Thom Yorke - vocals, guitar, keyboards, piano
Ed O'Brien - guitar, vocals, percussion, effects
Colin Greenwood - bass, keyboards, percussion
Phil Selway - drums, percussion, programming, vocals
In June 1997, British rock band Radiohead unleashed OK Computer on an unsuspecting public. Its massive popularity and widespread critical acclaim meant the band, and the entire music scene, would never be the same again.
Radiohead first made an impact in 1992 with the release of their debut album, Pablo Honey. This album is considered by many fans as being their weakest. However, it did spawn the mega-hit Creep, an anthem for misfit teens everywhere.
Rather than rest on their laurels and watch the royalties roll in, the band grew increasingly concerned that they would be labelled one-hit wonders, and in 1995 released The Bends. This album saw Radiohead expand their musical girth, strings and keyboards becoming more prominent. It was also more positively received in the music press, and confirmed that Radiohead were anything but one-trick ponies.
In early 1996, straight off the back of a lengthy tour, the band began sessions at Canned Applause, a converted fruit shed. Many of the songs were already written and demoed during their REM support slot, and their own tour, so initially the songs were prepared quickly.
However, the band embarked on a brief summer tour to test the new material on audiences, which gave them new ideas on how to present the songs. In September they began recording again, this time in St Catherine's Court, a rural mansion. This proved to be a much better setting for the recording of the album, as the individual atmospheres of different rooms were exploited to the full.
The album was completed by Christmas, and released on 16 June, 1997 to rapturous acclaim. Rolling Stone magazine called it 'a stunning art rock tour-de-force', and the album stood highly in the end-of-year polls. in April, 2005 OK Computer was named 'Best Album of All Time' in a Channel 4 poll, beating albums like The Beatles' Revolver and The Joshua Tree by U2 to the top. But why has an album made by five middle-class white men from Oxford been loved by so many?
OK Computer is an immense sounding album, which veers from frenzied punk to sweet melodic pop and hits all the points in between. Lyrically, it is extremely bleak in places, and certainly has a world-weary feel. However, there is a glimmer of hope in it, which shines through the darkness, and makes it such a resonant and tender listen, as well as a brutal, unnerving one.
The band never sounded better either, with the three guitars of Ed, Jonny and Thom arranged intricately alongside the solid, but supple rhythms created by Colin and Phil. Also, the band experimented with new sounds, employing electronic buzzes and shimmering keyboards, along with a range of eclectic guitar effects brought to the mix by Ed and Jonny.
As soon as Jonny's stately guitar line begins, the listener is hooked. Ed provides a jangly Johnny Marr-esque rhythm guitar, which is complimented wonderfully by Colin's funky bass line and Phil's discordant drum loops. Somewhere in this mix, Thom's seemingly muffled vocals tell of 'jacknifed juggernauts' and 'neon signs scrolling up and down'. It is this distrust of the modern world that runs through OK Computer, but it is especially prevalent here: 'I'm amazed that I survived, an airbag saved my life'. This is a perfect opener to the album both musically and lyrically.
Beginning with a calm acoustic section with sparse keyboards and spidery minimalist guitar lines, Paranoid Android then explodes into white-hot guitar noise. Ed's almost 'Sabbath' style heavy guitar riff is accompanied by a screaming Jonny Greenwood solo of almost impossible complexity. However, the chaos soon descends into a lull, with booming keyboards that sound like chanting monks. Thom spits out the last lines with venom:
The panic, the vomit
The panic, the vomit
God loves his children,
God loves his children, yeah.
This gives way to another three-guitar cacophony, with screamed 'la la la la las' for added effect. This song is arguably the craziest thing Radiohead have ever recorded, and is, quite perversely, their highest-placed song in the UK charts to date.
Subterranean Homesick Alien
On this track, Thom Yorke seems to take on the persona of a visitor from another planet who observes the bizarre ways in which humans live their lives; 'All these weird creatures who lock up their spirits' being one of his observations. This is backed by borderline prog guitar noise and jazzy drums. After the jarring, multi-faceted Paranoid Android, this track blissfully drifts out of the speakers and gradually works its way into your subconscious.
Exit Music (For A Film)
This song is unique in that it is the only song Radiohead have written on demand. It features on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet. It is also one of the most aurally arresting tracks on the album. Lyrically, it is reminiscent of the plight of the doomed lovers from the film:
Pack, and get dressed,
Before your father hears us,
Before all hell breaks loose.
It begins accompanied only by Thom's acoustic guitar and some enigmatic background noise, which sounds at once like a crowded room and a gust of wind. The chorus sees the return of the choir-like keyboards booming high above Thom's cracked voice pleading:
Don't lose your nerve.
Suddenly, at a roll of Phil Selway's drums and a brutal fuzzed bassline kicks in, along with a frantic guitar tremolo, and all hell actually does break lose. However, it is over as quickly as it begun, stripped back to Thom's acoustic guitar and broken voice, cursing an unnamed enemy:
We hope that you choke,
That you choke.
This is probably the most musically complex track on the album, and arguably, the most beautiful. Jonny and Ed deploy interweaving guitar lines, being played at different time signatures, and it sounds like an aural downpour, unbelievably complex, but absolutely stunning. This is anchored by Colin's melodic, Peter Hook-inspired bass line, Phil's subtle drumming, and delicately strummed acoustic chords by Thom.
This joyful noise is accompanied by one of Thom Yorke's most simple, but stirring melodies, which builds into a glorious two-part harmony with Ed, before crashing back to earth.
Lyrically, the song is concerned with the recurring theme of how modern society imprisons us all. Thom tells us that 'one day, I am gonna grow wings', to get away from the 'transport, motorways and tramlines' in the opening line of the song.
For many fans, this track is the highlight of the album, probably because it takes such a long time to appreciate, and is such a rewarding listen. Complex arrangements may at first disguise the beauty of the track, however, after a few listens, it shines through and leaves the listener awestruck.
This is probably the most immediately accessible track on OK Computer, its swaggering piano and guitar combination being reminiscent of The White Album by The Beatles, especially Sexy Sadie. However, it is unmistakably a Radiohead song, particularly with Ed's piercing guitar noise towards the end.
The lyrics seem to initially be a reference to a kind of mystic police force who punish people for their bad deeds, like the man who 'buzzes like a fridge', or the girl with the 'Hitler hairdo'. However, by the end of the track, Thom hollers 'for a minute there, I lost myself' repeatedly. This has since become a huge festival sing-along moment.
Not a song as such, Fitter, Happier features a robotic voice reading a list of how 'good law-abiding citizens' should live. Set to a backdrop of eerie piano, electronic buzzes and background noise, it is a very disturbing listen. It also tells us more about our lives than we would like to hear:
not drinking too much.
Regular exercise at the gym,
three days a week.
It is not musically excellent, nor can it claim to be a beautiful composition, but it is inextricably linked to the atmosphere of the album as a whole, and it tells us some ugly truths about our own lives. The band has obviously never performed it live, but it did play a recording at some of their gigs as they walked onstage.
With its furious drums, and big rock riffs, Electioneering proves that Radiohead can do punk rock as well as anyone. The band have since commented that this track was born out of their frustration with the promotional side of music-making, and this is apparent in Thom Yorke's bile-spitting delivery. Musically, it would not sound out of place on The Bends, with Ed's loud riffs and Jonny's virtuoso soloing, backed by a solid rhythm section.
Climbing Up The Walls
Quite easily the scariest track on the album. Massive tribal drums, booming basslines, overdubbed violins and discordant guitars explode into a stalking thriller. Yorke sings like the deranged killer in the song, calm at one moment, then screaming his lungs out, promising to deliver 'fifteen blows to the back of your head'.
By the chorus, the song becomes the sound of a crazed stalker; haunting violins interact with a creeping drumbeat, as Thom plainly tells us:
Either way you turn,
I'll be there.
Open up your skull,
I'll be there.
Climbing up the walls.
Musically, this track is the perfect antidote to the apocalyptic chaos of Climbing Up The Walls, subtle, jangling guitars, a melodic bassline and unobtrusive drums back a sweet, chiming melody played on the xylophone by Jonny. Lyrically, however, the song is bleak and despondent, with occasional, futile flashes of resistance, such as 'bring down the government'.
A heart that's full up like a landfill,
a job that slowly kills you,
bruises that won't heal.
This song contains the themes that typify OK Computer, modern life's way of imprisoning us, social expectations and the predictability of life. However, the persona in this song is accepting these things and just wants 'a quiet life'. There is a shred of resistance in the last moments of the song, though, while Thom begs for 'no alarms and no surprises, please', Ed can be heard in the background opining, 'let me out of here'.
No Surprises signifies all that is great about the album, in that it disguises extremely dark philosophies on life with heavenly pop music. There are many examples of this on OK Computer.
This track is an example of where hope shines through on this rather dark piece of work. While there is a recurrence of the theme of distrust of modern transport, such as 'pull me out of the aircrash'. However, Thom croons, without a hint of irony, that 'it's gonna be a glorious day'. This track is vital because it shows us that Radiohead offer visions of hope as well as bleak truths. Lucky seems to suggest that real people do have the power to make a difference.
The musicianship on this track is spectacular; it shimmers and gleams in all the right places, the lead line soaring above the rest before plummeting back to earth. The rhythm section is solid, and is the prominent backbone of the song. The subtle melodies and guitar noise from Ed, and the dramatic Pink Floyd-esque lead guitar from Jonny offset Thom's delicately strummed chords. This is a prime example of a band at the height of their powers.
The final track on OK Computer is unique in the sense that it was written by Jonny Greenwood, whereas Thom Yorke wrote the rest of the tracks. However, this does not make it an incongruous one. The intricate and sparse guitar interjections are here in abundance, as is the huge chant-like keyboard sound. It all builds up nicely into a vintage Jonny Greenwood solo, before ending with a single 'ping' of a triangle. A light end to a very heavy album.
Whether you love it or hate it, you have to admit that OK Computer is an album of immense ambition. It takes a few listens to truly sink in, but when it does, its palpable power and beauty really hits home.
It is an album that has influenced a great many bands; bands like Bloc Party and Hope of the States would certainly not sound the same without it. Also, it is an album that is not afraid to show its influences, though it never apes them. Miles Davis's jazz opus Bitches' Brew can be heard reverberating around Subterranean Homesick Alien and Paranoid Android. There are also literary influences, particularly Douglas Adams; the aforementioned Paranoid Android is a reference to Marvin the manically-depressed robot. Even the title of the album is a reference to a phrase repeated often in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
But why is it an album that so many millions of people have taken to their hearts? Most likely is that it is the potent expression of universal anxieties and problems, set to such strong, beautiful music, that has engaged so many.