'OK Computer' at 25

The Radiohead album still defies both its critics and admirers

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 12: Rock band Radiohead poses for a portrait at Capitol Records during the re...
Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Nicholas Russell

In Grant Gee’s 1998 documentary Meeting People is Easy, which follows Radiohead’s OK Computer tour, every band member, particularly frontman Thom Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood, field questions both condescending and unoriginal. A journalist asks Yorke if the presence of celebrities at their concerts means anything to the band. Yorke, who looks off to the side, bemused, quips that he had a good conversation with Calvin Klein about underwear. This is one of the more straightforward sequences in the documentary, which is largely impressionistic, a collage of sounds and video captured in dark hallways, stuffy hotel rooms, and pre-show concert rehearsals. At one point, another journalist, whose face we don’t see, wonders, “What is the stupidest question you’ve been asked?” The answer isn’t shown. Instead, Gee cuts together interview segments illustrating the band’s attempts to give thoughtful answers to people who want cut-and-dried quotes. Audio filters in, a shot of a highway, their head of PR listing off the schedule of radio spots and magazine appointments they have. Grant Gee, speaking to Rolling Stone, said, “From the start it was quite clear that they were quiet and articulate people being put through this industrial process of sort of being vacuumed for image and information and quotes and thoughts.”

OK Computer marked several turning points for Radiohead: a more experimental sound, an abstraction and more distant viewpoint in Thom Yorke’s lyrics, a stark, harsh visual direction in the artwork of collaborator Stanley Donwood, and the earnest genesis of the band’s working relationship with producer Nigel Godrich. These elements would come to define the rest of Radiohead’s discography, the promise of artistic trial-and-error leading to bold, genre-breaking work, all created with the same roster. OK Computer also marked the beginning of a pedantic, sometimes antagonistic parsing and interrogation of meaning by the press that has swarmed each subsequent Radiohead album.

25 years after its release, and we are still arguing about what OK Computer means. Frankly, we’re still arguing about what it is. For example, the idea that OK Computer is a concept album, a notion denied by the band since its release but still perpetuated to this day. It’s true that there is a cohesive feeling to the record, malaise, paranoia, anger, an unease with the world on the micro and macro scales that is at times stridently political and others obliquely existential. There is also the title, plus the single “Paranoid Android,” one of Radiohead’s most iconic tracks, whose combination would seem to signal commentary on the rise of digital technology, the internet, societal collapse at the hands of decentralized information. Yes and no. The record’s title communicates a sentiment more than a directive, a line from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meant to qualify fear of the future, but also, as has always been true with Yorke, one of many phrases that struck him for its double meaning. As for “Paranoid Android,” the song is better described as Radiohead trying their hand at the Beatles’s “A Day in the Life,” a piece more than six minutes long made up of discrete musical sections that captures a wide-angle perspective of the world and its horrors, all from the vantage of Yorke’s thorny memory. “I think one album title and one computer voice do not make a concept album,” Jonny Greenwood once stated.

This opens out more broadly onto the idea that OK Computer is an alienating, hopelessly sophisticated, and esoteric work of art made by a group of musicians whose mysteriousness and larger-than-life reputation prohibit any easy engagement. Another way to think of Radiohead is that they are a rock band with hundreds of thousands of fans around the world, a band that regularly sells out stadiums, a band that has written some of the most anthemic and broadly appealing music of the last 30 years, whose influences range from Miles Davis to R.E.M. There is no way to describe Jonny Greenwood’s guitar playing on the majority of OK Computer’s tracks other than absolute, face-melting shredding. Plus, prior to the album’s release, Radiohead had already unwittingly cemented their place in a significant corner of ‘90s cinema with the song “Exit Music (For A Film),” written for and featured in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. And frankly, a song like “Karma Police” — show-stopping and infectious, the kind of the track you turn up every time it comes on the radio — doesn’t come from a band trying to push their audience away.

Radiohead is one of the biggest bands in the world. On that level, they don’t need anyone to defend them. But there is a large, annoyingly vocal, white male segment of their fanbase that tends to mischaracterize and subsequently gatekeep the far-reaching allure their music has. As Haley Patail noted in a recent essay for Triangle House, “these are the fans that give Radiohead its air of unapproachability to outsiders — they are prohibitive of other kinds of fans, other kinds of listening.”

Then there are the music critics, the more cynical of whom tend to judge the band based solely on Yorke’s vocal delivery, which has the capacity to be whiny, plaintive, belligerent, depending on the theme of the lyrics, which themselves can be bleak and unsettling. A charge often leveled is Yorke’s lack of humor, his self-seriousness. It’d be more accurate to say that Radiohead plays with cartoonishness, an exaggeration of stakes and opinion that serves to emphasize its thematic and musical fixations.

OK Computer is Radiohead’s bridge to a far more experimental and tortured period of their history, the on-ramp to the electronic and jazz inflections that would define Kid A and Amnesiac. Transitional works of art tend to be less than the sum of their parts, errant ideas fleshed out at the expense of any underlying connective tissue. Even Jonny Greenwood once admitted that the album was too messy to be considered a narrative. But the mess is the message on OK Computer, a project built out of found sounds, novel production techniques, haunted recording spaces, and aesthetic restlessness. If there is no linearity to its track listing, the album is still best appreciated holistically, a bright, spiky, definitive statement of what was to come, less a calling card than a cornerstone. “I remember watching them run a microphone with a long wire out into some little ornamental building, a shed, in the garden,” Stanley Donwood said to Rolling Stone. “They were cutting vocals for ‘Paranoid Android,’ and Thom was just letting go and screaming his head off. It was a very strange evening.”

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.