Author: Bruce Jenkins  Date Posted:22 April 2022 


It’s been called—by Rolling Stone magazine, no less—"the last masterpiece of the alt-rock movement". A collection of songs about aliens, car crashes, paranoid androids and general life-angst, it was released twenty-five years ago yet manages to nail what our technologically driven, information overloaded lives are like in 2022. Welcome to the despairing, hypnotic, what’s-that-in-the-corner-of-my-eye world of Radiohead’s OK Computer.

The irony of much of OK Computer is that it was written by Thom Yorke during extended touring and interminable travel, much of it supporting Alanis Morissette during her Jagged Little Pill tour. Alienation via technology was a metaphor for the difficulty of connecting with others when you are confined to a tour bus or hotel room rather than a particular dystopian view of the future. How ironic, then, that OK Computer resonates so powerfully in our social media driven, mobile phone addicted world.

The story about the naming of Radiohead’s (first) masterpiece relates to the touring mentioned above. The musicians were listening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams’ profound yet hilarious sci-fi story, to help pass the hours on the bus. As the characters approach a supposedly non-existent planet, they are met with deadly missiles which the ship’s computer is unable to help them avoid. "OK, computer," says the President of the Galaxy, "I want full manual control now." The carbon-based lifeforms wrest their fate back from the spaceship’s powerful computer… and survive. Thom Yorke jotted the words down in a notebook.

Although there are layers of sounds and textures on many of OK Computer’s songs, it remains a post-modern guitar album yet one with clear progressive ambitions. Centrepiece "Paranoid Android" has sections of calm beauty pierced by squalling distorted guitars. Melody overlays electronica beds, yearning is interspersed with frustration. On "Subterranean Homesick Alien" the narrator imagines walking a country lane; "Exit Music (For A Film)" has a wistful murmur over strummed acoustic guitar that slowly builds, while on "Fitter Happier" an early Macintosh computer delivers the vocal in a flat voice very different from the chirpy Eddie in Hitchhiker’s Guide. It evokes the experimental sounds of early Faust, the 1970s German innovators.

It’s worth remembering that three singles were released from OK Computer. The band chose "Paranoid Android" for the first attempt at the charts and it did pretty well, in the UK at least. "Karma Police" and "No Surprises" followed. Their success—or otherwise—is less important than the fact that this dense, intense album has some great tunes. It may be light on arm-waving sing-along anthems, but some of the melodies worm their way into the brain like malware. Then of course, there are the ripping rock-outs like "Electioneering" and atmospheric slices of anguish such as "Climbing Up The Walls" where Jonny Greenwood cited Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki as an inspiration for the dissonant strings. This is an album that creates a world both familiar and alien, one that reaches out then turns inwards, one that soothes and scarifies.

Just out from its twenty-fifth anniversary on 21 May, OK Computer remains one of the best albums of the late twentieth century and a potent forecast of the twenty-first century’s weather. Better carry an umbrella.

© Bruce Jenkins 2022

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