This week marks the tenth anniversary of the release of one of the most important, ground-breaking and influential records of contemporary times - Radiohead’s masterpiece ‘OK Computer.’ Hark back to England, 1997; the Britpop scene had well and truly died on its all too fleeting arse, the Gallagher brothers were a trendy-bar-cavorting tabloid’s-wet-dream instead of the rousing working-class anthem makers of years before, and, with only a few meagre exceptions, guitar music became creatively muddy; there was no dominant scene and no sweeping optimism permeating through it. So all of this made it even more astonishing when the alien soundscapes of ‘OK Computer’ first graced the world’s ears on June 16 of that year.
It’s incredible to think how far Radiohead evolved in the years leading up to the album’s release. In 1993, thanks to their success on both sides of the Atlantic with their anthem of self loathing ‘Creep’, the band were merely perceived as slightly odd one hit wonders whose album ‘Pablo Honey’ was too highly Americanised and lacked any real substance. The first indication of Radiohead’s eventual greatness came with the release of ‘The Bends’ in 1995. The band had finally begun to sculpt their own sound, no longer were they indebted to other artists and experimentation was at the fore. Lyrically too they were abstract and unusual, while the music had both the strength to haunt the soul (‘Fake Plastic Trees’ and album closer ‘Street Spirit [Fade Out]’) and invoke a glorious guitar thrashing seratonin rush (‘Just’ and ’My Iron Lung’).
In many ways ‘The Bends’ paved the way perfectly for the totally different beast that is ‘OK Computer’. Before the release of their third album a rough version of ‘Lucky’ was debuted on the War Child compilation and the goose-pimple inducing ‘Exit Music’ was included on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s movie ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in 1996. While with apparent sheer audacity, the band released the mesmeric ‘Paranoid Android’ as the lead single. A track that’s six and half minutes of ever shifting segues, painfully tortured and ambiguous lyrics (some seemingly fired at their critics “When I am king you will be first against the wall, with your opinion which is of no consequence at all.”) and piles of crunching electronica and screeching guitars. It’s the band’s very own take on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ shoved sideways through the blender and given a bile spitting twist. All of this served as pertinent teaser for the upcoming full-length - but no one could have predicted the seismic impact or sheer greatness of the result of recording sessions in a 15th century Bath mansion with the unfeasibly young Nigel Godrich at the helm.
Within its 53 minutes, the Oxford five-piece created an intense work that was moulded from the anxious world climate, the crushing pressures of pre-millennial life, the over-bearing power of consumerism and alienation from society. Hardly the ethos of Britpop, then. Yet, for all these forlorn sounding characteristics, it’s also a record of true beauty and has the power to lift the soul. Opener ‘Airbag’ perfectly typifies this, set to an all-dominating bassline and shimmering atmospherics, Thom Yorke narrates a tale of survival and rebirth - saved by an innovation of the late twentieth century, he’s given a second chance and feels truly invincible, “In an interstellar burst, I’m back to save the universe.” A sentiment that tees the album up perfectly.
Consistent in scope, humanity and wide eyed observations, each track is multi-tiered and has great depth, which inherently adds to its timeless quality. ‘Let Down’, for example, despite its downbeat title and deprecating lyrics “let down and hanging around, crushed like a bug in the ground”, has the potency to shift tone and mood in a moment to chyrsalise into something truly beautiful with Yorke blasting in his ever malleable tones “one day I am going to grow wings, a chemical reaction.” Another benchmark moment of the record, ‘Fitter Happier’, is essentially a Stephen Hawking-esque computer voice set to plaintive piano atmospherics and says more within its two minutes about the shallow, consumer obsessed culture we live in than any other song before or since.
Future singles, the stunning ode of a soul being slowly crushed by the world ‘No Surprises’ and the slow-building anthem ‘Karma Police’ with its incessantly poignant line “phew for a minute there I lost myself”, proved that Radiohead had the dual scope to crack the mainstream, yet write devastatingly original and heartfelt music. Elsewhere, ‘OK Computer’ reaches other similarly intriguing depths. ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ was inspired by Yorke’s experience of working in a mental ward and is the sheer sound of a human being on the verge of a psychological collapse, while the penultimate ‘Lucky’ is perhaps the album’s most grandiose moment, again, mixed with juxtaposing lyrics and sky bound elation “It’s gonna be, a glorious day!” Indeed, like many great works of art, ‘OK Computer’ is so complex and intellectually engaging, a few thousand words are not enough to sum up its relevance.
It’s little surprise that leading up to its June 16 release, critics worldwide were eagerly fingering through their thesauruses for superlatives. Numerous publications heralded it as one of the greatest records of all time and it became synonymous with five star reviews across the globe. Indeed, such was its brilliance and the critical hype engulfing it, ‘OK Computer’ was received with fervour by the public, becoming the band’s first ever British number one and charting highly worldwide. To the ever unassuming Thom Yorke, this was a mind-boggling time, as he since professed to Radiohead fansite Citizen Insane: "I was actually amazed it got the reaction it did. None of us fucking knew any more whether it was good or bad. What really blew my head off was the fact that people got all the things, all the textures and the sounds and the atmospheres we were trying to create.”
What separates it from ‘The Bends’ before it and perhaps many other great albums of the nineties was the influence it had on the music scene generally. Aside from industry heavyweights from Bono to Michael Stipe regularly singing its praises, it inspired countless other bands to pick up their guitars and write music not necessarily with the same ethos as traditional rock music. Even metallers like the Deftones’ Chino Moreno have alluded towards the great influence of Radiohead.
Following their triumphant career defining appearance at the Glastonbury mud bath 1997, the honeymoon period was well and truly over for Radiohead. Unable to withstand the incessant critical back patting, the countless award nominations and the constant media glare, the band (as perfectly realised in Grant Gee’s 1998 film ’Meeting People Is Easy’), rather than embracing their new-found fame withdrew and recoiled from the spotlight. Largely inactive throughout 1998 and 1999, Yorke slipped into a deep depression and the future of the band itself was in jeopardy. It was clear, that if Radiohead produced another ‘OK Computer’ in their fraught recording sessions running up to the millennium then they may have imploded.
Instead, they delivered ‘Kid A’ in the autumn of 2000 and ‘Amnesiac’ the following year. Two very different albums recorded during the same sessions that are, in their own way, both a perfect antithesis to ’OK Computer.’ Forged out of the band’s obsession with the Warp label, jazz and their other avant-garde leanings, the albums alienated some of their following and alleviated the intense media glare. Yet for staunch Radiohead fans they had the adverse effect solidifying their fascination with a band constantly committed to evolving and experimenting, regardless of what is expected of them. In choosing not to attempt to emulate their masterpiece and become a pale parody of their former glories they have very much kept their integrity in tact.
To coin a cliché, ‘OK Computer’ still sounds as fresh and innovative now in June 2007 as its day of release. It’s a record that will still be listened to, and cherished, by new generations in decades to come. If you don’t already own this record, buy it now.