OKNOTOK: Radiohead’s “OK Computer” is 20 years old

Culture Curmudgeon

BRITAIN-ENTERTAINMENT-MUSIC-GLASTONBURYRadiohead perform on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival of Music and Performing Arts on Worthy Farm near the village of Pilton in Somerset, South West England, on June 23, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFF

“On a Friday” was a lousy name for a lousy band. It’s almost comical that a group of callow, skinny high school kids would name their fledgling rock group after the day of the week when they had their usual band practice. That was way back in 1985– when new wave, shoegaze, and punk dominated the underground scene and the non-pop airwaves.

It’s hard to imagine what On a Friday would have sounded like, but most probably they sounded just like any high school band made up of kids wanting to be rock stars: bad. To keep a long story short, Thom Yorke, Colin and Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway would eventually form Radiohead during their university years- renaming themselves after a Talking Heads song.

When they first came out with their first album “Pablo Honey” in 1992-93, critics were slightly abuzz about their music. Their anthem for disaffected youth would capture radio programmers’ imaginations all over the world. ‘Creep’ would also crack the doors open to commercial success (a song this writer still believes to be one of their more mediocre compositions).

Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business show on CGTN America. His analysis represents his views alone.Culture Curmudgeon Ahmad Coo

It also helped that Thom and Co. weren’t your typical rock stars who had swagger and sex appeal. Quite the opposite- they looked more like emaciated, depressed beatniks. They weren’t a pretty bunch in a conventional sense but their appeal came from the angst that radiated through their facades and music.

Their second album “The Bends” would see them mature into full-fledged rock stars. They became critics’ darlings with the 1995 release- even though the rest of the world was obsessed with Britpop and its seemingly bigger and more popular rock acts during that decade- especially the outrageous rivalry between Blur and Oasis. Both bands would eventually break up a few years down the road.

“The Bends” would set them apart from all their peers thanks to some of the most intelligent songwriting from that decade. The album’s themes of isolation, impermanence, and their impact on the human condition aren’t really radio-friendly, but Thom Yorke’s otherworldly falsetto and the band’s increasingly sophisticated sound would win it millions of fans. Yorke’s voice was such that he could be singing about rutabaga and still bring you to tears.

From the opening track “Planet Telex” proclaiming everything and everyone is broken to the futility of human existence in “Just” to the somber “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”- “The Bends” focus on the world’s darkness and man’s impotent rage propelled the band into the ‘art rock’ sphere. All of a sudden, everybody in the world couldn’t get enough of them.

“The Bends” would also represent a turning point for the band. Because of the album’s success, Radiohead would embark on a worldwide tour to promote the hell out of it even further and raise their profile. They toured for more than a year- and the brutal schedule almost broke up the band. But those difficult months on the road would provide the material for what’s now considered one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded.

“OK Computer” is considered a masterpiece. It turns 20 this year but it’s still very relevant, if not creepily prescient. To celebrate its release, Capitol Records has remastered the recording and included all the b-sides. They’ve called the double album reissue OKNOTOK: 1997-2017.

OK Computer album cover Courtesy: Parlophone/Capitol

Some of today’s most prominent music critics and publications compare the album to some of rock and roll’s seminal recordings- such as the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. The influential music news and reviews website Pitchfork even dared to call it the best album of any genre to come out of the 1990s.

The high praise is much deserved. Themes that Radiohead started exploring in the Bends- crystallized over the months of touring and manifested itself in OK Computer. It’s a dark and depressing album- addressing topics like societal alienation, isolation, and paranoia, corrupt politicians, hypochondria, the dehumanizing effect of technology, the police state, inter-generational conflict, disinterested alien lifeforms, etc. Not exactly life-affirming material.

Despite the album’s darker disposition, taken as whole “OK Computer” is the height of art rock. Even more impressive, it’s a high concept recording that’s also become one of the best-selling records of all time. Each track from the album builds and perfectly transitions to the next one. There are no throwaway tracks or album fillers. Every song builds on the above mentioned themes.

Thom Yorke of Radiohead performs on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival of Music and Performing Arts on Worthy Farm near the village of Pilton in Somerset, South West England, on June 23, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Oli SCARFF

But if one were to choose the strongest and musically complex song, “Paranoid Android” would probably be the track that stands out the most. The title refers to Marvin- the overly sensitive and profoundly depressed robot in Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” It’s divided into four parts- each one wildly different from the other. It goes from a quiet upbeat opening to a rock anthem to a choral lament/dirge and then ending with a balls-out crescendo fueled by Jonny Greenwood’s screaming guitar solo.

According to the band, the record is meant to be played on a continuous loop. That becomes obvious when you listen to the first and the last track on the album. It opens with “Airbag” with Thom crooning about narrowly surviving what should have been a catastrophic car crash. In the chorus he’s overjoyed, repeatedly singing,“In an interstellar burst, I’m back to save the universe!” In the final track of the album “The Tourist” Thom sings about taking a more leisurely pace in living one’s life- pleading with the listener to “slow down, idiot, slow down”- a message that leads perfectly into “Airbag”.

For this writer, the album’s themes are summarized best by the track that doesn’t even have Thom singing or the band playing instruments. “Fitter Happier” is just a recording of a digitized voice talking about the stultifying nature of modern life- with ominous electronic ambient noise going on in the background. The effect is nothing short of creepy, claustrophobic, and threatening. Indeed, the overall feel of “Fitter, Happier” encapsulates the political and social upheavals of the 21st century. And the track’s prognosis on the state of human beings and how we’re living nowadays? “Calmer, fitter, healthier and more productive. A pig in a cage on antibiotics.”