Radiohead's "OK Computer": The Album That Defined An Era Before It had Begun

The progression of technology and the rapid coming of the Digital Age sent skepticism and worry through the minds of many in the late 90s. The world was just beginning to embrace the Internet in 1997 - not quite on the brink of social media just yet, but foundations were being set. Many moved forward with uncertainty, though. What would this era of technology bring, and what would the consequences be?

Perhaps one of the most prolific albums from this period was Radiohead's third album OK Computer. The album not only broke borders with its eclectic progressive rock and britpop blends, but it also treaded where few dared to go: it questioned the implications of technology, shining it in both a positive and horrifying light.

The band at that time was hitting success after success, following up the excessively popular 'Creep' from their debut Pablo Honey and the hauntingly beautiful 'Street Spirit (Fade Out)' from their sophomore release The Bends. They easily could've continued to tread in that edgy pop rock direction and busted out another strong-selling record.

Yet they decided to challenge the expectations. That resulted in OK Computer, defying all of the expectations that could've been expected of them. The album was quickly written off as a flop by their record label, but then exploded, debuting at number one on the UK Album Charts as well as hitting number 21 on the Billboard 200, making it the band's first album to chart in America.

It's easy to see why this album was so successful, especially in that era. It provided something for each side of the spectrum: big anthems and catchy hooks for the pop crowd, and thought-provoking lyrics and complex music for those who wanted something to think about. Right from the opening bars of 'Airbag', you knew this album is something different than what Radiohead had done in the past. Gone were the clean guitar arpeggios of 'Creep' and the distorted powerchord verses. Instead, magically sparkling guitar paired with strings bring the album to its start. Ironically, the album that has become known to combat the spread fear of technologically advanced future ahead starts by praising it. 'Airbag' is the recollection of Thom Yorke's car crash, in which he sings praises to the airbag that likely saved his life. Without that technology, he wouldn't be here today. The song's positivity falls in line with the heroic chorus "In an interstellar burst / I am back to save the universe," but the song does come with an interesting afterthought: if technology didn't exist as it does now, would Yorke have been in the same danger?

'Airbag' isn't the only song about near-death experiences. The penultimate 'Lucky' shares the same sentiment, though at a more significant rate: the song captures the essence of a plane crash. Instead of thanking the technology, 'Lucky' seems to be the counter of 'Airbag'. It's somber, clean guitar and sweet bass line begin the track, backing Yorke's gentle vocals. 'Lucky' is a slow song that builds epically to its climax, vividly and perfectly capturing the scene of being captured in a falling plane, the creepy delay of the guitars making everything move in slow motion, before everything bursts back into real time as the guitar solo revs up to capture the fear and panic in the air. The most distinct difference from 'Airbag', which boasts that the technology that saved his life was more of a rebirth, bringing him into the life of someone who could save the universe, is the chorus of 'Lucky' that shows that survival alone is a miracle; a superhero to the world in the form of a warning about technology: "Pull me out of the aircrash / Pull me out of the lake / Cause I'm your superhero / We are standing on the edge".

Other tracks paint a picture of society itself rather than the implication of technology on its own. The narrator of 'Subterranean Homesick Alien' begs for an extraterrestrial being to come take him from the chaotic society on Earth in the absurd quest to escape it and float on through the cosmos in isolation. The songs dreamy textures create an atmosphere that makes you wish you were alone, just so you could dance your little heart out to its sweet guitars and reverberating keys. The sweet 'No Surprises' also plays into this, Yorke singing of wishing for a life free from the pressures of society, bringing into question the impact of the quickly advancing society: is it improving our lives, or giving us more to worry about?

Some songs also explore darker concepts: 'Climbing Up The Walls' explores depression, its dark lyrics talking about the inner demons climbing up the walls of your mind and body, its beautiful strings and guitar pairing with the harmonies to create beautifully haunting atmosphere; 'Electroneering' portraying the chaos of society with its western cowboys on mechanic horses rock vibes helping it create the wild and unrelenting pictures in wants to embody - the massive guitar solo at the end certainly helps that, too.  

As with all hysteria, there are glimpses of hope. These glimpses are addressed in 'Let Down', and somewhat-so in 'Karma Police'. 'Let Down' uses pretty guitar arpeggios to build it into a giant wall of euphoric noise, full of warm bass lines and joyous sound. Its optimistic vibe pairs with its sentiment that happiness can be found even in the darkest of scenarios - perhaps referencing the outlook that a dystopian society may be on the horizon with technology progressing so fast. 'Karma Police' is more a message about redemption; everything comes back around. This song became well known as a single as a result of its brilliant vocals and the contrast of its gentle flow atop an uneasy feeling.

The heartbreaking 'Exit Music (For A Film)' also provides hope, but more so in a way that you are in a position of begging for goodness to come. Written for Baz Luhrmann's adaption of the Shakespearean classic, it served as the credit track for Romeo + Juliet in 1998. Its acoustic guitars build somberly to create a longing tone, ambience replaying back all the memories of someone's life as the third verse leads into the crunchy basslines and sparkling tremolos of the fourth, the song reaching its emotional climax, as if the final burst of emotion may save him. The final verse chants "A spineless laugh / We hope your rules and wisdom choke you / Now we are one in everlasting peace" before the outro of the song repeats the lines "We hope that you choke, that you choke" in a powerful way at first, but then a broken down rendition of it to conclude.

The albums sentiments as a whole are listed in bullet form at the core of the record on 'Fitter Happier', the robotic voice reading off warning labels behind a melancholic instrumental. These guidelines for life are what society has come to live by, making it duller and more robotic, as it were. Closing track 'The Tourist' expresses a similar thought, being based off of Jonny Greenwood's experience of seeing tourists wrapped up in taking pictures than taking everything in. Everything has to be done for some purpose - nothing anymore can just be for personal needs. Society's monotony is the result of the need to make memories of it rather than living in it; today's equivalent of that is social media. Radiohead saw it coming before it even happened.

Of course, at the crux of the album is chaos. Chaos leads to insanity, which in turn leads to withdrawal, and finally submission. That's what the legendary 'Paranoid Android' is about. It's three distinct moods - irritation, anger, withdrawal - are spread out amongst four sections. The first is irritation, Thom Yorke sharing experiences of being at a bar in a bad place after a show. The mood is most clearly seen through the lines "Please can you stop the noise? I'm trying to get some rest / From all the unborn chicken voices in my head." Frustration builds into anger, where Yorke spits back his retorts at those creating his problems: "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." The bridge sees him relapse into a plea after the guitar solo tips him over his breaking point. The calming, harmonic, and symphonic bridge builds sweetly with angered lyrics before finally returning to the chaos once more. It's as much of the depiction of a mental struggle as it is a depiction of society. Everything ends with chaos.

OK Computer defined an era before it even started. Radiohead began its prolific ascent into experimentation with this record, challenging the norm and went places others dared not go. It ushered in a new form of confident rock and powerful messages which forever shaped music. Even today, with A Moon Shaped Pool's subtlety the band continues to push barriers. Their career has proven to be one of the most influential in history, and its impact will always be remembered. If anyone tries to change that, call the karma police.

Favorite Tracks: Paranoid Android, Exit Music (For A Film), Lucky, Climbing Up The Walls, Electioneering

Least Favorite Track: Fitter Happier

Rating: 96 / 100

Buy or listen to OK Computer on Apple Music or Amazon: