Radiohead’s visual companion to OK Computer was Meeting People Is Easy, an hour and a half of Radiohead making their way around the world, introduced to so many cultures and people, but constantly on the edge of mental breakdown. You could almost get irritated at their vocalist, Thom Yorke, as he gets fed up accepting awards, playing their old song ‘Creep’ and travelling the world yet not able to slow down enough to enjoy it. That’s the crux of OK Computer. It’s about loneliness in crowded places, the technological isolation of the new millennium, the zombified masses accepting false cures to pre-constructed illnesses. It’s utterly miserable… and it’s gone 5x platinum in the UK. It wasn’t simply a matter of right place at the right time. Yes, it did coincide with New Labour coming to power in the UK and whilst Noel Gallagher was shaking hands with Tony Blair and there was an atmosphere of optimism, Radiohead presented the situation as ‘The old government have been replaced by the same one’. It also preceded many of the post-9/11 statements by bands who feared a tyrannical government using fear to enforced their own agenda. It was way ahead of its time, and it’s also lost in time. There’s elements of prog-rock in there (Dark Side Of The Moon was banded about as an influence), the electronic music that the band would later dabble further in on Kid A, and the alternative rock sound was punctuated with whatever else they could lay their hands on. It’s a strange, weird, excellent and multi-layered album.
There are so many tracks on OK Computer which have been called Radiohead’s best songs: the proggy, twisted ‘Paranoid Android’, the tension-and-release of ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ or their more chart-worthy ‘Karma Police’, which is still astounding if you think about it. It has lyrics about Hitler hairdos and a man who buzzes like a fridge, completely contradicting the warm chord progressions. Our money, however, is on ‘Climbing Up The Walls’. It’s undoubtedly the creepiest track that Radiohead have ever made, and that’s counting ‘Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors’. The sounds that Radiohead create are somewhere in the middle of industrial and noise-rock, but the creepiness comes in Yorke’s voice. He’s not a technically proficient singer, but he’s always been able to contort his voice to the needs of the song, whether that’s his endearing howl on ballads or on ‘Climbing Up The Walls’, where he sounds like the wailing mental patient that he takes the perspective of. He sings ‘We are friends till we die’ and ‘Tuck the kids in safe tonight / and shut the eyes in the cupboard’, almost like a horror movie where there’s always someone over your shoulder. I don’t even think that Yorke is personifying the fear that the parent feels. The creepiest thing is that there doesn’t even need to be a serial killer coming for the parent – it’s the paranoia that will kill them. When he sings ‘Either way you turn / I’ll be there’, it’s not even a threat, it’s a fact that the mental illness will be there, even if the hallucinations aren’t. As any good horror film will show you, the fear of the audience comes from the unknown; not seeing the monster at all. That fear and paranoia is ten times worse than anything that the special effects department can dream up. The fact that the entire song occurs in their own home is the worse part. The home is meant to be a safehouse against the evil of the outside world and even if the physical evils cannot get in, the mental evils cannot be stopped.
It’s ‘Let Down’ that most matches the mood of Yorke and Meeting People Is Easy. He opens by reeling off ‘Transport, motorways and tramlines, starting and then stopping’ as the beautiful arpeggiated guitars soar around him. He combines the numbness of travel and success with ‘sentimental drivel’, his anger at being sold emotion by companies looking to make a profit off his emotions, only for him to be let down by the final product. Though Radiohead are often criticised for being miserable, ‘Let Down’ shows Yorke’s want to feel emotion, but it’s interrupted by the media trying to compete with what he ‘should’ be feeling for what he ‘could’ be feeling. The dual guitarists – Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien don’t get enough credit for how much they compliment each other, with Greenwood often taking ‘right-hand-man’ status for his ability to write sheet-metal industrial rock like ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ climax and then write something like ‘Let Down’s arpeggios, which he intertwines with O’Brien. ‘Paranoid Android’ is where the instrumental side of the band get a chance to outshine Yorke for once, beginning with the lonely guitar working its path through Phil Selway’s nimble drums. Jonny Greenwood takes over for the two guitar solos that completely obliterate anything in their path, but Ed O’Brien then joins Yorke for the goosebump-inducing bridge. Yorke wails out ‘The panic, the vomit / the panic, the vomit / god loves his children’. The unconventional structure sets it apart from the rest of the album, purposefully disjointed to tear up what might have been a good but unmemorable song. It’s prog-rock in the best possible way.
For an album that’s often a gateway to rock music, OK Computer is a multi-layered experience that reveals something new with every listen. Even the more subtle tracks like ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ and ‘The Tourist’ have some of the most interesting lyrics even if they can’t compete with ‘Electioneering’ or ‘Let Down’ instrumentally. OK Computer is perhaps the last great example of a rock band at their peak simultaneously rallying for and against that innovation. It has a sound about it that recalls Dark Side Of The Moon or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Much like the car crash Yorke recalls on ‘Airbag’, the entire album is something painful that you can’t bear not to look at, because it’s so bright and dazzling. Though it tracks mental breakdown, loneliness and technology replacing human contact, it’s impossible not to listen and think how current it remains. Since OK Computer Radiohead tore up the rulebook further by releasing Kid A (The ‘connoisseurs’ best Radiohead album) and In Rainbows, which extended their innovation beyond the music and into the way that the music is delivered. It’s an album that stuck out like a sore thumb as Britpop was dying a painful death and grunge had become a fashion accessory, but that’s what has allowed it to age so well. OK Computer fears what it can’t touch – the paranoia, the government, the corporations, the technology. It’s the lack of contact that is breaking the world apart, Yorke fears, and we’re all falling for it.
Funnel Recommends: Paranoid Android / Exit Music (For A Film) / Climbing Up The Walls