AWESOME ALBUMS: Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)

Is this milestone from one of Britain’s most beloved rock acts overrated or simply one of the greatest recordings of all time? 

Who made it?: Radiohead, Nigel Goodrich (Producers), Parlophone (Label).

Who’s on it?: Thom Yorke (Vocals, Guitars, Piano), Jonny Greenwood (Guitars, Keyboards), Phil Selway (Drums, Percussion), Ed O’Brien (Guitars), Colin Greenwood (Bass).

Recorded at: St. Catherine’s Court, Bath.

Release date: May 1997.

All songs written by Yorke, Greenwood, O’Brien, Greenwood and Selway.

  1. “Airbag” – 4:44
  2. “Paranoid Android” – 6:23
  3. “Subterranean Homesick Alien” – 4:27
  4. “Exit Music (For a Film)” – 4:24
  5. “Let Down” – 4:59
  6. “Karma Police” – 4:21
  7. “Fitter Happier” – 1:57
  8. “Electioneering” – 3:50
  9. “Climbing Up the Walls” – 4:45
  10. “No Surprises” – 3:48
  11. “Lucky” – 4:19
  12. “The Tourist” – 5:24

awesome (adj.): causing feelings of great admiration, respect or fear; inspiring or displaying awe; excellent or outstanding; overused.

Okay, so I made that last bit up, but it remains a truism nonetheless. A recent scientific study by the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Hyperbole concluded that 98.4% of all things are, actually, not awesome. So, we’re all clear then? Not exactly, because further research commissioned by the South Clapham Big-Ups Co-Operative concluded that – of the remainder – 0.9% is actually overrated. The following lunchtime exchange in the dining hall of Warwick University illustrates the problem:

Acoustics Lecturer: “I have to say, my favourite album is probably OK Computer.”

Me: “Yeah, great album.”

My boss: “Oh, I’ll have to borrow it off you.”

(Three weeks later.)

My boss: “I’ve finished with your CD.”

Me: “Great – what do you think?”

My boss: “Mm… interesting, but basically a rip-off of 70s prog-rock.”

So, who to believe?

OK Computer, Radiohead’s third album, regularly rubs shoulders with seminal works such as Pet Sounds and Sergeant Pepper in the top five “Best Ever” album listings and, like the bumble bee in flight, or The Royle Family – as a concept – it shouldn’t have worked. Sent away with a stack of cash, an open-ended deadline, and allowed to self-produce for the first time, the potential for a self-indulgent car crash of a recording was enormous. Indeed, first listen in the offices of their American label Capitol immediately triggered a 75% reduction in their sales forecast. Yet it seems almost perverse that the seeds of a project so long in the conception were sown in a track written in only five hours, two years earlier.

“Lucky” was originally a contribution to a charity compilation album, but the band knew even then that it signposted the direction their next release would take. Literally divine, it is the definitive demonstration of how to build a piece of music – minimalist at the outset, Thom Yorke’s vocals are accompanied through the first verse only by alien crickets and an impossibly deliberate acoustic guitar, and backed by angels through the second. The arrangement almost invites you to guess where it’s going and it goes where you want it to, encapsulated by that double chord change towards the end of the second verse. By the time Yorke proclaims, “It’s going to be a glorious day,” it already is.

After the opening distorted grime-funk of “Airbag,” “Paranoid Android” was the first of three single releases, all of which went top-ten in the UK, with this highest placed at three. To describe it – as with many of the tracks on this album – almost requires its own thesaurus. Listen to “Paranoid” – halved from its original length to a shade over six minutes – and you can understand the prog-rock comparisons, but only in the lack of textbook structure. The process might have been self-indulgent, but the material isn’t,  because it wasn’t so much written as grown organically – allowed to breathe, to propagate, randomly fashioned by twists of nature.

The stomping piano-percussion of “Karma Police” is one of the two more radio-friendly releases, along with the dark despair of “No Surprises,” the video of which shows Yorke lamenting the “bruises that won’t heal” as his stationery head is slowly submerged by rising water. “Exit Music (For a Film),” which was written for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, is achingly beautiful – Yorke’s vocals overwhelm the mix, yet retains restraint and precision whilst offering salvation: “Wake from your dreams/the drying of your tears/today we escape/we escape.”

Even the greatest albums are not without fault; “Electioneering” is an ADHD-afflicted assault on the senses, whilst “Climbing Up The Walls” seems out of place with the elegance that precedes it. But these are forgivable aberrations when you’re polishing-off your second glass of Harvey’s Bristol Cream to the space-lullaby of “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” in an admittedly lame attempt to convince Yorke that – actually – we’re not “all uptight.”

Despite the initial downbeat prognosis for OK Computer, people got it; the album reached number one in the UK – going triple platinum in the process, double-platinum in the States, and has sold in the region of five million units worldwide. Statistics aside, though, it was lauded not only as a piece of work in its own right, but as a plot-point in the timeline of popular music history. To paraphrase DJ Shadow, it became a benchmark recording for other artists, yet continues to defy imitation or influence. In other words, it’s so astonishing it transcends legacy (which is a weird enough concept even without the sherry).

You know, Chris Martin almost drove himself insane trying to make “Viva La Vida” the greatest album ever and didn’t even come close. Radiohead managed to gatecrash any serious debate on the subject, but Yorke still carries the demeanour of a man who dumped the teenage Mary Berry because she wasn’t much cop at dinners. Go figure.

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