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Radiohead - OK Computer

2009-09-09 13:00
 
Ok Computer
 
What started out as mere curiosity about this strangely titled album and its makers - of whom I knew precious little - exploded into a full-on obsession over the course of a few days as my friends (aka enablers) and and I lost entire days giving ourselves over entirely to the shiny new, mesmeric sound blasting from the speakers. And we desperately needed to get over Oasis. For us, it wasn’t about how the band members looked, which models they were screwing or how many hotel rooms they'd trashed. We didn't care. It was all about the music - the head-scratching but intriguing lyrics. Those beautiful guitar noises that sounded like chainsaws, spaceships blasting off into space, haunted houses, harps, a child's toy. The pure, soul-stirring effect of Thom Yorke's voice. It's safe to say we'd never heard anything quite like it before.

Radiohead's previous album The Bends (which I saved up for nearly 3 months to buy) was, compared to its successor, rather conventional. For Radiohead, at least. But The Bends hinted that they were clearly capable of incredible things, and OK Computer proved it. Majestic, daring and vividly alive with evocative soundscapes, it marked a pinnacle for modern rock music – even when so much about the album didn't fit into a normal idea of what rock music was. OK Computer pretty much re-wrote the rules on what pop music could be.

Consider a song like "Fitter, Happier", which is probably not even a proper song. The disembodied, Stephen Hawking-like voice coming through Macintosh SimpleText is eerie enough, but then it starts spewing out a mantra on how to be the perfect modern human being – "Fitter, happier, more productive, comfortable, not drinking too much, regular exercise at the gym (3 days a week), getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries" – while an out of tune piano warbles in the background. It's eerie as heck, but in those brief two minutes the song sums up the pre-millenial tension and paranoia that is a recurring theme throughout the album. And besides, who hasn’t muttered these same words to themselves after a particularly hedonistic weekend?

"Paranoid Android", the six-and-a-half-minute opus around which the album gravitates, has been called a successor to "Bohemian Rhapsody". But where the Queen classic is madcap rock opera, "Paranoid Android" is balls-out nasty ("When I am king, you will be first against the wall") before coming over like a puppy with a sore paw, calling for the rain to wash it all away. It's beautiful and schizophrenic and rocks like a mutha.

And that's just the thing about OK Computer. Even though its has these deep-seated issues with all the scary trappings of modern day living, like technology ("Subterranean Homesick Alien"), road safety ("Airbag"), two-faced politicking ("Electioneering") and the soul-sucking emptiness of it all ("No Surprises"), it doesn't feel alienating or cold. In fact, it welcomes you into its apocalyptic world - where young lovers can find everlasting peace, surviving a car crash feels like the most liberating experience you’ve ever had, and sweet release from your anodyne existence is but an alien abduction away. Sounds out-there, but that's what OK Computer is. Not for nothing has it been hailed as the second coming of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, or inspired a new generation of rock musicians to embrace new song structures and dare to get express deeply personal emotions in song. So yeah, you can blame Radiohead for Coldplay, OneRepublic and the new direction Kings of Leon are taking. But there've also been more successful adapters of this new rock ethic – just look to bands like Elbow, Doves and Arcade Fire.

I've heard far too many times how Radiohead are too 'miserable', that they make people want to cut their wrists, or that Thom Yorke should try to smile for once in his life. But they're just showing off their ignorance. There are moments of such wondrous joy in OK Computer that have literally made me catch my breath. There is a moment during "Subterranean Homesick Alien" - just as the "Uptight" chorus builds towards a climax – when a wave of guitar crescendos come out of nowhere and reaches for the stars. It's like watching a star go supernova, and it's just one example of the irresistible redemptive power in the imagery this album evokes.

To me, OK Computer represented peerless dynamism and high production values at a time when I wasn't even sure I knew what they meant. Before long I had internalised every chord (even though I couldn't play them), memorized every lyric (even though I didn’t really get them most of the time), and vowed to be a fan forever. My efforts have been infinitely rewarded. Oh, and I cannot write about OK Computer without pointing out "Let Down". Best. Song. Ever. And that is all ye need know.

Okay Computer Fact File

The album was recorded in a converted shed called Canned Applause in the Oxford countryside, before moving onto St Catherine’s Court in Bath, a stately mansion owned by actress Jane Seymour, where most of the album was recorded. 

"Exit Music (for a film)" is exactly that. The song was used in the end credits of Baz Luhrmann's hip retelling of Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Thom Yorke explained that the "incredibly dense and terrifying sound" of Bitches Brew by jazz legend Miles Davis was his initial inspiration for the album.

When the band presented the completed album to their US record label, they were told that they were committing commercial suicide. It was only until their UK label Parlophone expressed enthusiasm for the album that the band felt it wouldn’t be a complete disaster.

OK Computer has featured prominently in "Best of the 90s" and "Best of All Time" album retrospectives in publications such as TIME magazine, Rolling Stone, Pitchforkmedia, NME and Spin, as well as countless others.

The album, along with the band’s entire EMI catalogue, was re-released as a limited edition 2CD in 2009. The set includes b-sides, rarities, remixes and live performances from the era.


When I was 15, I humiliated myself on national radio for the chance to win a copy of the just-released OK Computer. It was worth it. I received about nine other CDs in my prize hamper as well, but I couldn’t recall now, even at gunpoint, what they were.

What to read next: Kalahari

Read more on:    radiohead
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Deep Purple - Machine Head

2009-09-01 18:38

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(Comments may be edited or deleted at the Channel24 editors’ discretion)
DAVID L 9/8/2009 9:56 AM
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This was the defining moment of the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st. Radiohead will become one of those bands we all cannot live without in the future. Without them, my favourite band, MUSE would not be able to perform the music they do. GREAT REVIEW!!
NittyNatty 9/8/2009 10:54 AM
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Agreed. I found the review most accurate and blissfully exultant, but why take a jab at Coldplay? They too are sheer musical genious, but as you have pointed out in your own writing "But they're (critics) just showing off their ignorance"... are you not doing the same?
NittyNatty 9/8/2009 10:54 AM
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Agreed. I found the review most accurate and blissfully exultant, but why take a jab at Coldplay? They too are sheer musical genious, but as you have pointed out in your own writing "But they're (critics) just showing off their ignorance"... are you not doing the same?
Andy 9/8/2009 12:30 PM
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Wow, that really sucked. The endless meataphors and overly pretentious descriptions made me want to chew my foot off. I really like radiohead and yes, this was an excellent album but anybody that uses the terms "pre-millenial tension" & "peerless dynamism" to describe a radiohead album needs to be bludgeoned with a spade. Why, oh why did I read this?
Chris 9/8/2009 1:00 PM
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The word "genius" is used far too often, and Coldplay are anything but. Radiohead, however, have done something new and exciting with each album, something most bands dare not do. That Radiohead are the best band since, I think, The Beatles, makes the metaphors and descriptions necessary. Ordinary language can be used on ordinary bands. Yes. That means Coldplay. Don't get me started on Muse...
Steve 9/8/2009 2:21 PM
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Great stuff but I would say The Bends is their best effort so far.
Steve 9/8/2009 2:22 PM
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Great stuff but I would say The Bends is their best effort so far.
Vic 9/8/2009 3:40 PM
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Suffice it to say that this album is one of those rare ones you can listen to over and over and over , then pack it away and months or even years later, it still sounds like the best thing you have ever heard. Not many of those albums around. and in my humble opinion, Coldplay's albums in a few years from now.... meh.....
Rosa 9/8/2009 4:57 PM
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Radiohead got me through the toughest times of my teens, I lived every song for months and months. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Im gonna find that CD and play it tonight.
daviohead 9/8/2009 6:21 PM
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Awesome review! I love the album! Its never too far away! i really get annoyed with people who knock it without taking a proper listen. www.citizeninsane.eu has loads of info and articles as well as http://www.marshillreview.com/reviews/radiohead.shtm which is pretty rad! I will be listening to this album for years to come!
Elizabeth 9/8/2009 8:40 PM
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Great review, breathtakingly mindblowing made-of-spectacular album.
Tony T 9/9/2009 8:15 AM
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Awesome review, of on the great albums of the late 20th century. Looking for my version right now to play again..
wphc 9/9/2009 9:14 AM
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In short radiohead changed my life. Their music continues to inspire and is always evolving. I actually think it helped develop my thinking in a way that no education system ever could. Thank you for a good review and some nostalgia.
Graeme 9/9/2009 9:14 AM
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The first CD I ever bought, and my most precious possesion. I was a fan before the album, and OK computer just reinforced my loyalty to the band, I now own every album they've released. It's still the only album that I can put on repeat and not get bored.
preshen govender 9/9/2009 9:33 AM
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Great album I remember losing my virginity to it
tim 9/9/2009 10:34 AM
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the irony , i was 15 at the time to...and this album changed my life , it was for me the definative album of my life ! like many before had , nirvana , mettalica , the beatles...and so on.... ok computer was an album that inspired an entirely new generation ! good to see a review of subtance for a change :)
Mighty Grogg 9/9/2009 10:53 AM
One of the greatesst albums ever recorded, for sure. I saw them live in Paris in 1998, absolutely awesome. Got my copy of OK Computer autographed by the whole band. Wonder what that is worth?
Lindy 9/9/2009 11:05 AM
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Never heard the heard album (scandalous, I know) but this is a really well written article. Makes me feel like I could fall in love with this album too...
Mike Foxtrot 9/9/2009 12:26 PM
Excellent article about an awesome band who made an earth shattering album (or two or three..)
Jason van Aardt 9/9/2009 2:41 PM
K I D A You've done a well written show complete with shadows at the edge of the bed... i believe they're calling for an encore....Kid A for the real show of your talent and a crescendo in the finale ...?
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