It Was 20 Years Ago Today…June 1997

Radiohead:  OK Computer

I’m a few days late on this, but I’ve been busy with laptop computer problems…kinda fitting given the album title i’m briefly reviewing.

OK Computer was the 3rd album released by Radiohead, one of the biggest bands of the 90s and the followup release to one of my favorite albums, The Bends.  It was a giant leap forward for a band that was attempting to get away from their status as “the band that wrote ‘Creep’ (one of three popular songs by that name in the 90s)”.  Twenty years later, the band is still exploring the sounds they first explored on this album.

I saw Radiohead at the summer festival Endfest in 1997, less than two months after this album came out.  I had yet to hear it, but was expecting that tracks such as “Street Spirit” and the aforementioned “Creep” would be performed.  What we got was “Airbag” and “Karma Police” among others.  The result was a 7 song performance that featured 3 tracks from an album I’d never heard.  I was disappointed, but looking back several years later, I really wish there were footage of the performance because in hindsight it was probably pretty good.

The premise of the album was the ubiquity of computers invading our every day interaction with the world around us.  Given that, within about 5 years after the album’s release, cell phones went from being a luxury purchase to a must have for everybody over the age of 15, the vision turned out to be pretty spot on.

This premise is most relevant on the tracks “Paranoid Android” and “Fitter Happier”.  The title of “Paranoid Android” takes itself from Marvin of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fame; an android who is chronically depressed but simultaneously despises his roll in the universe.  As such, the protagonist is putting down those he comes in contact with, as evidenced in lines such as “when I am king, you will be first up against the wall” and “Gucci little piggy”.  Set as track 2 on the album, it serves as a setup for the alienation felt throughout the remainder of the songs.

The sense of alienation comes to a point on the computer-spoken, ambient noise track “Fitter Happier”, which spells out a highly organized and “perfect” life in the starkest of terms.  It features all kinds of lines about ideals within modern society such as “a safer car/baby strapped in back seat” and “fitter, happier, more productive” before ending the track with a phrase out of joint with the rest of the song “a pig in a cage on antibiotics”.  This brilliantly outlines the feeling of requirement to fit into society, while also illuminating the fact that those who do their best unthinkingly are not better than a pig in a cage awaiting their inevitable demise.

Aside:  I was actually surprised that Fitter Happier has been performed live.  Enjoy the performance at the end of Karma Police , another song from OK Computer that I am not discussing within this review.

When I finally did pick up a copy of OK Computer, I immediately understood what was being laid out before me.  The song I’ve enjoyed the most through the last 20 years has been “No Surprises”.  The track begins with the great visual representation of living in a society that values goods over human interaction “heart that’s full up like a landfill”.   The character within the song, and probably followed throughout the album, is giving off his “final bellyache” before giving in and learning to love the Computer.  I remember seeing the above video on MTV during the late 90s and was struck by how low budget it was.  Given the attitude of the song, it really makes thematic sense, seeing the lights reflected on the glass around Thom’s head, the holding his breath and accepting what’s coming, the bored look on his face, all piece together to show resignation and acceptance of what they all see coming.

The final track on the album “The Tourist” takes a line from Fahrenheit 451, specifically “it barks at no one else but me”.  The “it” of this song is the advancement of technology, something the protagonist of the song sees coming that other people are just blindly accepting the oncoming march to oblivion or obscurity.  It’s a fitting close to an album that lashes out at “acceptance” and “normalcy”.

Hailed almost immediately as a Masterpiece, OK Computer set Radiohead down the path of becoming and staying one of the biggest bands of the alternative rock scene.  It was a gigantic songwriting leap forward from “Creep” of five short years before.  Beginning with their 1997 tour, they did not play songs from Pablo Honey and it wasn’t for about a decade until they learned to embrace their early fame.  Many music critics have ranked OK Computer as one of the most influential rock albums of all time.  Given how prescient the theme of the album has become, influencing such phenomenon as The Matrix and the book Feed, it has earned it’s rightful place and deserves to be discussed and debated along side other albums that earn that moniker.

In 2016, Radiohead released A Moon Shaped Pool, hailed by many as one of the best albums of that year, if not for a little album called Lemonade…

Next year, Radiohead are eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Given the titanic status of OK Computer, I for one, am expecting that they will be inducted on their first year of eligibility.


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