SELDOM has an album so viscerally connected with the zeitgeist than Radiohead’s masterpiece, OK Computer. The ship that launched a thousand thinkpieces, Thom Yorke and co.’s 53 minutes of haunting soundscapes and pre-millennial angst channelled end-of-the-century uncertainty into an aural snapshot. Here was a record that preached caution in a time of (at least in Britain) overwhelming positivity; a time when Tony Blair swept into government on an avalanche of support.
Unlike their contemporary Noel Gallagher, who popped into Downing Street to have a chinwag with the incumbent PM, Radiohead exercised a little more restraint. ‘Cool Britannia’ passed the Oxfordians by; they holed up in St. Catherine’s Court, a medieval mansion belonging to Jane Seymour. It seems strange that an album so brimming with electric crackle and the din of urbanism should have been largely made in such an ancient building, but it’s only appropriate that the ghosts of the past were felt there.
Like the house in which it was born, OK Computer is a haunted work. The cover art by Yorke and Stanley Donwood displays a bleached impression of a scratchy motorway and half-vanished text reading “lost child”. There is an atmosphere of loss and bewilderment running throughout, enforced by Yorke’s abstract lyrics and electronic screeches.
Take the opening salvo, ‘Airbag’, a number fuelled by angry guitar thuds and a seven-second Phil Selway drumbeat hacked to pieces through digital sampling. Revisiting the reincarnation vibe of ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’, Yorke sings of being “born again… in an interstellar burst” and a “jack-knifed juggernaut”, conflating death and driving. Yorke’s morbid fear of automobiles informs a track that distrusts the advances of modern technology even as the music fully embraces it.
‘Paranoid Android’ started life as a 14-minute opus complete with lengthy organ solos. The band wisely chose not to emulate a heyday-Pink Floyd record, instead cutting it down to around six minutes. The result is Radiohead’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a stunning sprawl latent with brimming ambition. It’s a ferocious guitar anthem in three movements, with shuffles between 4/4 and 7/4 time, monstrous solos and a Gregorian choir pastiche, anchored by Yorke’s fevered vocal delivery.
‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ is the most obvious inspiration the band took from Bitches Brew, with its otherworldly keyboards and dreamy shimmer effects. Not unlike a piece of Martian poetry, Yorke sings of isolation from his human brethren and dreams of aliens showing him “the world as I’d love to see it”. It’s a poignant, spacey comedown after the rage of ‘Paranoid Android’, and a deep breath before the plunge of ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’.
The film in question, of course, is Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Played over the credits, ‘Exit Music’ is a beautiful, heartbreaking ode to young love’s failure. Beginning with Yorke’s sombre acoustic guitar, the track slowly builds toward an enormous crescendo before melting back to solo guitar, accompanied this time by distant electronic voices.
‘Let Down’ is a gorgeous, shimmering elegy for disappointment. Yorke’s lyrics again speak to disconnection from modernity; he once spoke of them as, “…The feeling you get when… you just go past thousands of people and you’re completely removed from it.” Driven by layered arpeggiated guitar lines and Jonny Greenwood’s electric piano, it’s one of the standouts in an album of standouts, with Yorke giving one of his finest performances on the mic.
‘Karma Police’ is a piano ballad about “fridge buzz”, stress and middle management. One of their most successful singles and a mainstay of their live performances, ‘Karma Police’ eschews a traditional chorus for a two-section structure, commenting on the persistent background noise pervading society. “I’ve given all I can / it’s not enough,” Yorke sings, before the second section revolves around his refrain of, “For a minute there / I lost myself.” Behind him, a distorted echo acts as counterpoint, the monkey on his back.
The album’s shortest track, ‘Fitter Happier’, deftly condenses its central themes. It’s “a pig, in a cage, on anti-biotics” being driven over a cliff in a Cadillac. A “checklist of slogans”, it’s an extension of the anti-yuppie themes in ‘Paranoid Android’, depicting a mechanised corporate drone running down the reasons why he’s still human. It’s a deeply unsettling 90 seconds.
‘Electioneering’ and ‘Lucky’ are probably the weakest tracks, insomuch as they’re the most straightforward. They’re the closest sonic equivalent to a track from The Bends; the former, a balls-to-the-wall rocker about political foibles and Yorke’s distrust of New Labour; the latter, meanwhile, aligns with ‘Airbag’ in its depiction of vehicular wreckage, this time an aeroplane instead of a car. ‘Lucky’ is stronger for its intricate three-guitar arrangement and its soaring chorus, but ‘Electioneering’ is a searing slab of power-chord moshing all the same.
‘Climbing Up the Walls’ is a tingling creeper with a huge, reverb-heavy drum sound and processed vocals. It sounds like a man in a straitjacket on a conveyor belt contemplating the void as an atonal string section snarls in his ears. Drawn from Yorke’s time as an orderly in a mental hospital, the track dissolves when Yorke descends into electronic screaming while Jonny Greenwood summons the forces of static hell.
‘No Surprises’ is a one-take wonder, a deceptively gentle “nursery rhyme” about suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning. A glockenspiel plays in tandem with a half-time guitar, masking the lyrics’ unrelenting grimness. As depicted in Meeting People is Easy, the band’s tortured document of the OK Computer tour, Sky News’ reaction to the video (featuring Yorke being submerged in water for over a minute) reflects our own. But it’s all so soothing and, inexplicably, uplifting that we don’t really notice.
Finally, there’s ‘The Tourist’ – for my money, the best track on the album and one of the band’s finest. ‘The Tourist’ is the sound of exhaustion, full of aural space. While every other song has something constantly going on, here notes linger for seconds that seem to stretch; it allows for reflection on what has previously passed. It even takes on a confessional tack, with Yorke candidly admitting, “Sometimes I get overcharged / That’s when you see sparks.” A wave of arpeggi concludes the track, as Selway’s muted drums give way to the ring of a small bell that sounds awfully like the ‘ping’ of a microwave.
Though not in itself a concept album – a claim the band have all vigorously denied – the tracks all speak to a detachment from the modern world. The preoccupation with technology, corporate mechanisms and societal malaise at the heart of these songs, with acoustic instruments often being overwhelmed by the electric, speaks to the tensions mounting at the turn of coming millennium. OK Computer, now 18 years old, cut through the cringing optimism espoused by Cool Britannia, speaking to a generation that wasn’t sure what lay around the corner. In that sense, at least, nothing’s changed.