Genre: Alternative Rock
Preceded by: The Bends (1995)
Followed by: Kid A (2000)
Related to: Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
In my last year at university I had a course called ‘Science Critics’. For the orally exam I had to prepare a discussion about “something that drew your attention and could be linked to the content of the course”, which was about people wanting everything and getting nowhere by doing so, meanwhile destroying their environment. I wanted to avoid I was going to be outtalked by this grey professor about Dark Side of the Moon, so I picked Radiohead’s version of the 90’s. It was the most pleasant assignment I ever had at university. Welcome to the world of OK Computer.
The nineties were reigned by what’s called ‘alternative rock’, an umbrella term for several genres that emerged from the independent music scene of the mid eighties. So in fact there’s no specific musical style to describe the genre, basically all the bands belonging to it have only one specific thing in common: their most important instrument is the guitar. While The Pixies and Jane’s Addiction paved the way for grunge rock in the US, it were The Smiths introducing an alternative to new wave in the UK, being responsible for the renaissance of the guitar. It opened the doors for typical britpop bands like Oasis and Blur. Just when grunge as well as britpop were within an ace of death, the English rock band Radiohead released their third album: OK Computer. Radiohead quickly became kings of alternative rock, but left the genre again only shortly afterward, trading it for experimental rock on their next albums Kid A and Amnesiac.
The band, consisting of singer Thom Yorke, guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, bass player Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway, already formed in 1985 but only started to perform frequently in public in 1991, after all band members (except the young Jonny) were graduated from university. Soon followed the debut album, Pablo Honey, which wasn’t that great of a success, although ‘Creep’ became a massive hit, especially in the US. It was the follow-up album The Bends which brought the band its recognition in the UK. The album was characterized by rather personal lyrics, in huge contrast to their next one and one of the landmark records of the nineties, OK Computer (obviously). The album consists in fact of two kind of songs: melodic rock songs like they made before (but greatly improved) and kinda experimental songs introducing some ambient and electronic influences. They all have one lyrical theme in common: modern alienation.
Because the sequence of the tracklist, together with the music, the lyrics and the artwork, is one of the elements that makes this album immortal, I’m going to run over it chronologically. Opening track ‘Airbag’ gives you the crying voice of Yorke supported by a sinister electronic drum beat, as the band members were great fans of DJ Shadow back then. Not a genius song, but a very solid opening song, introducing you to the theme of the album. That’s why I always consider it a sort of prologue to ‘Paranoid Android’. This one is the first masterpiece, like you’re launched in somebody’s schizofrenic head with the altering moods of aggression, desperation and hope. The multiple sections remind of The Beatles‘ ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’, mixed with the ‘slow down and explode’ music of the Pixies.
‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, is my least favorite song of the album of the album so I leave this one to you. The next gem is ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’. It’s a very naked song in the beginning, with only Yorkes voice (like later on ‘We Suck Young Blood’) and an acoustic guitar, progressing towards a climax in the end. Maybe this song reflects the spirit of the album best with Yorke singing ‘Breath, keep breathing’, ‘Sing us a song to keep us warm’ and the repeated ‘We hope that you choke’ towards the end. Some relief on the next track then, ‘Let Down’, which is driven by a very melodic, beatlesque guitar riff filled up with some nice vocal harmonies. Closing ‘side 1’ is one of Radiohead’s most famous anthems: ‘Karma Police’. It’s actually a quiete simple constuction, based around an acoustic guitar, Jonny’s piano and a very basic rock beat by Phil Selway. But the power of the song is the fact that when you whisper quietly to someone that you’re going to get him, it sounds much more powerful than if you would scream it loudly (and I don’t want to talk about The Beatles here all the time, but listen to ‘Sexy Sadie’ and compare the chord progression for yourself).
The album continues with the cold ‘Fitter Happier’, consisting of lyrics (typical nineties slogans) that are recited by a synthesized voice of a Mac. Not really a song, but totally creating the right atmosphere for the album. On ‘Electioneering’, Radiohead returns to its earlier rock sound, with guitar riffs, drum beats and Yorkes lyrics about political compromises pounding against each other. Following is one my absolute Radiohead favorites: ‘Climbing Up the Walls’. Just like ‘Exit Music’, it shapes a very dark atmosphere by its horror lyrics about serial killers and mental illness, and the powerful music with trip-hop influences. This always reminds me of the music Radiohead would later release on Kid A, Amnesiac and even Hail To the Thief. From horror to a a charming lullaby with ‘No Surprises’, considering the music with its acoustic guitar and glockenspiel. The lyrics however are about a very monotonous life in the modern world, which makes this an awesome contrasting song.
The album almost came to an end then, and after all the emptiness, bitterness and anxiety of the previous ten tracks, the future is again full of hope and lying in front of us. We were ‘Lucky’ of course, but maybe there’s still something in for us. It’s kind of a Floydian song (especially the intro) and also resembles the opening track ‘Airbag’, like this song finally explodes here, with a terrific guitar solo in the end. The album is definitely closed by ‘The Tourist’, which is (in my opinion) just like the opening song not outstanding, but a perfect clincher, easily sliding you out of the world of OK Computer.
This album is like a room with a secret camera with a different character walking in each song. That’s kind of how Tom Yorke once tried to describe it, and I can only agree with it. The interesting thing about this album is that Radiohead is searching for something, just like the characters in its songs. But the band is not searching to find something, it’s just searching because of the searching and is going somewhere nobody else went. The searching on this album resulted in an unquestionable rock classic, an album you absolutely must hear, apart from what your favorite music genre is. But to really experience the album, you have to make an effort. This is no background music, this is a documentary. (Try to) enjoy.