On the 25th anniversary of its release, it seems like a given that Radiohead‘s OK Computer is one of the landmark albums of the 1990s. Peruse any publication’s list of Best Albums of the 1990s, and you’ll likely find OK Computer lodged in the top ten, if not ranked number one. Time has been kind to the record, and its legend has grown as Radiohead continue to be “A Band That Matters”.
It wasn’t like that in 1997, however. At the time, Radiohead was still trying to build a career for themselves as musicians. The band had had a huge hit with “Creep” in 1993 but had failed to follow it up with anything nearly as successful as their debut album, Pablo Honey. Their second album, 1995’s The Bends, was released to a tone of surprising critical acclaim. Music journalists seem shocked that a band they had written off as a one-hit-wonder had improved as musicians and songwriters. That acclaim didn’t translate to any significant hits, but the videos got some airplay on MTV. The album did have its fans, though, and big-time rock acts R.E.M. and Alanis Morissette each took Radiohead out on tour as their openers. That was enough to keep the band’s name out there and to keep their labels, EMI, Parlophone, and Capitol, in their corner for the production of OK Computer.
Radiohead found their initial attempts at recording the album at a studio near their homes in Oxford unsatisfying. Subsequently, they decamped to an unoccupied mansion in the English countryside with producer Nigel Godrich. From there, they used a variety of locations inside as recording spaces, trying to get specific and unique sounds. By all accounts, the record label left the group completely alone during this process.
The first thing anyone heard from the record turned out to be available only to moviegoers and, eventually, on VHS tape. Director Baz Luhrmann contacted Radiohead about writing a song for the closing credits of his film Romeo + Juliet. They agreed, and the result was “Exit Music (For a Film)”. The track is downbeat and sullen, perfect for a story that ends with the leads both dead. Vocalist Thom Yorke and an acoustic guitar drive most of the song. As it continues, the distinctly uncanny sound of choral voices running through a mellotron provides backing vocals. The song climaxes with Phil Selway’s crashing drums and Colin Greenwood’s fuzz bass before sagging back into a quiet finish. Luhrmann uses a lot of alternative rock in the movie, but “Exit Music” is easily one of the best tracks. Radiohead stipulated, however, that the song couldn’t be put on the film’s official soundtrack, wanting to save it for the finished OK Computer.
With their creativity in full bloom and the record company taking a hands-off approach, OK Computer was exactly what the band wanted it to be. That doesn’t mean it was particularly commercially viable, though. The Bends was full of great alternative rock songs that just didn’t connect with a wide audience. On the other hand, OK Computer turned out to be a difficult record to pin down sonically. The songs had the basic outline of alternative rock but often had unusual, sometimes jarring elements that made it, initially, a tough sell for the labels. To their credit, both Parlophone in the UK and Capitol in the US followed the band’s wishes, releasing the six-minute progressive rock-styled “Paranoid Android” as the album’s first single.
The track is a stunning achievement, starting quietly but with momentum. A minor key acoustic guitar riff and gentle percussion drive the song initially, and watery electric guitar tones float over the top. Yorke’s soaring vocals provide a strong melody, even though his lyrics are oblique statements of isolation and anger. The mood of the song shifts at the two-minute mark, getting darker and starting to build the tension. Distorted sounds start to creep in at the edges. At 2:45, Radiohead completely shifts into heavy rock, and Jonny Greenwood is spotlighted with an unhinged guitar solo. From here, the band downshifts to a slow section highlighted by choral backing vocals. Yorke is in full voice here, moaning, “Rain down / Rain down”, and other phrases. The band returns to the heavy rock section to finish the song, ending it abruptly with a final surge of guitar noise.
“Paranoid Android” got a little bit of North American radio airplay initially, mostly presented as a curiosity along the lines of, “Here’s the new Radiohead song; check out how crazy this is!” However, the track’s animated video featuring characters from the TV series Robin got significant airplay on MTV. MTV embraced all three videos from OK Computer, and that exposure certainly helped the album achieve success, particularly in the US.
The next video, “Karma Police”, featured a car driving down a dark road, chasing a panicking man. Occasionally the camera rotates away from the front windshield to the backseat. Here, a bored-looking Yorke disinterestedly lip-syncs the song’s chorus, “This is what you’ll get / When you mess with us.” The clip climaxes with the pursued man setting fire to a trail of gasoline that eventually engulfs the car. One final camera rotation shows that Yorke has disappeared from the burning vehicle.
“Karma Police” is one of the more conventional songs on the record, being essentially a piano-driven ballad, albeit a very good one. This striking video, directed by Jonathan Glazer, is very memorable. Watching it again, it’s easy to see why MTV put it into heavy rotation.
By the time Radiohead got around to filming the video for “No Surprises”, they were exhausted from months of touring. OK Computer helped Radiohead get to the point where they could set their own schedule, but they were still on the record company’s clock for much of this album cycle. 1997 found them playing shows throughout much of the developed world, and director Grant Gee captured much of this mostly-unpleasant experience in his documentary on the band, Meeting People Is Easy.
Gee also directed “No Surprises”, the making of which takes up a significant chunk of his film. Yorke was placed in a helmet, which would fill with water during the instrumental portions of the song and drain in time for him to lip-sync the lyrics. That turned out to be something akin to torture for Yorke, who had difficulty holding his breath in the stressful environment.
“No Surprises” is OK Computer‘s gentlest song, with a calm and pretty melody line played on chiming guitar and glockenspiel. The song’s tone stays relentlessly upbeat throughout its swells and musical expansion. Yorke’s lyrics, though, are completely downtrodden. He sings about having a terrible job, hating the government, and wanting to kill himself by carbon monoxide poisoning. The song’s chorus, “No alarms and no surprises, please,” is the character’s plea not to be interrupted during his task.
As difficult as making the video was, the result is tremendous. Yorke’s tension is mostly not evident on his face, but watching the middle section of the clip where he’s underwater is like seeing a high-wire act. Even knowing he’s not going to drown and being aware that the film was sped up during this portion of the song, it still seems like an open question in the moment. While it didn’t make as much of an impact on MTV as “Karma Police”, the “No Surprises” video definitely helped keep OK Computer in the public consciousness well into 1998.
How much the album was in the public consciousness depended on where you lived. In their native UK, it was the eighth-biggest seller of 1997, and all three of the major singles charted in the Top 10. In the United States, “Karma Police” was the most successful radio single, and it could only muster #14 on the Modern Rock Chart. As far as the album itself, it was #187 on the US Billboard charts for 1997 and ticked upward to #142 in 1998. The record did manage to go platinum in the States a full year after its release. With its long legacy, OK Computer eventually tallied up enough to achieve double platinum in the US and went five times platinum in the UK.
The people who purchased the album got their money’s worth beyond the singles. The record begins with the massive “Airbag”, featuring an epic guitar riff that’s doubled on a cello. There’s a lot thrown into the song, from soaring vocals to chiming guitars to looped samples of Phil Selway’s drums to the odd start and stop bassline of Colin Greenwood. “Subterranean Homesick Alien” channels feelings of loneliness into a fantasy about being abducted by aliens, with guitars and keyboards stuck in between spacey and watery.
“Let Down” believes in the power of pounding drums and a soaring chorus to make even a particularly maudlin set of Yorke lyrics sound triumphant. “Electioneering” was hailed in some corners as the song that most resembled something from The Bends. It doesn’t feel like that in 2022, with its insistent cowbell and jagged guitars overwhelming the melody. “Climbing Up the Walls” is full of buzzing low sounds and unsettling high-end noises, and Selway’s striking choice to play his snare drum with the snares turned off adds to the uneasy feeling the song creates.
“Lucky” and “The Tourist” have always felt like a bit of a squishy end to the record after the disarming “No Surprises.” Listening again, though, both songs have their high points. The soaring guitar riff in the chorus of “Lucky” is great, while the guitar-driven coda that ends the track is even better. After a full album of odd sounds and twists and turns, “The Tourist” closes the record on a surprisingly relaxed note. Yet “relaxed” is a relative term. The song still includes an extended, noisy electric guitar solo, warbling mellotron, and finishes with a single, clear triangle hit.
In hindsight, it’s interesting that the record sold even as well as it did. The summer of 1997 found alternative rock on the downward slope of its run. Lollapalooza spent its last gasp as a touring festival desperately trying to stay relevant by inserting nu-metal group KoRn as its headliners. Meanwhile, Backstreet Boys found success in Europe and started the boy band revival in North America. By the summer of 1998, when Radiohead were finally winding down its world tour, the format was having its last gasps.
Bands like Harvey Danger, Barenaked Ladies, Fuel, and Eve6 still managed breakout alternative hits that summer. At this point, though, Backstreet Boys had been joined by NSync at the top of the charts, signaling a sea change in pop music. Over on the rock side, KoRn and Kid Rock’s breakthrough albums, Follow the Leader and Devil Without a Cause, were released simultaneously on 18 August, officially kicking off nu-metal’s ascendancy as a subgenre.
Maybe Radiohead were able to keep going because OK Computer stood apart from the alternative rock of the day. It shared the dour outlook and mopiness of the grunge music that kicked off the genre, but sonically they were moving away from the signposts of the style. Regardless, the moderate sales success of OK Computer and burgeoning critical appreciation for the album allowed Radiohead the freedom to experiment. They took full advantage of this, going largely electronic for Kid A and Amnesiac a few years later. Radiohead have spent their active portions of the 21st-century shifting between electronic and rock-based sounds, adjusting the balance according to their own whims but always making interesting music.