No chance of escape: 20 years of wrestling with OK Computer
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
It arrived so quietly and it still landed with a ridiculous impact.
From the moment OK Computer was released and landed in CD players around the globe, there was a collective, confounded reaction. What was Thom Yorke singing about on “Subterranean Homesick Alien?” How did they make the guitars sound like that on “Climbing Up the Walls?” What is going on with this band? Where did any of this music come from?
Even flipping through the booklet was baffling. Strange scribbles and lopped-off lyrical bits intermingled with rejected safety manual illustrations. The lyrics were mistyped and rendered in a machine font. It was all opaque and mysterious. And what was inside was even more dramatic.
All this has just been reinforced through the past 20 years. The album never disappeared and remained steady companions in millions of collections. It stood the test of time and elaborate theories began popping up on its meaning, its recording and even subsequent albums — how, 10 years later, their record In Rainbows seemed to zipper seamlessly with OK Computer, working as a companion and expansion of the original album. It became difficult, in fact, to remember life before 1997.
This brings us to the present and the release of OK Computer — OKNOTOK 1997 2017, a deluxe rerelease of the album in multiple formats, all of which include a second disc of the B-sides and unreleased tracks from the same period. It fills out an already fascinating picture and adds to the questions and speculations already surrounding it.
OKNOTOK also offers an excellent opportunity to explore what made the original album such a life-changing monster, as well as how the new materials add to its already impressive reputation. The end result is still as thrilling and confusing as ever, of course, which just further cements its stature.
If Radiohead’s debut Pablo Honey was the work of an exceptionally good band from the suburbs with a clear voice, their follow-up The Bends saw the group move to the city and rapidly mature. That second album was so far beyond their debut as to stun listeners. It was mature, musically gripping and thematically linked by a desperate voice in search of a sense of self. What happened? How had they reached this place?
As their career progressed, Radiohead traveled deeper and deeper into the depths of that mysterious place. I visualize this as a journey into the deep woods; five band members walking the earth in search of this crystalized vision, one of clear, minimal, unfettered communication. Their latest excursions have given us A Moon Shaped Pool, a dense and mystifying collection of songs that lets its hypnotic powers loose after dozens and dozens of plays. It’s not easy listening, even if it’s quiet.
But early along this path, they quickly conceived OK Computer, an album that shattered even the heightened standards of The Bends. It’s now correctly hailed as a masterpiece and a totem in rock music, one of the greatest albums of the decade and perhaps all time. But that praise didn’t come en masse for nearly a year. Upon its initial release, it was just another album by some alternative band.
Maybe state-side, Capitol thought of them as a curiosity, a sort-of British Counting Crows that had made up their end of the recording deal but didn’t necessarily warrant a further publicity push. Sure, “Creep” and “Fake Plastic Trees” were hits, and “High and Dry,” “Street Spirit” and a few others were alternative radio staples, but surely that well was soon to run dry. It’s easy to envision an A&R rep giving some of these songs a sideways glance, at least.
I’m sure it suited the band, though. One cursory viewing of the Meeting People Is Easy documentary will show that working the business mechanisms and making all the necessary appearances to maximize fame was the last thing anyone in Radiohead, especially Yorke, wanted. So they began to actively push away as many outside commitments as possible without derailing the band entirely. Interviews were scarce, TV appearances were limited. The band wanted to play and record and basically be left alone while doing it. So news of the album trickled out in the spring, it was quietly released in June and just sort of lingered in North America for a few months.
Beyond hearing “Let Down” on those college stations, there wasn’t much noise on the album until the “Paranoid Android” video appeared on MTV in the fall — a bizarre cartoon based on Magnus Carlsson’s “Robin” series that sees its main character meeting all kinds of strange folks until a businessman eventually cries, cuts off all his limbs and is carried to a tree branch swaddled like a baby. That’s mainstream behavior if I’ve ever seen it.
It was all the act of a band leaving home, leaving the city and delving further into the woods than ever before.
It’s incredibly hard to sum up the impact that OK Computer initially had and continues to have on listeners. But “Paranoid Android” is as good a place as any to begin. It’s a song that serves as the whole of the album in microcosm, with its three distinct sections coming together to form a suite. It was the first taste of the record for most listeners, and while it held many of the same distinctions of Radiohead’s previous work — oblique lyrics, Yorke’s soaring voice, an insane Jonny Greenwood guitar solo — the way they worked together made it unlike anything the band had done, or anything else that might’ve been on the radio.
There are myriad interpretations to the lyrics, too. Is this a day in the life of one of the disassociated stand-ins for society that peppers so much of the album?
I may be paranoid, but not an android
Is our hero constantly being knocked down in even his meager attempts at reaching some kind of upward social mobility?
Ambition makes you look pretty ugly
Kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy
Or is this the story of some megalomaniac’s rise and fall, calling for the execution of his detractors before finally succumbing to a dissatisfied populace?
Why don’t you remember my name?
Off with his head, man, off with his head
That’s it sir, you’re leaving
That’s just a sampling. There are so many ways to go with this. But many of those themes would be explored elsewhere. That unending drive for power is perfectly and clearly displayed on “Electioneering,” complete with a thrashing backing and the most unhinged Greenwood solo this side of “Just.” The human pull to be accepted by society no matter the consequences pops its head up again on “Karma Police,” a track that would eventually become one of the band’s biggest singles and even wound up on the original NOW! compilation. The need for love bordering on obsession was greeted in full with “Climbing Up the Walls.”
And musically, it contained bits and pieces of what would be extrapolated out in full later in the album. Similar soaring vocals punctuated by guitars punching through the surface appear on “Lucky.” The song’s slow, haunting third act would be bettered two songs later in the nightmarish love story, “Exit Music (For a Film).”
It was the perfect thesis statement to whatever message Radiohead was trying to pull together on its third album. It set expectations and opened up possibilities for further exploration later. But it was only skimming the surface. As difficult a single as “Paranoid Android” might’ve been, they had many more tricks to disturb, confuse and thrill listeners waiting.
It seems imperative, at some point in this exercise, to highlight the disturbing brilliance of “fitter happier,” a song that confounds even 20 years on. Through it’s Stephen Hawking-esque computer voice, it spits out a series of command lines that act as both self-help and sermonized scripture on living and thriving in a world with very clear expectations that the individual taking in this information will be happy and content within their pre-defined boundaries. That it immediately followed the most radio-ready piece of music on the album was almost certainly intentional. It’s title is even hidden in smaller type on the record’s back tracklisting.
It begins with the most benign of suggestions, helping the listener along to a fitter, happier lifestyle, becoming more productive, resting comfortably, cutting back on the drinks after work, hitting the gym, and so on. The motivations to keep the subject not necessarily happier but a better cog in the machine follow quickly, though, with the command of “getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries” coming in.
It was a prescient foresight to the era of control and supervision and surveillance that was quickly arriving. Within 10 years, the iPhone would further wire everyone into everything except the physical world, and 10 years after that, it would be programmed to follow the user’s every step, tell it when to go to bed and when to go to sleep, which foods to eat, which movies to see, which words to use. It was a glimpse into a dystopia that appeared all too suddenly.
Before all that, Radiohead was uncomfortably spitting out a list of similar edicts, while bells chime and gears grind and the dirge becomes all the more unsettling:
No chance of escape
Concerned but powerless
An empowered member of society
Pragmatism not idealism.
Will not cry in public
Less chance of illness
No longer empty and frantic like a cat tied to a stick
While all this is happening, the music behind the robotic voice is a freak show. It’s dissonant and uneven and becomes physically difficult to listen to. It’s a soundscape for a German horror movie. It could be used as torture music by the CIA if it weren’t so artfully created. And as the music crashes down, equal parts 56K modem grinding to a halt and 747 falling from the sky, it offers one last bleak glimpse into the corporate world’s ideal vision of the individual:
in a cage
Imagine Yorke sitting in a room with an MTV reporter and being asked to dissect that with a photogenic smile.
Further evidence of the band’s ridiculously inspired climb from this period rests on the second disc of this reissue. Eight of the 11 tracks here had already been released as B-sides, most of them on the fantastic Airbag / How Am I Driving? EP.
But the real punch comes in three unreleased songs that have been long-sought among collectors. “I Promise,” “Man of War” and “Lift” had appeared on bootlegs, via tapes or the occasional live performance (with “Man of War” billed as “Big Boots”). But here they live in their fully realized glory, sounding perfectly at home within the scattered, skeptical world of the rest of OK Computer.
“I Promise” works as the kind of proto-romantic statement that Radiohead has excelled at their entire career. Instead of writing an all-out ballad, they create these snatches of words, one-off lines that land as heavy as any full verse by a balladeer. Over a determined march, Yorke is satisfied to simply list off his check-marked promises, committing to fulfill each one in the hopes of measuring up to that ideal that’s so difficult to meet. “Even when the ship is wrecked,” he sings, “tie me to the rotting deck.”
“Lift” plays as a bridge between the band that recorded The Bends and OK Computer, and is another lost classic. It would’ve sounded perfect on the My Iron Lung EP, nestled alongside “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong” as another disparate rumination on life and living in the moment. Again, it’s indirect and the music is swirling, but it’s closer to the inward reflection of the band’s earlier material than the staccato-styled messaging they were cultivating.
“Man of War,” though, vibrates as though it could slot perfectly in between “Lucky” and “The Tourist” on the original album. It slowly builds to a destructive second half, with Yorke barking out his orders over an increasingly thundering backing:
“So unplug the phones, stop all the taps
It all comes flooding back
To poison the clouds, and poisoned dwarves
You’re my man of war
You’re my man of war
Yeah, the worms will come for you, big boots.”
It’s the kind of aggressive stance that they’d hone and make even more direct in the years to come, with more overt messaging appearing years later on tracks like “Where I End and You Begin” and “We Suck Young Blood.” As the band shot up to stardom, they focused on the greed and negativity that can sink creativity, and in turn used that to fuel their music and their message. From there, the message became purposely fractured and obscured. Which was perfect. Who were they to act as messengers via commercial product, anyway?
All of these messages, from the cryptic scrawlings in the artwork to the detached lines of parable within the lyrics themselves, were so indirect yet so specific that it’s easy to fall in too deep, to believe the band had some ulterior motive to deliver some subversive message of despair on the modern world as we’ve created it.
Maybe there was and, with this reissue and all their recent work, maybe there still is. On every level, it presented music that was gripping and fascinating, but also healing and supportive. While their earlier music had been profoundly empathetic, OK Computer was the first Radiohead collection to feel like a field manual on navigating all the treachery in the world. It was both commentary and an active warning about how malaise can bring about the downfall of individuals and society. It was knowingly packaged and sold within that same materialistic world, and it wrestled with all the contradictions that brings.
And, most importantly, it was an incredible listen. It plays so seamlessly from front to back. It has textures buried under textures that revealed themselves only after the most intense and careful listens. It sounds great blasting out of a car with the windows down, barreling down I-84 at 75 miles per hour. It was a statement. It rocked. It soothed. It contained levels upon levels. Above all, it demarked the world that existed before OK Computer, and quietly forcefully, the world after it.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org