Looking back 20 years later, several things should come to mind from 1997, stirring modern emotions. The death of Princess Diana, The Heaven's Gate mass suicide, and the rising influence of Microsoft are only a few highlights. These events all caused a sense of paranoia and subtle fear for the turn of the century, but no public soul had been bold enough to voice this disturbance — until a formerly obscure band decided to embody these emotions in a modern giant of an album.
Along with the more pressing matters of the year, it became so blatantly evident that the alternative rock algorithm made so successful by grunge and Britpop had begun to sour, and every band surfacing in this stagnant era sounded so miserably like the other one. Radiohead, a band dubbed “Nirvana lite” at this time, was no anomaly to this pattern in their early years. Their debut album, “Pablo Honey,” was indistinguishable from the pile of manufactured grunge and Britpop albums at the time, and the band behaving as insincere and uncouth as their contemporaries. This stigma was rather replaced than broken with their sophomore effort “The Bends,” a rather formative and more mature album, but one filled with cheap sob-songs and sentimental milking.
This only makes it harder to explain how Radiohead, a joke of a band at the time, managed to speak to the philosophers and music connoisseurs of the era, yet they did. After 2 years of heavily tapping into more unconventional influences like Miles Davis, DJ Shadow, and the later, more experimental work of The Beatles, Radiohead set out to find a "dense, terrifying sound" unlike any other. Lead singer Thom Yorke's lyrics became more abstract, pulling from slogans, social critique and an area of his conscience he previously chose to keep tucked away, and lead guitarist and composer Jonny Greenwood set out to arrange music in more obscure styles and for a more diverse array of instrument. They didn't only achieve their goal in writing their 3rd album, "OK Computer," they also revolutionized the music scene and the minds of their listeners alike.
Though their previous albums were heavily flawed, one thing was made apparent: Radiohead always knew how to successfully open an album, setting the bar far too high on "Pablo Honey" with the fiery "You" and smoothly opening "The Bends" with the atmospheric, synth-driven "Planet Telex." "Airbag" wiped the floor with the two aforementioned songs, both foreshadowing and exhibiting the musical ingenuity that would make up "OK Computer."
Dealing abstractly with the ecstasy of surviving a car accident and claiming another day of life, "Airbag" is a burst of energy from every perspective. This feeling of profound joy bleeds from the fingertips of each members' finger, leading to a stellar performance from the entire band ranging from a looped drum track punctuated by a scarce bass riff to the lush guitars that cushion Yorke's vocals. From the rejuvenating guitar riff that opens the song to the sighs of relief that bring it to a close, "Airbag" breathes life into OK Computer.
The otherworldly tone of "Airbag" quickly turns more introspective, sarcastic and obscure with the album's leading single and second track, "Paranoid Android." Taking influence from the lacing together of several small songs on The Beatle's "Happiness is a Warm Gun," and Yorke's observations of uncouth people acting up in public bars, the song fashions itself as a triple-sectioned journey through the mind of a disturbed, delusional Thom Yorke and the ramblings of a pissed-off supercomputer.
The song begins with a vibrant, suspenseful acoustic guitar accompanied by Jonny Greenwood's flanger pedal, setting a satirical mood as Yorke rambles on about the "unborn chicken voices" in his head, and later threatens obnoxious listeners with execution before the song breaks down into its progressive middle section. After a few clam measures of acoustic guitar and further taunting lyrics, the song brings itself to an abrupt halt as Yorke sneer's "Off with his head, man!" Jonny Greenwood then cuts through with a tremolo guitar riff that staggers, gains speed and promptly brings the section to an end. The final section of the song slowly descends through a solitary acoustic guitar and choral mellotron, before one final stanza of Yorke's cynical imagery ends with a mocking promise that "God loves his children," and the song erupts into one last guitar-driven explosion.
While the opening tracks showcase Radiohead's ability to make colorful tracks rich with volume and liveliness, the two songs following "Paranoid Android," among a handful of others throughout the album, prove to be equally innovative and impactful. Inspired by Bob Dylan's storytelling and the refined chaos of Mile Davis' "Bitches Brew," tracks like "Subterranean Homesick Alien" and "The Tourist" see Yorke at a point of social isolation atop Greenwood's slowly-perspirating guitar work.
"Exit Music (For a Film)" starts just as calm as the aforementioned songs, as Yorke mumbles over a few soft chords, but a droning mellotron warns the listener that something much bigger is soon to come. The second verse of "Exit Music" brings the song to a brutal climax as Thom slides up to his high register and wails over a distorted wall of synthesizers. A very important moment of silence follows this track, one that serves as a pallet cleanser in between a song so sinister and the most elegant, tear-inducing track Radiohead has ever written.
In theory, "Let Down" shouldn't work as a song. The vocal melody is repetitive and sluggish, and the song features a rather stagnant bridge. It's a simple number on paper, but the beauty in the composition of "Let Down" is found both in Greenwood's lush, shimmering guitar arpeggios that surround the rambling's of a very disappointed and, for lack of a better term, let down Thom Yorke. The lead guitar system plays infinitely through the song, as the added harmonies and layered guitars only add a tenderness to Thom's disenchanted lamentation. Though the lyrics maintain that "Let Down" isn't sentimental song, it's hard not to shed a tear as Thom's glistening, double-tracked harmonies cause the once grounded track to take flight in a triumphant, heart-wrenching manner.
"Karma Police" is another song, like "Let Down," that exceeds the expectations of the listener when they choose to look closer. Though it should read as a simple song, the pulling between two different chord sequences in the first verse, the lack of a distinct chorus, and Jonny Greenwood's piano playing only the skeleton of a melody all give "Karma Police" a more nuanced, ghastly tone. The lyrics, stemming from an inside joke between the members of Radiohead, depict a comical representation Yorke's social commentary in relation to a fictional police force, tasked with enforcing the laws of Karma. Yorke taps into a more sinister delivery in the second verse of the song, and the piano melody counters this with a delicate sampling of the Beatles' "Sexy Sadie." Furthermore, "Karma Police" demonstrates the ability something as simple as a sarcastic phrase and mold it into such an eerie, thought-provoking piece of music.
As manipulated feedback quite literally melts Karma Police to an end, the album enters its second half, beginning with "Fitter Happier," a computer-generated rambling of slogans that suggests either the ramblings of a frantic Thom Yorke or a malfunctioning computer. "Fitter Happier" sets the mood for a much darker second half of "OK Computer," with the exception of the spunky, tongue-in-cheek rock song, "Electioneering." What's left after these two tracks are among the most brooding and misanthropic.
"Climbing Up the Walls" embodies this newfound bleakness, drawing influence from avant-garde string arrangements and Thom Yorke's former job in a mental institutions. The murky verses of "Climbing Up the Walls" see Yorke's malicious confessions through a quivering falsetto, as a bass synth, radio transmission and atonal strings all alternate swelling beneath the hollow rhythm. This disturbing structure shatters, giving way to a terrifying symphony of pure noise, as Jonny Greenwood's strings crescendo and screech, Yorke lets out a bloodcurdling scream, and an ethereal, yet piercing sound is heard from above, not unlike the ones martinet, an instrument Greenwood would later master. The darkness turns more emotionally trying going into "No Surprises," an anomaly of a song that expresses the monotonous routine of the typical, 9-to-5 working individual through a drowsy, baroque-pop lullaby lead by Jonny Greenwood's glockenspiel composition.
Sitting at the tail-end of "OK Computer" is the song responsible for Radiohead's initial shift in creativity, and perhaps just as powerful as the more eccentric tracks preceding it. Years before the band had written for "OK Computer," "Lucky" was recorded spontaneously for the collaborative "Help Album" charity, and the band agreed that it was the best piece of music they had written at that point. "Lucky" still stands out on "OK Computer" as a grating, sarcastic anti-ballad rich with raked, manipulated guitar chords, droning mellotron and a bass riff that tugs at the song's tight structure. The song levitates in its chorus with an airy guitar solo, something very uncommon for Jonny Greenwood.
"Lucky" could have made the perfect ending for the album for two reasons, both lyrically and musically clever: "Lucky's" lyrics are synonymous with the subject matter of "Airbag," but handles surviving an automobile crash much differently, actually mocking the jubilance of "Airbag". The song also ends on a musical punchline, as Yorke claims he "won't leave you standing on the edge," but never resolves from his final suspended chord. Instead of ending on "Lucky," however, Radiohead opted to bring things to a more natural end with "The Tourist," a fluid, guitar-driven track recounting a bit of social commentary from Jonny Greenwood, and reminding the listener to "Slow Down" and pay attention to detail.
The album ended with the quiet ringing of a bell, but the silence afterword was only prolonged by the unanimous gasp of music critics, listeners and competing musicians alike. Nothing like "OK Computer" had been done before, and nothing this triumphant and groundbreaking was expected in such a stagnant music scene. In a fashion only achieved by "Sgt. Peppers" in the past, "OK Computer" was granted immediate acclaim from every critic, and is now still regarded as the last "classic" album ever to be recorded. Needless to say, the "Nirvana lite" moniker was dropped, and replaced with more fitting terms.
More importantly, "OK Computer" helped establish Radiohead's true musical identity, encouraging Yorke, Greenwood and the others to dive headfirst into even more uncharted musical territory. Now, more musically ambitious albums like "Kid A" have cemented Radiohead's position as creative pioneers, and fans now argue that "OK Computer" was only the tip of the iceberg. Whether or not this is true, it's impossible to deny that Radiohead found themselves on their legendary 3rd record, and that "OK Computer" is anything short of a modern masterpiece.