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Listen to Thom Yorke's isolated vocals on Radiohead song 'Airbag'

On release, OK Computer immediately split audiences, with some declaring it a seminal work and others labelling it a sacred cow. Despite these varying reviews, the album endures as one of Radiohead’s most pioneering works and stands as an artefact from a moment of intense social, political, and technological transformation. It marked the frantic paranoia of a society hurling towards the end of the millennium, with tracks like ‘Paranoid Android’, ‘Karma Police’ and ‘Airbag’ expertly reflecting the fear and excitement young British people felt as the year 2000 loomed into view.

This isolated recording of ‘Airbag’ reminds us of how important Thom Yorke’s vocals were to the sonic world of OK Computer. When the album hit the shelves, it was Radiohead’s strange manipulation of organic instruments that caught most critics’ attention, many of whom already felt the band’s eagerness to move towards the more electronic realm of Kid A.

Jonny Greenwood’s opening guitar riff in ‘Airbag’ roots the track in the ’90s grunge pool of The Bends. However, Phillip Selway’s super-compressed drums suggest a burgeoning desire to move into the more glitchy experimental territory: “The drum loop on that song was inspired by DJ Shadow,” Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich told Rolling Stone. “It’s a departure from a rock band. What happened was, I told Thom and Phil to sit there for a couple of hours and create a drum loop. And a day and a half later, they were like, ‘OK, we’ve got it.’ But it wasn’t very exciting sounding, so I ran it through Jonny’s pedal board. And we just did three takes of him just like doing all sorts of shit to it and we put it all in.”

With all that going on, it’s amazing that Yorke’s are noticeable at all. The fragility of his voice, always on the cusp of all-out falsetto, seems both at war with Greenwood’s guitar and yet floats well above it. This sense that things could fall apart at any moment is evident in the song’s lyrics as well. The song was written about a car crash Thom experienced with his girlfriend in 1987.

Speaking about how the incident inspired the OK Computer track, the singer once said: “Has an airbag saved my life? Nah… but I tell you something, every time you have a near accident, instead of just sighing and carrying on, you should pull over, get out of the car and run down the street screaming ‘I’m BACK! I’m ALIVE! My life has started again today!’ In fact, you should do that every time you get out of a car. We’re just riding on those things – we’re not really in control of them.”