Welcome to the Machine
It's your favourite album since Q began... but what inspired Radiohead's astonishing OK Computer?
129. Amnesiac - Radiohead
Kid A Part Two, but with more guitar. Still mesmerising.
23. In Rainbows - Radiohead
No matter whether you paid pounds, pennies or absolutely nothing for the album on its initial digital release via Radiohead’s website (or waited for the physical versions), In Rainbows quickly revealed itself to be the band’s most tune-friendly release since OK Computer. The sonic innovation remained intact, but the glorious melodies had returned; as heard in the soaring beauty of Nude, the spiraling surrealism of Weird Fishes/Arpeggi and the brooding House of Cards. Ultimately, In Rainbows was the sound of Thom York falling back in love with the song.
KEY TRACK: Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
18. Kid A
Even now, the bravery of following 1997’s all-conquering OK Computer with what was effectively a Krautrock album with added beats and lyrical paranoia still staggers. That the same album entered the British and American charts at Number 1 continues to raise a smile. Yet for all its complete lack of compromise, Kid A packs a mighty and timeless punch, be it on the lavishly layered How To Disappear Completely, the title track’s distorted electronica or Optimistic, the closest Kid A actually came to conventional pop song. Challenging, but rewarding.
KEY TRACK: How To Disappear Completely
01. OK Computer
Radiohead’s third album was blessed (or maybe cursed) with capturing a cultural mood. It came out just as the internet, globalization and 24-hour news were reshaping the way people consumed information, and spoke to people who felt both fascinated and overwhelmed by the process. As Thom Yorke sings on Paranoid Android, “Please could you stop the noise, I’m trying to get some rest.”.
KEY TRACK: Paranoid Android
Song by song: the music, movies, books, ideas and life experiences that helped make Radiohead’s OK Computer the Q readers’ greatest album of the last 25 years.
Like Lucky, another rare moment of ascendance, Airbag is about emerging from a near-death experience feeling superhuman, and establishes OK Computer’s ambivalence towards the modern world. Yorke’s mortal dread (“Every time I get in my car I have to say to myself that I might never get out again,” he admitted) is offset by stunned wonder. One kind of technology kills; another saves. Phil Selway’s electronically manipulated drums and Colin Greenwood‘s stop-start bass homaged the ﬁdgety loops of DJ Shadow, while Ed O’Brien’s monstrous, slow-moving guitar riff was designed to sound “like a car accident".
Confronted with six-and-half-minutes of music constructed from four separate units (its original live incarnation was over 10 minutes), many listeners to OK Cornputer’s ﬁrst single thought of Bohemian Rhapsody, but a more revealing touchstone was The Beatle’s A Day In The Life. “This changing quickly, quite violent mood swings,” enthused Yorke. “I like the way Lennon reports that song as a witness. A lot of [OK Computer] was that approach.” Needing a less personal lyric- writing strategy after The Bends, Yorke remember his time at Exeter University, when he produced an art show based on photocopies of his sketchbooks. He ﬁlled a series of notebooks with fragmentary thoughts, observations and images that he called “Polaroids in my head".
Paranoid Android is a collage of threats, pleas, fantasies, nightmares and snatches of dialogue. The “kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy” was a cocaine-crazed woman Yorke Saw in a Los Angeles bar, while the theme of imperial collapse came from a friend in New York and Philip K Dick’s sci-fi novel VALIS. “America is at the point where the Roman Empire was just before it collapsed," he said ominously. “Everywhere, the place is about to go like that.” Lest we forget, it’s named after a character from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. “What liberates Paranoid Android is a sense of humour,” said Yorke. “The bleakest things can be said with jokes.”
Subterranean Homesick Alien
Recorded during the initial album sessions in rural Oxfordshire in early 1996, this rippling, Dylan-misquoting song mocked the millennial obsession with UFOs, as popularised by The X-Files, and recalled a school essay assignment to imagine how Oxford might appear to a recently arrived extraterrestrial. Here, Yorke’s stressed narrator (the song was originally called Uptight) fantasises about being abducted. The singer conceived the song while listening to Miles Davis’s unnerving jazz-fusion masterpiece Bitches Brew in his car. “It’s got this incredibly dense and terrifying sound to it,” Yorke said of Davis’s album. “That was the sound in my head.”
Exit Music (For a Film)
This morbid ballad was written for Baz Luhrrnann’s 1996 movie Romeo + Juliet. As a 13-year-old Yorke had been moved to tears by Franco Zefﬁrelli’s 1968 adaptation, and he calls this “a song written for two people who should run away before all the bad stuff starts.” The description of the double suicide as “everlasting peace” puts a sinister spin on OK Computer’s frequent demands for quiet. The stark intimacy of the opening minute was modelled on Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, while the rest of the band’s stormy arrival nodded to Portishead. It was recorded on a stone staircase at St Catherine's Court, the Tudor manor house near Bath where they relocated in September 1996. Yorke called this song “the ﬁrst performance we'd ever recorded where every note of it made my head spin.”
On one occasion that he was asked what Let Down was about, Yorke simply quoted the Raymond Carver poem Quiet Nights. Elsewhere, he describes it as expressing both “an enormous fear of being trapped” and the suspicion that “every emotion is fake”, while guitarist Jonny Greenwood related it to the disconnected feeling he got from being on tour. The lyrics are certainly forlorn, but the album’s lushest, most enveloping production (“A nod to Phil Spector,” thought O’Brien) forges reassurance from disappointment - a beautiful cocoon. It was recorded in the ballroom of St Catherine’s Court at night.
“The voices on Karma Police, Paranoid Android and Climbing Up The Walls are all different personas,” explained Yorke. On this A Day In The Life-indebted song he inhabits the role once assigned to his Elvis Costello, that of the “avenging dork”, consumed by thoughts of righteous retribution When the tension breaks, he is suddenly transported (“Phew, for a minute there I lost myself”) but in what direction is unsure transcendence or collapse? It is the album’s most soaring moment; the title came from a joke about calling the “karma police” to punish people who had done Radiohead wrong.
Yorke described this eerie experiment as “the most upsetting thing I've ever written.” While suffering writer’s block, his list-making went into overdrive, and his obsessive collation of verbal debris found its purest expression in this deadpan catalogue of prescriptions for a happy life. Several phrases were plucked from self-help books, while the image of “a pig in a cage on antibiotics” came from the political black comedy novel, Jonathan Coe’s What A Carve Up! Aware that the merest ﬂicker of emotion would capsize the track, Yorke typed it into his Mac. “I crept upstairs and did this in 10 minutes,” he said. “I was feeling incredible hysteria and panic, and it was so liberating to give the lyrics to this neutral-sounding computer.”
Aka The Noisy, Political One. Already a fan of left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky, Yorke was now devouring texts such as economist Will Hutton’s The State We’re In and Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s Age Of Extremes, and raging at MPs on the television: “There’s been a lot of looking at headlines and feeling wildly impotent.” But he found it difﬁcult to put his politics into a song, but OK Computers lyrical bric-a-brac offered a way forward. “What can you say about the IMF [International Monetary Fund] or politicians?” he asked. “You just write down ‘cattle prods and the IMF’ and people who know, know.” Yorke said the songs violence drew on memories of the 1990 Poll Tax riots, while the vicious guitar echoes Elvis Costello’s Tokyo Storm Warning.
Climbing up the Walls
While working part-time in a mental hospital as a student, Yorke became concerned about the consequences of the Conservative government’s “care in the community’ policy. “It was one of the scariest things that ever happened in this country, because a lot of them weren’t harmless,” he said, connecting this with a statistic about serial killers he found in Eric Hobsbawm’s book. Haunted by madness, scarred by distortion and radio noise, and ﬁnished off with the nerve-jangling shriek of 16 violins (Jonny Greenwood’s homage to Penderecki), this is OK Computer’s most chilling song.
No Surprises was not just the ﬁrst song Radiohead recorded at the Oxfordshire sessions, but the very ﬁrst take. Deceptively straightforward, it might be the key to OK Computer's divided soul. It’s tempting to hear it as a parody of bland suburban conformity, but die sincere desire for “a quiet life” runs throughout the record. Then there’s the open question of whether the carbon monoxide handshake and “silence, silence” point towards suicide. The inﬂuences on O’Brien’s childlike guitar and Jonny Greenwood’s glockenspiel are Pet Sounds, Marvin Gaye and Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World. I It’s an adult lullaby, as tender or as taunting as you want it to be.
In a sense, it all began here. In 1995, the War Child charity asked Radiohead to contribute to its Help album. Every contributor had to record their song on the same day, Monday, 4 September, so many of them chose cover versions but Radiohead chanced an entirely new song, with Nigel Godrich as sole producer for the ﬁrst time, and nailed it in just ﬁve hours. The line about the head of state is the sole survivor from Yorke’s original lyric. “There’s a lot of strength in just omitting a lot of things,” he said. “Lucky was pages and pages of notes. It was all bollocks, trying to be really political and in the end it wasn’t.”
After mixing concluded in February 1997, Yorke spent an insomniac fortnight juggling the running order on his MiniDisc player, until he realised there was only one way to conclude it. “A lot of the album was about background noise and everything moving too fast,” said Yorke. “That song was written to me, from me, saying, Idiot slow down. That was the only resolution there could be.” Greenwood’s waltz-time music put Yorke in mind of a sunny day he’d spent in France, watching American tourists dashing around, and an old man he had seen on TV talking about how the world had got too hectic for him.
DJ Shadow Endtroducing [MO’WAX, 1996]. Sample-obsessed Californian producer Josh Davis supported Radiohead on the OK Computer tour and worked with Yorke on UNKLE’s Rabbit In Your Headlights.
JONNY GREENWOOD: “Airbag is a classic example of Colin and Phil saying, Let’s make it sound like DJ Shadow, but unfortunately – or fortunately – it doesn’t."
The Bealtes A Day In The Life [Parlophone, 1967]. Lennon and McCartney’s split-personality masterpiece refracts newspaper headlines through the prism of LSD.
THOM YORKE: “Lennon was obviously stuck and said, I’m going to write a song becayse I’ve got to get this down, and it’s everything that he didn’t say by doing that. That was what I dreamt of doing on this record.”
Philip K Dick VALIS [BANTAM BOOKS, 1981]. VALIS (Vast Acitve living Intelligence System) was the last major book by science-fiction hero Philip K Dick (1928-1982).
THOM YORKE: “The main character sees California superimposed with the Roman Empire."
Miles Davis Bitches Brew [Columbia, 1970]. With its fusion of jazz, rock and funk, and radical use of tape editing, Davis’s challenging double album was a landmark in experimental music.
YORKE: “It was building something up and watching it fall apart, that’s the beauty of it. It was at the core of what we were trying to do with OK Computer.”
Romeo & Juliet [DIR: FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI, 1968] Yorke may have written Exit Music (For a Film) for Baz Luhrmann but he had Zeffirelli’s more traditional version in mind.
YORKE: “That was the most influential film of my early teenage years… I was totally in love with Juliet in that movie – Olivia Hussey. It just never made sense that Romeo was such a wet bastard."
Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison [COLUMBIA, 1968]. Cash’s legendary January 1968 performance to inmates at a Californian jail revived his faltering career.
YORKE: “I hate live albums but I get tingles every time I play that… The songs are so powerful in that environment with the prisoners there, whooping and laughing."
Elvis Costello Tokyo Storm Warning [DEMON, 1986]. From one of Yorke’s favourite albums, Blood & Chocolate, this foaming, imagistic torrent anticipates OK Computer’s “Polaroid” lyric-writing.
YORKE: "Gibberish! Complete fucking gibberish! And it’s just wondrous... Because it’s the way human brains think."
Jonathan Coe What A Carve Up! [VIKING, 1994.] A furious, satirical attack on Thatcherite greed. The chapter about farmer Dorothy Winshaw’s genetically modified pork fed into Fitter Happier.
YORKE: “It’s a really funny book."
Eric Hodsbawm Age Of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century [MICHAEL JOSEPH, 1994.] An expansive gloomy history of the century, concluding with the “global fog” of the ‘90s. Hobsbawm’s use of a 1991 New York Times article, Experts Explore Rise In Mass Murder, influenced Climbing Up The Walls.
YORKE: “A lot of things I write are triggered by books."
Krzysztof Penderecki Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima  Penderecki was just 27 when he composed this radical piece for 52 strings.
JONNY GREENWOOD: “He produced amazing sounds with old technology – an orchestra.”
Explaining why he invited his old Exeter University friend Stanley Donwood to keep a visual diary of the recording sessions, Yorke said: “If I’m shown some kind of visual representation of the music, only then do I feel confident. Up until that point, I’m a bit of a whirlwind.” Donwood’s artwork reflected and amplified the record’s theme of “background noise” and “mental chatter”. He layered photos, diagrams, lyrics and doodles, then scrubbed some out, like redacted data. Yorke saw it as “all the things that I hadn’t said in the songs”.