The defining moment of Radiohead's OK Computer

Posted by Anne Kilfoyle, MXDWN

If you are part of my generation, a breed of twentysomethings either looking for or clinging to the life raft of gainful employment, there was probably a time in your past when you turned to Radiohead for comfort.

Maybe you’re still doing it. And that’s only natural - the band’s 1997 release became an instant staple of alternative rock and was the band that, for many, helped make sense of a strange new millennium.

Radiohead in general and OK Computer in particular brought new modes of expression to popular music. The album was a defining moment for the group. Although the lessons OK Computer imparts have changed along with the economics and general mood of the first world, the sentiment remains relevant.

Even before their third studio album, Radiohead was big news on the Britpop and alternative rock scene. Band members Thom Yorke, Colin and Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Phil Selway met at Abingdon School in Oxfordshire.

The name “Radiohead” came from a Talking Heads song, off the album True Stories. Radiohead released their first album, Pablo Honey, in 1993. This debut, along with the group’s breakthrough single, “Creep,” cultivated the band’s misanthropic appeal. It was Radiohead’s second album, The Bends, that moved the band further into the spotlight and popularized them in the United States.

Known for their cynical, introspective lyrics, Radiohead felt a new direction was needed for OK Computer. The tone Thom Yorke had in mind was most comparable to Mile Davis’s Bitches Brew. The idea of “building something up and watching it fall apart” was appealing to Yorke, as he said in an interview with Q magazine. The result is a frankly beautiful album that is as complex musically as it is thematically.

OK Computer speaks to the malcontents, the alienated. It consoles the socially anxious among us, proving that modern times can overwhelm and isolate even the Oxford educated. While the band had previously explored angst and estrangement, they had yet to refine it enough to garner broad appeal and address wider cultural issues. With OK Computer they moved past purely personal angst, like “Creep” and “High and Dry,” to name just a few. On OK Computer, tracks like the urgent, imploring “Electioneering” and “Fitter Happier” invite a larger cultural discussion on the subject of discontentment.

The robotic drone of “Fitter Happier” is especially interesting in context of today’s economic circumstances. At its release, the monotonous recitation of “Fitter Happier” spelled out the gruesome mindlessness of life’s rat race and our desperate pursuit of superficial goods. The discordant piano track swells beneath it like panic. Listening to it now, the relevance of the song has changed. It is no longer a list of vain pursuits, but rather a grim rap sheet of luxuries we can no longer find or afford: “Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries / At ease / Eating well (no more microwave dinners and saturated fats).” We’ve been taken out of the race entirely. The gloomy scenery of the song, as with the album as a whole, is more relevant as a result.

Also eerily topical after a decade and a half, is one of the most powerful tracks on the album. “Karma Police,” with its unmistakable opening piano progression, was released as a promotional single for the album. The very mention of the word “karma” should have all of us running for cover. “I’ve given all I can, it’s not enough… And for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself,” Yorke warbles over a sighing, chugging vehicle of alt rock brilliance.

To achieve the less introspective mood Radiohead was looking for, the band decided to self-produce OK Computer and used an unconventional approach to recording.They bought their own recording equipment and retreated to a converted shed outside of Oxford. This was Radiohead’s first attempt to record outside of the usual studio environment. The group produced two or three tracks before the conditions in the shed-turned-studio become such that they decided to change locations. They recorded the rest of the album in various rooms at St. Catherine’s Court, a large estate by Bath. They used the acoustics of the old property to give the album its unique sound. With no deadline, the album was able to develop organically, with all band members contributing.

The resulting album was released by Capitol Records in the US and Parlophone in the UK. OK Computer raised questions among distributors, who lowered their sales estimates after hearing the unconventional album. This was a mistake. OK Computer debuted at number 21 on the US Billboards chart and received praise from critics everywhere. Whether they realized it or not, critics and fans were listening to a preview of the experimentation and layering that Radiohead would later embrace and expand upon. OK Computer was a high point among many for a band that refused to settle on one sound. Radiohead worked across the board from grungy beginnings with Pablo Honey and The Bends to the highly experimental Amnesiac and In Rainbows. What OK Computer did was hit a sweet spot between genres, arguably aging better than any other Radiohead album.

Anne Kilfoyle, MXDWN