Amidst a wave of Cool Britannia, Radiohead give birth to their very own Frankenstein’s Monster
When OK Computer was released in May 1997, many critics were somewhat confused as to how to describe it. Nick Kent in Mojo Magazine said it was “not punk rock, lad rock, Britpop or grunge.” One thing’s for sure, this definitely wasn’t Blur or Oasis, more like music for manic depressives who require a diurnal dose of melancholia to get them through the day. In a nutshell, Radiohead’s third LP isn’t exactly the cheeriest of listens, which isn’t surprising, considering the group’s determination to remain on the outside of the music industry, with which they have always had something of a love-hate relationship. But it’s that very tension within themselves and the wider world which has made this Oxford quintet so unique in the first place. Unlike U2, who were clearly quite comfortable with fame from the outset, Radiohead have never been relaxed in their own skin. Too unsure, too maudlin, too political, the band seem to pride themselves on being the anti-matter to rock’s far more baryon boundaries.
On opener “Airbag” Phil Selway’s drums are spliced and sampled, while Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood’s guitars create an eerie, spooky atmosphere. Thom Yorke’s lyrics are as cryptic as ever, and read like something out of science fiction novel: “In an interstellar burst/I am back to save the universe.” The first real highlight is the triptych “Paranoid Android”, a song that is as breathtaking as it is confronting, and one tempered with as much stomach-churning vitriol as Yorke is capable of unleashing on the world, “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly/Kick and scream Gucci little piggy.”
“Subterranean Homesick Alien” (a slight nod to Dylan in the title?) manages to calm the listener’s nerves after the dizzying roller-coaster of “Android”. It’s another stunning piece, brimming with dreamy, inter-galactic guitars and jazzy piano. Yorke keeps his vocals well below the speed limit, wishing he could be kidnapped by aliens while driving “late at night,” and taken on board “their beautiful ship.” “Exit Music (For A Film)” first appeared on the modern re-telling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, although fortunately this suicide-friendly dirge is far better than the movie.
“Let Down” is even more emotionally compelling in its beauty, where Yorke’s celestial voice rises above the other instruments, to somewhere far off into the starry cosmos. “Karma Police” is a vicious diatribe on par with Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”. Here Yorke sneers his way through the verses, “I’ve given all I can, and it’s not enough”, before eventually reassuring himself that everything is OK, “Phew, for a minute there/I lost myself/I lost myself”, supported by what sounds like a parade of pissed medieval monks chanting in the background.
“(Fitter, Happier)” resembles Stephen Hawking giving an existential lecture on the futility of middle class existence (as well as anyone who’s ever worked for a big corporation). “Electioneering” is a roaring rocker and as such is the odd one out, more akin perhaps to their earlier work. Yorke goes all paranoid again on the trip-hop sounding “Climbing Up The Walls”, followed by the beguiling “No Surprises”, one of the Radiohead’s most affecting bitter-sweet ballads, where the lovely melody is accentuated by chiming guitar and glockenspiel. Never has cynicism been so sugar-coated, or more delightful.
“Lucky” was originally recorded for the H.E.L.P. benefit album in 1995, and seems not at all out of place on OK Computer. It’s certainly one of their most Pink Floydish moments, with its depressing undertones and guitar solos that soar majestically into the stratosphere. “The Tourist” closes the LP on a languid note, where listening to it is almost like floating in space. If the Floyd had of began their career in the ‘90s, they might well have recorded a tune such as this.
OK Computer was undoubtedly the most remarkable album of 1997, a year not exactly short of important albums overall. Radiohead had evidently exceeded not only the fans, but also their own expectations, managing to create a true work of art from which the band has been judged ever since. Yes, they’ve continued to make exquisite music over the last twenty years – however it is unlikely that they will ever top what will forever remain their finest achievement.