Radiohead’s “OK Computer” Turns Twenty-Five

When Radiohead released their third album, “OK Computer,” on May 21, 1997, they were a band that a typical indie-rock fan would know—but maybe not well. The band’s single “Creep,” from their 1993 début, “Pablo Honey,” spent half the year on the British charts, peaking at No. 7—and it made them famous. “Creep” was an infectious anthemic ballad of self-loathing with a sing-along chorus. Its pop power derives from a stark sonic contrast that’s at the heart of many of Radiohead’s best songs: the aural clash of Thom Yorke’s brittle, ethereal voice against an instrumental wash of noisy menace: “I’m a creep / I’m a weirdo / What the hell am I doing here? / I don’t belong here.” The song’s popularity typecast the band in ways that they struggled to break free from, much as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had done to Nirvana earlier, and for almost seven years, Radiohead refused to play “Creep” at their shows.

The five-piece from Oxford, England (Yorke, lead vocals and guitar; Ed O’Brien, guitar; the brothers Jonny Greenwood, guitar, and Colin Greenwood, bass; and Phil Selway, drummer) had declared on their fourth single that “Pop Is Dead”; what, exactly, would replace it wasn’t yet clear. But Radiohead’s three-guitar attack, and their penchant for complex arrangements and soaring choruses, provided a framework for the band to build on. Their next album, “The Bends,” from 1995, is a much richer and more confident record, but without a big radio-friendly hit. Had the band called it quits, Radiohead would likely be remembered as a mid-list act from the nineties who enjoyed a devoted following but for whom commercial success remained elusive.

Then “OK Computer” arrived. According to Selway, the band’s label was initially nonplussed when they listened to it: “When we first delivered the album to Capitol, their first reaction was, more or less, ‘Commercial suicide.’ They weren’t really into it. At that point, we got The Fear. How is this going to be received?” Despite the label’s reservations, they put considerable marketing muscle behind “OK Computer,” buying full-page ads in the British music press. The promotional campaign was helped by the album’s distinctive visual style—smudged, generic human figures along with airline safety-brochure images, superimposed on a ghostly freeway interchange rendered in a bleak wash of bone white and pale blue—created by the artist Stanley Donwood in collaboration with Yorke. (That style, and the Donwood/Yorke collaboration, will be on display at the London gallery show “Test Specimens” later this month.)

Yorke’s opening lines on the song “Lucky” proved prophetic: “I’m on a roll / I’m on a roll this time . . . ” “OK Computer” was greeted as an instant classic, and Radiohead was named band of the year by both Rolling Stone and Spin. “OK Computer” can be loosely defined as a concept album: a song cycle unified by the late-capitalist affective landscape that it simultaneously mirrors and reproduces in a listener. It’s a record that’s nervous almost to the point of neurosis, saturated in enervated dread with touches of surrealist poetry, full of the uneasy energy that would characterize the best of Radiohead’s subsequent work. Meanwhile, somehow—miraculously—“OK Computer” also manages to be anthemic, to achieve transcendence.

At times, the album flirts with bombast, walking right up to the edge and sometimes teetering over, which is how rock and pop records often achieve real grandeur. The band had done it already in the closing verse of the track “Fake Plastic Trees,” from “The Bends,” when Yorke suddenly drops the mask of the third person voice that he has been using for the rest of the song and despairs, “If I could be who you wanted . . .  all the time.” (In Radiohead’s work, these transcendent moments are often underwritten by Yorke’s falsetto.) Though Yorke sings on “OK Computer” that “ambition makes you look pretty ugly,” ambition is a risk that the album takes again and again. Radiohead challenges a pop audience with genuine musical complexity—and therein betrays its debts to that most ridiculed of pop genres, progressive rock (whose influence the band unconvincingly disavows).

Everything about the production of “OK Computer” suggests a band making a big statement—from the grandiose arrangements to the segués (tracks flow into and overlap with one another in a way that discourages hitting shuffle) and the haunting album art. It’s what Alex Ross, who wrote about the band for this magazine in 2001, might call a Gesamtkunstwerk: Richard Wagner’s “total art work.” And riding above it all is Yorke’s fragile yet insistent voice, seemingly the weakest, smallest voice still loud enough to be heard over the din of a society collapsing on itself—a society in which the individual is less than the sum of her tastes, needs, and purchases.

The distorted opening guitar chords of the first track, “Airbag,” are quickly punctuated by even more grotesquely overdriven percussion, knocking the VU needle into the red with an urgent burst of skittering noise. It’s a high-energy introduction to an album featuring a wide range of tempi and sounds. It also introduces a six-and-a-half-minute pop epic that contains a similarly wide range of timings and tones. Unless your playback device cheats you, “Airbag” doesn’t quite end before “Paranoid Android” begins; instead, as the last notes of the first song fade, an audible click-track counts us right into the second, with no opportunity for us to catch our breath. To hear the members of the band tell it, “Paranoid Android”—probably their most iconic song—began as a goof; it’s a song that, in attempting to poke fun at the band’s high-art pretensions, improbably manages to create high art.

“Paranoid Android” is a mini-symphony in three parts—cobbled together from three different songs, à la the Beatles’s “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” (in Radiohead’s case, each one written by a different band member). It opens with Yorke singing, over a bossa-nova-like accompaniment, about paranoia—the “unborn chicken voices in my head.” A distinct second section, starting around the two-minute mark, mocks ambition and threatens retribution against the ambitious over a swelling arrangement, ending with a squealing Greenwood guitar solo. At the three-and-a-half-minute mark, the third section markedly slows things down, ushered in with choral humming that’s practically Gregorian. Yorke’s lyric “rain down on me . . . from a great height” manages, however unconsciously, to invoke the Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me,” from “Quadrophenia”: the promise and the perils of the concept album are never far off.

The next track, “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” weds the Bob Dylan vibe of its title to a Ziggy Stardust-like narrative. “Exit Music (For a Film)”—a track that was written for Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet”—starts in a near-whisper and crescendos in screaming; it’s as chilling and as beautiful as anything the band has ever done, even if it ends with Yorke croaking, “We hope that you choke, that you choke.” Sitting near the middle of the album, the spoken-word track “Fitter Happier” is a twisted list of the kinds of daily affirmations written by Ben Franklin or Stuart Smalley, adapted for the alienated post-industrial subject, read aloud by Fred, a robotic computer-generated voice designed by Apple.

The album’s icy nadir, “Climbing Up the Walls,” is almost physically painful to listen to; its mood is created, in large part, by Greenwood’s string arrangement, which includes sixteen violins, each playing a quarter-tone apart from the others. The album’s closer, “The Tourist,” is its one real miss. Without “The Tourist,” we’d have an eleven-track album with a surprising uroboros structure, opening on a grateful singer proclaiming that “an airbag saved my life” and closing with his plea to “pull me out of the aircrash.” Now hit repeat.

It’s possible now to see, twenty-five years after the release of “OK Computer,” what it opened up both for the band and for other ambitious pop and rock acts who would follow. On a purely practical level, Radiohead made enough money that, ten years later, they could release “In Rainbows,” initially without the support of a label, online, for free or a donation. (Bands without the same level of recognition have expressed mixed emotions about this power move.) It also won them tremendous artistic freedom, evidenced, in part, by the band’s various solo and side projects. (The Smile, a band formed by Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, just dropped their first album, on May 12th.) More important, “OK Computer” made ambitious albums feel possible again. Records as different as Daft Punk’s “Discovery” (2001), Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever Ago” (2007), Janelle Monáe’s “The ArchAndroid,” Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” (2010), Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” (2016), Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” (2020), and The Weeknd’s “Dawn FM” (2022) have taken advantage of the space for concept albums that “OK Computer” reclaimed.

I first heard “OK Computer” in the fall of 1997 on a Sony Discman, working out on an elliptical machine in Fike Recreation Center, at Clemson University, in South Carolina, where I was teaching as an associate professor. A student, having sussed out my musical tastes, recommended the album to me; I bought the CD, as one did back then. It absolutely blew the cobwebs out of my ears, and my mind. A decade and a half of frantic work in graduate school and academia had left me little time to listen to anything new; crawling out of my self-imposed anechoic chamber and hearing “OK Computer” convinced me that there was still music being made that was worth listening to. It’s not, today, the Radiohead record that I spin the most: that would probably be “In Rainbows,” in which, a decade older, the band introduces more musical nuance and variety (even Motown!). But, while “In Rainbows” is currently my favorite Radiohead album, I have no doubt that “OK Computer” is the most important. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot’s verdict on “Ulysses,” it’s the album that made the modern world possible for alternative rock.

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