If you’ve ever heard a recording of Radiohead’s Glastonbury set from June 28, 1997, you know that they were a guitar band who could part your head from your body with the ferocity of their attack.
This attack had a lot of six-string-based violence to it, but the power also came from the band’s commitment to buffeting you with very precise emotions. Those guitar textures could do what a spot-on story by someone like Chekhov could, probing for your most sensitive nerves, and then enlivening them with a form of music that managed to be both an open and a closed circle: something you could step into, that would then enfold you.
The Glastonbury set was from the time of the release of OK Computer, which now marks its 20th anniversary. You don’t really think of it as a summer album, but something more autumnal, or wintery, or just from a future that hasn’t happened yet paradoxically surrounds us all the same, all the time. I think most people would say that OK Computer is their favorite Radiohead album. I’ve never viewed it that way, though it’s certainly up there, and it’s a record that has aged remarkably well, but not for the reasons people tend to think it has.
At this point, Radiohead are nine albums into their studio career, with OK Computer marking the signpost one-third of the way into the journey. They had released the awkward-ish, underdeveloped Pablo Honey in 1993, which gave us a band unsure of themselves, with some tunes for college radio, but no assurances that Radiohead wanted any part of that identity.
The Bends was their big progression in 1995, both somber and bold, minor key-based and triumphant, a particularly Radioheadian mélange. And then OK Computer happened, which was completely unlike either record, just as Kid A in 2000 would be different still.
That was the great thing about early Radiohead albums: you never knew what you were going to get, and how many acts in rock history can you say that about? The Beatles, obviously, Dylan at points, kinda/sorta the Stones in the mid-1960s, perhaps the Kinks.
But these acts always had something more bucolic than Radiohead at their core, something organic, earthy even, elements of folk and nature, so that their various permutations occurred in what might as well have been lighting flashes, where the world is one way one moment, then changed the next—wetter, more ominous, or else all cleared up again, and crossed with light. So it went with the jump, say, from Rubber Soul to Revolver to Sgt. Pepper.
Radiohead’s development into the band that could make a masterpiece like OK Computer felt more personally willed, a collective decision made by very smart people to both create a new frontier, hide it somewhere, then work to gain terra firma there. The result of this process was that upon arrival, they’d make music like no one ever really had before, creating a sound that they wouldn’t fully revisit again, having plumbed it so thoroughly.
There isn’t a Radiohead album I don’t like, but after Kid A, Amnesiac (2001) seemed to be a perfectly fine, but perfectly unthrilling, an extension of those Kid A sessions with an album of other tracks that had been left in the can. 2003’s Hail to the Thief strained, right from its title, to be more agit-prop than it was, and then we get into the sonic soup discs of In Rainbows (2007), The King of Limbs (2011), and last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool.
Do you know how badly someone like a hipster wants to tell you they love A Moon Shaped Pool? Look: I think, at this point, Radiohead could record a dishwasher, put it on a loop, having Thom Yorke chant over it while synth lines play, sprinkle in some lyrics that mean nothing but which you can contort to mean anything you want as some skeleton key to your inner being, and spuming will commence everywhere. What is ironic is that OK Computer, the record that broke Radiohead into the mainstream, warns against the sort of person who will unconditionally accept anything the band now does.
The popular argument is that OK Computer was prescient about the internet age, which was just starting to kick up a fuss at the time of its release. We didn’t have social media yet, though we all had email. We weren’t wearing the corners of phones down by ripping them out of our pockets every thirty seconds, or photographing our mugs in bathroom stalls for our virtual friends as our supply of real, connection-based friendships dwindled off, but OK Computer was tapping into that future regardless, which is what makes it a mini-miracle of an album.
“Karma Police” is as frightening in its way as a Robert Johnson song is, a black hole blues for a world slouching towards a server stack waiting to be born. Some people are described with curious individual predilections—someone likes math, a girl has a Hitler hairdo—before Thom Yorke intones, like some future-seeing Druidic, “This is what you’ll get”—three times—“when you mess with us.”
That is, when you go outside the pack, or, in our age, the collective race to the bottom. What is favored in “Karma Police”—acerbically—is what is favored in our society now: the group mentality, mediocrity, vanilla choices, the death of the individual. Downfall of the thinking person. Nipping the heels of said person comes karmic retribution, all manner of policing. You wonder how the hell these guys didn’t know about public shaming, and comments sections, and social justice warriors wishing to part people from having a future just as some of those OK Computer riffs could all but remove head from neck.
The theme is developed in numerous cuts: the LP-opening “Airbag,” which is like a prayer for a deus ex machina to intercede and check chaos and violence and a lack of personal control; the poetic squib that is “Fitter Happier,” which sounds so much like those Facebook friends of yours who you know are barely hanging on, but who tell you and anyone in digital earshot that their lives are wonderful, so jam-packed with 24/7 joys and moments to thank the maker for, as another night passes with a wine bottle in the glow of a screen; the major key “No Surprises,” which ends with a singing-in-the-round component backed by a to-die-for-Jonny Greenwood guitar riff in a song about a self-discovery-free world that is, in a different way, to die for.
OK Computer is an album about the nullity that comes with giving in to a life that is more about existence than living. It’s all very full-blooded, for all of the studio wizardry and effects. It’s a band album, a guys-playing-together album, more than a computer album—in its sonic make-up, that is. That humanizes it, and that’s when Radiohead have always been at their best, even when the sound of traditional guitars was chucked out of the building on Kid A.
They’ll always be clever arrangement-makers. Thom Yorke still has his unique voice. They obviously work crazily well together in terms of building and reprocessing musical architecture, but a few years after OK Computer, Radiohead themselves fell victim to the very things they warn about on the record. Out went the human component; in came that attitude of, “hey, nobody’s complaining, we’re good here, we can stay on this surface, we can keep going with it.”
“Paranoid Android” has one of the greatest riffs in rock history. It’s not a riff you necessarily think of as a riff, because it’s not deployed throughout the entire song. In fact, it’s thrown at us in different octaves and keys, before it fully explodes, mid-song. Listen to the Glastonbury performance. Intense, right? This is a song about people who have forsaken their individuality, their guts, for safety in numbers, which invariably leads to disconnection.
When we are as safe as can be, when we worry over everything we might say, when we play a part rather than being ourselves, we lose connection with others. We pair up with people who will simply have us as we will have them, and we are strangers to all, including ourselves. Strangers to all, save that level of the mind—that infrequently visited, but always tangible zone—where a voice says, “You, mate, are cocking up who and what you are. You’re better than this, or should be.”
That’s what makes so many of us paranoid androids now, and this is a record that ostensibly saw that coming, or lucked into a good guess that became a masterstroke of an album. But do you know what that fully-expressed, mid-song guitar riff really is? It’s akin to the pushing of a red button at the level of the individual to get back to something real again, to get past the fake rhetoric, that land of the fake plastic trees, and bound back out of the soup. And if we all do that, it’s less OK Computer and more OK person, which is what I think Radiohead, at their best, were always more about, and what we should be more about with each other.