The first great album released in UNCUT’s lifetime, OK Computer was uncompromising, startlingly adventurous and sent Radiohead into another dimension, both creatively and commercially. We tell the inside story of an experimental rock blockbuster
IT WAS THE wettest June for 118 years. Wimbledon tennis and Ashes cricket were decimated by thunderstorms. The Met Office had picked up a deep depression hovering over south-east England, winds swirling anticlockwise. Rivers in several counties were on flood alert. The 1997 Glastonbury Festival site, police warned ticket-holders, was “a field of soup”.
Let it be said in retrospect – there’s something deliciously appropriate about OK Computer being released in a country suffering its most biblical June rainfall since the 19th century. As Oxford teenagers, Radiohead had played Joy Division records at parties to watch the dancefloor clear. Now, on their third album, their guitars created atmospheres of consummate foreboding, while Thom Yorke’s stricken wail described a daily planet losing its way in political corruption, creeping nausea, spiralling panic, crippling stress, non-reversible impotence and despair.
...was a weltschmerz masterpiece; a sci-fi song cycle for the fractured generation; a magisterial pre-millennial warning siren. The steps made since Radiohead’s previous album, The Bends, had been giant. Compositional structures on OK Computer were intricate, multi-tiered, outlandish. However one interpreted the message, the music was compulsively listenable. Many hailed it as a 21st-century rock’n’roll blueprint.
“It’s one of those albums that, as a fellow musician, you’re jealous of,” says Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers. “You hear a record. It comes on and you think: ‘Those bastards, they’ve upped the ante...’ The quality of the lyrics is stunning. OK Computer checks your step and you want to listen to it again because there’s lots there.”
Radiohead’s combination of artistry and industry made virtually every second of the album’s 53 minutes count. Jonny Greenwood’s futuristic guitar sounds astonished everyone from Slash to The Divine Comedy. The last truly experimental rock release to be embraced by a worldwide audience of millions, OK Computer threw down the gauntlet to the next wave.
“For my generation, it’s the complete album in all respects,” acknowledges Keane’s singer Tom Chaplin, an 18-year-old Sussex school-leaver at the time. “Musically, lyrically, the production, the performances, even the concept is far-reaching. It’s the sound of a band completely on top of their game. Every aspect of the record is brilliantly done.”
OK Computer’s immense bandwidth is built on supernatural landscapes, beautifully judged surprises, incongruous juxtapositions, omens and portents. Radiohead have been criticised for their gloomy prognoses of humanity’s inexorable meltdown, but 10 years later, OK Computer seems all the wiser for not being suckered into fashionable optimism. The distress in Thom Yorke’s lyrics was – to say the least – emotionally at odds with 1997’s widespread feelings of hope and renewal. On May 1, the night that Tony Blair’s reinvented Labour Party swept into Downing Street on a landslide, playwright Colin Welland spoke to reporters at a champagne-fuelled celebration in London. This is how he crystallised the new utopian Britain: “I’m going to be able to pick up my four-year-old grandson tomorrow and tell him he’s got a future.” It was a fresh start for Britain. Wasn’t it?
To contextualise OK Computer in 1997, we need to trip back to 1995, a year that Radiohead spent relentlessly promoting The Bends. They toured from February to December, making two circuits of Britain, one visit to Japan, three to mainland Europe and five to America. Radiohead talked openly of feeling disorientated and dehumanised by these long periods in transit. A quintet of self-confessed neurotics, they were a curious bunch. They shared considerable history (they were into their second decade together, having met as pupils of Abingdon School in the early ‘80s), but had a reputation for not enjoying their jobs much. After success in the States with the 1993 hit “Creep”, they’d experienced reduced fortunes through ‘94, and hadn’t quite convinced anyone by ‘95 that their international breakthrough was a sure-fire certainty. The Bends, a word-of-mouth slow-burner, would take a full year to rack up significant sales.
The ‘95 Radiohead tours became notable for panic attacks and furious outbursts from frontman/songwriter Thom Yorke. An unpredictable depressive with a short fuse, Yorke’s lyrics for The Bends positively writhed with anguish. He clearly had difficulty tolerating ‘phoney’ situations. An eyewitness relates the aftermath of an in-store appearance in Toronto: “Eventually, Thom was led to the autograph table where he took a seat and started signing for fans. He wouldn’t look them in the eye or speak to any of them. He just sat there softly sobbing while signing his name.”
Although The Bends dominated Radiohead’s setlists in’95, Yorke gradually introduced new material. “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and “Lucky” were in the set by July. “No Surprises” debuted in December.
The other band members detected a move away from snarling solipsism in these new songs: Yorke was using character and storyline to paint pictures of alien abduction, joyless suburban ritual, and more. “Thom was trying to get away from so much intense personal examination,” bassist Colin Greenwood explained, “and trying just to open up the horizons a little bit, saying there’s a world outside what I’ve done before and I’m aware of this.”
If Yorke had “sorted the internal stuff out”, as he later put it, what was he to write about now? One answer lay in the books he was assimilating. Written in 1995 by the economics editor of The Guardian, Will Hutton’s The State We’re In contained passages that would depress anybody (let alone a highly-strung rock star) and provided stark illustration of Britain’s predicaments in the ‘80s and ‘90s, from the decline in social housing to the inexorable rise of BSkyB. The reader’s conscience was pricked by the iniquities of income distribution and rampant elitism – particularly if, like Yorke, he was the product of a privileged education at an exclusive school. Hutton accused the Conservative establishment of “arrogant executive discretion, official secrecy, centralisation of power and lack of engagement with the multiplicity of concerns and groups that make up civil society”. And unless Britain’s entire economic framework was rebuilt from scratch, he warned, voting for a Labour government at the next election would be as good as useless.
In September ‘95, Radiohead and engineer Nigel Godrich pulled off a magnificent recording of “Lucky” for the all-star War Child charity album, Help. Reviews raved about Yorke’s penetrating vocal and the band’s dramatic triptych of guitars, which Godrich had strategically positioned across the stereo mix like battalions on hillsides. Parlophone, Radiohead’s record label since 1992, agreed to let them work on a new album with Godrich as engineer/co-producer, and sanctioned an open-ended deadline and a substantial budget for good measure. “Lucky” had obviously got expectations running high: this was largesse that many bands fantasise about.
“The important thing for us on this record was that we produce it ourselves,” Colin Greenwood later reasoned. “We had to learn how to make decisions among the six of us.” Having found recording studios to be “quite scientific and clinical” places in the past, they instead asked Godrich to build a mobile studio to his own specifications (and with Parlophone’s money) and ship it into the band’s rehearsal space, a converted apple shed in the Oxfordshire countryside which they called Canned Applause. “No Surprises” was the first track they attempted. Yorke described it as a song about “someone who’s trying hard to keep it together but can’t”.
The Canned Applause sessions yielded four songs in all. But it’s an indication of Radiohead’s stature in ’96 (i.e. not as big as people thought it should be) that they were obliged to break off from recording in order to promote The Bends yet again in America. Their US label, Capitol, had a vested interest in what they were getting up to at Canned Applause, apparently envisaging momentum from The Bends driving sales of the follow-up towards two million and beyond. (Yorke has since implied that Capitol were anticipating OK Computer sounding like The Joshua Tree,) But at least touring allowed Radiohead to road-test the new songs. One of these was called “Electioneering”.
Yorke: “It was about impotence, basically, about that feeling you have when you put down a book or see a programme on television that makes you really upset and violent. And there’s no way of expressing that violence... I had this fascination when I was doing the album. One of the things we were aware of for the first time was the idea that this is actually viewed in the high street, in the marketplace. I suppose that was kind of obvious to the Manics, but I hadn’t read the same books as them at that point, and part of the way that work was written was a response to that – to the idea that in your average high street we have a little 12 centimetre by 12 centimetre corner of our own. And that’s really fucking exciting because you get to say the things you really want to say, and people might actually respond.”
“I will stop at nothing/Say the right things/When electioneering,” Yorke claims to have written these lyrics about the Tories, but it’s funny what six weeks as Labour Prime Minister can do. By June the following year, when OK Computer hit the streets, mutterings of discontent were being heard from backbench MPs about Tony Blair’s habit of taking executive decisions without consulting Parliament. His welfare-to-work reforms, meanwhile, drew gasps of dismay for their threat to withdraw benefits from single mothers who refused to participate in the Government’s “new bargain”. Surely that hadn’t been in the manifesto? “I trust I can rely on your vote,” Yorke’s canvassing assassin smiled coyly from his podium.
On returning from a second US tour in August ‘96 (supporting Alanis Morissette), Radiohead vacated Canned Applause and swung to the other end of the luxury pendulum. They rented St Catherine’s Court, an Elizabethan stately home near Bath owned by the actress Jane Seymour, and moved their equipment into her opulent rooms. “We set up in the ballroom,” recalled Colin Greenwood, “and the control room was set up in the library, which had these amazing views over the gardens. There were some magical evenings as we sat down with pieces of music with the windows open.” Radiohead spent two months recording there. “It was in the middle of nowhere,” Yorke remembered, “So when we actually stopped playing music, there was just this pure silence. Open the window: nothing. A completely unnatural silence – not even birds singing. It was fucking horrible.”
A six-minute revolution in four movements, with violently contorted guitar solos and a monk-like chorale in the middle, “Paranoid Android”, released as a single on May 26, was a breathtaking pointer towards what OK Computer might consist of.
Colin Greenwood: “It was like you produce a weird thing first, like giving them a little summary of the menu before the full meal turns up. So they’ve got their digestive juices ready for what’s going to come down.”
Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy was sitting in a car in Islington the night Radio 1 played “Paranoid Android” for the first time, “I remember it just kept going on... and on... and on,” Hannon laughs. “I was thinking: ‘This is fantastic!’ It was like absolutely nothing I’d ever heard. It was like a moment in history.”
When advance copies of the album began circulating on cassette, reactions were ecstatic. The three-guitar indie-rock band of 1993-’94 were now hunched over Mellotrons, tinkling on glockenspiels, sawing away at violins and rhapsodising on electric pianos that shimmered like a sunset on a lake. The Radiohead-Godrich production blended exquisitely clear tones with hellish paroxysms of distortion and chaos. Yorke’s singing was superlative: the frightened falsetto whimper, the slurred moan, the guttural imprecation, the howl. OK Computer was the most talked about album in months.
“It’s a guitar band that sounds really happening, but without resorting to rock’n’roll-isms,” remarks Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. “A lot of my friends would say OK Computer was the commercial version of 10 things that were happening [underground] around the world. But you absorb something and make it your own. You absorb something from the climate. Some people really nail that, and it speaks to a million people, and Radiohead did that with OK Computer.”
Hannon, who worked with Godrich three years later, was just one guitarist mystified by the sounds that Radiohead had obtained: “There’s a moment on ‘Airbag’ where it starts into Jonny’s solo, and then it sounds like the machine is melting. I listen to that now, with experience of Nigel’s work, and I know that it’s tape delays being messed with, and octave pedals being jumped at peculiar times. But back then, I had no idea how they got that sound – no idea at all.” An impressed Slash would later comment: “I haven’t heard guitar sounds like that in God knows how long.”
OK Computer was enormously popular. And yet, like polite mountaineers who have accidentally scaled Everest, Radiohead declined to accept that they had done anything remarkable, happy to reveal a few sources of inspiration (DJ Shadow, Miles Davis, Krzysztof Penderecki) while dodging the odd unwelcome comparison (Pink Floyd).
Josh Davis (aka DJ Shadow) had being enjoying acclaim for his 1996 debut album, Endtroducing... Davis admired OK Computer artistically, then fell in love with it when he supported Radiohead on touring ‘97. He felt he understood its themes of helplessness and alienation. These were themes amplified by the album’s spectral artwork, which hinted at profound disquiet without actually identifying the terror. The key phrase on the cover said “Lost Child”, but the booklet’s pages offered plenty for the reader to think about: bizarre scrawls and doodles; a smiley logo from a Mexican fritos brand; random words in Esperanto; patronising health-and-safety instructions in English and Greek. The non-sequiturs created an effect akin to being lifestyle-coached by a lunatic.
“I was born and raised in Silicon Valley,” Josh Davis explains. “The amount of marketing that’s thrown at us herein the Bay Area is more intense than anybody realises. We’re the testing ground for every new internet whatsit that comes down the pipe. OK Computer definitely foreshadowed a feeling that I was having towards the end of the dotcom boom, right before the crash. I was feeling stretched thin, like I was living in a test tube. The amount of advertising and marketing – all these things that we were supposed to be investing ourselves in – was really getting exhausting.”
Some commentators have attributed OK Computer’s sense of dread – and indeed its title – to technophobia on Yorke’s part. In reality, Yorke seems not in the least a technophobe (remember Kid A!) – more like a technophile with ethical reservations. He freely conceded that OK Computer was an LP of its time.
“I think the millennium’s got a lot to do with it,” he said in ‘97. “Nowhere is it mentioned on the LP, as it’s unnecessary to mention it, but it affects everything that everybody does at the moment.”
“I think a lot of his predictions on that record have come true to a certain degree,” reckons Tom Chaplin. “Most people were just beginning to get their first mobile phones around that time. And have a computer at home, and the internet was taking off. There was a huge world of global communication and technology that had never been explored before. And while that was very exciting, for a lot of people it was also very scary. You had this idea that, come 2000, all the computers were going to break and it was going to set off nuclear bombs in the power stations.”
Some media buzzwords from 1997 endure to this day: alcopops, road rage, asylum seekers, fat cat salaries. Others have passed into disuse: Tamagotchi, Nintendo 64, Swiss Nazi gold. Like road rage, OK Computer is clearly with us forever: it came first in Channe1 4’s 100 Greatest Albums poll as recently as 2005. But its precise legacy is harder to determine. Musicians love it. But did any of them really pick up that gauntlet?
Radiohead influence numerous bands for sure, and Yorke unintentionally popularised the concept of the sensitive young cherub emoting dejectedly with liberal use of falsetto (what Nicky Wire calls “Snow Patrol syndrome”). But despite Coldplay’s Chris Martin declaring that OK Computer changed his life (“That album is fucking brilliant,” he told The Guardian), it’s likelier that Radiohead’s ballads on The Bends (“High And Dry”, “Fake Plastic Trees”, “Street Spirit [Fade Out]”) have proved the real inspiration for the Coldplay brigade, rather than twisted psycho fests like “Paranoid Android” and “Climbing Up The Walls”. Of the 12 tracks on OK Computer, only “No Surprises”, “Let Down” and “Karma Police” are sonically similar to the commercial guitar pop we grimly retune our morning radios to avoid. Is it any coincidence they’re the three easiest to play?
Josh Davis (DJ Shadow), “A lot of people have taken OK Computer and said, ‘This is the yardstick. If I can attain something half as good, I’m doing pretty well.’ But I’ve never heard anything really derivative of OK Computer – which is interesting, as it shows that what Radiohead were doing was probably even more complicated than it seemed.”
The populist albums of the post-OK Computer era – The Verve’s Urban Hymns, Travis’s Good Feeling, Stereophonics’ Word Gets Around, Robbie Williams’ Life Thru A Lens – effectively closed the door that OK Computer’s boffin-esque inventiveness had opened, and none of them had much to say about pre-millennial anxiety. A nation stunned by the death of Princess Di wanted songs with reassuring chord progressions, anthemic choruses to lift the spirits, and no alarms and no surprises.
Figures released in Apri12006 revealed that OK Computer had exceeded three million sales in Britain and Europe. It was certified double platinum that same month in America, having sold over two million copies. Not bad going for a piece of art that brooks no compromise and demands the listener’s full attention.
Radiohead have never escaped its shadow, you could argue, even if the music they’ve made since has been intrepid, often savagely angry. And sometimes exceptionally exciting. While passionate fanbases exist for their last three albums (Kid A, Amnesiac, HaiI To The Thief), Radiohead can never recreate – and nor would they ever wish to – the mood we felt in the air when the skies darkened and the rains started falling, and OK Computer made some inexplicable sense of it all.
It’s just a pity it didn’t trigger the golden age it should have. And that OK Computer was the last album of its kind, not the first.
REVOLUTION IN THE ‘HEAD
The two-year story of how OK Computer was made
1995: April 4
“Subterranean Homesick Alien” receives its debut performance on Santa Monica radio station KCRW. “Lucky” performed for first time on Atlanta station 99X four days later.
Thom Yorke plays new song ”No Surprises” in Radiohead’s dressing room at the Spektrum venue in Oslo. Where the band are supporting R.E.M.
“Lucky”, recorded and mixed in a five-hour session, for release on the War Child charity album, Help.
“No Surprises” is performed live for the first time at the Paradiso club in Amsterdam.
With Nigel Godrich as engineer/co-producer, writing and rehearsing begins at Canned Applause, a converted apple shed in rural Oxfordshire.
“Electioneering” first played live at the Troubadour, Los Angeles, as Radiohead spend much of March and April touring America.
Work resumes at Canned Applause.
“An Airbag Saved My Life” (later abbreviated to “Airbag”) performed like at Bataclan, Paris.
“Paranoid Android” performed live at the Torhout Festival, Belgium.
“Let Down” performed live at the Olympia, Dublin.
Radiohead play US dates supporting Alanis Morissette, where they unveil “Karma Police” and “Climbing Up The Walls”.
Radiohead and Godrich move into St Catherine’s Court, where they record for two months. Album now has a working title of Ones And Zeroes.
The 14 finished songs for the album are mixed at London’s Abbey Road.
Now mastered, OK Computer is declared completed at 6.57pm. The time and date (18576397} appeared on the back of the artwork.
“Paranoid Android” released as a single, promoted by an animated video starring the cult animated character Robin.
OK Computer released in the UK, where It immediately tops the album charts.
Radiohead, blighted by technical problems, play the sodden soup of mud that was Glastonbury Festival ‘97.
A user’s guide to OK Computer
Ominous prog-rock meets DJ Shadow in this surreal tale of surviving a high-speed car crash.
2 PARANOID ANDROID
A seething indictment of capitalism’s dark underbelly, structured like “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
3 SUBTERRANEAN HOMESICK ALIEN
OK Computer’s most majestic guitars accompany Thom Yorke’s plea to be rescued by a spaceship.
4 EXIT MUSIC (FOR A FILM)
Written for the closing credits of Romeo + Juliet, a venomous goodbye song – or is it a suicide note?
5 LET DOWN
Never has a feeling of utter deflation sounded so infectious. A timeless ballad.
6 KARMA POLICE
Society as the worst backstage party of all time. The album’s key Beatleseque moment.
7 FITTER HAPPIER
A computerised voice intones an inventory of self-improvement tips – achingly sad.
Vicious rocker railing against a monster on the campaign trail.
9 CLIMBING UP THE WALLS
Yorke gets inside the head of a schizophrenic about to kill.
10 NO SURPRISES
The ennui of the working week, the infinite sadness at the heart of suburbia.
Cause for hope? A plane crash victim is pulled out of a lake – alive.
12 THE TOURIST
The spacy finale: we’re coming into land.
10 FACTS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT OK COMPUTER
1 When Radiohead’s US record label first heard OK Computer they downgraded projected sales from two million to 500,000. It has since sold more than 10 times that amount.
2 “Paranoid Android” is a phrase originally used to describe Marvin, the depressed robot in Douglas Adams’ cult novel, radio and TV series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. The line “OK Computer” is delivered in Hitchhiker by Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed former president of the galaxy.
3 Early working titles for the LP included “Ones And Zeroes” and “Palo Alto”. The latter became a track on the “Airbag” EP.
4 The Esperanto phrases on the OK Computer and “Paranoid Android” artwork roughly translate as “dangerous neighbourhood”, “syringe”, “killing time”, “symbol”, “defeatism” and “making enemies”.
5 “Exit Music (For A Film)” commissioned for Baz Uhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Yorke initially tried to include chunks of original Shakespearean dialogue.
6 “Subterranean Homesick Alien” is partly based on one of Yorke’s old school essays.
7 An early version of “No Surprises” entitled “No Surprises Please” featured more personal lyrics about a man arguing with his girlfriend.
8 Inspired by a car accident that left Yorke’s girlfriend with whiplash, “Airbag” was originally called “Last Night An Airbag Saved My Life”.
9 The final line in “Fitter, Happier” (“A pig in a cage on antibiotics”) was adapted from an image in Jonathan Coe’s novel What A Carve Up! The track wrongly credits a dialogue loop to Flight Of The Condor, but is actually taken from the film Three Days Of The Condor.
10 Ambitious plans for Massive Attack to remix the whole of OK Computer, and Radiohead to produce short films for every track on the album, were eventually shelved.