Counterbalance No. 13: Radiohead – ‘OK Computer’

Is Radiohead's OK Computer the last canonical rock album? Counterbalance debates the case.

OK Computer
Parlophone / Capitol
21 May 1997

Mendelsohn: Before we talk about where we first heard this record or how it made us feel or why our world is a better place because of it or any of that—I’d just like to throw this out there: Radiohead‘s OK Computer is to the 1990s (and probably the next two decades) what the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was to the 1960s (and ’70s and ’80s).

Klinger: Hmm, sonically daring, aesthetically bold, and fetishized beyond its standing by pale mopey geeks? You may be onto something there, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: It’s not just the pale, mopey geeks who love this album. OK Computer went platinum in almost every country, spawned three chart hits and a hit video in the waning days of MTV when music videos were being shown the door. We’re talking about a pop masterpiece with a commercial and critical appeal that had seldom been seen in a decade or more preceding and still hasn’t been matched. We’re talking about one of the last great albums here. Very possibly the last entry into the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll canon. Whether or not you like Thom Yorke’s crooning and the band’s sad-sack guitars, you have to give this album its due.

Klinger: I’m quite sure that there are countries where this album is less than entrenched in the public consciousness. Of course, these may well be nations in which paleness and mopery are far less a way of life than say, Norway, where I suspect that “Paranoid Android” is played at most weddings.

But yes, Mendelsohn, I cannot deny that OK Computer is going to be the last entry into the Canon. Fifty years from now, when Ken Burns III does the inevitable PBS documentary on rock ‘n’ roll, the final installment (“Grunge and Beyond”) will probably trail off with the arrival of this album. Beyond this point lies boy bands, the demise of the record industry, and ultimately the end of rock history (remind me to have that phrase copyrighted).

Mendelsohn: I said, “almost every country”. I understand that there are places in the world where music consists mostly of a drum beat, clicks, and guttural chants—like everything on the radio right now. And there are places where music has remained unchanged for thousands of years. But despite varying degrees of mopeyness and skin pigmentation, I think OK Computer speaks a universal language packaged neatly in expressive pop music.

Although all this talk of The End of Rock History© has got me bummed out. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been listening to a lot of Radiohead just now.

Klinger: Well, that’ll do it. These guys are just about the glummest bunch of glum glummers that ever glummed. And I think that’s why I have such a hard time connecting to this record. I pull this down every once in a while to see if I can enjoy it, but in the end, it just starts to fade away on me. I just can’t connect. And that makes me glum. Mendelsohn, what am I missing here?

img-212Smoke by werner22brigitte (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Mendelsohn: It’s not glum, necessarily. OK Computer suffers from having a low average BPM, but the subject matter shouldn’t make you want to slit your wrists. Try framing it as a treatise on the perils of modern life, an existential snapshot of the trappings of the technologies that permeate the fabric of our lives. And if that seems like too much work (because it is), look at it as a pop masterpiece masquerading as an alt-rock album.

The thing I love about this album is how big and expansive it can seem one minute, only to shrink to the most intimate record I’ve ever heard. I’m not going to claim it’s perfect. Most days, I won’t listen to it from start to finish. Skip “Exit Music,” “Fitter”, and the tacked-on “Tourist”, and suddenly it’s a much tighter and not so languid.

Klinger: I believe there already was an existential snapshot of the trappings of the technologies that permeate the fabric of our lives, and that album was He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. But I’ll concede your point that this album is also one of those.

I’m sure Radiohead fans will egg my car for this, but “Fitter Happier” is one of my favorite things about this record, possibly because it is one of the few instances where Yorke and Co. sound like they’re taking the piss out of their own dolorous, dolorous image. And as for this wrist-slittery of which you speak, I think I’d like this album better if they expressed their emotions with a bit more vigor one way or the other. But maybe alienation just isn’t my bag, an idea I’m sure we’ll be revisiting roundabout Counterbalance No. 21.

Mendelsohn: I don’t like that you just compared Radiohead to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (of Bel-Air). In my younger days, I would have told you that we now have to fight. But being that it’s the middle of the afternoon and I’m feeling sleepy, I’m going to let it go and seek my revenge at a later date.

I know I can’t make you like this album—no matter what fancy reasoning I come up with, Yorke still sounds like a puppy being squeezed in a vice while the rest of the band is too hopped up (or down in this case) on barbies to set aside the guitars and loosen the screws. The only real solace I can take is that Will Smith will not be remembered for his music career, while Radiohead will go down as the Last Great Rock Band. I mean, unless they release another Hail to the Thief. Or find religion. Or release a Christmas album. Or appear in Victoria’s Secret commercials.

Klinger: Ah, but that’s the nice thing about the Canon—you can’t get kicked out! No matter how incompetent you become, no matter how many Self Portraits or Dirty Works or It’s Hards you make, you still get to be in the Canon. It’s like rock and roll tenure.

After all, Bob Dylan did all three of the things you mentioned, and… Hey, wait a minute. I see what you did there. You know, for a guy who gets so sleepy in the middle of the afternoon, you sure are eager to pick a fight. Lucky for you it’s the middle of the afternoon and I’m half in the bag, so I’ll agree to postpone any fisticuffs for a later date as well.

Mendelsohn: Maybe we could both use a nap. I used to put OK Computer on expressly for the sole purpose of taking a nap. Not that it would put me to sleep, I just found it relaxing. Maybe it’s a good fit for the last entry into the Canon—as we unceremoniously put the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll tome to bed. A final ode to the technology and globalization that killed off the old school record business model.

Klinger: Well, no one’s going to miss the industry’s business model, but it’s still vaguely depressing that the music that brought so much vitality to my formative years is becoming a museum piece. Has it really reached its endpoint?

And if we really have, couldn’t we have gone out with a more lively party than this Bergmanesque bleakscape of an album? Come on rock ‘n roll, let’s have one more throwdown before we lock up here—preferably one so joyous even Thom Yorke would cut loose a bit.

Of course, I was pushing 30 when this record came out. I was well on my way toward distancing myself from rock even before grunge reared its skanky unwashed head, and although I’ve since found my way back in, I’ll confess that the ’90s are something of a blind spot for me. I’ve really only ever listened to OK Computer as an academic exercise. Can one really form a bond with this wire monkey mommy of an album?

Mendelsohn: One man’s wire monkey mommy is another man’s real monkey mommy. I still return to this album when I’m in need of comfort. OK Computer was the final building block of my musical being during my formative years, and much of what I listen to today can be traced back to this record.

Sure, it’s not rock ‘n’ roll like the Rolling Stones were rock ‘n’ roll, there’s no guitar grit and boogie-woogie swagger. But it embodies everything that rock stands for—DIY, rebellion and alienation, loss and love, and ultimately, destruction. Yorke and Co. built a record with complete disregard for what was popular at the time, and it went onto become a cultural touchstone.

Klinger: You see, Mendelsohn, eloquent paeans such as yours are what keep me coming back to this album, even though I’m consistently unable to form a bond. I guess it’s me then. Perhaps I’m the one who’s isolated here, scorned by my fellow critics for my provincial views and unable to love this album. I feel so… alienated. If only there were an album that could crystallize the alienation I feel.

I mean besides He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper, of course.

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Ten years ago, we began presenting the beloved Counterbalance series that ran through 2016. Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger debate the merits of some of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time. We are re-running the entire series with a new entry each week. Enjoy.

This article was originally published on 17 December 2010.