With news reaching Clash in the last week or so that EMI are to re-issue Radiohead’s first three albums – ‘Pablo Honey’ (1993), ‘The Bends’ (1995) and ‘OK Computer’ (1997) – in expanded, deluxe form (NEWS), this writer had something of a flashback to days when a thrill was still felt from sneaking into local village boozers.
Your teenage years are vitally important in the formation of your music taste, and Radiohead made more of an impression on the teenage me than any other band. Sure, I’d been exposed to Nirvana, Soundgarden, R.E.M. and more via friends’ older siblings when still in primary school (taped copies of taped copies – you know the drill), but the first act I actively felt a desire to support was this five-piece from Oxford – now one of the biggest bands in the world, but then just the guys who wrote ‘Creep’.
That single’s success – the first time Radiohead broke the top ten, as it peaked at seven on re-issue following a good reception in the States – propelled ‘Pablo Honey’, its parent album, to number 22 on the UK albums chart. ‘The Bends’ went better still upon its release in March 1995, rocketing to number four, but it was ‘OK Computer’ that would prove to be both the band’s first number one album and their definitive long-play release.
I bought ‘OK Computer’ the day it came out, June 16 1997, from Our Price in Eastleigh. That shop’s not there now, Our Price having gone the way of the dodo long before the current credit crunch closures of chains like Zavvi, and Eastleigh doesn’t even have a record store nowadays (there were three in 1997) – but the record’s resonance hasn’t faded at all. It struck me deeply from the first play, and continues to delight to this day.
Listening again today, for all the twists and turns the industry’s trends have taken over the past decade-plus, what’s striking is how original – how completely out of step with the pack, of any era – ‘OK Computer’ feels. It has an unconventional cohesion – it flows well at a tonal, or textural, level; but styles are hugely disparate, pace switching from song to song. If it was released today it would seem exactly as beguiling as it was in 1997, something that certainly cannot be said for its two predecessors.
It’s with ‘OK Computer’ that Radiohead secured their legacy – what followed could have represented dramatic falls in form (it didn’t – ‘Kid A’ copped its share of criticism, but has aged brilliantly well and is now a vital part of the band’s story), but that would be forgiven as they’d already delivered a genuine classic album. From day one, it was clear that ‘OK Computer’ would be written about, at length, for many a year to come. And that fans would flock to read reflection pieces such as this one – its impact was that broad, the many it affected still moved by its touch.
While the opening trio of ‘Airbag’, ‘Paranoid Android’ – the album’s lead single, peaking at three on the singles chart in May 1997 – and ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ set something of a tone, each rich of layers but rippling in the same direction, it’s track four ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ that stops you in your tracks. This is the first blindsiding blow ‘OK Computer’ offers, and the contrast between it and what comes immediately before is still remarkable. Thom Yorke transforms from angst-riddled fidget-imp into a heartbroken hopeless romantic, in the blink of an eye; the pent-up frustrations of ‘The Bends’ are gone, replaced by a nakedness that stirs the listener to the depths of their soul. There’s no percussion until nearly three minutes in – here, the song shifts, soars, but the sentiments remain the same: if I’m not getting mine, you will get yours. “We hope that you choke… that you choke”: not exactly the friendliest sing-along lyric, but a brilliantly effective one.
The first time I heard ‘Karma Police’ I immediately played it again – twice through on the album’s debut run. I remember doing that quite clearly. Today, the song’s perfection is even clearer – listen to how the instruments duck and weave while Yorke’s plaintive vocal guides the undulating arrangement to the silence-has-broken “This is what you’ll get… When you mess with us” lyric. It’s the threat of violence at the heart of a delicate piece, where the slightest swing could shatter everything; but it’s misguided, accidental – “for a minute there I lost myself”. The video that accompanied the track upon its single release seemed unimpressive at the time, but watching it now it seems to be in perfect harmony with what’s said, what’s played, and what’s implied. The song takes conflict in miniature and lets it expand of its own volition, ‘til what was understood has flown out of control.
The brash swagger of ‘Electioneering’ equals something of an echo of ‘The Bends’-era boisterousness, but its place on ‘OK Computer’ is well earned. With New Labour making their move, the song’s political overtones tied in perfectly with the mood of a nation, and its demands for change. The background howls imply the wolf’s at the door alright – but are his intentions honourable or are we to be stiffed all over again? Jonny Greenwood’s guitar-swinging reaches frenetic levels here, too – the whole song sounds as if it could fall apart at any second, its necessarily nuts and bolts shaken incessantly. And then, another massive leap in sound – from a comparatively-by-numbers indie-rocker to a piece dripping such paranoia and dread it’s a wonder Portishead didn’t sue. ‘Climbing Up The Walls’, even twelve years after its release, chills to the bone marrow. “It’s always best when the light is off” – it’s as if Radiohead’s attention-grabbing exploits throughout the first eight tracks of ‘OK Computer’ have left them over-exposed, and fearful of what comes next. The monsters in the closet it refers to could well be breaking free.
The only track that didn’t completely click with me in 1997 was ‘OK Computer’’s gentle closer, ‘The Tourist’ – I remember thinking the band had run out of steam at the worst time, when the ideal climax was one replete with fireworks and fury. But Yorke made the band’s move clear when he spoke to Yahoo LAUNCH: “A lot of the album was about background noise and everything moving too fast and not being able to keep up. It was really obvious to have ‘The Tourist’ as the last song. That song was written to me from me, saying, "Idiot, slow down." Because at that point I needed to. So that was the only resolution there could be: to slow down."
Now, the album’s parting shot sounds more majestic than ever, Greenwood’s striking guitar lines running roughshod over Phil Selway’s precisely, purposefully skittering percussion. The whole exceeds constituent-part potential – something that’s true of ‘OK Computer’ in its entirety. Come it’s final ‘ding’ – a perfectly simple way to close an album of epic complexities – the record’s taken the listener on a journey of realised ambition – everything that Radiohead refined on ‘The Bends’ they completely reinvented on its follow-up.
EMI’s re-issuing of ‘OK Computer’ – and its preceding albums – coincides with no anniversary, nor with any promotional activity; they are merely looking to make money on material they possess the rights to now that Radiohead have moved on (their last album, ‘In Rainbows’, found a home at XL). But we shouldn’t criticise this move, as what these albums have to offer is something incredible, particularly in the case of ‘OK Computer’ – with them, you can trace the beginnings of probably the most important band in the world today right up until what remains their magnum opus.
And what remains my favourite album of all time. If you’ve never had the pleasure, make the effort when it’s back on the shelves in March. Nothing else out that week will stay with you for as long, I promise.
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Read our Fan's Eye View piece on U2 HERE