseness and complexity that struck a chord and made it become so iconic and given that status, it barely misses a beat. Beyond “Paranoid Android,” there’s the palpable social awkwardness and anxiety of “Karma Police,” its lyrics allied to a nursery rhyme melody or the insidious creep of “Climbing Up the Walls.” There is something for every outsider looking into the swirling maelstrom of modern life.
But why should anyone care about the stresses and worries of a whining middle class band of misfits? On the surface, it’s straightforward. The ability of Thom Yorke to sound sneeringly superior and brittle in the same breath. The short, sharp guitar solos with more fury than a hurricane and the breezy melodic touch underpinning it all.
Honestly though, it’s much more basic than that. Somewhere deep down in your gut, in places you don’t talk about at dinner parties, beneath your veneer of respectability and hidden from the world, lurks a kindred spirit to the alienated, overwhelmed and nihilistic figures of this album. A sneaking feeling that you don’t belong anywhere and that you’re examining the world around you rather than actually being in it.
We are observers rather than participants. And that’s why the labels we apply to music are utterly nonsensical, for this is soul music, with more soul than a hundred wannabe lotharios with a slick dance move and a super-producer in tow. This reaches inside us, twists a handful of our guts and leaves us battered, bruised and bewildered. It transcends genres and hits the parts of us we’d rather not talk about, lest we find ourselves alone in the darkness, as we predicted all along.
It’s not just me, is it?