Radiohead, OK Computer, 1997, Parlophone
Subterranean Homesick Alien
Exit Music (For a Film)
Climbing Up the Walls
After getting together at Abingdon School in Oxfordshire, Radiohead released their debut album in 1993. A significant musical departure from their more standard guitar rock and grungy influenced first two albums, OK, Computer was their third album, their most successful and their most widely acclaimed. Often cited as one of the greatest albums of all time, it was the best selling record of 1997. The band were originally called On a Friday as this was when they were able to use the school music room to rehearse. They took on the name Radiohead when they signed with EMI records.
Despite it’s ominous sounding start, opener Airbag is joyous and uplifting, capturing the euphoric feeling of surviving a near-death experience. Paranoid Android with it’s three distinct parts tells the story of an encounter with a cocaine fuelled woman in a bar. It’s got a Queen-like vibe and the changes of tone keep you interested as does singer, Thom Yorke managing to harmonise with himself. Wistful and melancholy, Subterranean Homesick Alien is all about isolation. Originally written for the 1996 film Romeo + Juliet, Exit Music (For a Film) is chillingly ponderous before hitting a crashing wave of emotion. Guitar driven Let Down always seems to me like it’s designed to be listened to in an airport or maybe a huge train station. There is this sense of interminable nothingness, like you know you have to get somewhere but nothing seems to be happening around you and you are slightly out of kilter with the world from being in this kind of transitory space for too long. Karma Police is my favourite song on the album, both beautifully melodic and sinister, it just gets stuck in your head. Fitter Happier which is just a list of things that people should either be or want according to society is really the theme of the album in microcosm. Electioneering is the most standard rock song, all twanging guitars and political anger. Climbing Up the Walls with it’s haunting strings is a nightmare soundscape for the demons in your head. Everything from the vocal to the melody is off-kilter and strange. No Surprises sounds like the darkest nursery rhyme in the world. Lucky, another song which speaks about the aftermath of a transport crash like the opener has a euphoric quality. The Tourist ends the album with exhortation “Hey man, slow down” a hopeful sort of end.
1997 was seen as a year of optimism following the Labour party’s landslide election victory and Tony Blair’s installation as Prime Minister. Britpop formed an integral pillar of this, but OK Computer, released just a few weeks after the election simply didn’t buy into the nationalistic hype, it was a prescient warning that proved accurate. With the benefit of hindsight, we can all see that there was really nothing about the Blair administration worth getting optimistic about at all.
The album is all about social and emotional alienation and dissatisfaction with life. It’s melancholy and dark and encourages introspection. Inspired by the dislocation from reality that comes with constant travelling, it’s now looked at as a diatribe against consumerism, automation and how this leads to alienation. While it is clearly a product of ceaseless touring, the abstract lyrics mean it can be whatever you want it to be.
After this album Radiohead became one of the first bands to have their own website. In later years, they have been at the forefront of changes in how music is distributed through streaming and pay-what-you- like distribution.
The bands immediately influenced by this album include: Travis, Bloc Party, Stereophonics, Muse, Coldplay, Keane. The tone of Radiohead though and this album in particular, rather than the creativity of the tracks themselves was what endured into the 2000s and beyond.