Toasting one of the most important albums of the modern era...
'OK Computer'

There’s a man on a bus, staring out at the city. Neon-lit streets slip by, one after another, cast in a dim orange glow. The man looks tired, detached, occasionally amused by what’s happening outside. We pull back and see that we’re looking at the detached head of an android, alive, but disconnected from himself and everyone around him as the world slips by behind glass.

It’s hard not to suspect that the video for 'I Promise' – one of three previously unreleased Radiohead songs finally available this month – was partially inspired by Thom Yorke’s mental state in the ’90s. While his band’s second album, 'The Bends', had been a surprise critical hit in the UK, Stateside Radiohead were still thought of as one hit wonders – the 'Creep' guys. Cue a relentless couple of years gigging (the band notched up 177 shows in 1995 alone) that succeeded in reviving their credibility, but left everyone involved frazzled and disorientated.

Instead of taking a well-earned break, however, the band threw themselves into recording their next record. It would become one of the defining albums of the ’90s.

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"I'm on a roll, this time..."

Before there was 'OK Computer', there was 'Lucky', a track commissioned by Brian Eno for the Warchild charity compilation, Help. Recorded in just five hours with future long-term producer Nigel Godrich, it pointed the way to where the band were heading next. Like the songs on 'The Bends', it was nakedly emotional, but the lyrics were more oblique, Yorke’s delivery restrained and less histrionic. Likewise, there was a greater emphasis on the studio atmospherics that had previously only haunted the edges of tracks like 'Planet Telex'.

However, with no fixed deadline to deliver LP3, and with the freedom to do whatever they liked, the band spent much of 1996 floundering. They had a batch of songs they were excited about, but having decided to record the album themselves, ended up flitting between tracks, never quite finishing anything.

A 13-date tour supporting Alanis Morissette (something that now seems comically incongruous) gave them the chance to road test the tracks, but it’s fair to say that the 'Ironic' singer’s audience weren’t always receptive to songs about the plight of the modern consumer trapped in a late stage capitalist society on the brink of collapse – surprise! Yorke would later recall with amusement, “All these kids down the front eating popcorn, not looking interested at all...”

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Its pearly white sound and disquieting atmosphere is as memorable as the songs themselves.

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Still, it was in this period that Baz Luhrmann got in touch and unconsciously helped nudge Radiohead in the right direction. Hired by the director to write a song for his adaptation of Romeo + Juliet, the band delivered 'Exit Music (For A Film)'. Yorke experimented with including Shakespearian dialogue in the lyrics but (thankfully!) abandoned the idea in favour of a subtler, but still narratively suggestive approach. It remains one of the band’s most affecting tracks, and unlike anything they had recorded before: a funereal dirge that erupts with cathartic fury in its final moments, ending on a repeated Yorke-ian sneer of “we hope that you choke”.

'OK Computer' was starting to find a tone. The new songs were angry, politically charged and laced with withering wit. Following the Alanis Morrissette tour the band returned to work, leaving Oxford behind and decamping to St. Catherine’s Court on the outskirts of Bath.

The 16th century manor (at the time owned by actress Jane Seymour) was the location for much of the recording, with the band playing in the ballroom, while Godrich – now fully established as the album’s producer, a role he has taken on every Radiohead record since – set up a control room in the library. Appropriately for an album that sounds so haunted the band have spoken of apparent spectral experiences during the sessions there.

It’s impossible to imagine 'OK Computer' now without the warmth of Godrich’s production; its pearly white sound and disquieting atmosphere is as memorable as the songs themselves. Most importantly, he was able to corral the band into action when necessary – not easy with a group as stubborn and prone to dithering as Radiohead. “I wanted to make a record that somebody, somewhere, thought was really brilliant, and will still listen to in 20 years,” Godrich told Australia’s Sound magazine in 1997. Mission accomplished.

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"That's where we see sparks..."

'OK Computer' was released on June 16th 1997 in the UK to instant acclaim – no doubt a relief to Capitol Records who, on first hearing the album, had slashed their sales estimates from two-million to 500,000 copies.

Thanks, in part, to BBC Radio 1 constantly playing lead single 'Paranoid Android', the six-and-a-half minute prog-pop epic that remains one of the band’s most famous songs, the album became ubiquitous that summer. It debuted at number one in the UK, topped most critics’ album of the year charts and took home the Best Alternative Music Album Grammy.

The band played a remarkable headlining show at Glastonbury and went back on the road for another long tour. All of which, in theory, should have made the band deliriously happy - this being Radiohead, it instead led to more crushing anxiety, self-doubt and the deliciously maudlin tour film, Meeting People Is Easy.

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It instead led to more crushing anxiety, self-doubt...

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1997 was something of a zenith for massively hyped albums from big bands, with the likes of Prodigy’s 'Fat Of The Land', Bjork’s 'Homogenic', The Verve’s 'Urban Hymns' and Spiritualized’s 'Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space' all hogging the critical limelight, while Oasis drowned in their own hubris following the bloated coke-fest that was 'Be Here Now'. But 'OK Computer' stood out from the pack. It still does.

Listen to the album again now. 20 years may have passed, but all of the themes touched upon in Thom’s lyrics, in the jittery nervous tension of the music, and in Stanley Donwood’s cheerfully apocalyptic artwork feel not just prescient, but every bit as resonant as they did then. In 1997, Radiohead were singing about technological fears, political upheaval and the constant background hum of 24 hour rolling news and air-conditioning. In the 2017 of President Trump and Teresa May all that seems to have changed is that things have gotten worse.

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Radiohead were singing about technological fears, political upheaval...

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But most importantly, 'OK Computer' still sounds amazing. The yearning sadness of 'Let Down', one of the prettiest and brightest sounding songs about, alternately, transport infrastructure and having your dreams fall away from you. 'Fitter Happier', one of Yorke’s best and angriest lyrics intoned by Microsoft Sam. 'Karma Police' – basically George Orwell’s 1984 reconfigured as a bleakly hilarious four-minute pop song. And 'No Surprises', a track about defeated resignation that sounds like a lullaby while you suffocate on carbon monoxide.

It says something that the album’s weakest track – 'Electioneering' – is the sort of raging rocker that most guitar bands would kill to have written.

The band have gone on to arguably better things ('Kid A' or even 'In Rainbows' could credibly claim to be the band’s finest album), but none have left quite as indelible a mark on music as 'OK Computer'. It propelled Radiohead away from their rock roots towards more adventurous destinations. 20 years on, it’s still soundtracking our fucked up Black Mirror reality.

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Words: Will Salmon

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