The third studio album from Oxford based alternative rockers Radiohead, OK Computer, marks the grounding for their deviation into more experimental rock than the guitar oriented and introspective style found in The Bends. Reaching numb one upon its release in 1997, the first self-produced Radiohead album has now been archived in the Library of Congress as a work that is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Predominately recorded at St. Catherine’s Court, a rural mansion near Bath, the album makes direct use of space, and this space was influential on Radiohead’s sound with tracks being recorded on staircases and at 3am in ballrooms. According to frontman Thom Yorke, the removal of the studio setting made OK Computer feel “less like a laboratory experiment,” allowing the album to become the eclectic experiment that it is. With influences ranging from the political writings of Noam Chomsky to the avant-garde jazz fusion of Miles Davis, it is no wonder that OK Computer holds as great esteem as it does.
OK Computer’s instrumentation expands to feature electric piano, Mellotron, cello, and even the utilisation of the synthesised voice from the Mac SimpleText application voicing a checklist of slogans from the 1990’s in ‘Fitter Happier.’ This track, which overlays the monotonous voice enlisting us to be “more productive and comfortable” over electronically distorted waves and a soft melodic piano riff, was said to be the most upsetting track Yorke had ever written. It was originally considered as the opening track of OK Computer, but its somewhat depressing tone regarding the state of society may have been off-putting as an opening. Instead, OK Computer opens with the significantly less daunting ‘Airbag,’ which with its strong and coherent vocals from Yorke sets listeners at ease with the album.
There is also something comforting about the constancy of bells that run rhythmically throughout the track. The longest track of the album, cut down from its original 14 minutes, follows its opening. ‘Paranoid Android’ (coming from Marvin the Paranoid Android of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) consists of four parts that detail one of Yorke’s experiences at a bar in Los Angeles. It oscillates between mellow drones and harsher rock, ending dramatically with a conflicting compilation of futuristic noise. ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’ was written specifically for the closing credits of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet. Its echoed and empty tone was achieved by its recording in a staircase at St. Catherine’s Court, with its sombre mood perfectly fitting the tragic demise of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. ‘Karma Police’ marks the midpoint of OK Computer and is arguably the darkest track on the album, with its slow pace and droning vocals, which is offset by the faster paced ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ which comes towards the end of the album. The track features brassy electronic sounds reverberating throughout the track, exemplifying the wide range of instrumentation used by Radiohead. OK Computer ends at its most gentle with ‘The Tourist’, which eventually peters out to what sounds something like the ding of a microwave.
Though not conceived as a concept album with an underlying narrative, there is a significant continuity between the themes present on the tracks of OK Computer. The album has been interpreted as an insight into the mood of 21st Century life, with themes of consumerism, alienation and political malaise, making it decidedly postmodern in its outlook. There is a different character in place for each track, such as the animated Robin who features in the video for ‘Paranoid Android,’ but the characters do not overlap to form a congruent narrative throughout the album.
The album artwork for OK Computer, featuring a montage of images and words in light blue, is by Stanley Donwood, the man behind all of Radiohead’s artwork since The Bends. Donwood worked closely with Radiohead and compiled the artwork in the same time it took for the album’s completion, with the rule that they could not erase anything in the process.
OK Computer marks the beginning of the experimental and expressive sound that we have come to associate with Radiohead, making it a pretty important album for them. Being archived in the Library of Congress, its cultural importance due to the themes present on the album has clearly been recognised. Its name refers to both embracing the future and being scared of it, something that will be eternally relevant- so it looks like OK Computer will stand the test of time for years to come.
Ok Computer was released on the 21st of May 1997 via Parlophone Records.