Rewind: Celebrating 20 years of the album that made Radiohead

As Radiohead bask in the glory of the extreme success of their latest album, A Moon Shaped Pool, their most popular album completes 20 years of its own. The Bends and Creep might have made the band relevant, but OK Computer brought them into the foreground, in the limelight where they have been ever since (with variable success). From being considered the most iconic rock album from the 90s, to being a regular in the ‘Best Albums of All Time’ lists and certainly being Radiohead’s best album released to date, OK Computer has been an inspiration to many – Muse and Coldplay are just two of the multiple artists who look up to the album. Released at a time when Oasis and Blur failed to maintain the declining popularity of Britpop, Radiohead heralded in a new era of Alternative Rock which lives on to this day. The album was recorded in the build-up to the 1997 elections and released a month after Tony Blair’s victory, and has a certain disapproving theme to it as if to say not everyone was on board with what was happening in the country at that time. The lyrics are also described as futuristic and dystopian, most prominently on Karma Police, probably a homage to Big Brother’s Thought Police in the George Orwell classic, 1984.

The album features heavy guitar work from Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, with Yorke providing the structure to knit it around with some incredibly powerful vocals. The use of technology, in parts, is somewhat ironic as the album criticises and fears a world where people ‘buzz like fridges’.

OK Computer begins with the song Airbag, featuring a guitar riff from Greenwood that both opens and closes the song. The song is inspired by an accident Yorke had with his girlfriend in 1987, where an airbag saved his life. He felt like a man reborn, and that is precisely what he talks about in this song. The next song is a masterpiece in the form of Paranoid Android, the six-and-a-half-minute track having shades of Queen’s legendary Bohemian Rhapsody, minus the opera setting but with the addition of an infinite amount of chaos, which would indeed have made Freddie Mercury proud. The four-part song gets its inspiration from the Beatles’ Happiness Is a Warm Gun, and the name is derived from the robot Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Violence and destruction are what the song feels like, and some unique instrumentation and vocals are present on the track.

Subterranean Homesick Alien, a reference to Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, features extensive use of electric keyboard and is the song that stands out most in terms of instrumentation. The song talks about an isolated narrator who fantasises being abducted by aliens. Exit Music (for a film) is one of the most highly rated tracks on the album, with Yorke being inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for the lyrics. The song climaxes with the entrance of drums, somewhat Portishead-esque in essence. Karma Police is another track which has been extremely popular through the years, the title initially starting out as a joke between the band members as to the existence of a karma police punishing misbehaviour. It is all about an impotent fantasy, from a feeble man who wishes he had the power to take revenge on his perceived injustices. The song changes character halfway, as Yorke sings ‘For a minute there, I lost myself’, as he probably realises all of these wishes add up to nothing and are just daydreams.

Fitter Happier serves as an interlude, with the vocals given by a certain Fred Cooper. Something which not many may know is that Cooper also lends his voice to the Apple Macintosh voice system, its most famous use being providing Stephen Hawking with the voice we are all aware of! Electioneering is the next number that features an almost anthemic opening guitar riff and is the closest Radiohead sound to conventional rock on this album, with a guitar solo providing the cherry on the top. One of the most underrated tracks on this album, it is the most directly political song, drawing inspiration from Noam Chomsky. No Surprises is another astounding track on the album which was initially recorded at a faster tempo and then later slowed down while overlapping Yorke’s voice to create an ethereal effect. The song talks gloom and doom. ‘A heart that’s full up like a landfill’ sings Yorke as he describes the debris of our lives getting buried in our hearts, but also features an extremely melodious O’ Brien. The album ends with The Tourist, as the astonishingly vandalistic album slows down to a halting pace. Written for American tourists who are in a rush to see as many attractions as possible, it is almost a lesson telling everyone to slow down and revel in life for what it is worth. It closes with the sound of drums and bass in the background, almost Blues like a distant cry from the initial part of the album.

There are certain albums which change the course of music by their sheer brilliance and ingenuity, and arguably OK Computer tops that list. As far as a show of strength goes, Radiohead certainly demonstrated their undeniable talent with an album in the same vein as all-time great pieces of art, that they’re not just about Creep because this album is fucking special (I wish I was special?).

Mr Nick Kent wrote in Mojo in 1997:

“Others may end up selling more, but in 20 years time I’m betting OK Computer will be seen as the key record of 1997, the one to take rock forward instead of artfully revamping images and song-structures from an earlier era”

Wise words there, Mr. Kent