Radiohead, Ok Computer, 1997

It’s been a while since I gave this a serious play. I picked up a vinyl copy in 2008. Hardly play it these days, and I’m now strongly aware of the datedness of this record. Not so much in sound or content, but its place in history, its pre-millenial nerve and its articulation of the way information technology has merged irreversibly with our lives. It doesn’t sound all that old yet, but it probably will one day. That whole audiophile criticism against its ‘poor’ production is an interesting thorn. There is a certain sterility about the production but these things are surely deliberate, no? Its lyrical concerns also, to a certain extent, may date it. Perhaps that’s what they wanted. It may date, but it will remain firmly fixed in its place, a solid unmovable behemoth of an album that none of us who swooned over it in 1997 will ever forget. As time goes by, those proggy Pink Floyd comparisons will come truer too, because if I was a twelve year old discovering Ok Computer in my Dad’s collection in 2010, I may well have hated it.

Despite all that, the effect this album had on me when it came out was far too great to dismiss. These creepy songs hit me like a shock to the soul courtesy of its discomforting soundscapes. And Thom Yorke’s way with a vocal chord is nothing short of amazing. In my mind, Ok Computer always had one big secret up its sleeve – that mellotron used to such wondrous but subtle effect. That to my ears, was one of Ok Computer‘s defining features. So why is it that I rarely play this album any more?  I know its partly because I’ve played it to death, but also partly because of that datedness I’ve been talking about. It’s no longer all that relevant, which reflects its status as a kind of historical document. Like The Cure’s Disintegration, Ok Computer is an album defined by its original format: CD. Double vinyl just breaks up the flow.

Airbagahh, as soon as I hear this song kick things into gear the whole atmosphere of May/Jun 97 floods my brain. I have to admit to no longer feeling that whack of excitement, that visceral thrill this song used to give me, knowing that I was in for 60 odd minutes of something that felt so important and defining of the times, something I was discovering alone, in my apartment, post-serious relationship breakup. Cool bass line by the way. And the instrumental break is so very … very … alien, weird, underwaterishly effective, DJ-Shadow influenced drumbeat hip. “I’m back to save the universe” – what a line. Listening to this closely, I’m quite taken with how weird this song is, how jittery and effects laden it is, how stop/start the bass and drums are, how dance-music influenced it really is — something I’d just always taken for granted.

Paranoid Android… please you could stop that noise, I’m trying to get some rest. How do we spell ‘chikken’? With two k’s. While Thom’s singing “what’s that?” a subliminal voice is saying something like “are you paranoid? paranoid android?” Those voices make the song, and its strange how reviews never mention them, but they’re clearly audible. The song soon does its first about-face and kicks into phase two; “kicking screaming gucci little piggy.”  Man, this song is jampacked with effects too. Really, so much freaky stuff going on here, extra-musical stuff that makes this more than just songs. They’re mini operatic productions; “Rain down on me, from a great height.” These lines used to send shivers up my spine. Sorry to say they’re not having half that effect on me right now. It doesn’t sound anywhere near as mind-blowing as it did to me when I was 29. But I’m far more aware right now of all the … the bitses and pieces of sonic flotsam going down, the sheer restlessness of five artists who can’t just let the song do its thing. Something about short attention spans informs this song. How about those spacey laser beam guitars near the end’s big freakout breakdown?  Freaky man.

Subterranean Homesick Alien… I have to say, it’s very clear to me now why this album was so unique. It’s not just the mellotron. It’s the constant use of unusual sounds embedded in the background. This song is full of them. The fact that this is a great song notwithstanding, but lyrically it evokes something pretty dismal. Yorke sounds completely dissociated here. Utterly disconnected. Lonely. The sound is all geared to making you really believe he is in a spaceship skimming over the English countryside, over the cities, leaving the world behind. Brilliantly downcast.

Exit Music (for a film)low acoustic guitar strum, no effects, except the ghostly vocal. The mood continues from the previous song, but takes it down a notch into reality, as if he’s just woken up from a dream and had to face some hard truths. “Breathe, keep breathing,” and the mellotron hums away like a choir of sad angels. This works as a particular juncture in the album, a mainstay of the mood, a critical piece of architecture in the album’s overall design. Song then builds to a huge crescendo demanding “everlasting peace” which segues into “We hope / That you choke / That you choke.” Not the nicest of sentiments being expressed, quietly creepy and negative. Weird washes of radio static fill in the background.

Let Down… when this song starts it practically glitters like emeralds and diamonds, the sound of the guitars that is. It really is the shiningest star in the queen’s crown this song. It sounds upbeat and positive, thus at complete odds with its lyric. Again, the guitars are all treated to sound like long sinewy drops of electro-light in a video game. I tell you, here is yet another album that sounds better on CD. My vinyl copy is in fine fettle, but I’m not hearing this in the way that I remember it. This song tricks you halfway through as if it’s about to finish, and then it kicks into gear properly with “You know / You know where you are when…” and then builds to that lyrical highpoint we all know and love, Yorke singing with himself in multi-part angelic harmony; “One day, I am gonna grow wings / A chemical reaction / Hysterical and useless.” Still my favourite song on the album.

Karma Police…what I love about this song is how the beat and melody combine to form something seriously menacing. You really believe he is calling the karma police and they’re coming to take someone away to destroy them. “This is what you get when you mess with us.” It was easy to imagine he was referring to critics of Radiohead here, similar to that line from Paranoid Android: “When I am king you will be first against the wall.” He certainly sounds like someone you don’t wanna get on the wrong side of. Then suddenly the whole revenge thing lightens off when he starts singing “For a minute there I lost myself” and those Gregorian chant-like hums start up, and that really strange children’s choir thing goes “aah” in the background, which is not entirely unlike the effect Robert Smith uses on his voice in the title track from Disintegration. A horrible distorted breakdown thing happens at the end of this song. What a bizarre and brilliant song.

Fitter Happier… I think about here, you have to get a grasp on Thom Yorke’s acerbic sense of humour. Reading from his diary, lines like “not washing spiders down the plughole” fit well into the whole scheme. It’s impossible to imagine Ok Computer without this track, even though it can seem like an indulgence too far.

Electioneering…always hated the messy dirge of bashed drums and distorted guitars. It’s a bit too much noise compressed into a small space, making the song sound as if the musicians can’t quite keep up with the pace. Much rawer than anything else on the album, it was always the song people loved to hate when the album first came out. My theory is that the band messed it up this way on purpose to hide the fact that it was a straight ahead pop/rock song. I guess a song with a title like “Electioneering” kind of puts you off too. Why? Um, well, yeah it just does. It sounds like politics. I still find this a noisy irritation even now. Good lyric here: “You go forwards / I’ll go backwards / And somewhere we will meet.” Somehow this line single-handedly answers my criticism above about the pace and distortion, as if to say, “Don’t like it? We’ll meet you halfway.”

Climbing Up The Walls… this brings us back into the right frame of weirdness we’d left with “Karma Police.” This is another song one can imagine stems out of an infatuation with downer dance music than anything from the rock canon. Pretty creepy lyric too. Not sure if I like the treatment on Yorke’s voice. A bit too much distortion. But again, nothing here is ordinary. Everything is treated with multiple effects, and then some. That’s how they made one of the albums of the 90s. They made it sound like nothing we’ve ever heard before by combining and then twisting the effects pedal knobs into the red. Definitely a madhouse song, inspired apparently by a brief stint working in a mental hospital. Certainly does a great job of creating a schizophrenic vibe. Unsettling, like “Paranoid Android” was unsettling.

No Surprises…something quite ironic about this coming after the last song. These ding dong alarm bells sound as much like the inner workings of a mental patient as the hysteria from “Climbing Up The Walls” sounded like a mental breakdown. This sounds like Yorke has woken up after a particularly bad dream. The sentiment in the song adds to that sense of fear. It’s like “really, I mean it, no alarms and no surprises [OR I’LL GRAB MY HATCHET AND HACK YOU ALL TO PIECES…but I’m worn out, tired of it all, please just let me rest].”  The song seems relatively conventional after “Climbing Up the Walls,” and that’s its clever trick, because it’s really not. It’s cynical and bitter as all hell. No one ever quite did punk like Thom Yorke does it. He captures something anti-capitalism, anti-society in these lyrics and in the way he sings them.

Lucky… I still think Ok Computer has something in common with the Cure. Lyrically Yorke is much more literate, but the desire to alienate your unwanted audience with how weird you can be is prevalent in the same way. This song never really registered with me much. It still utilizes effects in every direction, but structurally the song reminds me more of a Bends song, even though the sounds are all Ok Computer. It was always one of my least favourites for some reason but right now I’m quite prepared to acknowledge it has a pretty good tune. It’s more the dynamics of the arrangement that annoy me.

The Tourist… between this song and “Lucky,” the album starts to falls away. The climax was Karma Police. Here’s another Bends-y type song. Given its backseat status, it was another that never entered my radar in a big way. “Hey man, slow down” – I do like that sentiment. You can picture Yorke singing this to himself in the mirror. He really makes the whole modern lifestyle sound like a gyp. I take it back, this is a great album closer and sort of wraps it up beautifully by connecting thematically to “Airbag.” Just brilliant.

This was fascinating. I’m conscious of two things. You need to play this reasonably loud to really enjoy it. It doesn’t work well at quiet volume, so reviewing at 11.30 at night while my wife was in bed wasn’t the best idea. Still sounds like a great album and no-one has matched its overall effect or captured the zeitgeist in the same way since. Despite all the Travises, Muses and Coldplays of the world, none of them used effects to the same otherwordly degree as Radiohead did. Well I suppose Muse did, but they took it too far, turned it into parody. The only thing I still don’t like about this album is the occasional crushing effect of too much disturbance compressed into too small a space. I don’t know whether it was my vinyl copy but for the first time, I definitely heard an album with a pretty messed up sound. Whether that was deliberate remains to be seen.

This is Alan Bumstead’s 2nd Favourite Album of the 90s

About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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2 Responses to Radiohead, Ok Computer, 1997

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great review. BTW, it’s best consumed via Mac’s text-to-speech function.

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