'OK Computer' Was Right About Computers
Radiohead turned toward electronic music to make their third album—which just turned 20—into a prescient techno-dystopia.
Radiohead's OK Computer is now 20 years old, and its importance cannot be understated, rivaled in the '90s only by Nirvana's Nevermind. But where Nirvana's relationship to the zeitgeist came from their spirit, power, and connection to the disenfranchised tenor of post-Reagan youth, OK Computer expressed the same brand of desolate alienation through its embrace of technology. Radiohead's songs walked the tightrope of the living and the made, and it wasn't long before they lost their balance and fell almost completely into electronic sound, a world they understood better than perhaps any other alternative rock band to date. But in 1997 they were still paranoid, guitar-wielding androids donning electric sheep's clothing.
Pink Floyd set an obvious precedent for that record, both with the patchwork of looped sound effects they crafted on Dark Side of the Moon and the metaphorical device of fascism they employed on The Wall, but they were never anything other than a rock band. After 1995's The Bends, Radiohead became something else entirely, and OK Computer pointed the way to that, beginning a love affair with circuitry and artificial sonics that rendered their "rock" status completely up for debate. And not only that, they had something to say through this transformation: OK Computer's lyrics, package design, and overall aesthetic demanded to know what technology's role in dystopia would be. The karma police put artificial intelligence on trial for crimes against its makers, and at times you side with the machines. The album enacts a musical war between the artificial and the organic.
You can hear the anxious friction between the two on "Karma Police." The regally spun webs of piano are eventually subsumed by waves of a feedback loop. Thom Yorke barks out orders like a fire captain in Fahrenheit 451, punctuating each with a chorus of "This is what you get when you mess with us." The ominous music turns tender when he chokes on his own conscience: "For a minute there, I lost myself." An electronic tsunami takes over to wash him away, leaving only the proto-text-to-speech interlude "Fitter Happier" in its wake, which Yorke once described as the most "upsetting" thing he'd written to date.
Capturing all the complicated emotions and tones of this sequence simply wouldn't be possible with just analog instruments, and the Oxford quintet knew they had to tap the dark magicks of the computers they warn against to achieve their goals. OK Computer was the last Radiohead album where the primary instrument played by each of the band's five members is audibly clear on almost every track, but that doesn't mean you can identify its every noise.
It's not an "electronic" album in itself, but it's the benchmark for a band learning from electronic music how to texture a rock album. The album has a reputation as an account of a bleak dystopia set in a future that doesn't look all too different from the present. The band seemed overburdened in Meeting People Is Easy—the documentary that captured the tour immediately following OK Computer's release—but Yorke has said he wasn't trying to make "another miserable, morbid, and negative record." So he enlisted beats to offset that.
In the years leading up to OK Computer, the band took DJ Shadowon tour then attempted to approximate and apply his cut-up drum techniques to a few seconds of Phil Selway's playing on "Airbag." Portions of the guitar solos from "Paranoid Android" echo the phasing effects from Aphex Twin's 1995 track "Acrid Avid Jamshred." Richard D. James would gradually become one of Radiohead's chief influences between this record and Kid A three years later. The deserted drumscape of "Climbing Up the Walls" sounded like it was informed by the stuttering samples of Portishead and the coda of "Exit Music (For a Film)" actually was, according to bassist Colin Greenwood, who said they wanted it to sound even more "mechanical" and "stilted" than the trip-hop act.
Many alt-rock bands all along the highbrow/lowbrow spectrum were toying with electronic touches in 1997; hell, Bush put out a remix album. But with love to Garbage and Nine Inch Nails and even U2, only Radiohead synthesized them flawlessly and cannily enough to change the expectations for future rock albums themselves. OK Computer and, subsequently, Kid A were widely considered the tipping point for indie-rock's increasing interest in programming and looping. Eventually though, the opportunist rock bands dabbling in "electronica" would move on, while Radiohead was sinking deeper into the catalogs of acts like Autechre for inspiration and reconfiguring their onstage setup to include Ableton and triggered percussion.
Kid A, released three years later, is a more programmed record without question. Yorke disguised and distorted his voice on it completely on songs like the title track. "Treefingers" was barely a song at all; Jonny Greenwood timestretched a swath of his recorded guitar playing into a three-minute ambient still life that led into the claustrophobic weightlessness of "Optimistic," which buries its drums way down in the mix and plays like a rock song that's had its legs cut off.
But there's an inevitability to the electronic experimentation on those songs, because the plunge had been in sight for years. Part of what makes OK Computer so bracing is the feeling that the band is standing over the edge of a cliff, facing down the oblivion below. Will they or won't they become the computer-rock band that they are showing signs of transforming into? The unwieldy structure of "Paranoid Android" suggested multiple creative impulses fighting each other within the same song: a Cumbia-like guitar melody in the verses, Gregorian chant breakdown, and guitar solos that screech like a dial-up internet connection.
Both Pink Floyd and Radiohead used the fascistic threat of being "against the wall" to vent their internal dilemma of pleasing audiences and "Paranoid Android" piles on the even more meta "Ambition makes you look pretty ugly," turning the band's artistic struggles into Art vs. Commerce dinner theater. Yorke's lyrics were inveighing against the same programmatic impulses that their sound was taking on. Kraftwerk once proudly declared themselves to be robots, Yorke was merely a creep. But his spooky falsetto on OK Computer made you sympathize with that creep, who now sounded as if he was serving a life sentence in a Robotropolis prison.
Inspired in part by Yorke's time as a mental hospital orderly, the ominous "Climbing Up the Walls" evokes this battle from various angles: a rock & roller beholden to the exigencies of press cycles and airplay; a progressive artist fighting to tear down the trappings of his own imagination; a stage attraction who used to drink himself useless trying to say something important from his pulpit, enraged by Thatcher's policy of deinstitutionalization. As a textural experience, "Walls" achieved the creeping panic of all these things, and was the OK Computer tune that pointed the way to the band's future most directly, with its string section, seagull-like samples reminiscent of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," and grandiose, patient percussioni. It was hardly techno, but it pressed forward with all the slithering reliability of the looped machine music the band was beginning to obsess over.
Due to Yorke's signature vocal tics and Jonny Greenwood's dour but arena-friendly guitar playing, Muse and Coldplay are usually cited as Radiohead's successors. But the visions that OK Computer and Kid A really made possible were bands like TV on the Radio, the Notwist, the Postal Service, the Knife, and the xx, all of whom braided playing and programming seamlessly. Just as Radiohead stretched the warm skin of guitars over the antiseptic skeletons proffered by their fractured idols on the Warp and Rephlex labels, their stylistic offspring have gone on to produce compositions that are essentially rock songs, that move and peak as such, but sometimes with little to no physically performed instrumentation at all.
Radiohead's own trajectory became more and more electronic between 1997 and 2011, incorporating chopped-up vocals and minimalist programming on 2001's abrasive "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors" or 2003's chilly "The Gloaming." Amnesiac's "Like Spinning Plates" found Thom Yorke trying to intentionally sing like a backwards recording, over an actual recording of the band turned backwards. In Rainbows in 2007 began with "15 Step," which put several different programmed beat patterns into a disorienting blender along with Phil Selway's live drums. By then, they had the clout to perform this uncommercial thing onstage at the Grammy's—and with USC's marching band to boot, always tiptoeing along the human/machine divide.
On 2011's The King of Limbs, Radiohead's electronic fascination came to a head. By that time, the kind of hypnotic grayscale glitch they were purveying sounded nearly indistinguishable from peers like Flying Lotus and Burial, whom Yorke would go on to collaborate with. But unlike the highly praised efforts of those beatsmiths, most people considered it the band's least important record in years, and unsurprisingly, its long-awaited follow-up from last year, the slow and mournful A Moon Shaped Pool, dispensed with programming entirely, for the first time since their mid 90s work. By then, their mission had been complete, though. They'd turned avant electronic music into arena-rock for two decades, and introduced it to audiences who would never consider paying to attend a DJ set. You could say they helped make computers okay.