Today marks 25 years since Radiohead released the masterpiece that is OK Computer. The album saw the band build on the significant artistic strides they made on its predecessor, The Bends, and head in the direction that would give us all the cerebral moments that followed.
Even though The Bends was a significant success, it was on OK Computer where Radiohead went really stratospheric, and Thom Yorke and Co. confirmed themselves as the band of the future. With the album, they morphed from being an alternative rock band that had a lot to say to becoming what can only be described as an oracle, showing us our musical, cultural and societal future.
The album is also significant because it marked the first time that the band and producer Nigel Godrich worked as a duo on the production, crystallising the line-up of the title-winning team that has given us all their albums since. Notably, apart from ‘Lucky’, the band recorded the entirety of OK Computer across Oxfordshire and Bath, with the majority of it in the 16th-century mansion St Catherine’s Court, which is situated in a secluded valley just north of the Somerset city.
There’s a deep sense of irony that comes to the fore when you note that the album, which is notably a futuristic and post-modern record, was recorded in an environment that is a totem of our past. However, you cannot help thinking that the secluded location of the house somehow leant itself to the isolation of the modern world that Thom Yorke’s lyrics so perfectly depicted.
Whilst guitars are found across the record, and in the most brilliant and progressive of ways, the band dialled down their concentration on the instrument in the conventional sense and on the introspection that coloured The Bends. Instead, they looked to the future with abstract lyricism, layered textures and the use of eclectic electronic sounds to create a vivid sonic palette that became an instant hit. Duly, this was the start of them truly becoming the Radiohead that we know and love today.
The band utilised a host of unconventional production techniques when recording the album, including employing the natural reverberation of the house by recording on its staircase and by not choosing to use audio separation. Augmenting the grandiose sentiment of the themes, the strings were recorded at the historic Abbey Road Studios in London, the place where The Beatles, who also partially inspired the album, recorded their best works.
The way that the futurism of the music, which was inspired by everyone from Miles Davis to Ennio Morricone and R.E.M. mirrored the power of the lyricism was unlike anything anybody had heard at the time. Across the record, as the band and Godrich deliver shifting dynamics, syncopated rhythms and many textural flourishes, Yorke sings of unfettered consumerism, alienation and political strife, seemingly preceding the dawn of the 21st century and all the problems it brought.
Arguably, there is no better example of this than the invariably unsettling ‘Fitter Happier’, which sounds like a dystopian nightmare, with the robotic voice, haunting piano, and piercing electronic sounds that fade in and out of the mix increasing your heart rate considerably. The lyrics are an incisive take on the modern condition, much like Mark Renton’s speech at the end of Trainspotting, but without the hope that carries that famous monologue. Take the final portion of the lyrics: “Fitter, healthier and more productive / A pig / In a cage / On antibiotics”.
In truth, the album is without a downside, and even though it is not a concept album in the traditional sense, it’s probably best to regard it as one. It’s more than just an album of just music. It’s a fluid piece of art containing many lessons, giving it a 3-dimensional essence that is a testament to the combined genius of Radiohead. It is genuinely astounding that even 25 years later, it has not aged a day and that the themes are more pertinent than they were back then.
Listen to OK Computer in full below.