Radiohead's third album, released in 1997, is considered by critics all around the world to be one of the greatest albums of all times. Just as "The Bends" was a huge departure from "Pablo Honey", "OK Computer" totally changed Radiohead's sound without changing their essence. "Paranoid Android" was the first single off the album and was over six minutes long, with complex time and mood changes.

If you look in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, you will find that someone (Zaphod Beeblebrox, IIRC) says "OK Computer". And then you remember the song Paranoid Android, which is of course Marvin from the same book. Coincidence? I think not. Evidently Thom (and possibly other Radiohead members) is a Douglas Adams fan.


You know, you whippersnappers out there really amaze me sometimes.

Here I go into the local used CD shop yesterday to get the new No Doubt CD for my daughter, and the pierced-tongue kid at the register says, "You need anything else?"

I tell him that I'm sorta interested in Radiohead 'cause I've been hearing a lot about them somewhere. He says, "That's my favorite band! What song did you like?" I say, Creep, 'cause that was the only thing I'd ever heard, but I really liked it a lot. He says, "Who else do you listen to?" I tell him that Better Than Ezra is currently my favorite band. He leads me over to the stacks and says, "I think you'd like this one the best."

He was right. The funny thing was, he said, "They are sort of like the new Pink Floyd, if you can see them live." I see why he would compare them to Pink Floyd now that I’ve heard them, even though I never cared much for Pink Floyd. He was trying to find a way to put it in my frame of reference.

God bless you kids who don't hate all your elders.

Many would argue that Ok Computer is a concept album. Far fewer people, however, would actually say what concept the album is built around.

One theory, which seems likely, suggests that the album is based on the George Orwell novel, Nineteen Eighty-four. The album not only carries a similar theme and atmosphere to those in the novel, but also contains many little hints that point towards it:

In Karma Police : The song could have been a transcript of a conversation describing a turning-in of a outlaw citizen to the thought police. Major examples - The citizan is being tortured, he's 'Giving all i can, it's not enough'. The police replies - 'this is what you get when you mess with us'. In the end of the song, the citizen is brainwashed and cured. He says - 'Phew, for a minute there I lost myself'.

In Paranoid Android : In Oceania, there was a ceremony that was called 'Two Minutes Hate' in which the citizens were forced to hate the enemies of the state. The distrotion filled parts of the song could simulate this ceremony.

In Fitter Happier : The way that the text is spoken is more or less how you'd imagine the telescreens speaking to the citizens. The content of the text itself also suggests a very conformative way of living, much like the one described in the novel.

In No Surprises : The atmosphere in the song is similar to the one in the end of the book, in which the main character, Winston, is under the control of the party and is willingly accepting his life. There are many similarties between lyrics in the song and terms used in the book : "The worst thing was the pain in his belly" - "my final belly ache". The coughing fits Winston suffered from - "this is my final fit", etc.

In Climbing Up The Walls : "Whichever way you turned, the telescreen faced you" - "Either way you turn, I'll be there, Open up your skull, I'll be there".

In Lucky :There's a line in the song that says "The head of state has called for me by name". This could refer to when Winston is invited to the house of a party executive.

In the album sleeve :


- The writing '1=2' is similar to the book quote '2+2=5' which refers to the principle of doublethink.
- Below the album credits there's a row of drawings. The 2nd and 6th drawings from the left look like what you would imagine telescreens look like.
- In the album credits, Ed O'brien's name is the only one in uppercase. There's a character in the book named O'brien.
- Britian is referred to in the novel as 'Airstrip One' and the sleeve clearly shows pictures of planes and an airstrip landing pattern drawing.
- There's a writing in the sleeve that says 'AUTHORITIES HERE ARE ALERT'. This is clearly an idea similar to the ones in the book.

All of this (compiled from various internet sources, mostly followmearound.com and greenplastic.com) seems like a bit more than random coincidence.

As for the name of the album, it was conceived by Thom Yorke, when he was sitting in front of his Apple Mac, trying to use an early generation voice recognition software. The replacement for clicking the 'ok' button in dialog boxes was saying 'Ok Computer'.

There are a lot of bits in this node about the album's significance and theme, but nobody has said much about the music! Musically, this album marked the point where Radiohead reached artistic maturity. They completely deconstruct the sound established on The Bends, while at the same time managing to produce an album of songs that are both complete in themselves and fit into a larger scheme encompassing the album.

  1. Airbag (4:44)
    The album begins with distorted guitar riffs and irregular drumming. Thom Yorke's voice enters and soon a textured soundscape is created. Unlike the compositions on The Bends, though, it doesn't seem to be "busy". Evidence of texture only appears after repeated listenings. Towards the end of the song the texture clears up and a lone distorted guitar plays, soon accompanied by subtle electronics. The song ends in a vaguely discordant fadeout segueing into the next song.
  2. Paranoid Android (6:23)
    Legend has that this song was created from scraps of songs that the band didn't know how to use. The multiple mood shifts in the song reinforce this explanation. The first part is a calm, driving song which is in the same musical vein as Street Spirit (Fade Out), only fuller and brighter. This continues for about two and a half minutes until distorted guitars burst in and a heavy electric interlude about a minute in length occurs. After that, it fades into a slow, sad melodic section which becomes more and more incoherent until a point where the distorted electric guitars burst in again and reprise their noisy theatrics, which end abruptly.
  3. Subterranean Homesick Alien (4:27)
    A much simpler song than the last two, the verses of this song marry an atmospheric, electronic soundscape with calm, despairing vocals. The chorus features clanging guitars and much rougher vocals. The tone of the verses very much foreshadows the dreamy first half of Kid A.
  4. Exit Music (For a Film) (4:24)
    The opening of this enigmatic song is simply a single acoustic guitar, Thom's vocals, and a reverb effect. Eerie noises filter in as the song progresses, until the drums and fuzz bass suddenly take over the song, rapidly building to a climax. The song then 'disintegrates' into silence.
  5. Let Down (4:59)
    The bright opening of Let Down comes through clear as a bell after the murky haze of Exit Music. The song again proceeds in stripped-down-Bends fashion, with a calm, careful progression through fields of shimmering guitars and subtle rhythms. Like most Radiohead songs, it builds to a climax, or rather, two climaxes, a false climax almost halfway through the song and a true climax later on. The music is far too cheerful for the lyrics, but this discordance works quite splendidly.
  6. Karma Police (4:21)
    The dynamic of the first half of this song is created by an alternation between the full band and an acoustic piano/acoustic guitar combo. In the second half of the song, the drums and a driving bass line take over, though the piano still shines through for colour. At the end, distorted noise takes over and then 'collapses' to a finish.
  7. Fitter Happier (1:57)
    This song forms a musical gap between the drive of Karma Police and the clatter of Electioneering.
  8. Electioneering (3:50)
    The opening of Electioneering is a loud wakeup call after the somnolence of Fitter Happier. The song is buoyed by the interplay of a jangly, R.E.M.-ish riff, played with more menace and distortion than Peter Buck ever uses, and a fuzzy, chromatic foreground riff. These two elements are always at odds with each other, making this song one of the tensest that Radiohead ever played. Two thirds of the way through, an interlude of distortion interrupts but does not release the tension. The song ends with a messy clamour that has very little precedent in Radiohead's repertoire.
  9. Climbing Up the Walls (4:45)
    A spooky, claustrophobic song, driven by distorted and ringing, echoey drumming. The singing in this song passed through an effects pedal, producing a strange effect that is difficult to describe. Guitars join in as the song progresses. An instrumental break occurs at the end with creepy-sounding solos and strings, and then the end comes quickly.
  10. No Surprises (3:48)
    Again a contrast, as with Exit Music and Let Down; the warm opening of No Surprises recalls Let Down in style. The song continues in this style, but remaining fairly simple while Let Down became much more complicated. The lyrics keep the song dark, as with Let Down and Street Spirit, seeming a suicide lament until, after an extended instrumental break, there is a last minute reconsideration.
  11. Lucky (4:19)
    Beginning with soft siren-like sounds, this song presents the impression of the darkness of a clear night. Soaring guitar and vocal lines propel this gem of a song, which maintains its reserved, careful pace throughout.
  12. The Tourist (5:24)
    This restrained coda reflects upon the pace of the modern world, exhorting the listener to slow down. The usual texture underlies the seeming simplicity of the song, though. The music follows the lyrics's instruction to slow down, becoming more laid back as the song proceeds.
This is one of my favourite albums, and was the first rock album that I actually bought. It is not perfect, but it is very close.
(CC)
This writeup is copyright 2003 D.G. Roberge and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/ .

OK Computer was Radiohead's third studio album in four years, released after Pablo Honey and The Bends, the latter of which garnered a significant amount of critical praise, although it has to be said, not nearly as much as OK Computer.

When it was released, OK Computer was almost universally lauded (although some, as noted above, heralded it as "More music to slit your wrists to", completely missing the point to the whole frickin' album), and has come first in various "Best Album Ever" polls ever since, most recently on the British TV channel Channel Four (full results). Many called it the defining album of the 90s.

Five places below OK Computer in the C4 list is Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon, an equally defining album, and an easily recognisable one (it has been estimated that one in every 14 people below the age of 50 in the USA owns a copy of DSotM), if not for the music then for its (now famous) cover art. The two albums have similar concepts at their root; both OK Computer and Dark Side have as concepts the little things that drive you insane, the triggers of a slow descent into madness. On DSotM these triggers are rather basic; Money, Time and war (Us and Them). On OK Computer they are something which, relatively speaking, a modern audience would be more acquainted with, the generic pitfalls of modern life; the corporate world of endless servitude and eventual redundancy (Karma Police), the monotony of everything and the desire to escape (Subterranean Homesick Alien), the feeling of entrapment (No Surprises), the constant fear of the world outside your door (Climbing Up The Walls). Both albums chronicle, in exceptional detail, exactly what makes life in a contemporary world so utterly unbearable.

However, OK Computer talks about one angle DSotM fails to cover. That angle is that it is impossible to escape. DSotM suggests that insanity is the eventual result of all of this unhappiness; the album follows a linear path, from start to finish, the way in of life to the way out of insanity-even if you don't have any marbles, at least that will be your release from it all. OK Computer however loops; it starts with a car crash survivor, and ends with the same car crash. It is cyclical, suggesting that modern life as showcased on the album is immutable. There is no insanity, there is no way out; the album is basically the sign above your desk saying "Don't forget, you're here forever". In this sense, OK Computer is less positive than Dark Side...this is your life, there is no escape, try if you might but you can't.

The things that drive you mad - Dark Side Of The Moon

  1. Speak To Me/Breathe - work
  2. On The Run - trying to get away
  3. Time - aging
  4. Great Gig In The Sky - death
  5. Money - the bleeding obvious!
  6. Us And Them - war
  7. Any Colour You Like - endless choice
  8. Brain Damage/Eclipse - the eventual escape into insanity

The things that drive you mad - OK Computer

  1. Airbag - second chances
  2. Paranoid Android - not too sure actually, probably politics
  3. Subterranean Homesick Alien - monotony, a wish for something exciting to happen
  4. Exit Music (for a film) - ???
  5. Let Down - destruction of your hopes and dreams
  6. Karma Police - work/corporate existence/orthodoxy
  7. Fitter Happier - middle class existence making life bland
  8. Electioneering - the bleeding obvious
  9. Climbing Up The Walls - fear
  10. No Surprises - entrapment within life
  11. Lucky - luck (and the lack of it)
  12. The Tourist - fast pace, "living in the fast lane"

Note: this is just my interpretation, as with everything about song meanings your mileage may vary.

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