Radiohead's Moody, Paranoid Masterpiece 'OK Computer' Turns 20
Every generation since at least the Industrial Revolution has figured it was witnessing the beginning of the end of the world. It’s why we never lose our appetite for stories about totalitarian regimes, global warfare, sentient machines, and the ways in which governments might use technology to rob us of our humanity.
By reputation, Radiohead’s OK Computer is rock’s grand entry in the tradition of dystopian fiction. As the album celebrates its 20th anniversary today (it was released June 16, 1997, in the U.K.), there are no shortage of articles about how Britain’s brainiest band anticipated the rise of Trump, our addiction to smartphones, and other horrors still to come.
Radiohead’s 1997 masterpiece is certainly an album about feeling isolated and dehumanized. Singer and bandleader Thom Yorke paints a picture of a pretty gruesome world, and yet it’s one that listeners in the days of dial-up Internet might’ve recognized as their own. Take away the sci-fi title, and OK Computer plays like a collection of songs about everyday people muddling through the ‘90s. If someone were to adapt the album for the big screen, it would be a talky psychological drama, not a summer blockbuster.
Yorke said as much in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. "The paranoia I felt at the time was much more related to how people related to each other," he said. "But I was using the terminology of technology to express it.”
On OK Computer, when Yorke sings about machines, he’s generally talking about planes, trains, and automobiles -- nothing remotely futuristic. Radiohead recorded the album after four years of touring had left Yorke feeling detached from reality. That might explain “Let Down,” an incongruously twinkling OK Computer highlight wherein Yorke describes “motorways and tramlines” as tools for shutting travelers from one bad experience to the next. He details one such experience on closer “The Tourist,” about an anxious vacationer who’s so keyed up that even dogs bark at him.
And sometimes vehicles don’t get you to where you’re going. The bass-heavy, drum-loop-driven opener “Airbag” celebrates the exhilaration of surviving a car crash. The delusional narrator in the gloomy ballad “Lucky” sings, “Pull me out of the aircrash / Pull me out of the lake.”
Despite its title, “Subterranean Homesick Alien” isn’t an outer-space adventure. Yorke’s protagonist is an “uptight, uptight” guy on a country lane with some rather quaint ideas about UFO abductions. He dreams of being taken up and shown “the world as I’d love to see it,” though he knows his buddies will just call BS and label him crazy. The echo-y psych-pop backing nods to the narrator’s cosmic longing yet grounds the song in the realm of daydreams.
“Paranoid Android,” the album’s first single, is another example of title dictating interpretation. The song name -- like the phrase “OK computer” -- comes from the comedy sci-fi series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, though Yorke has said he picked it mainly because the image of a pouting robot played into people’s perceptions of him. It was Radiohead’s version of a joke -- no wonder no one got it.
Yorke based “Paranoid Android” in part on a scary encounter with coked-up scenesters at an L.A. bar. Even without many details from that night, the song is clearly about humans being inhumane to one another. Yorke sings from the perspective of a little man (“Why don’t you remember my name?”) who’s disgusted by yuppies yet susceptible to power fantasies of his own (“When I am king you will be first against the wall”).
A similar ugliness characterizes “Karma Police,” where Yorke’s narrator wants the cops to enforce a form of spiritual justice that, by definition, is supposed to take care of itself. Whether these “Karma Police” are meant to be forces of good or evil, there’s real menace in the way Yorke’s character sings, “This is what you get when you mess with us.” He even takes it back later in the song: “For a minute there, I lost myself.”
For all its dread, “Karma Police” is a placid pop-rock song featuring piano, acoustic guitar, and a gorgeous melody. That brings up another key point about OK Computer: It’s a relatively conventional rock album that always feels like it’s being performed by guys holding instruments. It wasn't until Radiohead’s next album, 2000’s Kid A, that the band would begin weaving in the chilly electronic blippery that’s since become a key facet of its sound.
OK Computer even features a killer air-guitar track in the form of “Electioneering,” a cynical look at politics that Yorke has said was inspired by England’s poll-tax riots of 1990. If that song “predicted” anything, it was simply more of the oppressive governing that’s been commonplace since man came up with the idea of choosing leaders.
The one exception to all of this is “Fitter, Happier,” which actually would’ve been a great starting point for a technophobic concept album. Radiohead considered opening OK Computer with the track but ultimately thought better of it. Positioned instead at roughly the midpoint, “Fitter, Happier” is two minutes of a stiff computerized voice spouting self-help slogans. At the end, the machine lets slip that man is little more than a “pig in a cage on antibiotics.”
If that last bit is true, humans don’t have robots to blame. According to Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien, Yorke imagined “Fitter Happier” as a kind of “nineties checklist.” Indeed, nearly everything the song preaches -- drinking, pragmatism, kindness to animals, sensible driving, proper show of emotions -- sounds like a tip you might get from some glossy magazine or inspirational radio host. (The bit about not pouring boiling water on ants should probably go without saying.)
OK Computer isn’t frightening for what it foretells. The terror lies in human fears and weaknesses that hardly need technology to become dangerous.