From the initial off-time drums to the heavily distorted guitar refrain, ‘Airbag’ tells you that this is a different Radiohead to that which you heard on their previous album, The Bends. A very different Radiohead.
Sure, sitting here in 2012 looking back to their 1997 release you would be forgiven for thinking that it just sounds like Radiohead do. But back then, it was clear that as an artist they were about progression, and ‘High & Dry’ this was not. ‘Airbag’ was just so different and did not easily invite the listener in, or wrap warm cosy feelings around them.
I loved Radiohead before OK Computer was released, and had already had the pleasure of seeing them live on The Bends tour twice. In that regard I was already a fully paid up member of the “I love Radiohead club”. But then perhaps I had more to lose, what if I wanted (or at least expected) The Bends Part 2. Certainly at the time there were many who hated OK Computer, and still do as they wonder what happened to their favourite little Indie Rock Band as they cry “Why won’t they play ‘Creep’ live anymore?”
By the time second track ‘Paranoid Android’ starts, you’d be forgiven if you thought this wasn’t the band who has sung about ‘Fake Plastic Trees’. Nowadays the track is cited as one of their best, and you should know it off by heart. When it was released the song caused such an impact. Regime change, if you will. I remember as a student lying on my bed on Wednesday afternoon (I did say “student”) and hearing this song for the first time on Jo Whiley’s Radio 1 show. For six and a half minutes I was mesmerised. As a contemporary song, as a new single from a band who’s last release was ‘Street Spirit’ this was mind-blowing!
Now considered that era’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Stairway to Heaven’, and ‘Freebird’ all rolled into one, the song is awash with different time signatures, acoustic guitar laments and moments of pure unadulterated guitar heaven. The lyrics suitable obscure and yet so obvious and memorable; “God loves his children, God loves his children. (yeah)…” If you only listen one Radiohead song in your lifetime, make sure it is this one. You owe to it yourself.
As if not wanting to reach a crescendo too soon, the following track ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ is a haunting and slow track which brings the mood to a lower place. You can’t help but notice the layers of guitar and sounds which punctuate the song and let Thom Yorke’s voice float across the top as if disembodied.
Raising emotions further ‘Exit Music (for a film)’, written for the end credits of Romeo and Juliet is a slow, almost solo, acoustic number. Taking the listener on the story of Romeo and Juliet as if they were one of the fated pair, the result is is a haunting lament until the 2:50 mark when the drums kick in proper and a heavy electronic bass line takes the song to new heights for just long enough to allow you to feel the anguish of defeat at the end with the closing line of defiance to their parents “We all hope you choke, that you choke” is given. Beautiful.
Moving to a more upbeat place ‘Let Down’ is next. In terms of structure the song is definitely closer to the sound of The Bends than much of OK Computer, but the use of layers and sound textures still remain. Originally I always thought that the track was just average, but now it feels perfectly paced and in an ideal position on the album.
‘Karma Police’ is piano-driven and another slice of absolute beauty. A mid-paced track, with a very catchy chorus. By the time the line “Phew! For a minute there I lost myself…” comes along just try and not sing along. An obvious choice for a single, ‘Karma Police’ remains a firm favourite in most fans hearts.
‘Fitter Happier’ is not a song, but a monologue by a computer on the state of society as it hurtles towards the millennium. A listen makes you conscious of what you are doing with your life, and then on to the next track. If’ I’m perfectly honest it works in it’s position on the album overall, but I think I’ve listened to it a handful of times ever. A definite candidate for the ; button.
‘Electioneering’, like ‘Let Down’ is classic rock song with a more traditional time signature, albiet a full-paced one with guitar riff to match. ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ is slow, methodical and re-introduces a layer of abstract sounds providing a canvas for Thom’s distorted vocal to paint foreboding futuristic vision once more.
When ‘No Surprises’ starts with its simplistic xylophone tune, it feels like a lullaby. It is, but a lullaby to a mid-life crisis, of drowning in society, of the pressures of life and the desire to somehow give up or change. The mood is back to where we were earlier on the album with ‘Exit Music…’. When the music hushes down to a bare minimum and the lyrics “This is my final fit, my final belly-ache with no alarms, and no surprises” is sung, the pain hits you squarely. A beautiful sounding song with a desperate and painful message, delivered in such a childlike and simplistic manner. Classic.
‘Lucky’ was written for the Warchild Help album which was released two years earlier, and at the time it sounded a lot like The Bends. In situ it is a perfect OK Computer track. Somehow the song morphs to fit its surrounding perfectly. With overtones of apocalyptic scenarios such as air crashes and being summoned for by your country, the layers of guitar and overall feeling is uplifting, and it is easy to get lost in the song.
Like an epilogue in a book, ‘The Tourist’ is the perfect end to the album. Slow, reflective and optimistic. By the time the song has finished you are left with a sense of beauty, of hurt, despair and hope.
OK Computer is a masterpiece. When the Millennium happened – and many times since – it is regularly voted and considered the best album of the past however many years by magazines such as Q and Rolling Stone. Remember, at the time in the UK Britpop was at a peak, Oasis and Blur and the pretenders to the throne were outselling everyone else. Up until this album, Radiohead were viewed part of the pack. From this moment on, they were never grouped together.
Perhaps it was a conscious decision, perhaps even artistically the band simply grew or reacted to what they were seeing in the world. Certainly the lyrics, emotion and outlook of the album point to a fear of the coming years and what could happen in the planets future. Ground-breaking and a milestone in my life, OK Computer changed my tastes in music forever, and today I still consider their releases as some of the most significant events in my music calendar, even if hearing the release is difficult and challenging, Allowing a Radiohead album to get under your skin is as much a rewarding experience today, as it was in 1997 with OK Computer.