Monday, April 11, 2011

Reviews from the Attic: Radiohead - OK Computer

Radiohead OK Computer [Parlophone, Capital]
Released: June 16th, 1997

by Damien Ragsdale

Our lives are composed of millions of moments and memories that shape who we are and how we view the world to varying degrees. However, there are at most a handful of these that become true turning points that we can look back on with crystal clarity as times that are directly responsible for who we are today. And I can say without hesitation that my first full listen to Radiohead’s OK Computer is what made me the diehard music lover that I am now.

The band’s third album arrived in 1997 and came to embody both the underlying fears stemming from our growing dependence on new technologies as well as Radiohead’s own evolution from a great alt-rock band to the pioneer of forward-thinking yet instantly classic music for our generation. Naturally, the significance of both of those things was lost on me as a relatively oblivious teenager. But what made OK Computer such a personally important album is that, regardless of its thematic intent, its songs uncovered and deeply resonated with my emotions in a way that no work of art had before.

Even after many years and many more listens to the album, my memories of it are most strongly and clearly tied to that night I threw on my headphones and gave it a spin for the first time. Here’s a track-by-track account of how OK Computer became my favorite album of all time... and how Radiohead became my favorite band.

1. Airbag - My teeth gnashed as the first notes of OK Computer hit my ears on “Airbag” – a raw buzzsaw of a guitar chord that gradually lightened and melded with strings, driving percussion and another more distant-sounding guitar. Suddenly Thom Yorke’s voice made its entrance; soft yet commanding, gradually controlling the swirling and apocalyptic sounds around him. On first listen, “Airbag” immediately grabbed my attention and set the tone for the remainder of the album – that the next world war was coming, and we’re left here to make the decision about how we would cope with the end of the world. Thom’s voice soars as the cacophony of sounds builds ever higher, suddenly collapsing into the four distinct beeps that would signify the start of….

2. Paranoid Android – Having initially heard this track separate from and outside the context of the full album, listening to “Paranoid Android” immediately after the world-ending crash of “Airbag” gave the now-legendary song a much richer significance. A light guitar and percussion-driven groove flows along under Thom’s soaring wails for silence, before Colin Greenwood further evolves the sound with a light, funky bassline.

Before long, however, the calm is shattered and the paranoia comes at you full force. Thom snarls at unseen offenders, guitars stab and cry in all directions… and then there’s release. Thom leads us through a hymn exhorting the world to rain down on him from a great height. The paranoia slowly returns as a second Thom Yorke vocal track enumerates the many aspects of society gnawing at his sanity… and then after a simple “Yeah…” the paranoia wins out again, instruments thrashing out harder than ever over the final minute of “Paranoid Android.”

3. Subterranean Homesick Alien – Fresh after the shock of the multi-part epic that was “Paranoid Android,” “Subterranean Homesick Alien” brings to light another important aspect of OK Computer’s main themes: that of Thom Yorke as an observer of the many changes in humanity as we know it. Guitars strum along as he sings about becoming fully aware of the subtle nuances and inconsistencies of human behavior. He concludes simply that we’re all “uptight” as the guitars, bass, and percussion weave intricate patterns in ¾ time and build to match Thom’s exasperation with everything he is seeing. His paranoia never wanes, however, as he feels that his opinions would get him shut away in an institution… but here there’s a sense of calm acceptance as he confirms that he’d be alright if that came to pass.

4. Exit Music (For A Film) – One of the most appropriately-titled songs on this or any other record, Thom croons about escaping into the night over a sparse acoustic guitar part. The atmosphere gradually becomes more dense as ghostly synths and whispering children build and build, suddenly crashing into a towering and bassy wall of sound over which Thom’s voice builds to a wail more epic than in any of the previous tracks. The wall slowly crumbles back down, however, and we are left again with the original acoustic guitar and Thom’s now-wavering voice whispering “We hope that you choke, that you choke…”

5. Let Down - For me personally, “Let Down” was the song on OK Computer that made me into a diehard Radiohead fan. On the surface it’s an extremely straightforward piece – soft vocals building in intensity over rising guitar and percussion – but moreso here than anywhere on the record did I feel a truly spiritual connection with Radiohead. I’ll always remember how awed I was by the back half of the song especially, as Thom’s pained but calm singing split into two parts that weaved together perfectly and ascended into what I could only describe at the time as musical heaven.

6. Karma Police - …and the paranoia returns. On “Karma Police” it’s even more sinister and all-consuming than the first half of OK Computer alluded to, with Thom calling upon the Karma Police to capture and judge anyone who has messed with him. The music video for this track especially captures its darkness, with Thom in a towncar calmly hunting down a transgressor on foot up the road at night. The closer of “Let Down” brought us to Heaven, while “Karma Police” brings us back down to Purgatory… or worse.

7. Fitter Happier – Radiohead pauses momentarily to give us a more direct taste of the underlying paranoia on OK Computer with “Fitter Happier,” utilizing a computerized voice to describe society’s concept of the ideal human condition while also capturing the inherent feeling of emptiness that comes with living by this template. In just under two minutes, they produced the level of spine-tingling unease that entire novels fail to capture.

8. Electioneering – The most straightforward rock moment on the album, “Electioneering” charges ahead with shredding guitars and a snarling Thom Yorke giving a musical middle finger to the disingenuousness of politics and its inherent corruption.

9. Climbing Up The Walls – Packed with distorted vocals and sudden, haunting whispers, “Climbing Up The Walls” is a fully visceral realization of OK Computer’s creeping terrors. Instruments and effects layer higher and higher on top of each other, surrounding you with a vision of pure apocalyptic horror until…

10. No Surprises - …another release. “No Surprises” is a calm (almost clinically so) counterpoint to the hysteria of “Climbing Up The Walls.” Thom enumerates the many aspects of modern life that chip away at his well-being with a resigned, detached acceptance while bells, keys, and percussion ride along softly below his vocals.

11. Lucky – Thom’s wish for “no alarms and no surprises” in the previous song, however, is quickly dashed in “Lucky,” where a near-death experience revives his will to go on with life, as staid and hopeless as it might sometimes seem. His voice soars as he confirms that “it’s gonna be a glorious day,” a turning point that on OK Computer’s penultimate track speaks volumes on the strength of humanity in the face of doom, real or perceived.

12. The Tourist – The final track of an album full of epic moments, “The Tourist” sees Radiohead in a much different state of mind than we heard on the opener “Airbag.” Guitars and drums interweave and slowly build to support Thom’s final verses, urging us to slow down and take stock of the fact that, while everything around us changes and becomes more unfamiliar, our lives are still fundamentally ours to control.

…and with the microwave-like “Ding!” at the end of “The Tourist,” I took off my headphones and knew that my world had been changed forever. Thanks to Radiohead and OK Computer for showing me that music has the power to do just that.


  1. excellent choice. i'm gonna plug in my Radiohead mix here, just because it's appropriate and all.


  3. thanks! and i remember this mix, it's both appropriate and awesome. :) when are you dropping the next debzies mix?