On many different levels, it is hard to believe that this spring marks the 20th anniversary of one of rock’s most innovative offerings, Radiohead’s May 1997 release “OK Computer.” Hard in the sense that it’s frightening to think 20 years have passed that quickly. Equally hard in the sense that the album still sounds as fresh as when it was first released – and certainly more relevant than some of its fellow offerings at the time (I’m looking at you, Spice Girls).
Although, truth be told, perhaps no other album better encapsulates both the cultural and musical junction in which it found itself in the world of the late 1990s. Culturally: blissful growth in the worldwide markets coupled with the rise of terrorism and postmodern suspicion. Musically: the decline of the commercial success of grunge rock and anyone’s guess of what would take its place.
It was in this vacuum that the British rock band Radiohead boldly stepped. Having achieved some commercial success with their two previous albums “Pablo Honey” and “The Bends,” which yielded radio-friendly hits like “Creep” and “High and Dry,” it would’ve seemed perfectly reasonable for them to continue in a similar vein.
Instead, Radiohead decided to blow things wide open. Keep the guitars, but introduce strings and random electronic sounds. Look at a four-piece band more as a symphony with layers and counter-melodies running afoot; think less U2, more Beatles. And strive for musical and lyrical dissonance at every turn.
The moment “OK Computer” landed, people knew it was a game-changer. Rolling Stone called it “a stunning art-rock tour de force, evidence that they are one rock band still willing to look the devil square in the eyes.” The devil, as it were, was the unsettling notion of a world run by computers – the music, thus, reflecting both the programmed harmony and inevitable tensions such a worldview creates.
This is evident from the very first track, “Airbag,” which begins with a haunting, Bach-worthy melody brought to life by a melancholy cello partnered with angry electric guitar. And then the opening words:
In the next World War
In a jackknifed juggernaut
I am born again
In the neon sign
Scrolling up and down
I am born again.
Who begins an album this way? That would be lead singer Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s consummate visionary and multi-instrumentalist, whose unique voice conveys the contradictory elements of conviction, sheer force and fragile vulnerability. A guitarist and pianist at heart, “OK Computer” marked Yorke’s first significant foray into synthesizers, sequencers and electronic instruments – which, consequently, became a primary musical foundation for the album. This move is certainly embraced in the most eclectic song in the collection, “Fitter Happier,” where a computer voice outputs random words and phrases over everything from atonal honky-tonk piano to strings to random electric scratching sounds.
While that song sticks out like a sore thumb, others seem to find a more nuanced middle ground. The nearly seven-minute “Paranoid Android” moves almost like an orchestral piece, different instruments driving different movements: acoustic guitar, moving to electric, then back to acoustic and finally electric. It’s a seamless stitching together of what otherwise could be three or four great standalone songs, all while melodies and counter-melodies share time with Yorke singing, “Rain down, rain down, come on rain down on me from a great height.” The song ends abruptly, giving the sense that you just fell off a cliff of sorts, falling mercifully into the musical abyss.
Likewise, “Karma Police” begins with the simplest of piano chords, devolving (or evolving?) into a hypnotic tailspin with Yorke’s repetitive and ominous warning: “This is what you’ll get when you mess with us.” The juxtaposition of chilling lyrics with a Beatles-esque accompaniment creates a level of dissonance best reflected in their award winning video.
The real brilliance of “OK Computer” is Radiohead’s ability to reach far into the musical future while remaining loosely grounded in the present. This is what helps a couple of songs stand out in the crowd, whereas they might get lost on an album with like-minded tunes. Even then, though, Radiohead won’t let us get too comfortable, as the lyric/musical dissonance remains quite pronounced. On “Let Down” Yorke sings, “The emptiest of feelings / Disappointed people, clinging on to bottles / When it comes it’s so, so, disappointing …” over a beautiful guitar riff played in an entirely different time signature from the rest of the song. And these words from “No Surprises,” accompanied by the sweet sounds of a glockenspiel’s higher register:
A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heal
You look so tired, unhappy.
By the time “The Tourist” rolls around at the end of the album, you’re exhausted; it’s not easy contemplating the philosophical ramifications of cultural disintegration. Radiohead appears to have anticipated this. “Hey man, slow down,” Yorke croons in his haunting falsetto/belting hybrid in grand 3/4 time. “Slow down, idiot, slow down.”
It is hard, very hard, for a 20-year-old album to sound as fresh and relevant as the day it was released. It’s almost as if Radiohead saw into the future and managed to create a work of art that by design would stand the test of time. In that sense, “Ok Computer” was prophetic, setting the stage for 2000’s “Kid A” and the rest of the band’s catalog. There was no going back – and that’s a good thing.
If you haven’t listened to the album that started it all, do yourself a favor and plug yourself in – with headphones or earbuds, if at all possible. Like Radiohead, you won’t be the same on the other end.