20 Years of OK Computer

Radiohead-OK-Computer

Ok Computer came out in the summer of 1997 and while it is anything but a summer album, it has endured as the classic it was recognized as back then.  There is a new 20th anniversary edition of the album out (with a few unreleased b-sides, including the excellent “Man of War”-other bands would kill for a b-side of its caliber). Rolling Stone did an excellent cover story on the album (even though I still think Chris Cornell should have been on the cover).  They also did a fascinating oral history  of the album, which includes interesting tidbits such as the fact that the lyrics of “Airbag” were partially an attempt to imitate the lyrical style of Michael Stipe, who Yorke befriended before the recording of the album.

The album completely shifted how I (and many others) viewed Radiohead. I liked “Creep” when it came out in 1993, and bought The Bends when it was released in 1995, because I liked “Fake Plastic Trees”.  But I have to admit that the album as a whole didn’t hit me at time-I liked a few of the songs but wasn’t immensely into it.  Move to 1997 and my friend Ed tells me that I HAVE to listen to their new album OK Computer, so I do.  My mind was blown. It sounded fresh, odd, unique, and amazing.  I went back and listened to The Bends and immediately was thinking “How did I miss this? This album is awesome too!”.  There was a switch and it took OK Computer to flip it.

It still sounds as original and impressive to me today. What’s crazy is that this was a band at the time that had one massive hit, but then the follow up was a modest success with no second single that went into the stratosphere. Usually bands decide to get experimental when they are more secure in their situation, but Radiohead did it prematurely, which to me is a sign of a band following their muse wherever it took them, regardless of the consequences, and I love that.  In the Rolling Stone article, Yorke recounts how the executives at their label were not sure what to do with the album, and that even the band themselves were wondering just what they had created.

What still amazes me is how much of a true album it is, especially in this age of streaming and playlists and music as background noise.  I can’t really recall a time that I wanted to hear just one particular song off of it-when I want to hear it, I want to hear the whole thing, from start to finish.  Each song flows into the next, and the masterful sequencing of the album creates a path that makes it impossible to imagine the songs in any other order.

I’m not sure any other band is as talented as making 3 minute songs sound epic.  Two big components in that are Yorke’s vocals and Johnny Greenwood’s guitar playing.  There are so many chill inducing moments-the crescendo that “Airbag” builds to; Johnny Greenwood’s freakouts in “Paranoid Android”, which Yorke says is equal parts “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, which is both an odd coupling and also perfectly compelling. There’s “Exit Music (for a Film)”, which now seems the only choice to play over the end credits of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, as it completely captures the tragic mood.  The sweeping atmospherics of “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, the sublime melancholia of “Let Down”, the avalanche of paranoia that is “Climbing up the Walls”.  The beautiful resignation of “No Surprises”. Etc for infinity. And it might seem cliché, but the album closer “The Tourist” actually feels like the weary end of a journey, with its slow motion pleading. My least favorite song (and the band’s according to the Rolling Stone podcast about the cover story) is “Electioneering”, and even it is a great song, and has its proper place on the album.

Of course, things changed after this.  The band, exhausted from constant recording and touring, made drastic changes to their sound. They grew tired of always using traditional instrumentation and song structures. Johnny Greenwood, to my disappointment, seemed to grow disenchanted with the guitar for awhile, or at least the soaring/discordant guitar playing of his that I love so much. I am still a big fan, and they have returned at times to flashes of their former sounds, without repeating themselves (“Knives Out” off of Amnesiac, “2+2=5” and “Sail to the Moon” off of Hail to the Thief, much of In Rainbows, which I think is their best post-OK Computer album).  Their latest album, A Moon Shaped Pool, was a definite improvement over The King of Limbs in my opinion.  I’m resigned to the fact that they probably won’t ever return to as much of their Bends/OK Computer sounds as I would like, and that’s fine. That is their prerogative as artists and I respect that. (For the record, it’s not that I want them to try and make another version of those albums. I just prefer the slightly skewed but still traditional song structure/prominent instrumentation version of the band vs the tinkering with synthesizers/meandering semi or no melody version)

But for me, when I think of the height of their musicality, I always return to OK Computer. And if the cost of that album is that they never return to anything even remotely resembling it, that’s a price I am happy to accept.

 

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