Throwback Thursday: Radiohead 'OK Computer'

18 years old and still one of the greatest releases ever, James Crosley puts the legacy of Radiohead's Ok Computer into perspective.

Ben Smith

Last updated: 10th Dec 2015

Image: Radiohead

The year is 1997: Tony Blair’s new labour have just taken the reins of power, scientists have cloned the first ever animal and Britain is left mourning the death of one of the world’s most popular public figures, Princess Diana.

However the really interesting stories are in music. 1997 sees the release of some of music’s most eponymous albums, Blur’s Blur Oasis’ Be Here Now and Radiohead’s OK Computer.

When it comes to prestigious music, Britain is not exactly short of cards to play and bands to reel off; but very few can touch the level of adoration and stature that Radiohead have managed to forge, presiding, as they do, at the very apex of musical accomplishment and critical acclaim. 

They firmly cemented themselves as the kings of the melancholic, grungy ballad early on with hits like 'Creep' and 'You' off debut album Pablo Honey in 1994.

Radiohead would then shift into new experimental realms taking up producing their albums for themselves in a move their major label cohorts called “career suicide.”

The skepticism is indicative of the pre-millennial music industry and its struggle to predict what to expect. Radiohead would later refine this style of self-produced material and major label distribution on follow up album The Bends which celebrated its 20 year anniversary this year.

The Bends would form a solid grounding for Radiohead across the Atlantic and received unanimously good reviews. Often cited as the turning point for the band, it took on a roll as an iconic soundtrack for a generation of angsty teens and twenty-somethings and still remains an essential to this day.

Similar to Robert Johnson’s 'Crossroads', the band disappeared for a while and returned in 1997 with OK Computer. It has been hailed “the greatest release of the last 25 years” by Q Magazine and numerous other publications and critics.

The album would be the first attempt by the band to self-produce a release, co-produced in its entirety with Nigel Godrich. With Thom Yorke and Godrich at the helm on production and Johnny Greenwood pushing the experimentation of instruments to new heights, Radiohead set out on a mission to bust out of the mid-late nineties Brit Pop.

In interviews leading up to the release of the album, Thom Yorke had said he was inspired the political writing of Noam Chomsky and what he called “the fridge buzz” of the alternative music scene at the time.

Citing the easy to ignore white noise of the music even Radiohead had been making at that time, it was a sign of the change that the band was intending to make.

The same shabby, misfit appearance of the group railed against the clean-cut, brand touting, boy band look of pop acts of the nineties. The chaotic and often inaccessible demeanour of Thom Yorke made the band quite controversial compared to their contemporaries, garnering them a sort of cult status.

Blending jittery electronic music influences through Nigel Godrich’s drum machines and D.A.Ws, Radiohead pushed the box further and harder than anybody predicted. With psychedelic twists and turns, gritty and aggressive rock and leering maniacal falsetto vocals, it gave the album a feel of the machines coming to life.

Conjuring up themes of: depression, rebellion, love, angst, solipsism, pessimism and the soul crushing boredom of a life spent commuting in and out of London, OK Computer takes a cynical, Orwellian outlook towards normal society, politics and life.

Hidden deep in the lyrics, people unearthed Yorke’s insular-isms regarding the turn of the century and the rise of consumer culture leading society down the drain.

Always referred to as a breakthrough by critics, the album’s sentiments seem to ring truer with every year in an increasingly eerily prophetic way.

In 2015, the album was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for inclusion in the National Recording Registry: an award only achieved by around 300 albums at the time.

The work is now etched into American history alongside such iconic works as Beethoven’s quartets and Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream.”

OK Computer has political leanings that were against the majority of the nation’s, Britain was an optimistic place following New Labour and hoping for change. The new government’s campaign ran to theme of “Things can only get better” and even Oasis claimed Tony Blair was the “only real politician” at the time.

Radiohead viewed the world through a warped and skewed lens and saw the time as a scary, dismal place; critics often quoted the fact that the message of OK Computer carried was “things can only get worse.”

You do not have to rummage too deeply to find this through the lyrics of 'No Surprises' (listen above): “bring down the government, they don’t speak for us.”

Even the title of the track connotes the stasis of anxiety that the band viewed the world with;  it would be echoed by many of their fans and prove to be a sentiment that helped to stand the album in its timeless frame.

OK Computer celebrated its 18th birthday earlier this year and it was the anniversary of their first Glastonbury headline set as well (see a clip from that below).

The 1997 Glastonbury set was the start of many achievements that few bands get to accomplish mainstream. It is not as though the band are without their critics – in a recent interview with Consequence of Sound Motorhead singer, Lemmy Kilmister said they are “not very good”. He also thought changing style the way Radiohead do is a bad idea.

As Radiohead have become more prominent again they have come under fire from the likes of Noel Gallagher, who slagged off Radiohead as having “never written a good song” and that Thom Yorke could get good reviews if he “shit in a light bulb and played it like an empty beer bottle.”

Radiohead announced that they will tour and announced the impending release of a new album and tour for 2016. This news was followed by a steady trickle of rumors that Oasis may be getting back together and that The Happy Mondays are reforming once again – all this begs the question of what exactly the next release will be like? And where do Radiohead see music heading now?