Jigsaw Falling Into Place: Revisiting Radiohead’s ’90s

“In an interstellar blast / I’m back to save the universe”

OK Computer: easily Radiohead’s most influential album, arguably the band’s best album overall, probably the finest record of the 1990s and quite possibly, one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded. A cohesive, atmospheric tour de force, the record documents the alienation, uncertainty and malaise felt in pre-millennial, late capitalist society better than just about any other. “Airbag” is a dense, musically rich tale of dystopic rebirth and redemption, with bells, drum loops and strings pulling the listener down into OK Computer‘s rabbit hole. “Paranoid Android”, as it’s often said, is a contemporary answer to “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and “Bohemian Rapsody”; a sardonic, even humorous, series of snapshots of modern life at its worst. “Exit Music (For a Film)”, a hushed, acoustic lament that blossoms into a dramatically triumphant aria, is more cinematic and heartbreaking than the film that it was written for (again, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet). “Karma Police”, the album’s highest-charting single, may well be remembered as the band’s defining anthem — and it’s certainly not a bad choice for the job. “Climbing up the Walls” offers a terrifying window into mental illness, climaxing with a rare moment of catharsis after a solid four minutes of tension. And “No Surprises”, the album’s third and final single, has to be one of the prettiest songs ever written about suicide.

Artist: Radiohead
Album: OK Computer
Subtitle: Special Collectors Edition
Label: Capitol
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/r/radiohead.okcomputer.albumart.jpg
First date: 1997-06-16
US Release Date: 2009-03-24
UK Release Date: 2009-03-23

Rating: 10

Extras rating: 8

Naturally, the best album of the lot also features the best B-sides, many of which could easily have been A-sides. The first four tracks are culled from the “Paranoid Android” single, all of which also appear on the band’s now out of print Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP — a collection of songs that nearly rivals OK Computer in both quality and consistency. “Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)” is song in two-parts: a spare, acoustic snippet married to a spacey, triumphant game of random word association (“Plastic bag/Middle-class/Polyethylene”). Live staple “Pearly*” features one of the band’s best guitar hooks, not to mention a fantastic, shuffling drum beat courtesy of Phil Selway while “A Reminder” is an earthbound cousin of “Subterranean Homesick Alien”.

From the “Karma Police” single we get “Meeting in the Aisle”, a sample-heavy instrumental that serves as a nod to the influence of DJ Shadow, which hangs like, well, a shadow over the album proper. “Lull”, meanwhile, harkens back to the guitar pop of The Bends era, though its use of glockenspiel recalls “No Surprises”. And two remixes of “Climbing Up the Walls”, one from Zero 7 and one from Fila Brazillia, reimagine the song as a trip-hop and dub tune, respectively.

“Palo Alto”, taken from the “No Surprises” single, could very well be the best song left off of OK Computer. Sounding like a heavily-distorted ode to the early Beatles at their most raucous, the song’s chorus (“I’m okay/How are you?/Thanks for asking/Thanks for asking”), dares the listener to not sing along — something that can’t often be said of Radiohead songs. “How I Made My Millions”, on the other hand, is the most austere B-side presented here. A home demo of Yorke at the piano (his girlfriend can supposedly be heard putting away groceries in the background), the song’s minor key progression is both arrestingly sad and undeniably moving, not unlike that of Amnesiac-era B-side “Fog (Again)”. Yorke’s lyrics here are indistinguishable but that’s hardly important — his rich, mournful voice is, for all intents and purposes, just another instrument. Supposedly, Yorke took this demo to the band hoping to craft a full song out of it but the band refused, having been so moved by the demo version. In this instance, it’s not hard to side with them.

Capping off the bonus disc, we get two live cuts and a three-track BBC “One Evening” session, all of which demonstrate Radiohead’s widely acknowledged proficiency in a live setting.

Interestingly, three of the B-sides featured on the second disc (“Polyethylene”, “Pearly*” and “Palo Alto”) are far more muscular than the bulk of the songs on OK Computer, suggesting that the band made a conscious effort not to lean too heavily on guitars when sequencing the album. This, of course, foreshadows the band’s outright rejection of guitar rock on Kid A and to a lesser degree, Amnesiac.

Unlike the other two deluxe reissues, OK Computer‘s bonus DVD is sorely lacking. All that’s featured are three music videos — three fantastic music videos, sure — all of which have been previously featured on two other DVD collections, as well as a single “Jools Holland” session. This, likely is not so much the labels’ fault as it is Radiohead’s. Exhausted and disillusioned from years of touring (see Grant Gee’s fantastic 1998 tour documentary Meeting People is Easy), the band started to wind down with regard to promotional appearances after the conclusion of the OK Computer tour, a tour that the band’s members often cite as a low point. During the release of Kid A four years later, the band would release no singles or videos and make no promotional appearances at all.

OK Computer, being one of the landmark albums of the past two decades, is more than deserving of the deluxe reissue treatment, so it’s hard to blame Capitol/Parolphone for milking it. Thankfully, they’ve done so in a grand fashion, compiling all of the album’s fantastic B-sides and a handful of live performances. Unfortunately, the one area where the OK Computer reissue falls short is the DVD, which is of little value to anyone who already owns a release containing the three music videos contained therein. For this reason, it’s difficult to recommend the “Special Collectors Edition” and all but the most fervent fans are advised to pick up the two disc “Collectors Edition”, which excludes the DVD.

While it would have been nice to see a true rarity to entice even completists (the aborted “Lucky” video? Fragments from the “Big Boots”/”Man O’ War” sessions?), the Collectors Edition of OK Computer, largely does the album justice and for fans who have yet to hear the album’s B-sides, should be considered nothing short of mandatory.

“Everything in its Right Place”

Try as we might to discredit the very concept of reissues, in the end, it’s hard to find fault with the exhaustive and thoughtful manner with which these albums have been repackaged. While Pablo Honey might never be ripe for revisiting, The Bends and OK Computer surely are. And given Radiohead’s continued relevance more than a decade later, one can’t deny that these new editions will likely find a market, among both longtime fans and neophytes alike. Here’s hoping that thanks to these deluxe editions, a new generation of rock fans discovers one of the most impressive runs in contemporary music. After all, even young Steven Patrick Morrissey had to start somewhere.

RATING 10 / 10