It was an album that not only changed the face of music, but cemented the Oxford five-piece’s reputation as one of the greatest bands of their generation. Lest we forget its genius, OK Computer should act as a reference work for all new musicians.
WHEN it comes to albums, and considering whether they are ‘classics’, there…
are a few criteria that have to be met. In my view, the album can be no older than 20-years-old (to be seen as a ‘modern classic’); it much have changed music for the better- inspired artists and musicians and made a forceful impact. As much as anything, the album must be one that you’d visit again and again; not something that was great at the time (and does not stand up well today) but something that is timeless and evergreen. When it comes to OK Computer, you can certainly say that it was not merely a product of its time. It is an album which has not only gone down in the record books, yet has inspired a new wave of bands and acts; to improve and change their sound- and make music a better place. From my perspective, it is one of the first L.P.’s (I bought) that spurred me to start writing- trying to evoke some of Radiohead’s grand majesty. It has been seventeen years since its release, yet you cannot deny the effect that this wonderful work has had.
Radiohead consist of Thom Yorke (lead vocals, guitar and piano), Jonny Greenwood (guitar, piano and other instruments), Colin Greenwood (bass), Phil Selway (drum and percussion) and Ed O’Brien (guitar and backing vocals). Formed in Oxford in 1985, the five-piece rank alongside the most influential and stunning bands of the past thirty years. They are still a force to be reckoned with and have plenty of life left in them, but it is interesting to look back; see how the band became Radiohead, and what their early lives consisted of: The musicians who formed Radiohead met while attending Abingdon an independent school for boys in Oxfordshire. Thom Yorke and Colin Greenwood were in the same year, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway were one year older and Jonny Greenwood two years younger than his brother. In 1985 they formed the band “On a Friday”, the name referring to the band’s usual rehearsal day in the school’s music room. Jonny Greenwood was the last to join, having previously been in a band called “Illiterate Hands”, with Nigel Powell and Thom Yorke’s brother, Andy Yorke. The group played their first gig in late 1986 at Oxford’s Jericho Tavern. Jonny Greenwood originally joined as a harmonica and then keyboard player, but he soon became the lead guitarist. Although Yorke, O’Brien, Selway, and Colin Greenwood had left Abingdon by 1987 to attend university, the band continued to rehearse often on weekends and holidays. In 1991, when all the members except Jonny had completed their university degrees, On a Friday regrouped, began to record demos such as Manic Hedgehog, and performed live gigs around Oxford at venues such as The Jericho Tavern. Oxfordshire and the Thames Valley had an active Independant music scene in the late 1980s, but it centred around shoegazing bands such as Ride and Slowdive On a Friday were never seen as fitting this trend, commenting that they had missed it by the time they returned from university. Nevertheless, as On a Friday’s number of live performances increased, record labels and producers became interested. Chris Hufford, Slowdive’s producer and the co-owner of Oxford’s Courtyard Studios, attended an early On a Friday concert at the Jericho Tavern. Impressed by the band, he and his partner Bryce Edge produced a demo tape and became On a Friday’s managers; they remain the band’s managers to this day. Following a chance meeting between Colin Greenwood and EMI A&R representative Keith Wozencroft at the record shop where Greenwood worked, the band signed a six-album recording contract with the label in late 1991. At the request of EMI, the band changed their name; “Radiohead” was taken from the title of a song on Talking Heads’ True Stories album.
It would have been tempting for the band to enforce a moratorium following the release of their debut album, Pablo Honey. In 1993, the music scene was still awash with heavier sounds and bands. Acts such as Nirvana were ruling the waves, and the public were keen to seek out harder-edged acts. When Radiohead’s first L.P. dropped onto the scene, reception was somewhat muted. Of course Creep was a song that brought the band to many people’s attention; yet it is a song that had them down as a one-hit-wonder; it was the clear standout from an album that offered little glory. Tracks such as Stop Whispering and Anyone Can Play Guitar were released as singles, but seemed tame when compared to the Grunge and ‘Britpop’ offerings of the time. Whereas Creep inspired the band to continue making music and push forward, they may have been disheartened by early feedback. Pablo Honey did not receive great attention. That said, NME labelled Radiohead “one of rock’s brightest hopes.” They went on to state that it was “one of those flawed but satisfying debuts that suggests Radiohead’s talents will really blossom later on.” Rolling Stone wrote in its year-end review, “What elevates them to fab charm is not only the feedback and strumming fury of their guitarwork and the dynamism of their whisper-to-a-scream song structures, which recall the Who by way of the early Jam, but the way their solid melodies and sing-along choruses resonate pop appeal.” Other reviews that came in, surveyed the album thus:
“The group has difficulty writing a set of songs that are as compelling as their sound, but when they do hit the mark — such as on “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” “Blow Out,” and the self-loathing breakthrough single “Creep” — the band achieves a rare power that is both visceral and intelligent“.
“This British buzz band’s single ”Creep” is the ultimate neurotic teen anthem. It mates Smiths-type self-consciousness (”I don’t belong here”) with dramatic U2-like vocals and guitar, with Cure-style heavy but crunchy pop. In addition to longing to be ”special” on ”Creep,” angst-filled singer Thom Yorke wails on Pablo Honey, ”I wanna be, wanna be, wanna be Jim Morrison.” You mean Morrissey“.
“For an epochal, era-defining band, Radiohead had an unusual beginning, looking like they’d wind up one-hit wonders, chancers callously attaching themselves to a sound and moment yet with few ideas of their own. That first hit, “Creep”, with its loud/soft dynamic and self-loathing lyric, fit snugly into the post-Nirvana alt-rock landscape– no surprise: Radiohead copped as much from 80s indie rock as their Pac NW brethren did“.
A lot of legendary acts had less-than-fantastic embryonic impact; a great deal of all-time greats started life with mediocre impact. It was always going to be hard for a band like Radiohead to make an impact, arriving on the scene when they did; yet it seems such an odd aberration- given what proceeded Pablo Honey. Many would agree that Radiohead could have done a lot better (on their debut); and few bands had the sort of quantum leap that the Oxford boys did in 1994. Few would have expected the band to release another album so soon (after their first), and almost no-one would have predicted what was to come: The Bends. I have always considered it to be my favourite L.P., as it is an album that does not lose a step. Sure there are a few duff moments (Planet Telex and Bones), yet there is so much on offer; heartbreaking passion and stillness, rushing and electrifying Rock- as well as the first signs that Thom Yorke was intent on changing music. The Bends was produced by John Leckie at EMI’s studios in London, and engineered by Nigel Godrich. The album marked the beginning of a shift in aesthetics and themes for the band, with greater use of keyboards, and more abrasive guitar tracks balancing subtler ones. Following on from Pablo Honey, the band were enmeshed in constant touring; playing the same songs as they had been for years- as though they were incapable of moving on. Considering breaking up, the boys were keen to record new music; move away from their past (and Creep, to an extent), and rebrand themselves. The band’s record label, EMI, had set an October 1994 release date for the record, which later proved unrealistic. EMI also suggested Radiohead should record the album’s lead single first. No one could agree on what the lead single should be, so the band worked on four tracks they considered candidates: “Sulk”, “The Bends”, “Just”, and “Nice Dream”. The approach proved counter-productive; Leckie recalled, “Everyone was pulling their hair out saying, ‘It’s not good enough!’ [. . .] We were trying too hard”. The recording process slowed down further as guitarist Jonny Greenwood experimented with several rented guitars and amplifiers in order to discover “a really special sound” for his instrument, despite Leckie’s belief that Greenwood already had one. According to Leckie, whenever a record company representative or the group’s management came to check on the album’s progress, all the band would have to show them was “a drum sound or something. In spite of tensions and doubts, the music that was produced was a revelation. Yorke was writing the same angst-filled songs that had appeared on Pablo Honey, yet was looking inwards; penning tracks that dealt with global issues and big issues- the band were maturing and moving on from their past. The title track is a heady rush of a song; anthemic guitars and emotive vocals; High and Dry demonstrates Yorke’s impeccable falsetto, whereas Fake Plastic Trees looks at a figure whom is “A cracked polystyrene man/Who just crumbles and burns“. Inspired by Jeff Buckley, Yorke unveils a heartbreaking vocal, scoring a song that is swooning, mesmeric and emotional. Just and My Iron Lung are a rampant and energetic 1-2; the former looks at deplorable figures; losers and people whom are rife for a downfall- “Don’t get my sympathy/Hanging out the 15th floor“. The latter looks at the mixed blessing that is Creep; the success is brought the band, but also the burden it has created. Black Star and Sulk are stadium-ready songs; big guitars and huge vocals mingle with vivid and catchy lyrics, and a huge amount of force. The album’s swan song is also its finest, its name: Street Spirit (Fade Out). With arpeggio guitars and a haunted mood, Yorke turns in his greatest vocal of the set; giving life to a song that its author claimed fell down on him- it came out of the sky, it is claimed. With lyrics such as “Cracked eggs, dead birds/Scream as they fight for life/I can feel death, can see its beady eyes“, it is one of the most evocative and startling songs the band had recorded. It was a song that ended a tremendous album; one which shifted the fortunes of the band, and put them at the forefront of music. With the death of Kurt Cobain (and Grunge), Radiohead were marking themselves out as the purveyors of a new brand of music; leading a new charge of fresh and hungry bands- and silencing anyone whom felt that their music lives would be short. Reception for The Bends was emphatically positive:
“With their sophomore release, Radiohead makes a strong, uncluttered statement about who they really are. The spirit of experimentation with sound features more prominently. Thom Yorke’s voice is a haunting and vulnerable instrument as he explores the emotional imagery of his lyrics. The music plays with contrasts; loud and soft, dirty and clean; and layers of noise and effects to create dynamic and evocative experiences. The Bends doesn’t yet add the electronic textures of later albums, but it’s a clear evolutionary step toward the sound perfected with OK Computer and the result is an amazing piece of work“.
“Building from the sweeping, three-guitar attack that punctuated the best moments of Pablo Honey, Radiohead create a grand and forceful sound that nevertheless resonates with anguish and despair — it’s cerebral anthemic rock. Occasionally, the album displays its influences, whether it’s U2, Pixies, Pink Floyd or the Pixies, but Radiohead turn clichés inside out, making each song sound bracingly fresh“.
“On only their second outing Oxford’s Radiohead fulfilled their huge potential, fashioning an album whose relentlessly downbeat tone was offset by an ability to formulate consistently winning melodies. The title track and “Just” throw some customary rock poses, but for the most part the band displayed a far more expansive approach. Thom Yorke emerged from the woodwork with a new-found vocal confidence, revealing a striking falsetto on two of the album’s strongest tracks, “Fake Plastic Trees” and “High & Dry.” The last three songs build inexorably to the stunning emotional climax of “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” with a control and poise that showcased the band’s new maturity“.
The reception of The Bends, coupled with a huge creative momentum, proved to be the defining moment for Radiohead. Their second album was at the top of many end-of-year lists come 1995, and assured the Oxford five-piece’s future. As well as cementing themselves at the forefront of the U.K. Indie movement, Yorke and crew were keen to keep the fascination high. Those expecting the same quality as that on The Bends were to be satisfied (and then some); yet those wanting a duplicate album were in for a shock: Radiohead had developed and grown even more.
Whereas its predecessor opened with a slight and woozy guitar, OK Computer starts life amidst crunching and twisted guitars. Inspired by a car accident (Yorke had with his girlfriend and nearly died), the lyrics start off with redemption and near-death: “In the next world war/In a jackknifed juggernaut/I am born again“. Paying homage to Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life; here Airbag‘s subject is much more realistic; practical and everyday. Yorke is casting himself amidst neon signs, interstellar bursts and chaos of the city and road; whizzing past life at such a pace, he is about to collide. Our hero’s voice emphasises the emotion and strain, rising and powering through the words; the band summon up an atmosphere of vehicular danger with weaving guitars; stuttering and machine-gun percussion- as well as tight and potent bass. With Yorke having walked away from his date with death, he surveys the scene: “In a fast German car/I’m amazed that I survived/An airbag saved my life“. It is a terrific opening gambit, that whilst not in the top five songs of the album, is a strong and memorable opener- The Bends never started this strong. Yorke seems genuinely thrilled to have survived the accident, paying tribute to such an innate and unexpected subject gives the song charm as well as relatability. OK Computer boasts no title track, but Paranoid Android is as close as we get to one; a song that emphasised and enforces all the album’s themes and majesty- the standout from the album. At more than six minutes long, the track is significantly influenced by Happiness Is a Warm Gun and Bohemian Rhapsody. Yorke’s lyrics were based on an unpleasant experience at a Los Angeles bar during which he was surrounded by strangers high on cocaine. In particular, Yorke was frightened by a woman who became violent after someone spilled a drink on her. Yorke characterised the woman as “inhuman“, and said “There was a look in this woman’s eyes that I’d never seen before anywhere. … Couldn’t sleep that night because of it.” Because the song has four distinct section; changes pace and phrasing and is an unusual beast, it took the public (and radio stations) by surprise. Yorke rallies against the nightmarish figures and awful people; offering his solution to the problem: “When I am king you will be first against the wall“. The band summon up the album’s most epic and complex composition; Greenwood’s guitars wail, twist and float (towards the end of the song they sound like a clown fight). As the song enters a quieter and more composed phase, our hero looks to the skies: “Rain down, rain down/Come on, rain down on me“. It is a song that constantly take the breath away. Like Bohemian Rhapsody it rises, falls and explodes; snakes and strikes, and always compels you. Few albums that have ever been created contain a song like this; something so ambitious and far-reaching- and something that has not been attempted since. After the fairly modest opening track, few were expecting something so startling and epic- one of the very reasons the album should be seen as an all-time classic. Providing some respite, but not letting fascination and quality drop, Subterranean Homesick Alien arrives-both alien-like and perfectly fitting. Considering the cosmic and biblical strangeness of the previous number, Subterranean’ is not such a huge departure, yet is an example of the band trying to emulate Bitches Brew. The track sees Yorke taken to another planet; abducted and taken away from Earth- fearful that his friends would not believe his story. The lyrics were inspired by a school assignment from Yorke’s time at Abingdon to write a piece of “Martian poetry” a British literary movement of works that humorously recontextualizes mundane aspects of human life from an alien “Martian” perspective. The song captures you with its myriad sounds and sonic sparks. Intergalactic tweeps and sighs put you in the scene; evoke the intergalactic and extra-terrestrial nature of the song- and make you smile in the process. It is easy to debunk the insanity of the lyrics; no one could ever take them seriously, yet Yorke makes you want to believe- either way he sounds like he doesn’t care either way. Stating that “I’d show them the stars, and the meaning of life/They’d shut me away, but I’d be alright, alright“, and in a strange way, you know that is true. After a trio of tracks that have provided epic anthems, weirdness and strange scenes and car crash flashbacks; Exit Music (For a Film) brings things down to Earth. Yorke provides one of his most effecting and draining vocals; you sense is near the edge of the abyss- tired and ready to run away, or else give in. Opening with acoustic guitar and voice, Yorke has ideas of At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash. Our hero updates Romeo and Juliet; he dreams of running away with his sweetheart, against the disapproval of her family. Advising our heroine to hurry herself (“Pack and get dressed/Before your father hears us/Before all hell breaks loose“), there is a sense of tension and anxiety throughout; emphasised by the sparse composition and emotional vocalisation. Songs further down the track list explore death and meaning, but throughout you get the sense that the two lovers have no way out; they are escaping but trapped still. In the cold night, the two look for a safe haven; the ghostly and vitriolic conclusion sticks in the mind: “We hope your rules and wisdom choke you Now we are one in everlasting peace“. As the track ends, it is hard to shake the haunting feeling and evocativeness of the words; it is a song that does notr shout yet marks itself out as one of the album’s best. After a breakneck and dizzying pace, Exit Music (For a Film) slows it down, and makes you reflect and stand still. In need of some sonic uplift, Let Down succeeds in eliciting some degree of ebullient mood. With appregiated guitars and piano, its coda is more positive than before, and Yorke explained the song, thus: “…about that feeling that you get when you’re in transit but you’re not in control of it—you just go past thousands of places and thousands of people and you’re completely removed from it.” The song’s themes are relevant today and we can all relate to the feelings and mood projected. When Yorke sings “Don’t get sentimental/It always ends up drivel“, it is about how sentimentality is shoved down our throats; it is fake and manipulative. The composition and impassioned vocals keep the song from being downbeat or sniding; it is a track you quote and sing along to. Arriving hot off of its heels, Karma Police stands out as another highlight. Perhaps not in the same realm as Paranoid Android, it is not far behind; compacting a huge weight and sense of wonder into four-and-a-bit minutes. The song is an in-joke from the band, whom- every time they did something wrong or were chided- they used to say that it was “the Karma Police” calling. With no fully formed chorus, and having distinct segments, it is a disorienting track. With nods to Sexy Sadie’s chord progression, the band present a range of curious and colourful characters; a girl and her “Hitler hairdo“; a man whom is like “a detuned radio“- each will be subjected to a scolding from the Karma Police. Yorke acts as narrator, moving through various scenery with their strange players; our hero direct and meaningful of tongue: “This is what you’ll get/When you mess with us“. After its build-up of intrigue, the track explodes in an anthemic and dreamy refrain: “For a minute there/I lost myself, I lost myself/Phew, for a minute there/I lost myself, I lost myself“. It is hardly surprising that Karma Police touched so many and proved a live favourite. When the band played Glastonbury in 1997, swathes of festival-goers sang in unison; overwhelming the band with their volume and delirium- it is a song that easily seduces and entrances. The album’s mid-point is essentially spoken words; Yorke puts his voice into a computer, and robotically scores a mandate for modern life; how to live better- Fitter Happier. Using the Simple Text application, Yorke wrote the track after a period of writer’s block. It is a song that was described by Yorke as a checklist of slogans for the 1990s, which he considered “the most upsetting thing I’ve ever written“. Backed by an eerie ramble of distorted noises and samples, the song’s sage advice includes “Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries“; “Sleeping well, no bad dreams, no paranoia/Careful to all animals, never washing spiders down the plughole” and “Pragmatism, not idealism/Will not cry in public“. By the final moments, where its author tells of “The ability to laugh at weakness/Calm, fitter, healthier and more productive/A pig in a cage on antibiotics“, we hear the machine break; distortion and jarring electronic give the impression that the machine has been overloaded- that it is breaking down. You piece the song together as it ends, take its best and bravest advice- and try to follow the rest. It is such an odd track; it does not fit in with the mood of the album and stands out quite dramatically. I have never been bowled over by the ‘song’, but feel that it is brave and bold. With the weight and emotion that the first half gives us, Fitter Happier seems like punctuation; an ellipsis- to prepare us for what is to come next. Kicking of the second half with jangling and clanking guitar is Electioneering. Overlooked by most critics (it is seen as one of the minor tracks on the album), it could easily of fitted in Pablo Honey. Due to its heavy sound and politicised themes, it is one of the most striking and urgent tracks; Yorke desperate and emotional of voice, our hero also address the issue of constant touring. With images of kissing a parade of babies; shaking sweaty hands and smiling inanely, you get the impression that Yorke is addressing the media; being shuffled from city to city he is almost a piece of meat- a ‘product’ perhaps, that sees him being used as a chattel or prostitute. In the guise of the politician (or modern-day music hero), Yorke explains: “I will stop, I will stop at nothing/Say the right things when electioneering/I trust I can rely on your vote“. The track’s guitar work is some of the best on the album; it strums and retreats; twists in a rictus of stress and strain- it is a facet that makes the track so imperious and emotive. The drumming is rampant and measured; it is scattershot when our hero is at his most anxious; weighed and level when he is campaigning- bass notes are similarly impressive and well-considered. Electioneering is one of my favourite songs on the album, as it takes you back to the days of The Bends; it is a Just-cum-My Iron Lung-style track, and sticks in your head. Some critics were ambivalent and drawn because it does not match the heights of your Paranoid’ or Karma‘; it is in the middle of the running order too, so a certain sense of fatigue also sets in. Creeping its way into the tableaux is Climbing Up the Walls. It has a creepy and shadowy sound that put some critics off; many felt it was too off-putting or oppressive. Recorded during a heavy storm, Yorke turns out his most demonic and scary vocal performances- it cuts to the core as he casts himself as the song’s killer. The song contains and is layered with a string section, ambient noise and repetitive, metallic-sounding percussion. The song’s string section, composed by Jonny Greenwood and written for 16 instruments- inspired by Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Its atonal strings and chaotic mood bring life to the vivid creepiness and violence of the lyrics. Yorke is in his victims’ house; stalking a family, he advises: “I am the pick in the ice/Do not cry out or hit the alarm“- trouble is a-foot. The walls close in, as Yorke gets closer; there is no escape and we get near to our bloody crescendo- “And either way you turn, I’ll be there/Open up your skull, I’ll be there“. It seems that there is no way of deinstitutionalizing Yorke’s lust; when the final moments arrive he errupts a blood-curdling scream; wailing on the mic. it as though his insides have been ripped out- backed by Johnny Greenwood’s army of guitars which sound like a zoo train having been derailed. That scream (from Yorke) is one of the most affecting and unexpected things on the album, and it is the sound of a man losing his mind and senses all at once. The antepenultimate number on the album is No Surprises. Whereas Exit Music (For a Film) showed how haunting Yorke’s voice can be when he is running away from life, No Surprises is the sound of a man being swallowed up by the strains of life- and as a result, it is even more striking. Completed in a single take, the track mixes glockenspiel, acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies, it emulated Soul classics; The Beach Boys’ Would It Be Nice and Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World– yet No Surprises’ lyrics are the antithesis and polar opposite of those songs. Our hero plays the part of a man who can’t keep things together; dissatisfied with the rigours and vicissitudes of life- aghast at the inferential horrors at making it in the modern world. You can sense the claustrophobia and suicidal tension when Yorke sings: “A heart that’s full up like a landfill/A job that slowly kills you“; the pain and anguish when he intones “I’ll take a quiet life/A handshake of carbon monoxide“. The child-like innocence of the glockenspiel bring to mind a lullaby or nursery rhyme; pitted against a manifesto expounding the ineffectiveness of struggle, it is a striking juxtaposition. Fey and melodious sonic elements soundtrack Yorke’s observations and final thoughts; the pretty house and garden, but in the end our hero craves (a life) “With no alarms and no surprises/No alarms and no surprises“. The suffocation and painful confessions come to an end, and the listener is exhausted. It is a bittersweet tale, one which sees hostile and depressed outpourings mix with sweet and cherry-scented guitars. Anyone expecting some salvation and rescue team are left disappointed; what arrives next does nothing to squelch the sense of dread. Lucky is a fictionalised recollection of a plane crash; it was inspired by the conflicts in Bosnia (at the time)- a heavy and anxious number from start to finish. With Yorke having an aversion and fear of flying, and a disinclination to most modes of transport, the song seems as personal on the album. The plane has stopped, the passengers are picking themselves up; Yorke is dusting himself down- relieved and delighted to be alive. Announcing that it is going to be “a glorious day“, our hero asks: “Pull me out of the air crash/Pull me out of the lake“- you can hear the conviction in his voice. There is a sense of renewed optimism and rebirth (“I feel my luck could change“); like Airbag, Yorke is walking away from a situation that could have killed him. Bringing us down to land, The Tourist is the perfect finale. It is one of the most un-Radiohead songs they produced; such is the sense of space; it is staid but unique. Greenwood wrote the music as a reaction to seeing hurried tourists in France, and Yorke contributed lyrics later while on vacation in Prague. Yorke said it was chosen as the closing track song because, “a lot of the album was about background noise and everything moving too fast and not being able to keep up. It was really obvious to have ‘Tourist’ as the last song”. The song deals with the way people rush through life; not stopping to breathe and relax- not satisfied unless every second is filled with noise and imagery; Yorke rallies against this tendency: “Hey man, slow down, slow down/Idiot, slow down, slow down“. Our hero is aghast at the rudeness and inconsiderateness of human life; the short attention spans and inability to relax and enjoy the views. With incredulity and resentment in his voice (“They ask me where the hell I’m going/ At a thousand feet per second“), Yorke is alone. Too many people whizz through landscapes and cities; not appreciating the intricacies and beauty- why neglect something so quintessential and vital? With questions and images in your mind, by the final seconds of the album, you are left wondering, theorising; dreaming, sweating- and downright overcome.
With the acclaim that OK Computer received, the Oxford quintet were in no mood to slow down. Whilst the quality remained high, the band shifted their sound; away from purely Rock-driven and guitar-heavy sounds; introducing more electronic elements- Yorke began to feed his voice into the machine more. In 2000, Kid A was unleashed, and met with huge acclaim. It reached number one in the U.S., went platinum in its first week; as well as winning a Grammy for Best Alternative Album. Jazz styling were fused with 20th-century classical music. A greater width and breadth of instruments were employed, with our band keen to expand their sound and keep their songs fertile and original. Everything in Its Right Place sees our hero “sucking a lemon“; burned out by the touring commitments, Yorke was inspired to pen the track. The National Anthem has springing bass and guitar and sees Yorke’s voice distorted and powerful. How to Disappear Completely is Yorke yearning to escape; not be seen by the media and public eyes- he has had enough. Yorke’s vocal is at his most affected and beautiful; a haunting and sighing classical arrangement augments the sense of helplessness and fatigue. There is upbeat optimism aplenty; with tracks such as Optimistic stating that “The best you can is good enough“, it is perhaps the closest in terms of tone to previous work. The album resonated with critics and the likes of The Times and Pitchfork Media placed Kid A at the top of their ‘Album of the decade’ lists. Whilst retrospectively investigating the album (in 2009), The Times surveyed the album in these terms:
“A wrestled with key post-millennial themes: the application of technology, information overload, identity and alienation. Doggedly anti-corporate and often stubbornly anti-melodic, it sometimes seemed less a collection of songs than a prolonged experiment in sound and possibility. There were moments when the band second-guessed their own instincts to a ludicrously leftfield degree, but also moments of profound beauty and deep emotion“.
The band’s fith album arrived in the form of Amnesiac. Displaying similar influences of electronic music, classical music and jazz, the album explores lyrical themes of memory and reincarnation. Bassist Colin Greenwood described the album as having “more traditional Radiohead-type songs together with more experimental, non-lyrical based instrumental-type stuff as well.” Yorke described it as “another take on Kid A, a form of explanation“. Recorded during Kid A sessions, the L.P. saw the band back in the room; infused and invigorated by their creative output, over 20 songs were recorded. Tracks such as Pyramid Song were inspired by Charles Mingus; this number and talks about the Egyptian underworld. Yorke described the track as one of the band’s best, and is detached, unsettling, beautiful and utterly unforgettable. Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box saw Yorke immersed in computers and electronics; an Auto-Tune and nasal take sees our hero becoming less interested in the sound of his voice- and more concerned with sound and experimentation. I Might Be Wrong and You and Whose Army? are two highlights. The former is a nasal and swaying song that sees Yorke’s voice at is most direct and imploring: “Think about the good times/And never look back/Never look back“. You and Whose Army? is more crawling and woozy; building its trajectory it explodes in a riotous piano coda; Yorke at his most accusatory and politicised. Knives Out was influenced by Johnny Marr’s guitar work and is a song that took over a year to record. The closing number, Life in a Glasshouse has the sound of a New Orleans Jazz funeral, and looks at the nature of press intrusion and lack of privacy (in the private eye). Whilst not reaching the critical peak of their previous effort, Amnesiac was still fondly regarded:
“Amnesiac puts Radiohead’s turbulent recent history into perspective. With the benefit of hindsight, Kid A’s wilful racket now recalls the clatter of a rattle being thrown from a pram. Tantrum over, Radiohead have returned to their role as the world’s most intriguing and innovative major rock band“.
Our heroes seemed a little tired; the slight dip in quality (of Amnesiac) called critics to question the band’s new direction of sound. The demand that was present since OK Computer has got to the band, and there seemed like a relentless pressure for them to record new music. After a two-year gap, Hail to the Thief was released. A lot of its themes dealt with the War on Terror and right-wing politics of the time- Yorke was incensed by the gap between politicians and the general public, and the inequities that existed. The band returned to their guitar-driven sound, and did not want to take any new leaps. Tracks such as Sit Down. Stand Up and 2+2=5 retrained electronic elements; both tracks displaying a dark and frantic pace. The latter looks at doublethink; the nature of logic and Orwellian themes. There was tenderness to be found in the form of Sail to the Moon- a song written by Yorke, dedicated to his daughter. It is There There that sticks out, and it is undoubtedly the finest track on the album. Inspired by the likes of Can and Pixies, it is a hugely impressive statement that reduced Yorke to tears- our hero thought it was one of the best thing the band had recorded. Whilst humour and spite mingled in A Punchup at a Wedding, it also boasted a brilliant band performance. Hail to the Thief was an album that did not resonate hard with critics. In terms of reception, it ranks alongside Pablo Honey; critics were expecting something akin to The Bends or OK Computer– yet the album is not a failure. It may have more ‘filler’ than you’d expect, but Radiohead still showed that they were a force to be reckoned with. Reviews were not all mixed or negative; with the more incisive and dedicated, keen to extol the album’s virtues:
“However, despite the fact that it seems more like a bunch of songs on a disc rather than a singular body, its impact is substantial. Regardless of all the debates surrounding the group, Radiohead have entered a second decade of record-making with a surplus of momentum“.
The two most recent Radiohead albums have not only shown a diversity of themes, sound and direction; yet have shown what the future could hold for the band. In Rainbow marked a stunning return to form (in the sense that they were up to their Kid A standards of quality). Four years after their last effort, In Rainbows put the band back in guitar-lead territory; boasting a more decisive sound, Yorke’s mind seemed more relaxed and content. A great deal of songs began gestation in 2006, and the group were inventing and honing the songs long before they went into the studio. 15 Step is a clattering, stuttering and elliptical opener, that sees hand-clps and child choruses alongside riparian guitar. Nude is a seductive and romantic number (vocally, anyway), stretching and languidly imploring. Yorke’s vocal is gentle and powerful, his synonymous falsetto comes to the fore throughout. Advising “Now that you’ve found it, it’s gone/Now that you feel it, you don’t/You’ve gone off the rails” it is a shimmering track that went through a number of different versions (and titles). Reckoner is a fast-paced and stunning number; one Yorke claims was inspired by a “very trippy dream, one of those ones you wake up from and go, ‘aww man, I don’t want to wake up from that, ever“. The album is rife with quality, surprises and fascination, and sees the band enjoying themselves and back in fertile ground. Reviews for the album were largely positive and laudatory:
“Radiohead reconnecting with their human sides, realising you [can] embrace pop melodies and proper instruments while still sounding like paranoid androids … this [is] otherworldly music, alright”
“Using the full musical and emotional spectra to conjure breathtaking beauty, the collection is well named. It may have arrived via computer, but the vision is timeless”
The band was clearly back at the forefront of critical regards; they were gaining new fans as well as enlivening the existing ones. Another four years past until The King of Limbs was released; it is an album that saw the band employ a more spontaneous process to develop their sounds, sampling their own recordings with turntables. It was an L.P. that saw mass plaudits, Grammy nominations and end-of-year homage- yet divided many. Tracks like Lotus Flower could have been recorded for In Rainbows; displaying Yorke’s hypnotic falsetto and a shimmering beauty. Rhythm was very much king, and gone were the guitars and strings that augmented and emphasised previous works; replaced with more programming and electronics. The first track, Bloom, opens with a repeating piano loop and features complex rhythms and a flugelhorn arrangement by Jonny Greenwood. Morning Mr Magpie, debuted as a solo acoustic performance by Thom Yorke in a webcast in 2002, appears with a repeating electric guitar riff and a looping hi-hat pattern. Little by Little features intricate guitar playing over busy, syncopated percussion. Feral is an instrumental with wordless, processed vocals, cut-up drum loops, and a distorted synth bass line. The album bridged previous styles and sounds (from the band) and was more nuanced than previous efforts. It is one of these albums that reveals its charms over multiple listens; gone was the instantaneous strike of early work. When reviews came in, positivity and glow were synonyms once more; critics did not feel alienated or let down- they saw it as a logical step forwards.
“The King of Limbs is another great album from Britain’s most consistently brilliant band. And come Codex, it truly strikes the listener dumb. Like Motion Picture Soundtrack, Street Spirit, Sail to the Moon, Nude – insert your own favourite slow-paced Radiohead numb-er here – it’s a piece of rarefied beauty. Thom says something about dragonflies, something else about nobody getting hurt; the words blur and blend, though, as beneath them the simplest, most strikingly gorgeous piano motif bores its way into the heart. And it’s here, not any of your limited-character blogging or video-sharing sites, that Radiohead trump all comers, again“.
There has been a lot of speculation and talk (since the release of King of Limbs). Album plans have been mooted; the latest one suggests that we may see some development in the summer. Because Radiohead’s last two albums have not only seen them embrace and rid themselves of the past- trying to update their sound but keep core elements in tact; as we large gaps between release- there has been so rightful hesitation and procrastination. Yorke has been working with Atoms for Peace; working on other projects and side-steps. The band have enjoyed the break and the lack of pressure, and are making plans for the future. Whether we will see another album, or if it may take a few more years is unsure, but the fact is that the band still intrigue- we have not heard the last from them. OK Computer was the benchmark from Radiohead, and whilst not my personal favourite (that honour belongs to The Bends) it is one of the most important albums of the past 20 years. It summed up a mood of the time, and not only worked independently of ‘Britpop’ (setting them aside from their peers) but saw critics and the public fully in love with the band. Their first couple of years were defined by ambivalence, uncertainty and finding their voice, and on OK Computer, they had arrived. The confidence and conviction are there in each song, and the album stands the test of time- you can listen to it in any mood and be amazed by it. With some speculation about the band’s future, we shouldn’t worry too much; instead look back at a brilliant opus that is classic and urgent; inspiring and overwhelming. With their third album, the Oxford five-piece marked themselves out as one of the U.K.’s best bands, and voices of the generation. Few could argue with OK Computer’s potency and brilliance; and whether you prefer other bands (or other Radiohead albums) I would advise you seek it out. There is something in there for everyone; from pulsating and heady Rock, through to crawling and creepier work; electronic guides to life and a three-part mini opera- few modern albums have touched the sort of range and ambition displayed here. To that end, OK Computer should be taking in but a lot of new musicians; not so that its sound can be aped and copied, but so new musicians can take inspiration. Radiohead did not make a name for themselves instantaneously, but worked hard (which will provide solace to those starting out); the range of sounds and sensations on the album are in desperate need of tribute. No one has dared to do anything as ambitious as Paranoid Android; no other band has mixed songs like Subterranean Homesick Alien in the same L.P. as Electioneering; no anthem as direct and worthy as Karma Police has been unveiled since. It is not impossible to think that an album as good as OK Computer can be witnessed again (many may opinion that better ones have been produced); yet not enough new musicians try to aim as high as Radiohead did in 1997; to push the envelope and be that bold. I hope that this changes, and we do see some similarly ambitious and inspired acts come through; but in the mean time, Radiohead’s commercial masterpiece should be studied; regarded and dissected- and loved as much as anything. It is not a doom-laden work; not something that should be relegated to stormy days- it is an album that offers up something new with each listen. If you are waiting to see what Radiohead do next; or else have abandoned hope of them ever releasing another album, then take a moment…
AND realise just how good they were.
Buy OK Computer:
OK Computer Track Listing:
Paranoid Android– 10.0
Subterranean Homesick Alien– 9.6
Exit Music (For a Film)– 9.9
Let Down- 9.8
Karma Police- 9.9
Fitter Happier– 9.3
Climbing Up the Walls– 9.8
No Surprises– 9.9
The Tourist– 9.8
Standout Track: Paranoid Android
Download: Paranoid Android, Exit Music (For a Film), Karma Police, No Surprises and Lucky.