Radiohead have proven to be a exceptional band in many ways. One of the bands defining and most engaging features is the fierce loyalty between Thom Yorke vocals and guitar, Jonny Greenwood (guitar and keyboards), Ed O’Brien (guitar and vocals), Colin Greenwood (bass) and Phil Selway (drums). The band was formed in 1985 in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. To this date they have produced 8 studio albums, but the one record that this essay focuses on is OK Computer (1997). That album propelled them to huge international fame containing a expansive sound and themes of modern alienation. It is often acclaimed as one of the landmark records of the 1990’s.
Even though “The Bends” , which is the album that came before OK Computer, was a slow seller it succeeded through word of mouth and in the following 6 months it sold 500 000 copies in the UK alone. On one hand it was marvelous that the band was a commercial success, but on the other hand that also meant that their following album had to satisfy their own critical expectations and under go the public’s harsh criticisms.
The fact that the huge Pablo Honey (1993) single “Creep” and everything that followed after that propelled them directly into the American rock machine. The constants tours sharpened their musical senses and actually turned them into professionals, even though it was a huge shock because of the sudden popularity. By the time The Bends (1995) was released they were already accustomed to their new life. As they began writing and creating ideas for their new album, they managed to “catch up” with themselves, which opened a whole new world of musical ideas for them.
As Radiohead continued with their heavy booked US schedule, they started to combine touring with writing. It came as a natural thing. The band started working out songs on their own and as support acts for REM, Soul Asylum, Alanis Morissette and other people’s audiences. When their record company, Capitol Records heard of the new songs and ideas, they were delighted and expecting a hugely successful arena record with many crowd-pleasers. What they eventually got when the band went into the studio was rather different .
They didn’t have to wait a long time for a result. The very first take was more or less the final version of No Surprises. That the band could produce something so quick and yet so coherent in such a short time tells us that they had a sure sense of who they were and what they wanted to be.Over the course of a few months they moved out of their studio to their Oxfordshire rehearsal place and to St. Catherine’s Court, a 15th century mansion.One by one the potential arena hits that Capitol Records were expecting fell away.
This record was more ambitious and successful then anything they produced at that time. OK Computer is a record which results from the perfect unison of the bands members and knowing who they were. Both more honest and more consistent, made this a work of compelling maturity.
OK Computer was released on June 16, 1997. The album was received with great joy, despite the worst fears that their US record company wouldn’t be satisfied with it. It nearly instantly became their first UK number 1 album and after that many awards and polls were won. They were showered with awards such as the Grammy for “Best Alternative Rock Performance”. They topped many end of the year polls and won a string of awards. Today it is still voted as one of the best albums ever. “If The Bends was the best album of the 1990’s, OK Computer is surely the finest of the 21st century” – James Delingpole, Sunday Telegraph. It is ambitious, but it has yet to be proved wrong.
But what exactly made OK Computer such a huge success? The purpose of this essay is to analize the album step by step and highlight the important aspects of it and then investigate and explain the social criticism and political opinions it brought up
Thom Yorke often cited the “incredibly dense and terrifying sound” of Bitches Brew, a 1969 record that had elements of avant-garde jazz fusion by Miles Davis.
In an interview he described the sound that he search for as “It was building something up and watching it fall apart, that’s the beauty of it. It was at the core of what we were trying to do with OK Computer.”
Yorke also often identified Elvis Costello, REM, PJ Harvey and the Beatles as some of the primary influences of OK Computer. The lyrics of OK Computer are more abstract compared to the personal and emotional lyrics of The Bends. The recurring themes include transportation, technology, insanity, death, modern life, globalization and the political objection to capitalism. Yorke also said that “On this album, the outside world became all there was… I’m just taking Polaroids of things around me moving too fast.” He explained that “It was like there’s a secret camera in a room and it’s watching the character who walks in-a different character for each song. The camera’s not quite me. It’s neutral, emotionless. But not emotionless at all. In fact, the very opposite.”
Thom once explained “Nothing scares me more than driving, I hate it with a fucking passion. I hate it because it’s the most dangerous thing you can do in your life. Your average expensive German car gives you the feeling that you can’t die. And that’s a fraud. Really, when you think about it, every time you get home you should run down the street screaming “I’m back! I’m alive” “.
The album as a whole begins with Airbag and a catchy guitar riff, which is constructed by three descending then oscillating notes. A overall feeling of anxiousness is presented an the appearance of Yorkes vocals relieve the listener.
‘In the next world war
in a jack knifed juggernaut
I am born again
In the neon sign scrolling up and down
I am born again’
A car crash suddenly is transformed into a christ-like, reviving experience. This is the first time that he introduces this theme. Musically, lyrically and thematically ; Airbag introduces ideas that will carry on throughout the whole album and giving it a tremendous cohesion. A example is the huge anticipation that the musical and vocal aspects evoke throughout every song. This the beginning of a new story, the main protagonists awakening, who describes himself in heroic terms.
Along with “Creep” , “Paranoid Android” is Radiohead’s most iconic song. It is a 6 minute long emotinal torture, which is split into 4, musically and lyrically, different parts. It’s often compared to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. The general idea for the song took shape when Thom Yorke wanted to creat a song along the lines of the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, which is considered to actually be 3 songs put into 1. Yorke discovered the main lyricall idea after an unpleasant night at a Los Angeles bar, where he saw a woman react violently after someone spilled a drink on her. The title is also a reference to Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.
‘Please could you stop the noise I’m trying to get some rest?
From all the unborn chicken voices in my head
What’s that, what’s that’
The person who was reborn in “Airbag” is suddenly aware of his stream of emotions and independent thoughts.
‘When I am king you will be first against the wall
With your opinion which is of no consequence at all
What’s that, what’s that
Ambition makes you look pretty ugly
Kicking squealing gucci little piggy
You don’t remember, you don’t remember, why don’t you remember my name
Off with his head man, off with his head man
Why don’t you remember my name?– I guess he does’
He now feels resentment and is disgusted by the society he was once a part of, yet he still sees himself as superior and expresses great anger.
Paranoid Android is more complex than “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Stairway to Heaven”, the first being often compared to them. While “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Stairway to Heaven” are genuine three part epics, those three parts are extremely different. However, “Paranoid Android” has entirely different dynamics and speed shifts. “Stairway” and “Rhapsody” both start slowly and then accelerate towards the expansive middle section and then to the head banging finales, while “Android” starts and ends at the same tempo with similar thoughts and has a slower, even down beat section in the middle.
Movin on to the derogatory “Gucci little piggy” section, a immediate and unsettling meter change to seven quicker beats in a bar with a Brian May influenced guitar. Lyrically, it is not clear what happens, but Yorke calls for a cleansing with the heartfelt
Rain down, rain down
Come on rain down on me
From a great height
After this sudden realisation he decides to end the piggies (which might be a reference to Lennon’s “White” album) with
That’s it, sir
The crackle of pigskin
The dust and the screaming
After the tension in the first section, this downbeat section, which can also be described as a chorale is a welcome relief. The closing guitar reprise closes everything back up, which guarantess a huge sense relief for the start of “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, connects the tracks and further emphasizes the album’s sense of coherence.
Subterranean Homesick Alien
This track was originally titled “Uptight”, but in the last moment it was changed to this obvious allusion to Bob Dylan’s classic “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. The two songs share an same stream of consciousness and disattachment. It has often been compared to Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” and the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” , because a distinct psychdelic feel is evoked. The 3 have sime similarities, but “Subterranean Homesick Alien” does not “wake up” by changing the meter in the chorus. Yorkes main inspiration for this song was a old essay question from his Abingdon days “You are an alien from another planet. You’ve landed and you’re standing in the middle of Oxford. What do you see ?”. In a interview for the Options magazine in 1998 he stated
“I just loved the idea of someone observing how we live from the outsideâ€¦sitting there pissing themselves laughing at how humans go about their daily business. The song’s “uptight” protagonist watches the “uptight” alien, wishing he could be “rescued” by them and taken away from his monotone everyday life”.
After the huge epic “Paranoid Android” and the dust has settled from it, the protagonist feels more comfortable with the world he lives in. As previously mentioned “Subterranean” is written from the point of view of an alien and how the Earth and our society would look to him. The alien is a metaphor for the isolation from the society and even from himself. The gloomy tone further emphasizes his isolation and in the verse expresses his feelings for the people living down on the Earth.
I live in a town where you can’t smell a thing
You watch your feet for cracks in the pavement
Up above aliens hover making home movies for the folks back home
Of all these weird creatures who lock up their spirits
Through his observation of our Earth he has gained an insight into our world, which is completely different than what he expected. In the end he is fine with that thought, but will not be able to share it with anyone.
‘I wish that they’d swoop down in the country lane late at night when I’m driving
Take me onboard their beautiful ship show me the weird world as I’d love to see it
I’d tell all my friends but they’d never believe me
They’d think that I’d finally lost it completely
I’d show them the stars and the meaning of life they’d shut me away
But I’ll be all right, all right
I’m all right, all right
Exit Music (For a Film)
If “Fitter Happier”s desolation is the result of a lack of emotions, this song is then overflowing with them. It is a very sad, slow and anxious song about finding another like himself. Love, fear and anger are all present through the repeated role of the superhero protagonist. Yorke stated once that “the first performance we’d ever recoreded where every note of it made my head spin-something I was proud of, something I could turn up really loud and not wince at any moment”. The bands first inspiration was visibly Ennio Morricone and because of that it is filled with reverbed acoustic guitars and choirs, sustained and distorted bass and soaring, ghostly guitars.
This song was intentionally written for Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of Shakespeares’s Romeo & Juliet. The film was played over the film’s final credits.
The atmosphere is immediately set by
Wake from your sleep
The drying of your tears, today we escape, we escape
Pack and get dressed, before your father hears us, before, all hell breaks loose
Breathe, keep breathing, don’t lose your nerve, breathe, keep breathing
I can’t do this alone
Sing us a song, a song to keep us warm, there’s such a chill, such a chill’
The songs protagonist are preparing to steal away and to escape in the early morning, however a crisis happens, that is not clearly defined.
‘You can laugh a spineless laugh
We hope your rules and wisdom choke you now we are one in everlasting peace
We hope that you choke, that you choke’
While he sneaks away , his anger and disgust towards the force that wants to bring him down is alarmingly building up.
This is clearly one of Yorke’s best vocal performances, his voice is initally so fragile it could shatter at any moment, but later finds the strength, but also anger and resentment. A important aspect is the voyage of the protagonist from “Wake” to “Breathe” to “Sing” then to “Laugh” and finally “Choke”. This verbs visually describe the protagonist and enables us to from a clear image of him and his actions. Another aspect that has to be adressed is the effect that accompanies Yorke’s voice. His voice is very dry, almost as it has been recorded in a tomb, and actually that is not far from the truth. The vocals were recorded in a stone hallway of St Catherine’s Court and written with the space specifically in mind. This evokes a dependance for the voice as it provides a sharp relief which is heavily contrasted to the guitar. The stone hallway and the lonely guitar also picked out his consonants (waKe, sleeP, escaPe, paCK)
In an interview with Q magazine, Thome Yorke said that “Sentimentality is being emotinal for the sake of it. We’re bombarded with sentimentality, people emoting. That’s the let down.”. Let Down was recorded in the ballroom of St. Cathrine’s Court at 3am. The beginning of the song is similar to “Airbag”, “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and “No Surprises”, Yorkes rhythm bears a striking resemblance to “No Surpises”. These two songs have a lot of things in common, but while “No Surprises” call for less emotions, “Let Down” desperately needs more emotions. The general theme is feeling of disappointment towards the society and miserys of once being part of the world
‘Transport, motorways and tram lines
Starting and then stopping, taking off and landing
The emptiest of feelings disappointed people clinging onto bottles and
When it comes its so so disappointing
Yorke get progressively more agitated in the second verse and calls for a outburst of emotions through a “chemical reaction”
‘Shell smashed, juices flowing wings twitch, legs are going
Don’t get sentimental, it always ends up drivel
One day I’m going to grow wings
A chemical reaction, hysterical and useless hysterical and
At the finale the happy and bright electronics pay a return visit and try to incorporate themselves into the melodic notes. “Let Down” is a fantastic work that personifies a restrained emotional outburst and is a great suggestion to “Fitter, Happier”s way of showing the same idea.
“Karma Police” is the first song that presents us the socities view. The Beatles-esque song has its origins in band inside joke. Jonny Greewood told the Music Week magazine in 1997 that “It’s a favourite saying of ours. Whenever we hear about someone behaving offensively, we say that the Karma Police will catch up with them”. The songs is very narrative and tells the story of everday struggle and strife.
‘Karma Police, arrest this man, he talks in maths
He buzzes like a fridge, he’s like a detuned radio
Karma Police, arrest this girl, her hitler hairdo, is making me feel ill
And we have crashed her party
The negative connotations Yorke connects with “buzzing like a fridge” or sounding “like a detuned radio” are immense. The aspect of noise is a central part of OK Computer and it has been referenced to in various ways. From toughtless background music, to the “unborn chicken noises” in Paranoid Android and the distortions in “Fitter, Happier” and “Climbing up the Walls”
This is what you get, this is what you get
This is what you get, when you mess with us’
The bridge lyrics carry a bold element of foreboding and is preparing us for the emotional breakdown of “Fitter, Happier”.
“The most upsetting thing I’ve ever written” . That’s how Yorke described “Fitter Happier” to Options magazine in 1998. Yorke has said that OK Computer is not about computers, yet the, arguably, central point of the album is “sung” by a disturbing computer voice. The ironic text is read out by a Simple Text application found on Macintosh Computers. As the computers recites its speech, the effect of it is enourmously disturbing, simply because computers do not have to worry about their saturated fat intake or going to the gym 3 times a week. That’s what separates humans from computers, simply the fact that the computer attempts to appropriate these emotions is downright creepy, althought the initial thoughts are positive but then gradually darken. The aspect of noise is a essential in this track. Simply the fact that the background noise is made up of human acoustic music (strings and piano), which is slowly being overwhelmed by electronic distortions and ambient computer sounds is another sign for being alarmed by the intentions of the computer
Fitter Happier is a central point of the album as it contains snippets of various songs. The oscilatting guitar refers to “Airbag” and the opening guitar riff to “Let Down”. This creates a feeling that all songs rotate around “Fitter Happier” and thus making it the central point. Concluding, Fitter Happier is surely not about computers, but humans who won’t take other people’s humanity serious enough.
In contrast to “Fitter Happier” , “Electionerring” is a urgent cry to protect humanity. OK Computer can be divided into two sections. Song 1-7 are a slowly falling into “Fitter Happier” and its horrific atmosphere, while tracks 8-12 are for giving life a new change and looking at it from a different angle. Listeners that were shocked by the inhuman “Fitter Happer” will find a relief in “Electioneering” , which begins with a loud, shocking guitar. The album literally bursts back into life. After a slightly foreboding part. Phil Selway’s drums begin to set the rhythm, which is followed by a raw rock that could easily fit into “Pablo Honey”. Before their involvement in the aid album “Help”, Radiohead was a politic free zone. This song and the album as a whole would change that forever. Yorke wrote this song after reading Will Hutton’s “The State We’re In” and commented that “I was completely fucking ignorant until I read those books” to Time Out’s reporter Peter Paphides in 1997. The relationship of politics and money is also adressed in “Electionerring” .
Yorke tells us a story of anti-globalisation, all while being followed by annoyed guitars
Riot shields, voodoo economics, it’s, it’s just business
Cattle prods and the IMF, I trust I can rely on your vote.
Yorke calls for the sense of humanity in all of us, by presenting politicians with the standard moral loopholes, which is the main focus of this song. His anger is directed towards former British Prime Minister, whose picture is also featured in the album booklet.
Climbing up the Walls
The songs creepy atmosphere is immediately set with the white noise, echoing drums and Yorke’s mildly distorted voice. This song adressess the psychological aspect, but this time the mind is a huge deranged mess. As the song developes we can conclude that we are in the mind of a potential serial murderer, a clearly visible internals struggle between two forces is present and try to fight for the upper hand.
‘I am the key to the lock in your house, that keeps your toys in the basement
And if you get too far inside, you’ll only see my reflection
It’s always best when the light is off, I am the pick in the ice
Do not cry out or hit the alarm, we’re friends till we die
James Doheny presents a very interesting concept in his book “Radiohead,Back to save the Universe” , about the connection between “Fitter Happier” and “Climbing up the Walls”.
“There is an interesting parallel to be drawn here with the progressively more dysfunctional computer of “Fitter Happier”, as psychopaths are similarly unable to empathize or process emotions correctly”
Yorke’s voice is getting alarmingly unstable as the song carries on and is more and more affected by the distortions and delays. A bunch of noises also come up which is said to be random favourite soundtracks of the band members. The noise eventually takes over and defeats Yorke’s voice, which introduces us “No Surprises”
” “No Surprises” was the first thing we recorded” Yorke said. “We’d bought all this gear, put it together and it was literally the first time everything was plugged in. We pressed the button, the red light came on, and that was “No Surprises”.
OK Computer is divided into two streams on consciousness. On one hand there is a positive stream, that is strong but gradually loses in power (Airbag, Subterranean Homesick Alien, Lew Down, Electioneering, No Surprises, The Tourist). On the other hand there exists a negative stream which progressively get stronger (Paranoid Android, Exit Music, Karma Police, Fitter Happier, Climbing up the Walls, Lucky). After the immenses trauma of the three previous songs, the positive stream ceases to exist and the mood of the album gradually winds down.
The melody of the glockenspiel can be descirbed as almost childish, however the lyrics are in a stark contrast with the atmosphere of the melody, as they discuss the compromises of adulthood.
A heart that’s full up like a landfill,
a job that slowly kills you,
bruises that won’t heal
You were so tired, happy,
bring down the government,
they don’t, they don’t speak for her
I’ll take the quiet life, a handshake of carbon monoxide
The imminent struggle between the childhood and adulthood, which the singer has to leave behind, seems very fragile. Overall we experience a realization, of the previous character, that he simply cannot go back to the life he once had.
In 1995, 5 months after The Bends has been released, Radiohead were approached by the War child organisation, which wanted to create a record to help the children in the War torn Bosnia. Radiohead immediately decided to create a song for the record and thus “Lucky” was created. The album Help! hit the shope on September 9th, only 5 days after recording and sold 71,000 copies on its first day of release.
Lucky is a bluesy and hopeful idea that Yorke created with Airbag in mind. He wanted to retain the happy atmosphere, however we cannot be sure that he sucedded. Lyrically it is most definitely upbeat, followed by a blend of Jimmy Page and David Gilmour like guitars. The eerie noise at the beginning was actually Yorke’s starting point of the song, because he described it as “mesmerizing” and “something I’ve never heard before”.
We find ourselves at the beginning again with the reprisal of the Superhero theme, but now he has accepted that he is just a ordinary man. A reflections of his thoughts about humanity and our fate is also outlined.
I’m on a roll, I’m on a roll, this time, I feel my luck could change
Kill me Sarah, kill me again with love, it’s gonna be a glorious day
Pull me out of the aircrash, pull me out of the wreck, cause I’m your superhero
We are standing on the edge
There is also a obvious connection to “Airbag” , firstly the superhero theme and now the fact that he hopes for reincarnation through a transportation disaster. The fact that we are looking at same basic idea from different view points gives OK Computer yet another level of cohesion and complexity
I’m your superhero
We are standing on the edge
Calls for a obvious closure of the story line, but is not yet provided. There are still some questions left unanswered, but “The Tourist” will continue on this exact thought.
All songs written by Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway.
“Airbag” – 4:44
“Paranoid Android” – 6:23
“Subterranean Homesick Alien” – 4:27
“Exit Music (For a Film)” – 4:24
“Let Down” – 4:59
“Karma Police” – 4:21
“Fitter Happier” – 1:57
“Electioneering” – 3:50
“Climbing Up the Walls” – 4:45
“No Surprises” – 3:48
“Lucky” – 4:19
“The Tourist” – 5:24
Pablo Honey (1993)
The Bends (1995)
OK Computer (1997)
Kid A (200)
Hail to the Thief (2003)
In Rainbows (2007)
The King of Limbs (2011)