OK Computer

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OK Computer
Radiohead.okcomputer.albumart.jpg
Studio album by Radiohead
Released 21 May 1997 (1997-05-21)
Recorded July 1996, September 1996 – March 1997
4 September 1995 ("Lucky")
Studio
Genre
Length 53:27
Label Parlophone, Capitol
Producer Radiohead, Nigel Godrich
Radiohead chronology
The Bends
(1995)
OK Computer
(1997)
Kid A
(2000)
Singles from OK Computer
  1. "Paranoid Android"
    Released: 26 May 1997
  2. "Karma Police"
    Released: 25 August 1997
  3. "Lucky"
    Released: December 1997
  4. "No Surprises"
    Released: 12 January 1998

OK Computer is the third studio album by the English alternative rock band Radiohead, released in 1997 on Parlophone and Capitol Records. OK Computer was the first self-produced Radiohead album, with assistance from Nigel Godrich. Radiohead recorded the album in Oxfordshire and Bath between 1996 and early 1997, mostly in the historic mansion St. Catherine's Court. The band made a deliberate attempt to distance themselves from the guitar-oriented, lyrically introspective style of their previous album, The Bends. OK Computer's abstract lyrics, densely layered sound and wide range of influences laid the groundwork for Radiohead's later, more experimental work.

Upon the album's delivery to Capitol, label representatives lowered their sales estimates, deeming the record uncommercial. Nevertheless, OK Computer reached number one on the UK Albums Chart and became the band's highest album entry on the American charts at the time, debuting at number 21 on the Billboard 200. Four songs from the album—"Paranoid Android", "Karma Police", "Lucky", and "No Surprises"—were released as promotional singles. The album expanded Radiohead's worldwide popularity and has sold at least 4.5 million copies worldwide to date.

OK Computer received widespread critical acclaim and in subsequent years has been cited by listeners, critics, and musicians as one of the greatest albums of all time. The album initiated a shift away from the popular Britpop genre of the time to the more melancholic and atmospheric style of alternative rock that would be prevalent in the next decade. Critics and fans often comment on the underlying themes found in the lyrics and artwork, emphasising Radiohead's views on rampant consumerism, social alienation, emotional isolation, and political malaise; in this capacity, OK Computer is often interpreted as having prescient insight into the mood of 21st-century life.

Background[edit]

Thom Yorke (pictured in 2001) and the band sought a less melancholy direction than previous album The Bends.[1][2]

In 1995, Radiohead toured in support of their second album The Bends. Midway through the tour, Brian Eno commissioned the band to contribute a song to The Help Album, a charity compilation organised by War Child. The Help Album was to be recorded over the course of a single day, 4 September 1995, and rush-released that week.[3] Radiohead recorded "Lucky" in five hours with engineer Nigel Godrich, who had assisted producer John Leckie with The Bends and produced several Radiohead B-sides.[4] Godrich said of the Help Album session: "Those things are the most inspiring, when you do stuff really fast and there's nothing to lose. We left feeling fairly euphoric. So after establishing a bit of a rapport work-wise, I was sort of hoping I would be involved with the next album."[5] To promote The Help Album, "Lucky" featured as the lead track on the Help EP, which charted at number 51 after BBC Radio 1 chose not to play it.[6] This disappointed Radiohead singer Thom Yorke,[6] but he later said "Lucky" shaped the nascent sound and mood of their upcoming record:[4] "'Lucky' was indicative of what we wanted to do. It was like the first mark on the wall."[7]

Radiohead found touring stressful and decided to take a break in January 1996.[8] They sought to distance their new material from the introspective style of The Bends. Drummer Phil Selway said: "There was an awful lot of soul-searching [on The Bends]. To do that again on another album would be excruciatingly boring."[1] Yorke, Radiohead's primary lyricist, said at the time that "we could really fall back on just doing another miserable, morbid and negative record lyrically, but I don't really want to, at all. And I'm deliberately just writing down all the positive things that I hear or see. I'm not able to put them into music yet and I don't want to just force it."[2]

The critical and commercial success of The Bends gave Radiohead the confidence to self-produce their third album.[4] Their label Parlophone gave them a £100,000 budget for recording equipment.[9][10] Guitarist Jonny Greenwood said "the only concept that we had for this album was that we wanted to record it away from the city and that we wanted to record it ourselves."[11] According to guitarist Ed O'Brien: "Everyone said, You'll sell six or seven million if you bring out The Bends Pt 2, and we're like, 'We'll kick against that and do the opposite'."[12] A number of producers, including major figures such as Scott Litt, were suggested,[13] but the band were encouraged by their sessions with Godrich.[14] They consulted him for advice on what equipment to use,[15] and prepared for the sessions by buying their own equipment, including a plate reverberator purchased from Jona Lewie.[4] Although Godrich had sought to focus his work on electronic dance music,[16] he outgrew his role as advisor and became the album's co-producer.[15]

Recording[edit]

In July 1996, Radiohead started rehearsing and recording OK Computer in their Canned Applause studio, a converted shed near Didcot, Oxfordshire.[17] Even without the deadline that contributed to the stress of The Bends,[18] the band still had difficulties, which Selway blamed on their choice to self-produce: "We're jumping from song to song, and when we started to run out of ideas, we'd move on to a new song ... The stupid thing was that we were nearly finished when we'd move on, because so much work had gone into them."[19] The members worked with nearly equal roles in the production and formation of the music, though Yorke was still firmly "the loudest voice" according to O'Brien.[20] Selway said "we give each other an awful lot of space to develop our parts, but at the same time we are all very critical about what the other person is doing."[19] Godrich's role as co-producer was part collaborator, part managerial outsider. He said that Radiohead "need to have another person outside their unit, especially when they're all playing together, to say when the take goes well ... I take up slack when people aren't taking responsibility—the term producing a record means taking responsibility for the record ... It's my job to ensure that they get the ideas across."[21] Godrich has produced every Radiohead album since, and has been characterised as Radiohead's unofficial "sixth member".[22][23]

Radiohead decided that Canned Applause was an unsatisfactory recording location, which Yorke attributed to its proximity to the band members' homes, and Jonny Greenwood attributed to its lack of dining and bathroom facilities.[20] The group had nearly completed four songs: "Electioneering", "No Surprises", "Subterranean Homesick Alien" and "The Tourist".[24] At their label's request, they took a break from recording to embark on a 13-date American tour in 1996, opening for Alanis Morissette, and performed early versions of several new songs. One song, "Paranoid Android", evolved from a fourteen-minute version with long organ solos into something closer to the six-minute version on the album.[25]

During the tour, filmmaker Baz Luhrmann commissioned Radiohead to write a song for his upcoming film Romeo + Juliet and gave them the final 30 minutes of the film. Yorke said: "When we saw the scene in which Claire Danes holds the Colt .45 against her head, we started working on the song immediately."[26] Soon afterwards, the band wrote and recorded "Exit Music (For a Film)"; the track plays over the film's end credits but was not included on the soundtrack album at the band's request.[27] Yorke later said the song helped shape the direction of the rest of the album, and that it "was the first performance we'd ever recorded where every note of it made my head spin—something I was proud of, something I could turn up really, really loud and not wince at any moment."[4]

Most of OK Computer was recorded between September and October 1996 at St Catherine's Court, a rural mansion near Bath, Somerset.

Radiohead resumed recording in September 1996 at St Catherine's Court, a historic mansion near Bath owned by actress Jane Seymour.[28] The mansion was unoccupied but sometimes used for corporate functions.[29] The change of setting marked an important transition in the recording process. Greenwood, comparing the mansion to previous studio settings, said it "was less like a laboratory experiment, which is what being in a studio is usually like, and more about a group of people making their first record together."[29]

The band made extensive use of the different rooms and acoustics in the house. The vocals on "Exit Music (For a Film)" feature natural reverberation achieved by recording on a stone staircase, and "Let Down" was recorded at in a ballroom at 3 a.m.[30] Isolation allowed the band to work at a different pace, with more flexible and spontaneous working hours. O'Brien said that "the biggest pressure was actually completing [the recording]. We weren't given any deadlines and we had complete freedom to do what we wanted. We were delaying it because we were a bit frightened of actually finishing stuff."[31] Yorke was satisfied with the quality of the recordings made at the location, and enjoyed working without audio separation, meaning that instruments were not overdubbed separately.[32] O'Brien was similarly pleased with the recordings, estimating that 80 per cent of the album was recorded live,[29][32] and said: "I hate doing overdubs, because it just doesn't feel natural. ... Something special happens when you're playing live; a lot of it is just looking at one another and knowing there are four other people making it happen."[32][33] Many of Yorke's vocals were first takes; he felt that if he made other attempts he would "start to think about it and it would sound really lame."[34]

Radiohead returned to Canned Applause in October for rehearsals,[35] and completed most of OK Computer in further sessions at St. Catherine's Court. By Christmas, they had narrowed the track listing to 14 songs.[36] The string parts were recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London in January 1997. The album was mastered at the same location, and mixed over the next two months at various studios around the city.[37] Godrich preferred a quick and "hands-off" approach to mixing, and said: "I feel like I get too into it. I start fiddling with things and I fuck it up ... I generally take about half a day to do a mix. If it's any longer than that, you lose it. The hardest thing is trying to stay fresh, to stay objective."[5]

Music and lyrics[edit]

Style and influences[edit]

The jazz fusion of Miles Davis (left, in 1986) and political writings of Noam Chomsky (right, in 2005) influenced OK Computer.

Yorke said that the starting point for the record was the "incredibly dense and terrifying sound" of Bitches Brew, the 1970 avant-garde jazz fusion album by Miles Davis.[38] He described the sound of Bitches Brew to Q: "It was building something up and watching it fall apart, that's the beauty of it. It was at the core of what we were trying to do with OK Computer."[34] Yorke identified "I'll Wear It Proudly" by Elvis Costello, "Fall on Me" by R.E.M., "Dress" by PJ Harvey and "A Day in the Life" by the Beatles as particularly influential on the album's songwriting.[4] Radiohead drew further inspiration from the recording style of film soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone and the krautrock band Can, musicians Yorke described as "abusing the recording process".[4]

According to Yorke, Radiohead hoped to achieve an "atmosphere that's perhaps a bit shocking when you first hear it, but only as shocking as the atmosphere on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds."[38] They expanded their instrumentation to include electric piano, Mellotron, cello and other strings, glockenspiel and electronic effects. The exploratory approach was summarised by Jonny Greenwood as "when we've got what we suspect to be an amazing song, but nobody knows what they're gonna play on it."[39] One reviewer characterised OK Computer as sounding like "a DIY electronica album made with guitars".[40]

Lyrics[edit]

The album's lyrics, written by Yorke, are more abstract compared to his personal, emotional lyrics for The Bends. Critic Alex Ross said the lyrics "seemed a mixture of overheard conversations, techno-speak, and fragments of a harsh diary" with "images of riot police at political rallies, anguished lives in tidy suburbs, yuppies freaking out, sympathetic aliens gliding overhead."[41] Recurring themes include transport, technology, insanity, death, modern British life, globalisation and anti-capitalism.[42] Yorke said: "On this album, the outside world became all there was... I'm just taking Polaroids of things around me moving too fast."[43] He told Q: "It was like there's a secret camera in a room and it's watching the character who walks in—a different character for each song. The camera's not quite me. It's neutral, emotionless. But not emotionless at all. In fact, the very opposite."[44]

Yorke was inspired by books including Noam Chomsky's writings,[45] Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes, Will Hutton's The State We're In, Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up! and Philip K. Dick's VALIS.[46] Although the songs share common themes, Radiohead did not consider OK Computer a concept album and said they had no intention to link the songs with an underlying narrative;[29][47] Jonny Greenwood said "I think one album title and one computer voice do not make a concept album. That's a bit of a red herring."[48] However, the band intended the album to be heard as a whole, and spent two weeks creating the tracklist. O'Brien said: "The context of each song is really important... It's not a concept album but there is a continuity there."[47]

Composition[edit]

First half (tracks 1–6)[edit]

The album's opening track "Airbag" was inspired by the music of DJ Shadow and is underpinned by an electronic drum beat programmed from a seconds-long recording of Selway's drumming. The band sampled the drum track with a digital sampler and edited it with a Macintosh computer, but admitted to making approximations in emulating Shadow's style due to their programming inexperience.[49][50] The bassline in "Airbag" stops and starts unexpectedly, achieving an effect similar to 1970s dub.[51] The song's references to automobile accidents and reincarnation were inspired by a magazine article titled "An Airbag Saved My Life" and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Yorke wrote "Airbag" about the illusion of safety offered by modern transit, and "the idea that whenever you go out on the road you could be killed."[44] Music journalist Tim Footman notes the song's technical innovations and lyrical concerns demonstrate the "key paradox" of the album: "the musicians and producer are delighting in the sonic possibilities of modern technology; the singer, meanwhile, is railing against its social, moral, and psychological impact. ... It's a contradiction mirrored in the culture clash of the music, with the 'real' guitars negotiating an uneasy stand-off with the hacked-up, processed drums."[52]

"Paranoid Android", split into four sections, is among the band's longest recorded studio tracks at 6:23. The unconventional structure was inspired by the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", which also eschew a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure.[53] Its musical style was also inspired by the music of the Pixies.[54] The song was written by Yorke after an unpleasant night at a Los Angeles bar, where he saw a woman react violently after someone spilled a drink on her.[44] Its title and lyrics are a reference to Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.[54]

The use of electric keyboards in "Subterranean Homesick Alien" is an example of the band's attempts to emulate the atmosphere of Bitches Brew.[55][56] Its title references the Bob Dylan song "Subterranean Homesick Blues", and the lyrics describe an isolated narrator who fantasises about being abducted by extraterrestrials. The narrator speculates that, upon returning to Earth, his friends would not believe his story and he would remain a misfit.[57] The lyrics were inspired by an assignment from Yorke's time at Abingdon School to write a piece of "Martian poetry", a British literary movement that humorously recontextualises mundane aspects of human life from an alien perspective.[58]

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet inspired the lyrics for "Exit Music (For a Film)".[54] Initially Yorke wanted to work lines from the play into the song, but the final draft of the lyrics became a broad summary of the narrative.[27] He said: "I saw the Zeffirelli version when I was 13 and I cried my eyes out, because I couldn't understand why, the morning after they shagged, they didn't just run away. It's a song for two people who should run away before all the bad stuff starts."[59] Yorke compared the opening of the song, which mostly features his singing paired with acoustic guitar, to Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison.[60] Mellotron choir and other electronic voices are used throughout the track.[61] The song climaxes with the entrance of drums[61] and distorted bass run through a fuzz pedal.[22] The climactic portion of the song is an attempt to emulate the sound of trip hop group Portishead, but in a style that bass player Colin Greenwood called more "stilted and leaden and mechanical".[62] The song concludes by fading back to Yorke's voice, acoustic guitar and Mellotron.[27]

"Let Down" contains multilayered arpeggiated guitars and electric piano. Jonny Greenwood plays his guitar part in a different time signature to the other instruments.[63] O'Brien said the song was influenced by Phil Spector, a producer and songwriter best known for his reverberating "Wall of Sound" recording techniques.[49] The song's lyrics are, Yorke said, "about that feeling that you get when you're in transit but you're not in control of it—you just go past thousands of places and thousands of people and you're completely removed from it."[54]

"I was pissed in a club and I suddenly had the funniest thought I'd had for ages: what if all the people who were drinking were hanging from the bottles? If the bottles were hung from the ceiling with string, and the floor caved in, and the only thing that kept everyone up was the bottles? It's also about an enormous fear of being trapped." – Thom Yorke[59]

Of the line "Don't get sentimental / It always ends up drivel", Yorke said: "Sentimentality is being emotional for the sake of it. We're bombarded with sentiment, people emoting. That's the Let Down. Feeling every emotion is fake. Or rather every emotion is on the same plane whether it's a car advert or a pop song."[34] Yorke felt that scepticism of emotion was characteristic of Generation X and said that it informed not just "Let Down" but the band's approach to the whole album.[64]

"Karma Police" has two main verse that alternates with a subdued break, followed by a different ending section.[65] The verses centre around acoustic guitar and piano,[65] with a chord progression indebted to the Beatles' "Sexy Sadie".[6][66][67] Starting at 2:34, the song transitions into an orchestrated section with the repeated line "For a minute there, I lost myself".[65] It ends with guitarist Ed O'Brien generating feedback using a delay effect.[49][66] The title and lyrics to "Karma Police" originate from an in-joke during The Bends tour; Jonny Greenwood said "whenever someone was behaving in a particularly shitty way, we'd say 'The karma police will catch up with him sooner or later.'"[54]

Second half (tracks 7–12)[edit]

"Fitter Happier" is a short musique concrète track that consists of sampled musical and background sound and spoken-word lyrics recited by a synthesized voice from the Macintosh SimpleText application.[68] Yorke wrote the lyrics "in ten minutes" after a period of writer's block while the rest of the band were playing.[59] He described them as a checklist of slogans for the 1990s, which he considered "the most upsetting thing I've ever written",[54][69] and said it was "liberating" to give the words to a neutral-sounding computer voice.[59] The band considered using "Fitter Happier" as the album's opening track, but decided the effect was off-putting.[31]

Steve Lowe called the song "penetrating surgery on pseudo-meaningful corporations' lifestyles" with "a repugnance for prevailing yuppified social values."[6] Among the loosely connected imagery of the lyrics, Footman identified the song's subject as "the materially comfortable, morally empty embodiment of modern, Western humanity, half-salaryman, half-Stepford Wife, destined for the metaphorical farrowing crate, propped up on Prozac, Viagra and anything else his insurance plan can cover."[70] Sam Steele called the lyrics "a stream of received imagery: scraps of media information, interspersed with lifestyle ad slogans and private prayers for a healthier existence. It is the hum of a world buzzing with words, one of the messages seeming to be that we live in such a synthetic universe we have grown unable to detect reality from artifice."[71]

"Electioneering", featuring a cowbell and a distorted guitar solo, is the album's most rock-oriented track and one of the heaviest songs Radiohead has recorded.[72] It has been compared to Radiohead's earlier style on Pablo Honey.[68][73] The cynical "Electioneering" is the album's most directly political song,[74][75] with lyrics inspired by the Poll Tax Riots.[59] The song was also inspired by Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, a book analysing contemporary mass media under the propaganda model.[45] Yorke likened its lyrics, which focus on political and artistic compromise, to "a preacher ranting in front of a bank of microphones."[47][76] Regarding its oblique political references, Yorke said, "What can you say about the IMF, or politicians? Or people selling arms to African countries, employing slave labour or whatever. What can you say? You just write down 'Cattle prods and the IMF' and people who know, know."[4] O'Brien said the song was about the promotional cycle of touring: "After a while you feel like a politician who has to kiss babies and shake hands all day long."[26]

Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima by Krzysztof Penderecki (pictured) inspired the string arrangement on "Climbing Up the Walls".

"Climbing Up the Walls" – described by Melody Maker as "monumental chaos"[77] – is layered with a string section, ambient noise and repetitive, metallic percussion. The string section, composed by Jonny Greenwood and written for 16 instruments, was inspired by modern classical composer Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Greenwood said, "I got very excited at the prospect of doing string parts that didn't sound like 'Eleanor Rigby', which is what all string parts have sounded like for the past 30 years."[47] Select described Yorke's distraught vocals and the atonal strings as "Thom's voice dissolving into a fearful, blood-clotted scream as Jonny whips the sound of a million dying elephants into a crescendo."[55] For the lyrics, Yorke drew from his time as an orderly in a mental hospital during the Care in the Community policy of deinstitutionalizing mental health patients, and a New York Times article about serial killers.[26]

"This is about the unspeakable. Literally skull-crushing. I used to work in a mental hospital around the time that Care in the Community started, and we all just knew what was going to happen. And it's one of the scariest things to happen in this country, because a lot of them weren't just harmless… It was hailing violently when we recorded this. It seemed to add to the mood." – Thom Yorke[59]

"No Surprises", recorded in a single take,[78] is arranged with electric guitar (inspired by the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice"),[79] acoustic guitar, glockenspiel and vocal harmonies.[80] The band strove to replicate the mood of Louis Armstrong's 1968 recording of "What a Wonderful World" and the soul music of Marvin Gaye.[26] Hoping to achieve a slower tempo than could be played well on their instruments, Godrich had the band record the song at a faster tempo, then slowed the playback for Yorke to overdub his vocals onto, creating an "ethereal" effect.[81] Yorke identified the subject of the song as "someone who's trying hard to keep it together but can't."[4] The lyrics seem to portray a suicide[71] or an unfulfilling life, and dissatisfaction with contemporary social and political order.[82] Some lines refer to rural[83] or suburban imagery.[46] One of the key metaphors in the song is the opening line, "a heart that's full up like a landfill"; according to Yorke, the song is a "fucked-up nursery rhyme" that "stems from my unhealthy obsession of what to do with plastic boxes and plastic bottles ... All this stuff is getting buried, the debris of our lives. It doesn't rot, it just stays there. That's how we deal, that's how I deal with stuff, I bury it."[84] The song's gentle mood contrasts sharply with its harsh lyrics;[85][86] Steele said, "even when the subject is suicide ... O'Brien's guitar is as soothing as balm on a red-raw psyche, the song rendered like a bittersweet child's prayer."[71]

"Lucky" was inspired by the Bosnian War. Sam Taylor said it was "the one track on [The Help Album] to capture the sombre terror of the conflict", and that its serious subject matter and dark tone made the band "too 'real' to be allowed on the Britpop gravy train".[87] The lyrics were pared down from many pages of notes, and were originally more politically explicit.[31] The lyrics depict a man surviving an aeroplane crash[74] and are drawn from Yorke's anxiety about transportation.[75] The musical centerpiece of "Lucky" is its three-piece guitar arrangement,[9] which grew out of the high-pitched chiming sound played by O'Brien in the song's introduction,[44] achieved by strumming above the guitar nut.[88] Critics have compared its lead guitar to Pink Floyd and, more broadly, arena rock.[89][7][90][91]

The album ends with "The Tourist", which Jonny Greenwood wrote as an unusually staid piece where something "doesn't have to happen ... every three seconds." He said, "'The Tourist' doesn't sound like Radiohead at all. It has become a song with space."[26] The lyrics, written by Yorke, were inspired by his experience of watching American tourists in France frantically trying to see as many tourist attractions as possible.[92] He said it was chosen as the closing track because "a lot of the album was about background noise and everything moving too fast and not being able to keep up. It was really obvious to have 'Tourist' as the last song. That song was written to me from me, saying, 'Idiot, slow down.' Because at that point, I needed to. So that was the only resolution there could be: to slow down."[38] The "unexpectedly bluesy waltz" draws to a close as the guitars drop out, leaving only drums and bass, and concludes with the sound of a small bell.[9]

Title and artwork[edit]

A page of the OK Computer booklet with logos, white scribbles and text in Esperanto and English. The motif of two stick figures shaking hands, repeated on the compact disc, was described by Yorke as symbolising exploitation.[31]

"OK Computer" was the original title for the song "Palo Alto", which had been considered for inclusion on the album.[93] The title stuck with the band; according to Jonny Greenwood, "[it] started attaching itself and creating all these weird resonances with what we were trying to do."[45] Yorke said it "refers to embracing the future, it refers to being terrified of the future, of our future, of everyone else's. It's to do with standing in a room where all these appliances are going off and all these machines and computers and so on ... and the sound it makes."[48] Yorke described the title as "a really resigned, terrified phrase", to him similar to the Coca-Cola advertisement "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing".[45] Wired writer Leander Kahney suggests that it is an homage to Macintosh computers, as the Mac's speech recognition software responds to the command "OK computer" as an alternative to clicking the "OK" button.[94] The phrase, "Okay, computer, I want full manual control now" appears in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy at a moment in the plot when the protagonists are on the verge of being destroyed by nuclear warheads. In the following chapter, the morbidly depressed robot character, Marvin, is described as a "Paranoid Android". Other titles considered were Ones and Zeroes—a reference to the binary numeral system—and Your Home May Be at Risk If You Do Not Keep Up Payments.[93]

The album's artwork is a computer-generated collage of images and text created by Stanley Donwood and Yorke, the latter credited under the pseudonym "The White Chocolate Farm".[95] Yorke commissioned Donwood to work on a visual diary alongside the recording sessions. Yorke explained, "If I'm shown some kind of visual representation of the music, only then do I feel confident. Up until that point, I'm a bit of a whirlwind."[46] The blue-and-white palette was,[96] according to Donwood, the result of "trying to make something the color of bleached bone."[97] The image of two stick figures shaking hands appears in the booklet and on the compact disc itself. Yorke explained the image as emblematic of exploitation: "Someone's being sold something they don't really want, and someone's being friendly because they're trying to sell something. That's what it means to me."[31] Explaining the artwork's themes, Yorke said, "It's quite sad, and quite funny as well. All the artwork and so on ... It was all the things that I hadn't said in the songs."[31]

Visual motifs in the artwork include motorways, aeroplanes, families with children, corporate logos and cityscapes.[98] The words "Lost Child" feature prominently on the cover, and the booklet artwork contains phrases in the constructed language Esperanto and health-related instructions in both English and Greek. Uncut critic David Cavanagh said the use of non-sequiturs created an effect "akin to being lifestyle-coached by a lunatic."[9] White scribbles, Donwood's method of correcting mistakes rather than using the computer function undo,[97] are present everywhere in the collages.[99] The liner notes contain the full lyrics, rendered with atypical syntax, alternate spelling[75] and small annotations.[note 1] The lyrics are also arranged and spaced in shapes that resemble hidden images.[100] In keeping with the band's then-emerging anti-corporate stance, the production credits contain the ironic copyright notice "Lyrics reproduced by kind permission even though we wrote them."[101]

Release and promotion[edit]

According to Selway, Radiohead's American label Capitol saw the album as "more or less, 'commercial suicide'. They weren't really into it. At that point, we got the fear. How is this going to be received?"[1] According to Yorke, "When we first gave [the album] to Capitol, they were taken aback. I don't really know why it's so important now, but I'm excited about it."[102] Capitol lowered its sales forecast from two million units to a half a million.[103] In O'Brien's view only Parlophone, the band's British label, remained optimistic while global distributors dramatically reduced their sales estimates.[104] Label representatives were reportedly disappointed with the lack of potential marketable singles, especially the absence of anything resembling Radiohead's early hit "Creep".[105]

The lyrics to "Fitter Happier" and images adapted from the album artwork were used on advertisements in music magazines, signs in the London Underground and shirts (shirt design pictured).

Parlophone's advertising campaign was unorthodox. The label took full-page advertisements in high-profile British newspapers and tube stations with lyrics for "Fitter Happier" pitched in large black letters against white backgrounds.[1] The same lyrics, and artwork adapted from the album, were repurposed for shirt designs.[31] Yorke said, "We actively chose to pursue the 'Fitter Happier' thing" to link what a critic called "a coherent set of concerns" between the album artwork and its promotional material.[31] More unconventional merchandise included a floppy disk with Radiohead screensavers and an FM radio in the shape of a desktop computer.[106] In America, Capitol sent 1,000 cassette players to prominent members of the press and music industry, each with a copy of the album permanently glued inside.[107] When asked about the campaign after the album's release, Capitol president Gary Gersh said, "Our job is just to take them as a left-of-center band and bring the center to them. That's our focus, and we won't let up until they're the biggest band in the world."[108]

Radiohead chose "Paranoid Android" as the lead single, despite its unusually long running time and lack of a catchy chorus.[67][77] Colin Greenwood admitted the song was "hardly the radio-friendly, breakthrough, buzz bin unit shifter [radio stations] can have been expecting," but said that Capitol was supportive of the choice.[77] The song premiered on the Radio 1 programme The Evening Session in April 1997[109] and released as a single in May 1997.[110] On the strength of frequent radio play on Radio 1[77] and rotation of the song's music video on MTV,[111] "Paranoid Android" reached number three in the UK, giving Radiohead their highest chart position.[112]

OK Computer was released in Japan on 21 May, in the UK on 16 June, in Canada on 17 June and in the US on 1 July.[113] In addition to CD, the album was released as a double-LP vinyl record, cassette and MiniDisc.[114] The album debuted at number one on the UK, where it held for two weeks. It stayed in the top 10 for weeks and became the country's eighth-best selling record of the year.[115] Radiohead embarked on a world tour in promotion of OK Computer called the "Against Demons" tour, commencing at the album launch in Barcelona on 22 May 1997.[116] The tour took the band across the UK and Ireland, continental Europe, North America, Japan and Australasia,[117] concluding on 29 August 1998 in New York.[115] The tour was mentally taxing for the band, particularly Yorke, who later said "That tour was a year too long. I was the first person to tire of it, then six months later everyone in the band was saying it. Then six months after that, nobody was talking any more."[118]

"Karma Police" was released in August 1997 and "No Surprises" in January 1998.[119] Both singles charted in the UK top 10, and "Karma Police" peaked at number 14 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.[120][121] "Lucky" was released as a single in France, but did not chart.[122] "Let Down", considered for release as the lead single,[123] charted on the Modern Rock Tracks chart at number 29.[121] The band planned to produce a video for every song on the album to be released as a whole, but the project was abandoned due to financial and time constraints.[124] Also considered, but scrapped, were plans for trip hop group Massive Attack to remix the entire album.[125] Meeting People Is Easy, Grant Gee's rockumentary following the band on its OK Computer world tour, premiered in November 1998.[126]

By February 1998, OK Computer had sold at least half a million copies in the UK and 2 million worldwide.[74] At least 1.4 million copies have since been sold in the US,[127] 3 million across Europe[128] and 4.5 million worldwide.[129] It has been certified triple platinum in the UK[130] and double platinum in the US,[131] in addition to certifications in other markets.

Critical reception[edit]

Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
AllMusic 5/5 stars[132]
Chicago Tribune 3.5/4 stars[133]
Entertainment Weekly B+[134]
The Guardian 4/5 stars[72]
NME 10/10[89]
Pitchfork 10/10[135]
Q 5/5 stars[85]
Rolling Stone 4/5 stars[136]
Spin 8/10[40]
The Village Voice B−[137]

OK Computer received widespread critical acclaim. Critics in the British and American press generally agreed that the album was a landmark and would have far-reaching impact and importance,[138][139] and that its experimentalism made it a challenging listen. According to Tim Footman, "Not since 1967, with the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, had so many major critics agreed immediately, not only on an album's merits, but on its long-term significance, and its ability to encapsulate a particular point in history."[140] In the English press, the album garnered favourable reviews in NME,[89] Melody Maker,[141] The Guardian,[72] and Q.[85] Nick Kent wrote in Mojo that "Others may end up selling more, but in 20 years time I'm betting OK Computer will be seen as the key record of 1997, the one to take rock forward instead of artfully revamping images and song-structures from an earlier era."[67] John Harris in Select wrote: "Every word sounds achingly sincere, every note spewed from the heart, and yet it roots itself firmly in a world of steel, glass, random-access memory and prickly-skinned paranoia."[142]

The album was well received by critics in North America. Rolling Stone,[136] Spin,[40] and Pitchfork[135] published positive reviews. In The New Yorker, Alex Ross praised its progressiveness, and contrasted Radiohead's risk-taking with the musically conservative "dadrock" of their contemporaries Oasis. Ross wrote that "Throughout the album, contrasts of mood and style are extreme ... This band has pulled off one of the great art-pop balancing acts in the history of rock."[143]

Reviews for Entertainment Weekly,[134] the Chicago Tribune,[133] and Time[144] were mixed or contained qualified praise. Robert Christgau from The Village Voice said Radiohead immersed Yorke's vocals in "enough electronic marginal distinction to feed a coal town for a month" and to compensate for how soulless the songs are, resulting in "arid" art rock.[137] In an otherwise positive review, Andy Gill wrote for The Independent, "For all its ambition and determination to break new ground, OK Computer is not, finally, as impressive as The Bends, which covered much the same sort of emotional knots, but with better tunes. It is easy to be impressed by, but ultimately hard to love, an album that luxuriates so readily in its own despondency."[145]

Accolades[edit]

OK Computer was nominated for the Grammy Award for Album of the Year and Best Alternative Music Performance in the 40th Grammy Awards in 1998,[146] winning the latter.[147] It was also nominated for Best British Album at the 1998 Brit Awards.[148] The album was shortlisted for the 1997 Mercury Prize, a prestigious award recognising the best British or Irish album of the year. The day before the winner was announced, oddsmakers had given OK Computer the best chance to win among ten nominees, but it lost to New Forms by Roni Size/Reprazent.[149]

The album appeared in many 1997 critics' lists and listener polls for best album of the year. It topped the year-end polls of Mojo, Vox, Entertainment Weekly, Hot Press, Muziekkrant OOR, HUMO, Eye Weekly and Inpress, and tied for first place with Daft Punk's Homework in The Face. The album came second in NME, Melody Maker, Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Spin and Uncut. Q and Les Inrockuptibles both listed the album in their unranked year-end polls.[150]

The praise for the album overwhelmed the band; Greenwood felt the praise had been exaggerated because The Bends had been "under-reviewed possibly and under-received."[38] They rejected links to progressive rock and art rock, despite frequent comparisons made to Pink Floyd's 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon.[151] Yorke responded: "We write pop songs ... there was no intention of it being 'art'. It's a reflection of all the disparate things we were listening to when we recorded it."[48] He was nevertheless pleased that listeners identified the album's influences: "What really blew my head off was the fact that people got all the things, all the textures and the sounds and the atmospheres we were trying to create."[152]

Legacy[edit]

Retrospective acclaim[edit]

OK Computer has appeared frequently in professional lists of greatest albums. A number of publications, including NME, Melody Maker, Alternative Press,[153] Spin,[154] Pitchfork,[155] Time,[156] Metro Weekly[157] and Slant[158] placed OK Computer prominently in lists of best albums of the 1990s or of all time. In 2003, the album was ranked number 162 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.[159] Retrospective reviews from BBC Music,[160] The A.V. Club[161] Slant[162] and Paste[163] have received the album favourably; likewise, Rolling Stone gave the album five stars in the 2004 Rolling Stone Album Guide, with critic Rob Sheffield saying "Radiohead was claiming the high ground abandoned by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, U2, R.E.M., everybody; and fans around the world loved them for trying too hard at a time when nobody else was even bothering."[164] According to Acclaimed Music, a site which uses statistics to numerically represent reception among critics, OK Computer is the 10th most celebrated album of all time.[165] In 2015, the United States National Recording Preservation Board selected the album for preservation in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, which designates it as a sound recording that has had significant cultural, historical, or aesthetic impact in American life.[166]

The album has been cited by some as undeserving of its acclaim, while others assert that Radiohead's career was negatively impacted by the album's critical success. In a poll surveying thousands conducted by BBC Radio 6 Music, OK Computer was named the sixth most over-rated album "in the world".[167] David H. Green of The Daily Telegraph called the album "self-indulgent whingeing" and maintains that the positive critical consensus toward OK Computer is an indication of "a 20th-century delusion that rock is the bastion of serious commentary on popular music" to the detriment of electronic and dance music.[168] The album was selected as an entry in "Sacred Cows", an NME column questioning the critical status of "revered albums", in which Henry Yates said of the album "There's no defiance, gallows humour or chink of light beneath the curtain, just a sense of meek, resigned despondency," and further criticised the record as "the moment when Radiohead stopped being 'good' [compared to The Bends] and started being 'important'."[169] In a Spin article on the "myth" that "Radiohead Can Do No Wrong", Chris Norris argues that the acclaim for OK Computer created an inflated set of expectations for each successive Radiohead release.[170]

Commentary and interpretation[edit]

In interviews at the time, Thom Yorke criticised Tony Blair (pictured in 1998) and his New Labour government.

OK Computer was recorded in the lead up to the 1997 general election and released a month after the victory of Tony Blair's New Labour government. The album was perceived by critics as an expression of dissent and scepticism toward the new government and a reaction against the national mood of optimism. Dorian Lynskey wrote, "On May 1, 1997, Labour supporters toasted their landslide victory to the sound of 'Things Can Only Get Better.' A few weeks later, OK Computer appeared like Banquo's ghost to warn: No, things can only get worse."[171] According to Amy Britton, the album "showed not everyone was ready to join the party, instead tapping into another feeling felt throughout the UK—pre-millenial angst. ... huge corporations were impossible to fight against—this was the world OK Computer soundtracked, not the wave of British optimism."[172]

In an interview, Yorke doubted that Blair's policies would differ from the preceding two decades of Conservative government. He said the public reaction to the death of Princess Diana was more significant, as a moment when the British public realised "the royals had had us by the balls for the last hundred years, as had the media and the state."[31] The band's distaste with the commercialised promotion of OK Computer reinforced their anti-capitalist political viewpoint, which would be further explored on their subsequent releases.[173]

Critics have compared Radiohead's statements of political dissatisfaction to those of earlier rock bands. David Stubbs said that, where punk rock had been a rebellion against a time of deficit and poverty, OK Computer protested the "mechanistic convenience" of contemporary surplus and excess.[174] Alex Ross said the album "pictured the onslaught of the Information Age and a young person's panicky embrace of it" and made the band into "the poster boys for a certain kind of knowing alienation—as Talking Heads and R.E.M. had been before."[41] Jon Pareles of The New York Times found precedents in the work of Pink Floyd and Madness for Radiohead's concerns "about a culture of numbness, building docile workers and enforced by self-help regimes and anti-depressants."[175]

Many felt the tone of the album was millennial[29][176] or futuristic,[177] anticipating cultural and political trends. According to The A.V. Club writer Steven Hyden in the feature "Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation", "Radiohead appeared to be ahead of the curve, forecasting the paranoia, media-driven insanity, and omnipresent sense of impending doom that's subsequently come to characterise everyday life in the 21st century."[178] In 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, Tom Moon described OK Computer as a "prescient ... dystopian essay on the darker implications of technology ... oozing [with] a vague sense of dread, and a touch of Big Brother foreboding that bears strong resemblance to the constant disquiet of life on Security Level Orange, post-9/11."[179] Chris Martin of Coldplay remarked that, "It would be interesting to see how the world would be different if Dick Cheney really listened to Radiohead's OK Computer. I think the world would probably improve. That album is fucking brilliant. It changed my life, so why wouldn't it change his?"[180]

The album inspired a radio play, also titled OK Computer, which was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2007. The play, written by Joel Horwood, Chris Perkins, Al Smith and Chris Thorpe, interprets the album's 12 tracks into a story about a man who awakens in a Berlin hospital with memory loss and returns to England with doubts that the life he's returned to is his own.[181]

Influence[edit]

"A lot of people have taken OK Computer and said, 'This is the yardstick. If I can attain something half as good, I'm doing pretty well.' But I've never heard anything really derivative of OK Computer—which is interesting, as it shows that what Radiohead were doing was probably even more complicated than it seemed."

—Josh Davis (DJ Shadow)[182]

"The whole sound of it and the emotional experience crossed a lot of boundaries. It tapped into a lot of buried emotions that people hadn't wanted to explore or talk about.

James Lavelle[154]

The release of OK Computer coincided with the decline of Britpop.[note 2] Through OK Computer's influence, the dominant UK guitar pop shifted toward an approximation of "Radiohead's paranoid but confessional, slurry but catchy" approach.[183] Many newer British acts adopted similarly complex, atmospheric arrangements; for example, the post-Britpop band Travis worked with Godrich to create the languid pop texture of The Man Who, which became the fourth best-selling album of 1999 in the UK.[184] Some in the British press accused Travis of appropriating Radiohead's sound.[185] Steven Hyden of AV Club said that by 1998, starting with The Man Who, "what Radiohead had created in OK Computer had already grown much bigger than the band," and that the album went on to influence "a wave of British-rock balladeers that reached its zenith in the '00s".[178]

Critics have said OK Computer's popularity paved the way for the next generation of British alternative rock bands,[note 3] and established musicians in a variety of genres have praised the album.[note 4] Bloc Party[186] and TV on the Radio[187] said they were formatively influenced by OK Computer. TV on the Radio's debut album was even titled OK Calculator as a lighthearted tribute.[188] Radiohead described the pervasiveness of bands that "sound like us" as one reason to break with the style of OK Computer for their next album, Kid A.[189]

Although OK Computer's influence on rock musicians is widely acknowledged, several critics believe that its experimental inclination was not authentically embraced on a wide scale. Footman said the "Radiohead Lite" bands that followed were "missing [OK Computer's] sonic inventiveness, not to mention the lyrical substance."[190] David Cavanagh said that most of OK Computer's purported mainstream influence more likely stemmed from the ballads on The Bends. According to Cavanagh, "The populist albums of the post-OK Computer era—the Verve's Urban Hymns, Travis's Good Feeling, Stereophonics' Word Gets Around, Robbie Williams' Life thru a Lens—effectively closed the door that OK Computer's boffin-esque inventiveness had opened."[9] John Harris believed that OK Computer was one of the "fleeting signs that British rock music might [have been] returning to its inventive traditions" in the wake of Britpop's demise.[191] While Harris concludes that British rock ultimately developed an "altogether more conservative tendency", he said that with OK Computer and their subsequent material, Radiohead provided a "clarion call" to fill the void left by Britpop.[191]

OK Computer triggered a minor revival of progressive rock and ambitious concept albums, with a new wave of prog-influenced bands crediting OK Computer for enabling their scene to thrive. Brandon Curtis of Secret Machines said, "Songs like Paranoid Android made it OK to write music differently, to be more experimental... OK Computer was important because it reintroduced unconventional writing and song structures."[192] Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree added, "I don't think ambition is a dirty word any more. Radiohead were the Trojan Horse in that respect. Here's a band that came from the indie rock tradition that snuck in under the radar when the journalists weren't looking and started making these absurdly ambitious and pretentious—and all the better for it—records."[193] In 2005, Q selected OK Computer as tenth in its top 40 of the best progressive rock albums ever.[194]

Reissues[edit]

Radiohead left EMI, parent company of Parlophone, in 2007 after failed contract negotiations. EMI retained the copyright to Radiohead's back catalogue of material recorded while signed to the label.[195] After a period of being out of print on vinyl, EMI reissued a double-LP of OK Computer on 19 August 2008, along with later albums Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief as part of the "From the Capitol Vaults" series.[196] OK Computer became the year's tenth best-selling vinyl record, shifting just under 10,000 units.[197] The reissue was connected in the press to a general upswing in vinyl sales and cultural appreciation of records as a format.[198][199]

OK Computer was reissued again on 24 March 2009 simultaneously with Pablo Honey and The Bends, without Radiohead's involvement. The reissue came in two editions: a 2-CD "Collector's Edition" and a 2-CD 1-DVD "Special Collector's Edition". The first disc contains the original studio album, the second disc contains B-sides collected from OK Computer singles and live recording sessions, and the DVD contains a collection of music videos and a live television performance.[200] All the material on the reissue had been previously released.[201]

Professional ratings
"Collector's Edition"
Review scores
Source Rating
AllMusic 5/5 stars[202]
The A.V. Club A[203]
Pitchfork 10/10[204]
Rolling Stone 5/5 stars[205]
Q 5/5 stars[206]
Uncut 5/5 stars[207]

O'Brien said that EMI had not notified Radiohead of the reissue and that it was "just a company who are trying to squeeze every bit of lost money, it's not about [an] artistic statement." He pointed out that fans already had access to the bonus material on YouTube.[208] Press reaction to the reissue expressed concern that EMI was exploiting Radiohead's back catalogue. Larry Fitzmaurice of Spin accused EMI of planning to "issue and re-issue [Radiohead's] discography until the cash stops rolling in",[200] and Pitchfork's Ryan Dombal said it was "hard to look at these reissues as anything other than a cash-grab for EMI/Capitol—an old media company that got dumped by their most forward-thinking band."[201] Daniel Kreps of Rolling Stone defended EMI, saying: "While it's easy to accuse Capitol of milking the cash cow once again, these sets are pretty comprehensive."[209]

The reissue was critically well received, although reception was mixed about the supplemental material. Reviews in AllMusic,[202] Uncut,[207] Q,[206] Rolling Stone[205] and PopMatters[210] praised the supplemental material, but with reservations. A review written by Scott Plagenhoef for Pitchfork awarded the reissue a perfect score, arguing that it was worth buying for fans who did not already own the rare material. Plagenhoef said, "That the band had nothing to do with these is beside the point: This is the final word on these records, if for no other reason that the Beatles' September 9 remaster campaign is, arguably, the end of the CD era."[204] The A.V. Club writer Josh Modell praised both the bonus disc and the DVD, and said of the album, "And what can be said about 1997's OK Computer that hasn't been said before? It really is the perfect synthesis of Radiohead's seemingly conflicted impulses."[203]

Track listing[edit]

All tracks written by Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O'Brien, Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway

No. Title Length
1. "Airbag"   4:44
2. "Paranoid Android"   6:23
3. "Subterranean Homesick Alien"   4:27
4. "Exit Music (For a Film)"   4:24
5. "Let Down"   4:59
6. "Karma Police"   4:21
7. "Fitter Happier"   1:57
8. "Electioneering"   3:50
9. "Climbing Up the Walls"   4:45
10. "No Surprises"   3:48
11. "Lucky"   4:19
12. "The Tourist"   5:24
Total length:
53:27

Personnel[edit]

Charts and certifications[edit]

Notes[edit]

Footnotes

  1. ^ For example, the line "in a deep deep sleep of the innocent" from "Airbag" is rendered as ">in a deep deep sssleep of tHe inno$ent/completely terrified". See Footman 2007, p. 45
  2. ^ Britpop, which reached its peak popularity in the mid-1990s and was led by bands such as Oasis, Blur and Pulp, was typified by nostalgic homage to British rock of the 1960s and 1970s. The genre was a key element of the broader cultural movement Cool Britannia. Starting in 1997, a number of events marked the end of the genre's heyday; these included Blur spurning the conventional Britpop sound on Blur and Oasis' Be Here Now failing to live up to the expectations of critics and the public. See Footman 2007, pp. 177–178
  3. ^ Specifically, critics have cited the album's influence on Muse, Snow Patrol, Keane, Travis, Doves, Badly Drawn Boy, Editors and Elbow. See:
  4. ^ Musicians who have praised the album include R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, DJ Shadow, former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash, Manic Street Preachers member Nicky Wire, The Divine Comedy frontman Neil Hannon, Mo' Wax label owner James Lavelle, former Depeche Mode member Alan Wilder and contemporary composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. See:

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