Classic Music Review: OK Computer by Radiohead

Because OK Computer was released on May 21, 1997, I was seriously motivated to publish this review at the start of the year to avoid becoming engulfed in the 20th Anniversary of the Greatest Album of the 9o’s hoo-hah.

The “Best of Anything” is a pretty lame concept because any criterion you could use is shaky at best. Record sales have as much to do with musical excellence as the popularity of Doritos has to do with culinary achievement. Influence is often cited as a reason, but a lot of that is based on how many famous musicians happened to mention that they liked a particular album. If you’ve done as much research as I have over the years, you’d know that Paul McCartney loves every piece of music he has ever heard and that Thom Yorke has cited different influences for the same song depending on his mood and memory. I suspect several artists mention other artists to build up good karma and get a plug in return, while others realize that many music journalists aren’t that bright so they need to hand them a few questionable analogies to help them meet their deadlines. There’s also the undeniable fact that many influential albums flat-out suck, and are only influential because someone with more talent and imagination found something interesting in the muck that they later transformed into a listenable piece of music.

After looking at several Best of the 90’s lists on the net, I noticed that they’re full of albums by Liz Phair, Courtney Love, Alanis Morissette, Sleater-Kinney and other female artists whose claim to fame was that they were daring enough to liberally sprinkle their lyrics with that unladylike word, “fuck.” Apparently that was considered some kind of feminist breakthrough in the waning days of the century.

Fuck. If I had started blogging in the fucking 1990’s I might have beat out fucking Dylan for that fucking Nobel Prize.

With sincere apologies to Oasis fans, Sade and PJ Harvey, MBE, it’s likely that the championship round for Best Album of the 90’s is going to come down to a bout between Nevermind and OK Computer, a thrilling match between two bands whose lineage can be traced directly back to the Pixies. Two bands steeped in existentialist grunge battling it out for meaningless glory! Tune into find out which album best captured the alienation of an entire generation!

I really hope it doesn’t go there, but I hoped Hillary would beat Trump, so I’m not very good at this hope thing.

I hope it doesn’t go there because these silly debates diminish both the works and the artists who produced them. A September 2000 article from The Guardian featuring Thom Yorke expressed it best:

In 1998, Q readers voted OK Computer the greatest album in the world. A new UK albums poll by Colin Larkin, canvassing 200,000 punters, has The Bends at number two, after the Beatles’ Revolver, with OK Computer at number four. But Yorke says of such polls, “Well, it means nothing. That sort of thing never really did my head in, because there was no way of relating to it.”

For Yorke, who turns 32 in October, the unpalatable paradox was that everything good they had done had been stripped of personal meaning and reduced to hyperbolic headlines. The band felt manipulated, like record company puppets, or media dancing bears. The reward for doing great work, it appeared, is being made to feel completely trite. This is fine for Oasis, for whom the music took a back seat to marketing long ago, but for Yorke and Radiohead, it rendered their entire purpose futile.

So if the great debate about Best Album of the 90’s comes down to a tie between Nevermind and OK Computer, I’m good with that. It doesn’t mean dick.

Having made the effort to learn to play and sing several songs from both albums on guitar and piano, I appreciate both as unique works of art. When you learn a song, you become more aware of the subtleties in the subtext, the impact of tone color and the emotional effect of a chosen chord structure. On that basis, I consider both Nevermind and OK Computer multi-dimensional, richly satisfying experiences.

However, in the interest of full disclosure, my recent listening habits do reveal a personal preference. I don’t listen to Nevermind that much anymore, but I listen to OK Computer quite a bit. When I put the iPod or iPhone on shuffle and a song from Nevermind comes up, I skip it about half the time. When something from OK Computer appears, I’m drawn to it, and usually turn the volume up. I have to be in the mood for Nirvana; Radiohead has the ability to put me in the mood.

Just like my partner! That’s why she got the job!

One other tiny admission: my initial reaction to OK Computer was anything but positive. This was because during the late 90’s I was consumed with getting and giving bruises in the mosh pits and paid only scant attention to Radiohead. My first in-depth exposure to Radiohead was Kid A, one of my favorite albums ever. Conditioned by what I heard on Kid A, OK Computer seemed rather raunchy and scattered. To overcome the bias I had to hit the reset button, so I spent months listening to Pablo Honey and The Bends while avoiding the temptation to slip “Optimistic” and “Idioteque” into the mix. When I listened to OK Computer in the proper context, the change in perspective was shockingly delightful. OK Computer not only touches on several socio-cultural themes near and dear to my brain but features a string of superbly-arranged compositions that represented a quantum leap in sophistication over their first two albums.

The layered richness of OK Computer is on full display in the opening track. “Airbag” continues the exploration of a theme that first appeared in “Ripcord” on Pablo Honey: the utter fragility of human existence as captured in the symbolism of do-or-die devices (airbags, seat belts, ripcords, etc.). While “Ripcord” dealt with the psychological fragility inherent in a life based on the pursuit of earthly treasures such as material wealth and political power, “Airbag” focuses on the vulnerability of body and soul in a cold universe where a simple accident or being in the wrong place at the wrong time can terminate life without notice.

The mournful guitar motif establishes a melancholic mood only slightly countered by a lovely guitar counterpoint and contrasting thrusts from the beats. The complexity of the music mirrors the complexity of emotion in an “airbag moment,” those unforgettable experiences when we are snatched from certain oblivion by dumb luck, the nuances of science or fail-safe systems that do exactly what they were designed to do but still leave us believing in miracles.

I had my “Airbag” moment while sitting in the passenger seat of a pre-airbag sports car headed to Lake Tahoe for what I hoped would be a weekend of hard fucking, drinking and gambling with a promising young stud I’d met in SoMa one night. While he was as handsome as fuck, he wasn’t much of a conversationalist, so when we were passing through that boring stretch of I-80 around Vacaville, I felt myself drifting off. I was only half-awake when I heard him say, “Oops.” Next there was the loud bang from the force of a car colliding with the driver’s side door at seventy miles an hour, causing us to carom across three lanes filled with high-speed traffic. My reaction to impending doom was hysterical laughter interspersed with encouraging words to the driver—“You’re okay, you’re okay”—as I attempted to guide him through the traffic stream to the safety of a ditch that paralleled the freeway. We landed awkwardly but safely in the earthen confines of the ditch, where the driver’s side door collapsed to the ground with a punctuating thump. I continued to laugh my head off from the exhilarating rush of improbable survival and only stopped laughing when I saw my companion’s face twisted in pain as he tried to support his now perfectly useless left arm (later repaired at the local hospital). The event probably lasted ten seconds but it plays in slo-mo in my memory, imprinted there forever to remind me that of how ridiculously close I came to death, saved only by the geometrical miracle of our accidental trajectory towards a drainage ditch.

Never got to fuck the guy, but when I finally got back to The City that night, I did discover the powerful healing benefits of 110 proof Scotch.

Befitting a complex topic, “Airbag” is a masterpiece of contradiction. Tim Footman captured the technological-musical conflict in Welcome To The Machine: OK Computer and the Death of the Classic Album when he observed that “the musicians and producer are delighting in the sonic possibilities of modern technology; the singer, meanwhile, is railing against its social, moral, and psychological impact.” Within the song itself, the fundamental human contradiction is expressed through the repetition of that mournful motif contrasting mightily with the joy expressed in the line, “I am born again.” I found it fascinating that Thom Yorke wrote the lyrics for this song in a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Blake was the poet of contradiction, embracing humanity’s conflicting drives as the exquisite tension at the core of human existence. In “Airbag,” Radiohead captured the fundamental absurdity in human behavior that a Vulcan could never understand: human beings cry tears of joy and laugh in the face of danger. We love life but our mortality colors life with an infinite sadness.

In terms of format, “Paranoid Android” is the 90’s version of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, though I think Radiohead does a better job of connecting the disparate parts through a combination of thematic foreshadowing and repetition. I love the fuck out of the guitars on this piece, both acoustic and electric, and while the quiet opening with the shift to LOUD is pure Pixies, Radiohead executes multiple dynamic shifts in the song, with the “God part” perfectly sandwiched between complementary guitar explosions. Thom Yorke found his inspiration for the song during a night out in a coke-filled La La Land night spot crawling with users and takers, and his reaction mirrors that of David Bowie’s parting shot to L. A. as he headed for Berlin: “That fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth.” On the surface, the song seems terribly judgmental (“Ambition makes you look pretty ugly/Kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy”), but Yorke’s choice to merge his identity with Douglas Adams’ ultimate snob Marvin the Paranoid Android feels like a “message to self” that taking a superior attitude is self-defeating (a sentiment echoed in the computer voice background text, “I may be paranoid, but no android.”) Still, I find myself struggling with that very issue as I contemplate the 60 million losers who voted for Trump, and you know what? Right now I feel pretty damned good about being superior if superior means I pride education over ignorance and human rights over narrow-minded, paranoid prejudice.

Enough Trump! Let’s talk aliens! When people ask me the common conversation-warmer question, “If you could live anywhere, where would you live?” I invariably surprise them with my unhesitating answer: Deep Space Nine. Live on a massive space station with a great view, infinite diversity, impressive shopping, holodecks to cater to your every fantasy and the greatest bar/gambling joint in the galaxy? Sign me up! And the rooms! I would activate the security seal on that door, crank up the replicator on command, fuck for a whole month straight and never leave my quarters! So yes, I completely embrace Thom Yorke’s pro-alien sentiments on “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” and we’d have to race with each other to see who would be the first to leap through the hatch into the spaceship. “You’d really want to leave EARTH? Why?” I’ll let Thom explain it for you:

The breath of the morning I keep forgetting
The smell of the warm summer air
I live in a town where you can’t smell a thing
You watch your feet for cracks in the pavement

Up above aliens hover
Making home movies for the folks back home
Of all these weird creatures who lock up their spirits
Drill holes in themselves and live for their secrets

They’re all uptight, uptight

The beautifully dreamy music of the song is the perfect background for an imaginative leap, but the single-word chorus, with its extraordinary melding of arpeggiated guitar, hanging rhythms and majestic drum rolls, gives me the chills every time I hear it.

Things seem to be going on quite swimmingly on OK Computer until “Exit Music (For a Film)” fills my headphones. I usually skip it. While I appreciate the alt-ending to Shakespeare’s worst play ever, the song is too fucking slow to hold my interest. I also believe that Romeo and Juliet have to be the two dumbest characters in literature, and I hated the movie with its gratuitously violent ending. My views may be colored because I grew up in a time when teenagers of my generation offed themselves in spasms of drama queen stupidity, but I don’t think “Exit Music” belongs on this album. It interrupts the flow and doesn’t connect well with the primary themes.

Oh, well. I didn’t like everything on Revolver, either.

But I love “Let Down,” a gorgeous piece of music that captures the unthinking inhumanity built into too many systems of mass transportation. When I moved to France and became the Grand Poo-Bah for the company’s European operation, I spent two years in fucking airports, often feeling “crushed like a bug in the ground.” I flew hundreds of thousands of miles, putting up with screaming babies, smelly passengers, crappy food and urine-drenched lavatories, earning Super Dumbshit Frequent Flyer status on three airlines. I find it outrageous that the reward for frequent flying is more fucking flying! Why can’t they let us exchange the miles for spa visits, concerts and ballets, where we can relieve our bodies and minds from the poisonous stress and dehumanization of air travel?

That someone could write a song about mass transportation as beautiful as “Let Down” is a testament to Thom Yorke’s empathy for those of us who suffer on jam-packed buses, constantly late trains and the ugly reality of air travel:

Transport, motorways and tramlines
Starting and then stopping
Taking off and landing
The emptiest of feelings
Disappointed people clinging on to bottles
And when it comes it’s so, so disappointing

Let down and hanging around
Crushed like a bug in the ground
Let down and hanging around

The arrangement is exquisite, with Colin Greenwood providing strong, steady and appropriately melodic bass while the guitars serve as arrhythmic wind chimes, capturing the dizzying feeling you get when you’ve been traveling too long. Thom Yorke’s vocal is a masterwork, expressing the flat dullness of inhuman experience in the first verse, awaking to the possibility of resistance in the scale-dancing melody of the second, and building to the curiously triumphant vocal kaleidoscope of the last verse. Two parts of “Let Down” always give me the chills: the spot harmony on the words “chemical reaction” in the second verse and Phil Selway’s muscular double-time wrap to the instrumental bridge preceding the final verse. Despite the unpleasantness of the subject matter, “Let Down” ends triumphantly and joyously, for while the wish for a human experience in mass transit may be “hysterical and useless,” the expression of genuine human emotion is always an uplifting experience.

I find “Karma Police” equally uplifting, but for different reasons. The theme is similar to “Paranoid Android” in that it expresses the wish that we could make all the bad people go away, but the humor here is more obvious and economical:

Karma police
Arrest this man, he talks in maths
He buzzes like a fridge, he’s like a detuned radio

Karma police
Arrest this girl, her Hitler hairdo
Is making me feel ill and we have crashed her party

The phrase, “He buzzes like a fridge,” is one of my favorite lines ever—one I’ve recalled on several occasions when meeting with boring business people who talk only in numbers. I love the clarity of the low bass tones from Colin Greenwood, a testament both to his superb handling of the instrument and excellent engineering. Thom Yorke sings the “Sexy Sadie” chorus with the quiet confidence of a man who believes in the inevitable march of karma, beautifully supported by faint angelic voices and late-night piano bar patterns. More importantly, the shift in Thom Yorke’s voice through an echo effect during the fading verses of apology accentuate the bipolar feelings we have about wishing that those annoying people in our lives would go to hell and stay there. “For a minute there, I lost myself, er . . . no, I didn’t, you really are an asshole.”

One of the more striking and oddly controversial pieces on OK Computer is “Fitter Happier,” where the words are spoken by the “Fred” voice on a now-ancient Macintosh using the now-obsolete SimpleText program. While the technology may be passé, the listening experience remains entirely compelling, in large part due to the unfeeling artificiality of the primitive computerized voice. Thom Yorke called this “the most upsetting thing I’ve ever written,” and I wholeheartedly agree. The piece is a creepy but prescient warning of a conformist society shaped by mass programming where Health Nazis rule the world and we all pretend to get along happily with all those annoying people we just sent to hell in “Karma Police.”

Fitter, happier, more productive
Comfortable
Not drinking too much
Regular exercise at the gym
Three days a week
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries
At ease
Eating well
No more microwave dinners and saturated fats

The song reminds me of a meeting I had with an HR person when I first joined my former employer, a classic HR type who had drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid about “wellness programs.” “Surely you’re going to want to enroll in the Wellness Program!” “What’s it involve?” “Oh, you set goals for yourself like exercising, cutting down on saturated fats, getting your cholesterol checked, remembering to stand up every thirty minutes to avoid potential vision and ergonomic problems, staying active—things like that. There are also special programs to help people quit smoking—” “NOT interested,” I interrupted. She looked at me as if her internal program was stuck in a loop. “But why? It saves you money on medical premiums, helps keep our benefits costs down, and best of all, keeps you healthy and happy.” “That’s nice, but I enjoy smoking and have no intention of quitting. I don’t eat three balanced meals a day, I eat one-and-a-half, and once or twice a week that one meal is a cheeseburger with all the trimmings, loads of fries and a milkshake.” “But you look so healthy! Don’t you want to take better care of yourself and stay healthy?” “Not if it means I have to give up things that make life worth living!”

Things have only gotten worse. When I was in the States last fall, I saw dozens of people wearing Fitbits and Apple Watches to remind them when to stand, breathe, move and shit. Do people really need a fucking piece of technology to compensate for a lack of self-control? Don’t people realize that the health fad is one of the biggest conformist scams in history, and that its purveyors are using your innate fear of death to condition you? Why can’t y’all just listen to your bodies and figure out what works for you ALL BY YOURSELVES?

Needing a counterpoint to “Fittier Happier” as quickly as possible, Radiohead provides with the raucous and marvelously sloppy “Electioneering.” I would love a wordless version of this song because often I’ll tune out Thom Yorke and focus solely on the guitar interplay. It’s not difficult to do because the guitars are already raised in the mix to underscore the noisy confusion that we call politics. While Mr. Yorke was technically writing about the post-Thatcherian British political scene, the recollection of the band members was that the song was more about the experience of schmoozing with music business types and all the handshaking they had to do . . . which brings up a valid question. Why is so much human interaction governed by bullshit? If it is true (well, yes, it is true) that people cannot make informed choices without clear information, why do we spend so much time bullshitting each other and pretending to be people we’re not? This is more of a rhetorical question than a real question because I know the answer. I can’t be “the real me” at work—I wouldn’t last a minute, and I need the money. A lot of times we allow ourselves to be swayed by “experts” or “the crowd” and mouth their bullshit because it makes us more pleasant company. Go along to get along, dammit!

Whether you like Radiohead or not, you have to admit that their music always gives you lots to think about.

Unlike “Fitter Happier,” “Climbing Up the Walls” was intentionally designed to sound creepy, and while it’s not the most pleasant listening experience on this or any album, the soundscape does give you the creeps, especially when the violins simultaneously play notes that are an irritating quarter-step apart. According to Colin Greenwood, “No Surprises” was designed to counteract the creepiness of “Climbing Up the Walls” with something more soothing, and on that level it more than succeeds with its sweet guitar-and-glockenspiel-guided arrangement reflecting the stillness we experience when listening to a musical box. The lyrics, though, reflect the quiet desperation of some of Ray Davies’ characters—people who are trapped in meaningless lives and too frightened to do anything about it:

A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heal

You look so tired and unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t, they don’t speak for us

I’ll take a quiet life
A handshake of carbon monoxide
No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises

And like Arthur, what’s left is “Such a pretty house/And such a pretty garden.” “No Surprises” is a terribly sad but truthful song about the economic and social alienation that occurs when the impersonal system is working as designed. No, they don’t speak for us, and that in itself is an ongoing tragedy.

The tempo and mood of the album remain on low simmer with “Lucky,” a song about fickle fortune and misfortune accented by reference to the rescue theme we heard in “Airbag.” The arrangement oscillates between still and grand, featuring marvelous bass work (again!) from Colin Greenwood. You get the feeling that the narrator doesn’t have a chance in hell of having his luck turn, and that the rest of his life will consist of “standing on the edge” of disaster.

OK Computer ends with Jonny Greenwood’s “The Tourist,” a slow-tempo song with significant amounts of space. While the song appears to deal with a nutcase driver who likes to keep his foot on the gas regardless of the danger to pedestrians, the title indicates that the deeper theme is human obliviousness when interacting with a different culture. All cultures operate at different speeds, and it’s obvious that the “idiot” in this song is never going to get it. In contrast to the lyrics, the music is ironically comforting in the quiet sections, as if we are being rocked to sleep . . . only to be awoken by an idiot barging into our safe and sound culture . . . most likely an American idiot, as Americans are known around the world for their loud, high-speed and astonishingly rude behavior and blindness to cultural nuances.

Well, at least 60 million of them are known for that. Now that I think of it, there’s one guy in particular who embodies . . . ENOUGH TRUMP!

The choice to end OK Computer with four low-tempo songs certainly influences our sense of the album’s overall mood, leaving us with a palpable feeling of melancholy. If you were to change the track order and place “Let Down” or “Electioneering” in the final spot, you might feel more of a lift, but in the long run you’d experience some confusion, as if Radiohead had decided to let us off the hook. Personally, I think the track order is essential to understanding one of the core themes of OK Computer: in a world that seems to be careening beyond the boundaries of common sense due to the simultaneous collision of high-speed digital technology and slow, unfeeling bureaucracies who view human beings as inconvenient statistics, we all need to heed the warning to The Tourist—-“Hey, man, slow down!”—and ask, “What the fuck are we doing to ourselves?”

Decidedly and appropriately ambivalent about technology, insightful about the human causes of modern human alienation and performed with intensity and intent, OK Computer is a timeless work of art that marked another huge step in Radiohead’s impressive trajectory. They would make another great leap forward with Kid A, and to this day, Radiohead continues to produce high quality work. Radiohead’s catalog proves without a doubt OK Computer was not “the death of the classic album” but an affirmation of the unique artistic possibilities of the album format. While the album may have lost some of its commercial luster, I believe that high-quality albums produced with clear artistic intent and integrity will always have a future . . . if we take the time to SLOW DOWN, listen to them, and reflect.

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Altrockchick

Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

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