By Harry Sullivan (@radiohedge)
Twenty years of OK Computer. THE OK Computer. Arguably the most influential alternative rock album of the nineties, and the top of many fans’ ranking lists. Where does one start?
Well, Airbag probably. A hugely underrated track inspired by a nasty motoring accident, the album kicks off with a bass riff and what sounds like sleigh bells, with the Radiohead stamp of uniqueness coming in the form of a punchy (albeit repetitive) beat from drummer Phil Selway and vocals which seem to be about an octave higher than anyone else the genre from lead songwriter and all-around god Thom Yorke.
The song fades out, being replaced by that iconic four beep transition into one of the greatest songs – nay, compositions – of modern music: Paranoid Android. It is described as Radiohead’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ since it is effectively a slightly-longer-than-usual track split into three distinct smaller tracks, and the fact that it’s their best-known song apart from Creep (though arguably leagues above it technically and as a song to listen to) – in fact, BoRhap is cited by the Abingdon five-piece as key inspiration in the songwriting process. The resultant sound is a surreal composition that is very technically skilled, containing seventeen-time signature changes. The accompanying music video is probably their weirdest, too, with the final scene involving a high-level politician head and torso sitting in a tree being fed fish by a bird.
A particular highlight is the following track, Subterranean Homesick Alien, which offers an outsider’s perspective on the human condition against Radiohead’s formula of a strong beat and some very open guitar work. Next is Exit Music (For a Film), written for the 1996 film Romeo + Juliet, which has one of the biggest crescendos on the album and is described by Thom as being something he was particularly proud of, the first track they had written which he ‘could turn up really loud and not wince at any moment’. Let Down is certainly not a letdown, providing one of the most emotionally engaging moments on the album, with the point around the two-minute mark where the drums are their strongest and Thom’s voice begins to quiver being a poignant struggle-not-to-cry moment.
Karma Police is arguably the best track on OK Computer, finding strength with simplicity, musically speaking and in the video, with ‘this is what you’ll get…when you mess with us’ being one of the most memorable lyrics on the album. It’s difficult to know what to think about Fitter Happier – at first listen it’s so jarring it’s almost unlistenable but after you take the time to get through it the lyrics (if you can call them lyrics?) are the most potent on the album. Conversely, Electioneering is much more jaunty, being the most energetic of the album and having one of the most political of messages. Climbing Up The Walls features one of Thom’s most harrowing vocal performances, and Phil’s use of toms where snares would usually be is particularly offputting. No Surprises is another big song from the album, performed in an almost lullaby-esque way, and echoes the strong simple style of Karma Police. The final tracks, Lucky and The Tourist both have relatively large crescendos during their chorus but overall are two of the more forgettable moments on the album.
Radiohead were one of the first modern bands to create short compositions to as opposed to just songs that were jammed to, exemplified by OK Computer. Lyrically, OK Computer is a very clever critique of modern society. In fact, there is an element of foresight to this album that makes it more applicable in today’s climate than ever before, with themes such as political corruption and consumerism prevalent all through the LP. Musically, when compared to their previous efforts of Pablo Honey and The Bends, it is the first moment they break out from the generic of-the-era alt-rock style and became their own unique band. Following the 1997 release, Radiohead embarked on The OK Computer Tour which brought about exhaustion in the band. This caused the band’s entire mindset to change, with Kid A written almost as a reaction, turning out to be a huge change of direction but also a work of genius. And of course, you can’t mention OK Computer without mentioning the link to their strongest work to date: 2007’s In Rainbows, which forms half of the famous 0110 playlist.
A key point about Radiohead is that their work is so varied but counterintuitively, still niche. It is impossible to judge the band on one song alone, instead, their work begs to be appreciated as a whole, be it through a single album or their entire discography. This is why, when you ask someone whether they’re a Radiohead fan the answer is unlikely to be ‘yeah, they’re alright’. Instead, a more realistic reply will be either ‘haven’t listened to them’ or ‘YES I LOVE THEM OMG MARRY ME THOM ❤’’ because they’ve listened to their all their albums and B-sides a hundred times each. Some may argue that this lack of immediate accessibility is a reason to dislike the band as it is a barrier to getting into them in our busy 21st-century lives.
A better perspective to have is that Radiohead, OK Computer in particular, is the much-needed segue to a greater appreciation of music.